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.

Friday, June 24, 2016

(un?)informed electorates, democracy, and referenda

A little more than 20 years ago I went to a conference sponsored by a group affiliated with Newt Gingrich, and I remember him talking about the rise of "irredentist" movements across the world. Then particularly prominent examples were the Basque Region in Spain or the Kurds, which spread across Iran, Turkey, and Iraq.

In many respects, you can consider the Brexit vote in the UK to be an irredentist movement, vis a vis the European Union.  Ironically, it will trigger further irridentist moves within the UK as it is likely that Scotland will vote to become independent and to remain within the EU.

Not being in the UK, I only know about the campaign -- Remain or Leave -- from what I read in the online newspapers, mostly the Guardian (The London Times has always had a very strong paywall) and in print in the the Financial Times, plus articles in the US media.

Obviously, there are many parallels with the Republican campaign for President by Donald Trump. The demographics of people who support Trump -- older, whiter, less educated -- are comparable to the people favoring Brexit.

And we have a kind of irredentist movement in the US, the East and West Coast versus the interior of the country, and the rural-urban divide, and how political districts drawn for the US House of Representatives and state legislatures tend to be shaped in favor of rural interests at the expense of cities and metropolitan areas.

Media and the informed electorate.  But in the UK, while on the decline sure, newspapers are still prominent and relevant.  The London papers have national reach, especially the big "populist" tabloids like the Express or the Mail.

But there, more than in the US, the owners dictate coverage of issues, and on both the recent national election and Brexit. for the most part, especially the tabloids, were "all in" on the Conservatives and exit from the EU, and newspaper coverage of issues was manipulated in crass and craven ways to support their positions ("Power without accountability in our tabloid press" and "The triumph of the tabloids," mainly macro).

The blog mainly macro published this composite image of covers from the Daily Express which played up immigration as the UK's biggest problem.

If you can't rely on the media to be "somewhat objective," the basic requirement in democratic systems of having an informed electorate cannot be met.

Political positions versus the truth and an informed electorate.  This problem is further accentuated by the fact that "the politics" is similarly poisoned in that ideologies and agendas more than "doing the right thing" are driving elected officials and what they say.

These days politics is more about winning and imposing ideologies and agendas rather than making the right policy choices based on knowledge.  (Maybe it's always been this way, and I am merely a naif in my belief that knowledge and doing the right thing matters the most.)

For example, mainly macro ("Why do people want less EU immigration") argues that people's sentiment in favor of Brexit was largely driven by their belief that immigrants were disproportionately using the National Health Service and this is the cause of its decline.

False claim promoted by the Vote Leave campaign.  Publishers Association photo.

But their popular understanding of the decline of NHS is counter to the facts.

First, the fact that immigrants consume government services at rates less per capita, and second, pay more money to the state in taxes than they get back in services.  The real problem with NHS is that the government has been cutting funding as part of its general economic austerity program.

But the Prime Minister didn't want to tell people that.  From mainly macro:
Which means that in reality EU migration creates more resources that allows the government to spend more on the NHS and other public services. Not only do EU migrants pay for themselves in this respect, they also make access easier for natives. Add in the negative impact of making trade with the EU more difficult, and it is clear that Brexit would have a negative impact on public services. No wonder Dr Sarah Wollaston switched sides.

Yet this is an argument David Cameron was reluctant to make, because it raises an obvious question. If EU migration is not the reason why the NHS is in crisis, what is? The answer is that his government has chosen to shrink the share of national income going to the NHS, when there are good reasons why this share should be rising. In other words the government has taken the taxes EU migrants pay, and used them to cut taxes or cut the deficit. Because Cameron will not make the case for why EU migration helps the NHS, that case is not heard by voters. Instead they are told all the time that the NHS has been 'protected'.
And self interested politicians.  Others take positions to support their own interests.  Boris Johnson is a perfect example ("EU referendum live: Boris Johnson hails 'glorious opportunity' of Brexit as David Cameron resigns," Telegraph).  He wants to be Prime Minister, so he joined the Leave campaign, whereas a few years ago he was in favor of immigration, etc.

