Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Are roundabouts an urban or suburban technology?

(The program sure is "neoliberal" in how it stresses technological solutions and the negatives of regulation.  And there sure isn't much opportunity to delve very deeply into any of the issues presented)  One of the people presenting at the Post conference is talking about the time wasted by queuing at intersections.  He lives in a smaller town.

He suggests that compared to traditional intersections, roundabouts work better in terms of faster throughput and increased safety.  Roundabouts are intersections that are made into circles, where for the most part, entry roads into the circle are not signed or signalized or are signed with yield signs.

In DC, we have both traffic circles and roundabouts.  Traffic circles are not roundabouts because they have traffic signals.  Examples of a traffic circle would include Dupont Circle, Chevy Chase Circle, Washington Circle, Logan Circle, or Thomas Circle.
sherman-circle, Washington, DC
Sherman Circle, Washington, DC

Roundabouts that you think are traffic circles but isn't because there aren't traffic signals, only yield or stop signs, are Grant Circle and Sherman Circle in the Petworth neighborhood.  There is a more true "roundabout" in terms of size on Brentwood Road NE.
A roundabout has been constructed on Brentwood Road
Brentwood Road NE roundabout

I use these roundabouts regularly and as a pedestrian and cyclist, I find that roundabouts are designed to prioritize vehicular traffic rather than to balance the needs of pedestrians and cyclists with the desire of motor vehicle operators to move quickly.

I rarely feel comfortable going into a circle as a bicyclist because most of the motor vehicle operators don't signalize if they are turning, and in terms of entry, often I have to move to the leftmost part of a lane to ward off traffic coming behind me.

NotionsCapital calls our attention to a couple pieces on the topic, "They're Small But Powerful," from the FHWA magazine Public Roads, and "Evaluating pedestrian and bicyclist risk in Minnesota roundabouts" from the University of Minnesota Center for Transportation Studies (which is a great resource).

The UMN study finds that all is not peachy for pedestrians and cyclists with roundabouts, although the study city in the City of Minneapolis had a greater rate of vehicles yielding to pedestrians and cyclists compared to the suburban site.  From the article:
The research team identified several factors that influence drivers’ yielding behavior. Study results indicate the following trends:
  • Drivers are more likely to yield to pedestrians or bicyclists beginning their crossing in the center island.
  • Vehicles exiting the roundabout are less likely to yield than those entering it.
  • Drivers are more likely to yield to larger groups.
  • Vehicles entering the roundabout at the immediate upstream entrance are more likely to yield than those coming from other entrances.
  • Drivers are less likely to yield if they encounter another vehicle merging into the roundabout immediately before the exit where the pedestrian is trying to cross.
  • Yielding probability decreases with more vehicles present in the roundabout.
I would argue that in an environment where there is a preponderance of pedestrians and cyclists, such as in a city like Washington, that roundabouts aren't the way to move, because they preference motor vehicle traffic over sustainable modes.

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Asking the wrong question: "Fixing the Commute" edition

The Washington Post is sponsoring a conference today at their AmericaAnswers website about "fixing the commute."  The conference is focused on new technologies and services like driverless cars and transportation networked services.

While listing to the webstream, I can't but help think back to an interview with Jane Jacobs that I read after the release of her book, The Nature of Economies.

When asked why aren't there "enough roads" she responded "you're asking the wrong question, the right question is 'why are there so many cars?'

Cities weren't really designed to accommodate everyone driving.  The amount of space required for parking is costly.  

Granted that some of the people in the conference are talking about "alternative mobility models" such as car sharing and not driving, but overall, the conference is focused on cars.  I guess that makes sense, since automobile advertising is so important to newspapers.

... I was talking with Suzanne on the way to the Metro and discussing the Netherlands, Denmark, and Portland, in terms of changing mobility routines to favor transit and biking.  The point of these places compared to the general argument about "enabling choice" which someone just said on the webstream, isn't so much "enabling choice" as much as it is "enabling optimal mobility."

The difference in the Netherlands and Denmark is that all aspects of the mobility system--policies, regulations, tax polices, practices, etc.--are made to be congruent in ways that support optimality.

The way that the Netherlands and Denmark get residents to make "community optimal transportation choices" is by building a system that makes sustainable transportation options--walking, biking, and transit--both efficient and cost effective.

Partly this is by assessing charges against automobility that cover all of the costs that an automobile normally imposes on society.  So in those countries, when you buy a car, you pay excise taxes equal to the cost of the car.  And gasoline costs about $8/gallon.  These taxes not only pay for roads, but pay towards the cost of enabling other modes.

And in the Netherlands and Denmark, optimality is at a minimum bi-dimensional, for both the individual and the community, rather than how in the US the mobility system preferences individual optimality, usually by automobility.

In the US, where we provide support for "choice" by providing infrastructure for walking, biking, and transit, most of the policy, regulation, and practice supports automobility.

So it should not be a surprise that most people get around by car.

However, it is changing.

Certainly the way that Tysons Corner is reforming around transit, with the opening of the Silver Line is an example of an area rebooting for the 21st century. Yesterday, I was reading back articles from the Tampa Bay Times and one, As love affair with cars wanes, Tampa Bay stuck in slow lane of change, is on the future of motordom (not the title) and makes the point that policy today needs to focus on the future and those demographics that will be living in the city going forward, not for current or legacy residents (not the language of the column).

The article referenced an e-book, >Curbing Cars: America's Independence From the Auto Industry, interestingly by the former Detroit bureau chief for the New York Times, about the decline of car ownership and car centrality going forward.

And I think this is relevant to the parking accommodation debate going on in DC and in other cities dealing with zoning regulation rewrites.

In the 1950s, which is the period in which most "modern" zoning codes were developed, was the height of the development of mass automobility and providing parking was essential to accommodate everyone driving their cars.

People advocating for maximum accommodation of the car are planning for the future based on the past, rather than considering how things are changing now and will continue to change in the future.

P.S.  Richard Stallman points out that services like Uber should not be called ride sharing, but piecework subcontractor economy.

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Preservation Tuesday: Next month's NTHP Annual Meeting is in Savannah

Sadly, I don't think I'll be able to make next month's national meeting of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.  It's in Savannah, which is a great place to visit.

The meeting is from Tuesday November 11th to Friday November 14th.  Many of the field sessions are sold out.

-- Conference Program

If you haven't been to an NTHP* meeting, I highly recommend going, as attendance can accelerate significantly your knowledge of urban revitalization, especially if you on some great tours.  It's been many years since I've attended one, but I have gone to meetings in Cleveland, Louisville, Portland, St. Paul, and Pittsburgh and I learned so much from each meeting, tours, independent explorations while there, using their transit systems, and staying for the most part in distinctive lodgings..

(*The annual meetings of the American Planning Association and the National Main Street Center are equally worthwhile.  Because these meetings move around the country, it's not too hard to attend one of the meetings when they make it to your part of the country.)