Directing fury at the wrong target.  So the rise in support for Brexit was a reaction against the austerity policies of the Conservative government, but instead of voting them out last year--the Conservatives won decisively--instead they blame the EU and vote Brexit.

Similarly, in the US the rise of the Tea Party as a conservative movement was triggered out of a ridiculous belief that President Obama is a socialist and wanted the government to take over the economy, which was their interpretation of the huge bailouts made of the financial industry in 2008-2009, which was necessary to ward off an economic depression.

Yes, the bankers weren't punished, but from the standpoint of Marxism, this was a type of "Capitalist Crisis" where capitalists required the intervention of government in order to recover and maintain overall control.  That's capitalism, not socialism -- privatizing profit, socializing risk.

Implications for democracy and the referenda process.  If you can't count on there being an informed electorate, which is further complicated by the nature of voting patterns (older people vote more, younger people vote less, poor people vote less than rich people, etc.) that can distort overall preferences, putting major policies to vote in referenda doesn't make sense ("If referendums are the answer, we’re asking the wrong question," Guardian).

Especially when you can't count on equal resources being spent to present "both sides" of the issue, let alone both sides being presented within the media, and adequately by the elected officials.

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Thursday, June 23, 2016

Farmers markets and why food costs more at farmers markets in cities

Because they can charge higher income people more money.

The Post food section yesterday has a focus on farms and farmers market, and one of the articles is entitled "Farmers market prices tend to be higher in the city: Why?."  The thrust of the articles is that the prices are higher because expenses are higher.  That's true to some extent, but it isn't the primary reason.

In high income areas, like DC, people are accustomed to paying more money for items, including food.  Market vendors take advantage of this and charge more money, and make more money than they would if they sold the items closer to home.

By contrast, food at farmers markets in Baltimore _City_ tend to be much more competitively priced, especially at the big Baltimore Farmers Market located Downtown and open on Sundays.

A peck of peaches at the Baltimore Farmers Market is sold for $15 in 2014.  According to a USDA conversion chart, a peck of peaches weighs more than 40 pounds.  Photo: Algerina Perna, Baltimore Sun.  $15 will get you 4-5 pounds of peaches at a farmers market in the DC area.

The market in Towson, the main conurbation in Baltimore County, also sells foods at competitive prices.

Note that Baltimore's Waverly/32nd Street Market has been increasing prices over time as the market has become more popular with higher income consumers, especially from Charles Village and other nearby neighborhoods.  It too used to sell goods for much less compared to farmers markets in DC. No more.

When I see farmers, bakeries, etc. coming to DC farmers markets from as far as Pennsylvania and West Virginia, it's pretty clear they are motivated to do so because they can charge a lot more than they could in markets local to them.

Farmer direct marketing sales are on the decline. A front page story, allied to the special section, is also interesting, "For some growers, farmers markets just aren't what they used to be," as it discusses how market vendors are experiencing a significant drop in sales of produce and other products that have to be further prepared by the purchaser in order to eat, with some vendors reporting sales declines of 30% to 50%.

Part of this is because of a switch on the part of high income consumers and younger consumers to greater purchase of prepared foods.

(This paragraph reprinted from a piece from a couple weeks ago.)  More food spending now takes place out of home. While I've mentioned this here I think (definitely at Eastern Market public market board meetings) a different Bloomberg piece ("Blue Apron IPO could be waylaid by buyer like Kroger") includes this graphic:
Spending on food: supermarkets vs. prepared foods

In response, companies are shifting their strategies, such as focusing on providing experiences and using e-commerce technologies, to improve the retail experience and social media marketing specifically to remain relevant, and stoke awareness and sales.

HOWEVER, I've since learned that part of the problem with this graph is that the data inadequately captures sale of non-cooked food that have switched from being purchased at traditional supermarkets to "non-traditional" locations ranging from warehouse stores like Costco to drug stores (which function more like convenience stores), and discount department stores like Target and Walmart.  Likely this means that noncooked food sales are still greater than food sales "out-of-home."