Savannah is known for being an early example of historic preservation based urban revitalization, and preservation makes up a big chunk of the story in the book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, which has stoked tourism there.

There are some great restaurants and retailers, although I have to admit, the last time I was there I was surprised to see how much of the downtown retail district was under-utilized.  (The Leopold's ice cream shop is over rated.)

The Old Historic District is very large, the parks and squares are beautiful.  River Street is a tourist dive and not that interesting.

The city also has some interesting transportation demand management initiatives focused on mitigating negative impacts from tourism (case study within this document).

My experience with the visitor center is that they weren't all that friendly, which was notable because most visitor centers have very engaging personnel.

One of the interesting contemporary stories there is how the Savannah College of Art and Design has spurred revitalization, both in terms of the economic impact of the college and the students, as well as the properties that the college has renovated.

However, interestingly, the founders of the college own the properties separately and personally, rather than the properties being owned by the college.  See "What Art-School Kids In Savannah Teach Us About Urban Renewal" from Fast Company, "The empire SCAD built" from the Savannah Morning News" and the SCAD study on economic impact of the college.

Recent articles on Savannah

1.  The New York Times Travel section has a nice feature, "Savannah, Both Sides."

2.  The Wall Street Journal has a piece, "Savannah Preservationists Stymie a Developer's Comeback," communicating the displeasure of real estate developers who have acquired a bunch of properties on Broughton Street of having to deal with historic preservation concerns.

3.  The WSJ Magazine mentions the restaurant, The Grey, which is located in the old Greyhound bus station, which is undergoing renovation, so the restaurant is not yet open.

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Sunday, October 19, 2014

Local history museums and critical analysis opportunities for communities

Local history museums generally can be pretty good places to be exposed to a richer, deeper, and more analytical framework for considering the history of a community.  Standouts include the Valentine Richmond History Center in Richmond, Virginia; the Pittsburgh History Center; and the Montreal History Center.

The best of these museums present a thematic and timeline-based framework to help people understand the major events within a community in local, national, and international contexts.  Note that the Museum of the City of New York presents this type of framework through a movie rather than exhibits.

Of course, not all museums do this--still being somewhat parochial--while some other museums, notably the Museum of London, stake out a greater role for the museum in providing a forum for reflection on current events.  (See the past entry, "Parochialism and historiography.")

In terms of this theme of the lack of critical analysis within communities, in 2012, the Museum of the City of New York opened the Activist New York exhibit, as the inaugural exhibit in the Puffin Foundation Gallery, called the Puffin Gallery for Social Activism.  It's a long term exhibit with no set end date.

It is a fabulous exhibit, in a not very big gallery, that packs in incredible insights into "local" history by presenting social and political changes in New York City (and society more generally) through the lens of the role of activists and protest in making those changes.

Because New York City plays such an oversize role in the nation--it's the biggest city, home of the nation's national news media and publishing firms, is the financial capital, etc.--"local" protest there also shapes national trends, making the exhibit relevant far beyond what it says about NYC specifically.

The exhibit is special, even remarkable, because it also covers present day issues that continue to rile certain segments of the population.  (Although I was surprised that Occupy Wall Street wasn't included, probably because it was happening while the creation of the exhibit was wrapping up.)

Part of the exhibit on biking.

It is to be expected that such an exhibit would include religious freedom, civil rights, workplace rights and labor organizing, and the Settlement House movement, it's particularly distinguished by the inclusion of intellectually-driven initiatives such as protest publishing or the New Deal era Federal Theatre Project, New York City strains of Conservative Activism as a response to the rise of postwar liberalism and the city's historic preservation movement, as well as contemporary issues including community development, Gay Rights, the attempt to create a Mosque near the site of the World Trade Towers destroyed on 9/11, the place of biking in the mobility paradigm of the city, and artist activism.

Each of the 14 movements covered provides an opportunity for serious reflection and critical analysis that contemporary action too rarely affords.

I can't remember the extent of the coverage of immigration, although that could be an exhibit of its own, from both historical and contemporary perspectives.  Similarly, the African-American protests with regard to local control of schools and the school system is another topic deserving of more attention.

I don't know if the Museum developed and presented programs and lectures in conjunction with the exhibit's opening.

It would be interesting to offer such programs in association with the exhibit, as well as to feature books and other media on the various topics, in the gift shop or elsewhere in the museum as further resources, e.g., a bibliography-resource list for each of the subject areas.

While it's not part of the purview of a local history museum, the exhibit could be the jumping off point for more general programming on the process and practice of community organizing and the development of social movements as well, especially given the great number of NYC-based academic researchers studying the field.

Reprint from a past blog entry on issues relating to the presentation of local history

House museums.  The Engaging Places blog has a "Recap of Historic House Museum Symposium at Gunston Hall." A big issue in "the trade" is that there are lots of historic house museums and many are underfunded and neglected, and that most such properties need to reposition and rethink what they are trying to accomplish and how they organize, package, and present their story.

A couple of related articles on the topic include:

-- "The Future of Local Historical Societies," American Historical Association
-- "Historic houses take note: innovate or die," Art Newspaper

Historical societies.  I found the historical societies article interesting because the problem with historic house museums is more widespread and goes beyond house museums. The problem more generally is a lack of interest in or concern about history.  This affects historic preservation and local history museums too, something I have written about enough to not repeat myself here, but it's important to think about comprehensively.

One way to do so would be to deal with the History Channel, Smithsonian Channel (run by Fox), Travel Channel, AWE, and other programming networks in a similar fashion as it relates to their programs.

City museums.  Museums professional Rainey Tisdale has a number of publications on the topic of making local history and city museums more interesting and was guest editor of a special section of articles on the topic of City Museums and Urban Learning in a special issue of the Journal of Museum Education and is co-author of Creativity in Museum Practice.

Buildings and sites owned by governments and nonprofits.  And related to underfunding house museums,  properties owned by local governments and other institutions typically are neglected as well.

This has come up locally with regard to the Mary Terrell House in LeDroit Park, which is owned by Howard University ("Once home to civil rights pioneer, historic house is now worst on the block in LeDroit," Washington Post) and is a problem in Greater Los Angeles too, according to the Los Angeles Times article, "Most L.A. County cities failing to protect historic sites, study says."

I mentioned a couple more recent examples in DC within the last couple weeks, buildings on the DC Preservation League's 2014 list of endangered places, St. Elizabeths East Agricultural Complex, which is owned by DC Government, and the Washington Canoe Club, which is privately controlled, but located on National Park Service land.