Still, higher income demographics are more likely to cook less and eat out more.  As the income mix of DC's population changes, this has repercussions on the type of food that is sold.  Similarly, DC has experienced an explosion of new grocery stores, and these stores tend to feature produce and organic items especially.  This likely has an impact on farmers and public markets too.

More competition also means sales declines. But while the article mentions part of this is also likely to an increased proliferation of farmers markets, it doesn't develop the point.  I think, at least with decline in sales at markets in DC, farmers market proliferation is a huge element.

For example, why go to the Dupont Circle Farmers Market on Sunday when you can go to a very good farmers market at 14th and U Streets NW on Saturday.

Why go to the Takoma Park Farmers Market on Sunday when you can go to the Silver Spring Farmers Market on Saturday?

Why go to the Petworth Community Market on Saturday if you live a bit west when you can go to another market held at the same time at 14th Street and Colorado Avenue NW?  (And why go at all to the Takoma market on Sunday if you live in Petworth?)  Etc.

And, since I am on the community advisory committee for Eastern Market, the city's public market building, why go buy food from farmers at Eastern Market on Saturdays and Sundays when you can more conveniently purchase similar goods at a myriad of markets across the city, much more conveniently located?

And why go to Eastern Market or Dupont Circle Farmers Market on the weekend when you can go to a super well marketed and curated Union Market ("Union Market: every DC foodie trend in one building," Washington City Paper), which is often programmed with exciting special events?

Or if you live in the H Street neighborhood, you don't need to go to Eastern Market because of a Saturday farmers market there, as well as the more conveniently located Union Market.  Etc.

Last week, the Post Weekend section picked crabcakes from Dragon Creek Seafood as an item not be missed from at the USDA Farmers Market to be ("10 great things to eat and drink at DC-area farmers markets").  The company is located in Virginia's Northern Neck, about a two-hour drive from DC.

Not to mention that many school PTAs are supporting truck farmer food sales on the grounds of public schools (in many higher income areas, as it happens) to raise money for projects.  That's one more element of competition that isn't likely to be registered when considering this issue.

For many years I've been arguing that DC's population can't support the plethora of farmers markets across the city.  DC has far more farmers markets than makes sense for demand.  The farmer vendors are the ones paying the price.

Markets as activation devices not as places to buy food.  This piece discusses the various reasons to open a farmers market ("The reason(s) why a farmers market is created shapes the type and mix of vendors allowed to sell").

The front page article discusses how for many people, a farmers market has become an event to go to to experience, not a place to buy food.

Many of the reasons have to do with activation, not promoting access to food or income generation for rural areas.  And property owners especially are motivated by bringing in people, not as much about the nature of what they buy.  But for example, with Union Market, most of the vendors sell prepared items, not food that needs to be prepared and cooked by the purchaser.

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Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Outdoor movies are the neighborhood rage

I see a lot of groups organizing "screen on the green" type events at the neighborhood scale, when it was not too long ago that such events were limited to major parks.

It turns out that inflatable screens are easily rented, making projection a relatively simple process compared to 10 years ago, when you needed sophisticated projection systems and the only screens available were hard, fixed, big objects difficult to transport.

The Manor Park neighborhood association screened Casablanca last Sunday (the rain date, it had been originally scheduled for Thursday night), starting out with cartoons for kids.  It was pretty fun.

It was at Fort Slocum, an NPS installation in our neighborhood that mostly goes unused, except for some dog walkers, and occasional users of the picnic shelter.

The Park People park friends support organization in Toronto has produced a guide to organizing such events.

-- How-to Host a Movie in the Park

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Dedicated bus transitway on Georgia Avenue NW

Over the years I have commented on the chokepoint at the intersection of Georgia Avenue and U Street NW, where parking on the north side of the street interfered with traffic queuing for left turns on to U Street as well as the traffic seeking to continue through the intersection onto 7th Street.

Because many of the vehicles stuck in the queue are buses on the 70s line, this led to a significant delay in transit times on the 70s routes.

But recently, the DDOT removed that pesky lane of parking and changed the street configuration to provide a dedicated lane for sustainable mobility, primarily buses but also bikes.

What makes the bus lanes unique is that they are painted red/maroon (comparable to the treatment in NYC) with a double white line, which clearly communicates "don't cross the line."