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A further note on the lack of support for critical analysis within communities

Applying the theories of "positive illusions" and "optimistic bias" to local political and economic elites:  Besides the piece I wrote yesterday about "the failure of the Coast Guard headquarters to spur economic revitalization 'East of the River'," which is something I predicted 8 years ago when it was first touted, while doing some filing this morning and re-reading/skimming of stuff I've clipped as I go along, I came across a mention of "positive illusions" and "optimistic bias" theories, spurred by an article in the Chronicle of Philanthropy about how top officials of foundations don't have a lot of experience being criticized since they're handing out money, and people don't want to limit their chances of being recipients.
"Positive illusions" are unrealistically favorable attitudes that people have towards themselves or to people that are close to them. Positive illusions are a form of self-deception or self-enhancement that feel good, maintain self-esteem or stave off discomfort at least in the short term. There are three broad kinds: inflated assessment of one's own abilities, unrealistic optimism about the future and an illusion of control. 
"Optimistic bias is commonly defined as the mistaken belief that one's chances of experiencing a negative event are lower (or a positive event higher) than that of one's peers."
While most of the work on these theories focuses on individual behavior and action, I would argue that there is opportunity within the field to apply these theories to institutions, which are comprised of individuals applying their personal view to external settings and situations, and community action.

Although you could argue that's what Growth Machine and Urban Regime theories do, and maybe positive illusions theory is a good underpinning theory for insight into why local political and economic elites act in the ways that they do.

There is at least one book, Overconfidence and War: The Havoc and Glory of Positive Illusions, that applies positive illusions theories at the scale of nations.  The author argues that:
states are no more rational than people, who are susceptible to exaggerated ideas of their own virtue, of their ability to control events, and of the future. By looking at this bias--called "positive illusions"--as it figures in evolutionary biology, psychology, and the politics of international conflict, this book offers compelling insights into why states wage war
I think it's fair to say that individual political and economic actors believe that they are more able and more successful and more correct than their peers and citizens.

In fact, even before I wrote the other piece, as I was coming home from the Metro yesterday morning, a neighbor stopped me on the street to discuss a recent agency action affecting the little one block commercial district in our neighborhood.  Among other things,concerning the matter he described past interactions with our Councilmember, who is running for mayor, as "like many people who work for government who don't really listen but after you say something, they instruct you on 'how things really work or are.'"

It's that kind of thinking, but to be fair to her, it's gone on along time.

E.g., I remember being shocked during the Bush Administration reading something in the New York Times Magazine about how the people running government create their own reality. From Ron Suskind, “Without a Doubt,” New York Times, 17 October 2004:
In the summer of 2002, after I had written an article in Esquire that the White House didn't like about Bush's former communications director, Karen Hughes, I had a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush. He expressed the White House's displeasure, and then he told me something that at the time I didn't fully comprehend -- but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency. 
The aide said that guys like me were ''in what we call the reality-based community,'' which he defined as people who ''believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.'' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. 
He cut me off. ''That's not the way the world really works anymore,'' he continued. ''We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.''
This kind of thinking and belief is what is going on at all levels of government, and like Aaron Renn discusses in his piece in Urbanophile, communities keep the faith by not scanning externally all that much or by having circumscribed understandings of what is happening elsewhere.

For example, I went to a great conference on housing matters (I will be writing it up), and I was talking with a low level person from HUD manning their information booth, and when I mentioned that I work on "urban revitalization" she told me about a report that HUD recently did with the Urban Institute called Retail in Underserved Communities,.

It happens that I am familiar with that report, and more importantly, have on the ground experience with two of the three case studies in the report (one from Pittsburgh and the other from DC).

I told her that the cases are outliers and for the most part the situations are un-extendable to weak market distressed communities elsewhere as both are more about highly successful urban neighborhoods running out of land to develop and therefore moving on to immediately adjacent land that happens to be available and located in a "distressed area" (not unlike the "One Over Neighborhood" approach of the Live Baltimore urban residential recruitment organization, see "In search of the next hot neighborhood").

In fact they are classic examples of older ideas of urban redevelopment when the only value possessed by distressed communities is land able to be assembled and redeveloped for another another purpose.

Manifest destiny or "reproduction of space" by highly resourced economic elites is not ground up urban revitalization helping the impoverished.

And unless distressed neighborhoods are immediately proximate to some of the most successful neighborhoods in their region, they aren't going to be able to make the case to Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, and others, using the examples presented.


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Friday, October 17, 2014

One reason to focus new fixed rail transit on those places where it can be wildly successful: it doesn't give ammunition to critics

Promotional sign, Norfolk Tide light rail system, VirginiaNorfolk opened up a light rail system in 2010, and it gets about 4,400 daily riders, which is pretty pathetic.

It's difficult for fixed rail transit to be successful in Hampton Roads because the population is spread widely and without service to military bases, it's difficult to drive ridership upwards.

The original idea was for the system to connect Norfolk and Virginia Beach, but VB opted out from the original program, and there was the idea that once other parts of the metropolitan area experienced the system, they would work to extend the system.

That's what's happening now.  A couple years ago, Virginia Beach passed a referendum supporting light rail.

Earlier in the week, transit opponent Randal O'Toole gave a lightly attended talk to an anti-transit group in Virginia Beach, as the city studies expanding and joining the Norfolk-based light rail system--of course, part of the reason ridership is low is because Virginia Beach isn't part of the system.

Train cars, Monticello Station, Norfolk Light Rail System, VirginiaBut it's also low because it's a single line, not a transit network.  And that might doom the system to low ridership forever.

O'Toole's presentation is online and the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot had a story on the talk, "Light rail or "lie rail"? Foe tears into Tide at Beach talk."

While the reasons or "lies" do have more than a grain of truth as it relates to Greater Norfolk, they aren't true in places with greater population, residential density, and a tight network of activity centers.

The lies according to Randal O'Toole:

-- Lie #1: “Light Rail Is High-Capacity Transit”
-- Lie #2: “VA Beach Needs High-Capacity Transit”
-- Lie #3: “It Will ‘Only’ Cost $327 Million”
-- Lie #4: “Light Rail Attracts New Riders”
-- Lie #5: “Light Rail Will Reduce Congestion”
-- Lie #6: “Light Rail Will Save Energy”
-- Lie #7: “Light Rail Stimulates Development” (I do have to comment that his proof of this argument with regard to Portland is 18 years old...)
-- Lie #8: “Light Rail Is Good for Transit Riders”
-- Lie #9:  Light Rail Is Cost-Effective
-- Lie #10: “Light Rail Is Modern Transportation”

He does say that driverless cars will make transit obsolete...

And with regard to there being a better payoff for investing in transit in places where it has a greater likelihood of being successful, the new Green Line in St. Paul, Minnesota, has more than 37,000 daily riders after less than 5 months in service.  See "Green Line monthly ridership tops 1 million" from the St. Paul Pioneer-Press.

From the article:
Last month, 1,063,512 rides were taken on the Green Line, pushing average weekday ridership in September to 37,178, according to Metro Transit. That average is 35 percent higher than the ridership projection for 2015.
Although because transit ridership went up less than 3% overall on a percentage basis, likely a goodly number of these riders have diverted from buses.

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DC area house tours this weekend

This kind of activity is very important.  If you don't identify what's important, what's part of history and heritage, then it's easy for people to not care.

 And house tours can be a good way to get ideas for your domicile.