Hopefully this will decrease the likelihood of "regular motor vehicle traffic" using the lane.

It seems to be working.  I expect it will have positive impact on run times for the buses.

These elements are what separate this treatment from that on 7th Street NW in the vicinity of the Verizon Center.  There it hasn't worked very well, in large part because of the lack of especial markings and the failure to remove street parking.

But also probably because there aren't that many buses using that section of the street, compared to Georgia Avenue.

Note that the major omission from my presentation on "Metropolitan mass transit planning" was the failure to suggest the need for a dedicated transitway network in the core of the city.

Potomac Yard Transitway
The Metroway bus line in Alexandria and Arlington, Virginia includes dedicated transitways.  Photo by BeyondDC.

It turns out that in the 1970s a network of dedicated busways did exist in DC and Virginia.

-- "We had bus lanes a half century ago and we can again," PlanIt Metro.

Since then, for the most part these lanes have since been given back to cars.

Currently there are plans for dedicated transitways on K Street NW, in association with streetcar planning, and for dedicated busways at least at certain times of day, on 16th Street NW, for the S line, which is the highest used bus line in the city, with between 20,000 and 25,000 daily riders.

Busway map, 1976.  

Historically, busways were recommended as a way to facilitate transit demand management, in the 1950 DC Comprehensive Land Use Plan.

For other ways to improve bus service, see "Making bus service sexy and more equitable."


-- "What we can learn from city busways," Atlantic CityLab
-- "Paris: The street is ours," Human Transit blog

Note that Chicago recently created a set of transitways Downtown, called the Loop Link ("Chicago's Loop Link not exactly rapid, but a step in right direction," Chicago Tribune).

Chicago Loop Link map

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Update on pedestrian scramble intersection at 7th and H Streets NW

I wrote most recently about this intersection here ("Crosswalk treatments") commenting that while not finished, the city seems to be upgrading the design treatment of this pedestrian scramble intersection so that it is much clearer visually for both pedestrians--it's now very clear that people can walk diagonally across the intersection--and motor vehicle operators.

This photo shows that they are three-quarters of the way done with the treatment.

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Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Presentation: Bicycle Planning for Health and Safety: Effective Planning Practices and Techniques to Achieve Bicycle Active Communities

From email:

Wednesday, June 22nd, 6:00 PM to 8:00 PM
Baltimore County Public Library, Arbutus Branch
855 Sulphur Spring Road • Arbutus, MD 21227 • 410-887-1451

Join APA Maryland for a discussion on bicycle planning in Maryland. Speakers will emphasize planning for community health and safety. The conversation will include planning practices, techniques and key initiatives that the state, counties and urbanized areas are taking to reduce crashes and build safer, bicycle active communities through well-connected networks.
People riding at the Ciclovia, Baltimore, October 31, 2010
(Baltimore Sun photo by Amy Davis / October 31, 2010) Avery Goldstein, 6, of Roland Park, in front, leads a cluster of riders, including Lynn Heller, also of Roland Park, in a pumpkin costume, at right. Cyclists, walkers, joggers, kids on scooters, and pets came out for Roland Park's second Ciclovia event, in which the southbound lane of Roland Avenue was closed between Northern Parkway and Cold Spring Lane from 8a.m. until 1p.m.

Networks that have safe access to transit, community facilities such as libraries, schools, hospitals, businesses and employment centers. Networks that encourage a healthier lifestyle and support a cleaner environment by providing opportunities to enjoy and preserve Maryland’s landscape.

Speakers for the evening will be:
  • Liz Cornish, Executive Director of BikeMore
  • Emily Ranson, Advocacy Coordinator at Bike Maryland
  • Chris Eatough, Bike-Ped Coordinator at Howard County
  • Charles Glass, Deputy Administrator, Transportation Policy and Planning at MDOT


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Monday, June 20, 2016

Historic Preservation Tuesday: Amazing Set of Historic Preservation articles on Lincoln, Nebraska builder website

Starcraft Custom Builders of Lincoln, Nebraska specializes in:
authentic period design, preservation, restor­ation, renovation and remodeling services.
They have an extensive set of articles on historic preservation infused topics, ranging from architectural styles to elements of houses such as kitchens, bathroom, etc.).