DC has two house tours on Sunday.  One is in Dupont Circle, always interesting, usually a mix of civic spaces and houses. Tickets are $40 in advance and $45 on the day of the Tour. To purchase, visit Dupont Circle Citizens Association.

The other is in DC's Crestwood neighborhood, a community marked by mid-century architecture, the neighborhood house tour is a fundraiser for an affordable housing organization.

On Saturday, in the suburbs in Reston, Virginia, they will be celebrating the community's 50th anniversary with the Reston Homes Tour, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.

And in Lancaster, PA,  this coming weekend, the Historic Preservation Trust will be sponsoring a building tour of commercial and civic buildings in the city's core--20 buildings will be open.


Critical analysis and critical analysis of retail, communities, etc.

Urbanophile has a piece, "Creating a Culture of Honest Critique," about how the Dallas Morning News has hired an architecture critic, in association with the University of Texas at Arlington, to up the level of critical analysis for the paper and the architecture beat. The critic, Marc Lamstetter, started off with a serious critique of the new George W. Bush Presidential Center and Library, and apparently the bracing review has ruffled feathers.

Aaron goes on to discuss what we might call the cheerleader issue and how most communities aren't comfortable with hard core critical analysis.  He focuses on "small towns" but I think this is an endemic problem regardless of the size of a community.

I call what I do critical analysis" but most people seem to take it as "(personal) criticism" and they don't like it.  And elected officials in particular prefer to shoot the messenger rather than dealing with message.

2. Along with the cheerleading thing, lately I have noticed advocacy organizations recommending to their members that they don't criticize elected officials, who for the most part, support their positions, as elected officials believe that they are doing all that they can, and that should be respected, rather than focus on the negatives of compromise, stalling, and sub-standard efforts and realization.

Image from

That's why I was surprised to see this piece in yesterday's New York Times, "A Whole Town in Colorado Pushes to Improve Its Customer Service," about Steamboat Springs, Colorado, and its initiative on improving the customer service quality of local businesses, in response to "average" ratings on the survey question "How likely is it that you would recommend us to a friend or colleague?"  Analysis of the data found low scores concerning quality and service at local stores and restaurants.

A couple years ago, I wrote a piece ("Speaking of unsatisfactory visitor experiences: the breakfast at Hotel Harrington sucks") that suggested that local convention and visitors bureaus should do "mystery shopper" surveys of local establishments, to provide businesses with third party "objective" evidence about the quality of service, and the need to improve.

This is because many businesses catering to tourists--this is a problem in cities like DC or even Gettysburg, Pennsylvania--are comfortable providing bad service or food knowing that most customers won't be coming back anyway.

3. Relatedly, I argue about the difference between uniqueness and exceptionalism in communities.

All places are unique. But most places function similarly based on various elements and characteristics. That's why I am able to compare places, make recommendations, write plans, etc. But as long as people focus on uniqueness and are unwilling to compare, too often they end up embracing mediocrity and improvement takes a long time to happen, if it ever does. See "Chauvinism, mediocrity, and robust systems" from 2008.

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Eight years later, enclave development is still not a "solution" for Anacostia

This week's City Paper has a piece, "Rescue Mission: The Coast Guard Hasn't Done Much for Ward 8."  I guess it's an excuse for revisiting blog entries dating back 8-9 years, which predicted that the Coast Guard likely wouldn't contribute very much to Anacostia's revitalization.

-- "Enclave development won't "save" Anacostia"

It's always nice to be proved right, but that isn't really the point.  I'd rather we do better from the outset.

The reason that such developments don't contribute much is that office workers don't spend much locally, they don't get out much.  In locations with high security requirements, it's worse because it's inconvenient and time consuming to leave the campus during the day, making spillover improvement difficult.

But I guess I would have to revise the argument of the blog entry, reprinted below, somewhat.  I argued that Station Place, next to Union Station, is a good example of enclave development not contributing to the surrounding neighborhood.

For the most part that's been true,  But because of the how the site is located within a larger, connected area, over a 10+ period of time its contribution is more evident.

It filled an empty lot, making it easier and more logical to build beyond the gap.  It has encouraged the creation of housing across the street--not quite yet ready to open--and it probably contributes to the viability of moving forward with Burnham Place, the challenging project of decking over a goodly section of the Union Station railyard, and has likely been a small contributor to Amtrak's Union Station expansion planning as well.

These are all big projects, which in turn leverage different revitalization energies along H Street NE, but at the same time, leverage existing well placed neighborhoods and anchors, in particular Union Station.

As importantly, the site wasn't disconnected from the street and block network of the city.  That's why, even though the building complex is inwardly focused and there is limited contribution of workers there to local business (although there is some patronage of a coffee shop and restaurant at the intersection of F and 2nd Streets NE), the development of the site was able to be leveraged beyond it's impact on local retail

By contrast, St. Elizabeths West and East Campuses are disconnected from the neighborhoods around them. They are enclaves. For these "campuses" to be assets that promote revitalization of the neighborhoods surrounding them, they have to connect to the city outside of the walls of the campuses.

To be honest, I think I am a decent enough planner, and even so it is challenging to come up with a strategy to do this.  But it can be done.

But it's very expensive. And it wouldn't be an overnight success.  I would focus on building long term anchors, leveraging public investment in civic institutions, and knitting together the enclaves with the community.

1. I would move the University of the District of Columbia to the West Campus, and simultaneously encourage the development of an "open air" research park/"Innovation District" around it.

The move would be expensive and in years past a similar proposal by then Mayor Williams was criticized as moving the predominately black school out of an otherwise "white" area.   But selling the current campus would generate some money too.

2. I'd let the Federal Government back out of its plan to develop the East Campus, other than the Coast Guard, and I'd expand the research park stuff there as well.

As long as Republicans control the House of Representatives, the federal government is contracting, Long term, expecting Congress to sign off on expansion and investment in buildings located in DC is a losing proposition.  So for DC to get control of this site and move forward on its own makes more sense.

3. I'd consider adding a Metrorail station between Anacostia station and Congress Heights station, not necessarily because of the distance between the stations, but because the topography up Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue is extremely challenging.

4.  I think that Mayor Gray's proposal to move United Medical Center to a location adjacent to the Congress Heights station is worth pursuing.  But I would have the facility be developed as an anchor for a broadened urban community health system.

Maybe it could involve Howard University, and moving their medical school to the campus.

But in any case, it should have community supporting facilities comparable to what St. Anthony's Hospital is doing in Chicago ("Chicago safety-net hospitals face uncertain future amid changes to health care system: Area has 20 safety-net hospitals, which are a stop-gap medical system for the poor," Chicago Tribune).

Such programming could complement programs at The Town Hall Education, Arts, and Recreation Center--although probably because the locations are so close, maybe that isn't a good idea...

5.  I would tie together the planning for the 11th Street Bridge Park with integrated planning for Poplar Point as I have discussed previously ("11th Street Bridge design competition finalists").  For that, I also recommended the creation of an international water-focused environmental center and moving the Anacostia Community Museum to be next door.

6.  Similarly, in the past, DC has done a piss poor job of leveraging civic investments in facilities to leverage other community improvement.  The rebuilding of the Anacostia Library in a disconnected location on Good Hope Road SE is a perfect example of this.  I would instead invest in a multipurpose library and cultural center and government building, at the Anacostia Metro Station.

See "Public buildings as vehicles for community improvement (continued)" about a government facility in the Roxbury section of a Boston as an example of what I mean or this piece from the Guardian, "Work begins on Drumbrae's new library, day care centre, and youth cafe," about a library-community facility in the UK..

Arguably this would be duplicative if UDC moved to St. Elizabeths West.  But in any case, this kind of leveraging of community-civic investment does not happen very much in DC, and it contributes to languishing improvements in neighborhoods in need of extra-normal assistance.

=== Enclave Development won't save Anacostia ===== from 2006

100_3407Station Place, the office complex next to Union Station, is connected directly to Union Station but residents of the area cannot walk through the building to the other side. Heralded as economic development for H Street, employees in the building serve their retail needs in Union Station. The line at the Union Station Starbucks during the day is full of office workers not wearing coats--temporary migrants from the Station Place building.

Saturday's Post had this article, "Coast Guard Move Seen as SE Boon," about the latest revitalization "solution" for Anacostia (East of the River), having the Coast Guard relocate to part of the St. Elizabeth's Campus. From the article:
"City officials say moving the Coast Guard headquarters from Buzzards Point in Southwest Washington to the St. Elizabeths site could serve as a catalyst for the transformation of communities east of the Anacostia River."
How does putting a bunch of people in an enclave, disconnected from the area outside of the campus, aid revitalization? Revitalization is about connecting to and building up the area around and outside. (Remember that office workers support about 2 s.f. of retail and 5 s.f. of restaurant space.)

An enclave is an enclave, whether it is a copper mine in Chile or the Walter Reed Hospital Campus on Georgia Avenue (note that there is little substantive retail development adjacent to this site, despite the thousands of employees that work there).

In third world nations, "enclave development" is a form of "development" where an industry is built around extracting and exporting unprocessed natural resources such as ore or oil, with limited benefits to the local economy in terms of connections. In the urban revitalization sense, there are are no "mixed primary uses" (Jane Jacobs) or what Fred Kent of the Project for Public Spaces calls "layering" of complementary activities that build quality places.

Shell gas flare, Nigeria.Spinoff entertainment from Shell Oil gas flares. Rumeukpe, Nigeria. Photo copyright by Friends of the Earth.

The Coast Guard workers likely will live in the suburbs, and they won't patronize many city establishments or linger much after work. And they won't likely evince much interest in the goings on of the Greater Anacostia area in which they will work.

I have written about Anacostia in:

-- Office buildings won't "save" Anacostia
-- One more thing about Anacostia and office buildings
-- Arson as a(nother) redevelopment strategem.

It's ironic that discredited "third world" economic development strategies are heralded as revitalization boosters for minority neighborhoods in the U.S. Here's a paper I need to read about these kinds of issues: "Concepts in Social and Spatial Marginality."

A paper on India, "Development of Colonial Economy in Kerala," describes enclave development there:
These agro-processing industries which accounted for around 65% of the factory employment represented a sort of enclave development, with very little forward or backward linkages. The machinery, equipment, hardware, fuel, chemicals, etc were mostly imported and the output which required only elementary processing was almost entirely exported....All these industries, including coir, were export oriented and were dependent upon the vagaries of foreign market demand. The technology, productivity and labour process in all these industries were caught in a vicious circle of permanent stagnation. Colonial domination, the relative surplus population and the consequent availablity of cheap labour depressed the tendency of capital to constantly improve the technique of production and centralisation...

Since the production process in these industries involved only elementary or primary processing, and owing to the resultant semi-finished product nature of exports from this region, its increase by itself could not be taken as an index of industrial progress. There was very little inter-dependence between these agro-processing industries. Owing to their low technological basis, there was very little scope for the development of [indigenous] engineering or metal industries.
Anacostia provides land for development processes directed elsewhere, "with very little forward or backward linkages." Some boon. (Also see "Office ghettos aren't quality economic development.")

Liquor in AnacostiaPhoto: Kevin Clark, The Washington Post. Phil Pannell, executive director of Anacostia Coordinating Council, (L-R) LaTesha Johnson, ANC 8A04 and Anthony Muhammad, ANC 8A are bring issues against establishments in close proximity to schools selling drug paraphernalia.


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Wednesday, October 15, 2014

East River State Park, beach image

This park in Brooklyn is adjacent to a city park.  Apparently, Smorgasburg is held here too.  (We were trying to go to the Brooklyn Flea, not knowing it is on hiatus between moving to its winter location.)

But I was glad for the opportunity to see this park, as well as the city Bushwick Inlet Park next door, which is mostly set up as athletic fields.

Both are good examples of utilization of seemingly unpark-like spaces--although granted they are on the East River and riverfronts can be great park spaces--and programming them in unusual ways.

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Urbanity and weddings/engagement photos

Streetsblog has a funny piece, "Here’s Why No One Shoots Engagement Photos in the Suburbs."  The headline is self-explanatory.

This comes to mind because on Friday, I shot this photo at Union Square in New York City. There is a restaurant facility there--using a building that had once been a parks department office--which can also be rented for special events.

I framed the photo so you can't see the cacophony of the Greenmarket in what would be the foreground.

As Adrian Benepe, former parks commissioner in NYC, said: such a facility brings more activity to the park, provides jobs, etc.

I guess it's customary for some wedding parties to go around DC and have photos taken in front of various monuments.

I got this photo a number of years ago in the vicinity of the US Capitol--a party preparing for their photo.  I had somewhere to go, so I didn't follow them to their final photo.
Wedding party, Union Station Plaza (between D St. NE and the U.S. Capitol)

Revisiting the characteristics that shape the success of a stadium-arena for a locality

The piece from March, "An arena subsidy project I'd probably favor: Sacramento," lays out a framework for determining what factors make a difference in terms of a city/county benefiting, or not, from a stadium or arena. The factors:

Characteristics that support successful ancillary development associated with professional sports facilities: 
  • isolation or connection: how well is the facility integrated into the urban fabric beyond the stadium site and does it leverage, build upon, and extend the location and the community around it;
  • size of the facility (baseball, football, basketball, hockey, soccer), bigger stadiums--football stadiums specifically--are harder to integrate in the urban fabric;
  • frequency of events held by the primary tenant--baseball has 82 home games/year, football about 10 including pre-season, basketball and hockey have 41, soccer about 17--so football stadiums are very rarely used (according to the Chicago Sun-Times article "Emanuel mulling 5,000-seat expansion to Soldier Field," the facility holds about 22 events including annually, 12 non-football events);
  • how many teams use the facility, maximizing use and utility of the building--for example, Verizon Center in DC is used by professional men's and women's basketball, hockey, and one college basketball team for more than 100 sports events each year;
  • are events scheduled in a manner that facilitates attendee patronage of off-site businesses--a business isn't an anchor if it aims to not share its customers; the earlier events are scheduled, the harder it is to patronize retailers and restaurants located off-site, at night during the week, there is limited post-game spending as well, on the weekends it's a different story with more opportunity to patronize off-site establishments--teams manipulate scheduling to reduce spending outside of their on-site and 100% controlled facilities;
  • use of the facility for non-game events drawing additional patrons--such as concerts and other types of programming; and
  • how people travel to events: automobiles vs. transit--if automobiles are the primary way people get to events, then large amounts of parking usually in surface lots needs to be provided, making it difficult to foster ancillary development because of lack of land and poor quality of the visual environment, whereas if transit is the primary mode, then more land around a facility can be developed in ways that leverage the proximity of the arena. 
Past entries that complement this listing include "Stadiums and economic effects," "Sports stadiums (and arenas) and local economic development and a DC soccer stadium," and "Stadiums and arenas as the enabling infrastructure for "money-making" platforms .

It's worth bringing up again, because of a New York MTA ad placed in subway and train cars, highlighting the "new" Barclays Arena and the impact that the facility has had on transit use. 

The blog entry mentioned Barclays Arena and the increase in use of the LIRR for events, but didn't have numbers for any increase in subway usage, which apparently has increased as well, to the tune of 63%.

[Since the developers have just sold a huge stake in the project to Chinese interests to fund the construction of the housing phases, transit ridership will increase further as more than 2,500 housing units are added to the area ("With Brooklyn's Barclays Center, Builder Takes Global Stage," Wall Street Journal).]

Transit access and a metropolitan area that uses transit are key factors in reducing negative congestion effects from stadium-arena siting decisions.  Interestingly, the Atlanta Braves just chose to move to a suburban location in with no significant transit connections ("The Driver Behind Public Transit's Transformation in Atlanta," Governing Magazine; "Cobb approves transit study for area around Braves stadium," Atlanta Journal-Constitution).

The AJC article discusses how Cobb County has commissioned a transit study for a circulator bus service to connect the stadium to area parking lots.  It's a shame that federal transportation dollars are spent to support this kind of sprawl.

One of the weaknesses in transportation planning is that there aren't master requirements on metropolitan transportation and land use planning authorities that direct uses that generate many transportation trips to locations that can satisfy demand with existing infrastructure, and/or transit infrastructure. That's how transportation planning is done in the Netherlands. A stadium wouldn't be allowed to locate in a location without significant transit resources, or without a commitment to ensure that such infrastructure is provided before the facility opens.

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Fox 5 (WTTG--TV) automobile-centric perspectives in transportation reporting (and tolls)

We were watching the news the other night and there were three transportation stories.  All were very much "driven" by the perspective of the car driver.  One was on automobiles taking cuts at the intersection of the Key Bridge and Canal Street in Georgetown and repainting to create a distinct "island" and the installation of .lane delimiters to prevent that behavior.  The newscasters were proud because this was done in response to one of their previous stories.  (I've already forgotten the second story.)

High Occupancy Toll Lanes on Freeways and mistaken charges.  The third story ("Man gets $17000 E-ZPass fine for unpaid $36 express lane tolls") was about how a guy got screwed by TransUrban, the operator of the High Occupancy Toll lanes in Northern Virginia, the I-495 Express Lanes.

He had a transponder and automatic replenishment on his EZPASS account, but on some trips the transponder wasn't acknowledged by the recording equipment.  (Most new tolling systems don't employ toll booths, but automatically record and bill trips through the system.)

He said he wasn't notified of the trip recordation errors.  He ended up getting 17 summons--each with a $1,000 fine--for each unpaid trip.  The FOX5 investigative reporter helped him get this knocked down to under $15 each, but he was still screwed.

Then there was the inane discussion between the anchors and the reporter about the toll system, etc., that was pretty much devoid of substance.  Certainly they didn't provide any substance of how the lanes came to be.  Or that there isn't a good system for dealing with these kinds of problems, because the toll roads are controlled by a private operator, not the State of Virginia.

Image from AA Roads.

The real issue of HOT Lanes and private sector operation of roads.  While the newscasters were patting themselves on the back for helping the guy, they didn't show much knowledge or depth about the culture behind the HOT lanes scheme--which is pushed by conservative interests, and apparently is a big agenda item of the libertarian Reason Foundation, which has published a number of reports on the topic.

While the lanes are touted because they provide "free" access for HOV (High Occupancy Vehicle) and transit use, the vast majority of users are single occupant vehicles.  In short, HOT lanes add capacity for the people willing to pay.

The Miami Herald has a nice investigative piece, "Toll lanes becoming all the rage in Florida," on the back story behind the creation of these types of freeway lanes in Florida.  Of course, providing that level of information is beyond the depth and capacity exhibited by local television news programs, including WTTG-TV.

Also see "The hidden price of public-private partnerships" from the Toronto Globe and Mail. From the article:
Governments are essentially “renting money” they could borrow more cheaply on their own because it’s politically expedient to defer expenses and avoid debt, Prof. Boardman added. P3 has become a “slogan” with often dubious benefits, he said. 
Based on a new study of 28 Ontario P3 projects worth more than $7-billion, University of Toronto assistant professor Matti Siemiatycki and researcher Naeem Farooqi found that public-private partnerships cost an average of 16 per cent more than conventional tendered contracts. That’s mainly because private borrowers typically pay higher interest rates than governments. Transaction costs for lawyers and consultants also add about 3 per cent to the final bill.
The states say they don't have money for freeway expansion, so the private sector builds the lanes in return for multi-decade long contracts.  For example, the concession for the Midtown Tunnel in Norfolk, Virginia is 58 years.

In Virginia and Maryland, HOT lanes were initiated by Republican governors, but are now part of what is considered normal, standard operating procedure.

Arlington County's principled opposition.  Because Arlington County, Virginia's Master Transportation Plan is specifically focused on reducing single occupancy vehicle trips they did not approve of extending such lanes on freeways (I-395 ad I-66) in their county.  And that is the rub.  Do such lanes encourage more driving or ease congestion?

Needless to say, the Washington Post editorial page didn't favor Arlington's position ("When plan = vision and policy is consistent:; Arlington County and HOT lanes").

Note that the ArCo opposition wasn't about tolls, but about the way such lanes promote more driving.  (They may or may not have a position on privatization as well, but that wasn't an element of the suit.)  The County was punished by the State Legislature for their opposition, and retaliated by taking away the county's ability to assess tourism taxes on hotel stays.

Tolls and the Silver Line.  Tolls have been a major funding source for the Silver Line, paying upwards of 50% of the total cost.  The State of Virginia has provided very little funding towards the system's construction.

Besides federal funding, the majority of funding has come from tolls assessed on the Dulles Toll Road, control of which was transferred to the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which is the agency given ultimate responsibility for funding the Metrorail expansion project, because of the ostensible reason that the purpose of the line is to provide access to Dulles International Airport (cf. "Short term vs. long term thinking: transit, the Washington Examiner, Fairfax/Loudoun Counties vs. DC").

Prices have escalated over the course of the construction of Phase One, which added five stations serving Tysons Corner, McLean, and Reston in Fairfax County, opening for service in July, and will continue to do so ("Silver line changes equals higher toll road charges," WUSA-TV).

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Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Historic Preservation Tuesday: Lancaster building tour this Saturday as an example of highlighting worthy heritage

1.  This coming weekend, the Historic Preservation Trust in Lancaster, Pennsylvania will be sponsoring a building tour of commercial and civic buildings in the city's core--20 buildings will be open.

This kind of activity is very important.  If you don't identify what's important, what's part of history and heritage, then it's easy for people to not care.

2.  Relatedly, this past weekend was Open House New York (City) where a couple hundred buildings and sites were open to the public for visiting, tours, and other events, throughout the city's five boroughs.

One of the buildings was the recently restored original main branch of the Williamsburgh Savings Bank on Broadway in Brooklyn (interior photo at right).

Opened in 1875, and later expanded, it truly was a temple for money, with domed ceilings and hyper elaborate interiors.  Now it's a special events facility called Weylin B. Seymour's.  (Wall Street Journal article; Brooklyn Eagle article).

Interestingly, according to the BE piece, the owners spent $20 million on the restoration, but residents have opposed a liquor license, because of fears of congestion (it seems like a well-endowed place in terms of mobility infrastructure, and they have made arrangements with a nearby parking lot and valet parking).

I do think they'd be somewhat respectful of the investment in restoring one of the borough's most incredible buildings, and be reasonable in terms of working something out.

We also checked out Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, which has an incredible array of mausoleums.

Doors Open events were launched in the UK (Heritage Open Days) a number of years back and have been taken up in cities across the world, such as Toronto.

In Europe they are organized under the rubric of European Heritage Days.

3.  And DC has its walking tour weekend, coordinated by CulturalTourism DC, although it was earlier, in September.

4.  Reston, Virginia is a greenbelt suburban planned community, created beginning in the 1960s, has its annual house tour this coming weekend.

Reston's architecture is definitely modern, but worth a look.  Each house on the tour is from one of the deca See "Celebrating five decades in Reston<" from the Fairfax Times.

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Saturday, October 11, 2014

Media coverage within those US Cities contending for the 2024 Olympics

Recently, I wrote about the organization of a bid by DC interests for the 2024 Olympics ("(Not enough time for a) 2024 DC-Baltimore Olympic Bid (to make sense").

Generally, I say, "don't believe the hype," in terms of all the purported economic benefits ("Big sporting events (World Cup/Olympics), economic development and trickle down economics").

However, I am not against a bid if it would truly add in significant ways to the metropolitan's infrastructure and array of civic assets long term.  I wrote about that in the context of Chicago's bid for the Olympics back in 2009 ("The Olympics and the opportunity for local improvements").

However/2, I certainly don't want DC to end up having to "host" the Washington Redskins football team in a new stadium, because football stadiums and the teams within contribute very little economically to a community. If Prince George's County, Maryland didn't have an admissions tax on each ticket, the County would net little revenue otherwise.

It's interesting to compare the media coverage and activities of other bidding organizations in San Boston, San Francisco.  So far the Boston Globe has published the most about their bid, compared to media in LA and SF (although according to a recent column in the Chronicle by Willie Brown, the Mayor and department heads in SF are actively engaged in the developing the bid, which doesn't appear to be the case in DC)..

Over the past week especially, the Globe has published a bunch of stories recently, including how the local organization has created a virtual mapping-planning tool to assist their efforts ("High-tech tool to help make case for Boston Olympics").

But they've also published an op-ed by sports economist and professor Andrew Zimbalist ("Let Boston 2024 pay for the Olympics") stating that hard questions need to be asked about the benefits of such an event locally, vis-a-vis the claims.

That's not the kind of article we're likely to see in the Washington Post.  Then again, the region's most prominent academic sports economists are based in Baltimore and less likely to be published in the Post.

While researching something I'll be writing about later, I was looking at the various papers by Wolfgang Maennig, an economist at the University of Hamburg .  One his papers is a detailed analysis of the employment effects of the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta ("Employment Effects of the Olympic Games in Atlanta 1996 Reconsidered," International Journal of Sport Finance.  He analyzed that particular Olympics because the sponsoring organization made a point to collect detailed data.

They found that there were short-term employment effects during the Olympics specifically, in retail and hospitality sectors only--29,000 jobs in Fulton County during the month of the Olympics--but they found no substantive long-term effects. This was counter to other academic studies which analyzed the event. They attribute the difference to the use of more detailed monthly employment data, as opposed to other gross-grained data sets.

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DC streetcar in testing

Looking south on the 900 block of 2nd Street NW, with a streetcar eastbound on H Street.  On the left in the distance is an apartment complex under construction.  In the foreground on the right is the Senate Square apartment complex.

On the right is Station Place.  The building closest is occupied by the Kaiser Permanente Health System.


DC Preservation League's 2014 List of Most Endangered Properties

The DC Preservation League has announced its list of the the city's most endangered historic properties for 2014.

1. Anacostia Historic District
2. 911 and 913 L St. NW/Shaw Historic District.
3. Carnegie Library (a topic within the previous entry)
4. St. Elizabeths East Agricultural Complex
5. Washington Canoe Club, 3700 Water St. NW
6. West Heating Plant, 1051 29th St. NW (Georgetown)

Such lists are a good way to draw attention to historic preservation matters in the city.

But I don't think that DCPL is getting maximum value from the list.  It draws attention, but by not being clear about the necessary next steps and need for structural changes in planning policy, laws, and regulations, the problems identified tend to fester and pop up elsewhere as the underlying conditions generating the problems haven't been addressed.

It also occurs to me that the list announcement could be utilized as an opportunity for the neighborhoods preservation groups to draw attention to their most significant-pressing issues alongside the publicity generated by the Most Endangered list.

To move the process forward and leverage the opportunities presented by the announcement, I would probably draw up a list of policy proscriptions/statements-positions to put out at the same time. For example, the issue with the Anacostia Historic District has to do with supporting commercial districts and dealing with areas under pricing pressure.

The neighborhood clearly needs a constantly updated transformation plan and action agenda.  There isn't one (Ward 8 Office of Planning webpage).
Problem Property Audit, page 1 - University of Memphis
I suggest that neighborhoods should "do their own plans," and one step is to systematically identify problem properties.  This is page one of a survey form used in Memphis.

By contrast, the H Street Renaissance Plan sparked significant improvement over time, although that district possesses a better location and has more leveragable assets, and by comparison it wasn't so much of a "weak market" as is Ward 8.  Also see "Systematic neighborhood engagement."

The Shaw Historic District matter provides support for adopting a receivership statute and process so that mouldering properties could be stabilized and fixed through the intervention of third parties.  See the past entries "Eminent domain and receivership to "cure" habitual nuisances" and "Pushing the rehabilitation of vacant buildings/nuisance properties."

The Washington Canoe Club matter illustrates the need to have a more wide ranging city master plan for parks, recreation and open spaces, that would address all (or most) of the city's parks assets, and provide guidance for their operation, care, and maintenance, even if specific installations are not under direct city control.

According to the DCPL:  The Washington Canoe Club (left) "structure is deteriorating both internally and externally. The shingles are in poor condition, the windows and window frames are in need of repair, the roof needs replacement, there are structural issues with the floor, walls, and building frame, and the building systems need repair. Due to unclear ownership of the property, neither the Washington Canoe Club nor the National Park Service has been inclined to invest in restoration of the building and in 2010 the NPS deemed the structure unsafe for occupancy."

I don't have a great past entry explaining this issue for the parks system, as much as I do for libraries, see "A follow up point about "local" library planning and "access to knowledge"."

The same goes for the St. Elizabeths East Agricultural Complex as an element of the city's "open space" resources.

With the West Heating Plant, I'm fine with the building being converted to a hotel.  (The Standard Hotel in Los Angeles is a great example of such an adaptive reuse, although it was much easier there as the building was previously an office building.)

As far as what local preservation groups could list as pressing issues, e.g., while I disagree with the positions of Historic Takoma on development proposals pending at the Takoma Metrorail site and in Takoma Junction, they bring necessary attention to the "cultural landscape" elements of these proposals and how they impact perception and image of the designated areas. The Takoma Theatre is an ongoing issue too.  We need help to capture that building as a viable civic cultural asset.

Preservation groups in Cleveland Park and Dupont Circle could probably call attention to the difficulty of maintaining viable retail, especially independently owned retail, in commercial districts that are becoming primarily destinations for restaurants.

Georgetown could probably discuss how life as we know it in the city will be damaged irreparably by the addition of accessory dwelling units to the city's housing mix as part of the Zoning Rewrite (although my understanding is by their development of a neighborhood-specific zone classification, all ADU proposals will have to go through a special exception process).


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Thursday, October 09, 2014

Wanted: more systematic cultural planning in DC

Earlier in the week, it was announced that Events DC (the former Washington Convention and Tourism Corporation) and the International Spy Museum, have junked their attempt to make over the Carnegie Library site into a new home for the museum.  See "International Spy Museum deal for Carnegie Library canceled" from the Washington Business Journal.

The project called for underground space as well as new wings to be built above-ground, significantly changing the nature of the landmarked building and site.

DC's historic preservation review process kept sending the proposals back for revision.

As is, the Carnegie building isn't great for a museum.  Interestingly, when a colleague was the interim director of the Historical Society in 2006, we discussed how to relaunch a city museum and the fact that the Carnegie Library building doesn't have the kinds of spaces that a great city museum requires (for example, in comparison to the Pittsburgh History Center, one of the country's best city museums).

In our conversations, I referred to the first couple stories of the adjacent TechWorld building as the "museum annex" and the best place to try to expand the Museum and capture the kinds of spaces required for displaying "big stuff" like fire trucks, streetcars, old retail signs, etc.
TechWorld DC and the Renaissance Hotel
The TechWorld building is on the left and the Renaissance Hotel is on the right in this Washington Business Journal photo.

The underground thing has been kicking around for awhile.  For whatever reason, the "Growth Machine" has been trying to "fix" this building for awhile.  A music museum was started there and lasted less than a couple years.

And the idea of moving the Central Library back there with an underground addition has been around for some time.  I remember the then planning director suggesting it to me many years ago.  I said the same thing, that the building site is too small, constrained, and that by contrast, the underground section of the Los Angeles Central Library was able to be much much bigger.

The thing is that ideas such as these never go away, they stay on the agenda, and get re-worked from time to time.
Carnegie Library, DC, postcard, 1918, front

At the same time, I wrote a memo for a Historical Society board meeting, about the gaps in how the city plans for cultural facilities development and programming.  See "Cultural resources planning in DC: In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king" which includes that memo at the end of the entry.

There isn't really a master plan for the city's cultural offer, nor for the cultural elements of Downtown DC.  Although there are a bunch of items mentioned in various sections of the Center City Action Plan (2008).  The circa 2000 Downtown Action Plan was more focused, calling for a strengthening of the theater district and an expanded central library-local cultural facility.

From the Downtown Action Plan:
Downtown needs a multi-use facility that can serve as a cultural information hub for the District. A redeveloped and expanded Martin Luther King, Jr. Library could be adapted to serve as a dual-purpose cultural center and headquarters library. This site is ideal as it is near Gallery Place and is large enough to accommodate exhibits, performances, and other events. (p. 17)

New Cultural Center/Library—Downtown public libraries serve as anchors in many cities across the country. The publicly-owned Martin Luther King Jr. Main Library is extremely well-located and has an excellent redevelopment potential as a multi-use, library/cultural facility. (p. 36)
For the most part, DC's cultural projects are somewhat ad hoc, funded at the behest of the Executive Branch or legislators.   And there isn't a consistent revenue stream available to fund projects.  Tax increment financing isn't usually an option, because nonprofit institutions don't pay taxes.  And admissions taxes aren't a significant revenue source.

The DC Library system is moving forward with re-doing the Central Library, even expanding it, without a master plan.

Even though the Downtown Action Plan suggested that the Central Library could be expanded into the city's key cultural facility, for the most part plans for such a change are not in the offing.  Instead it is proposed that housing be built as part of a height expansion.

Not that I think the Spy Museum would be a good fit, but co-locating a museum amongst other cultural facilities,  with the library makes more sense than housing.

A big problem is that most of the property in Downown is privately owned, and with the constant upward pressure on rents, cultural facilities get priced out of prime locations.  The exceptions are facilities that are owned by the government like the Smithsonian Museums ("Gallery Place") or by non-profits that are well-managed and won't be forced to sell/go out of business (like the Corcoran Gallery).

In such situations, coming up with a means to either buy space downtown or work out tax incentives and other funding streams to support cultural uses downtown needs to be on the agenda.

Events DC as a key player in cultural planning.  But I do think that Events DC has an appropriate role in the cultural planning and facilities development process.

They control the biggest chunk of DC's tourism tax revenue stream (taxes on hotel rooms, rental cars, and restaurant meals).  The admissions tax on sporting and cultural events could be better leveraged--arts group fight extending admissions taxes to their tickets, but I think that's a mistake, since at the same time they turn around and ask for funding support from the government.

The memo from 2006 discusses the tourism tax issue and the need for a study and broader use of the funding stream for more than just the Convention Center.

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