The articles are thorough, profusely illustrated, and have some citations too.

In past writings I have suggested that home remodeling television networks like HGTV and DIY Network could provide much more in the way of resources on their websites ("Building the capacity for self-help and "Rehab Addict" as an example of how more could be done").

The Starcraft Custom Builders is a great model for what is possible.

I imagine the quality of their end product is quite high, given the quality of the information provided on their website.


Sunday, June 19, 2016

The Edible landscape

I write from time to time about how street planting strips could be planted with edibles, for example fruit trees or bushes, as a way to support "urban agriculture."

Photo from Joel the Urban Gardener blog.

There are many examples over time, such as how communities in Texas planted pecan trees on their town squares.

When Sheila Dixon was Mayor of Baltimore, the planting beds in front of City Hall included herbs such as rosemary.

In Greater Takoma, there are a couple blocks where the planting strip has been planted with serviceberry (juneberry) bushes, which when they mature, produce a berry suitable for pie.

Last year, the berries had some kind of fungus and couldn't be harvested, but the year before we picked enough to make one pie.

This year, with the next door neighbors, we picked enough berries to make three pies, and I broke down and finally got over my fear and made the crusts from scratch (pretty simple actually).

Pie picsAfter picking the berries, I happened to come across another block with even bigger bushes.

But the period in which the berries are ripe and suitable for picking is brief, about one week, and the berries are thin skinned which makes them hard to transport, so you're won't find them at a supermarket or even a farmers market--picking and cooking such cultivars makes you appreciate more of the backstory behind the creation of an industrialized agricultural system.

For whatever reason there is a very old persimmon tree at the Takoma Recreation Center that still produces.  But the fruit tastes awful and isn't worth trying to cook. (I did once make persimmon cake from fruit given to Suzanne by one of her colleagues.)

That is my extent of knowledge of DC purposefully having fruit trees or bushes in the public space.

I don't know the hows and whys behind the planting of the serviceberry bushes.

In our own yard we've planted blueberries and raspberries.  The latter have never taken off.  The former are taking years to get to the point of bearing fruit and one of the three bushes died.

One household on the 100 block of 4th Street SE plants treeboxes with basil, tomatoes, and other plants.

We have wild blackberries (we only figured it out the year after we moved in) and in the last year (seven years after moving in) they've become particularly fruitful, but it is always a struggle to harvest in the face of competition with the birds.

The birds deposit of seeds elsewhere in our yard facilitates the spread of the blackberries.

Our next door neighbor has planted one each of peach, pear, and plum, a grape arbor (stiff competition for fruit with raccoons, but very good), and a fig bush which has struggled in the years since particularly cold winters.

From a gardening show on PBS, I learned about Urban Tilth in Richmond/Contra Costa County, California, and how along the Richmond Greenway shared use path they've planted community gardens, including produce, where picking is open to everyone.

Photo from the Student Conservation Association.

The logical next step would be to plant fruit trees along multiuser trails.  (Although dropped fruit is attractive to rodents and other animals.)

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Friday, June 17, 2016

Ricardo Burle Marx streetscape treatments

Because there is a retrospective of the work of modernist landscape designer Ricardo Burle Marx at the Jewish Museum in NYC, there has been a lot of coverage of the exhibit in the national arts press.

Most of the articles included a photograph of his signature public space work, the tiled sidewalks of Avenida Atlântica along Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, dating to 1970.

In 1988, he was commissioned to do a similar treatment for Biscayne Boulevard in Miami ("Brazilian Burle Marx Celebrated in Miami for his Streetscape Design," Passport Miami).

Talk about an incredible example of "transportation infrastructure as an element of civic architecture."

I don't know much about the history of using tile and decorative treatments in sidewalks and plazas in Brazil, but it derives from similar treatments in Portugal called Calçada Portuguesa (Portuguese Pavement Art), which according to the humanscaled blog, dates to 1842.

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Thursday, June 16, 2016

Sort of a repeat: DC At large City Council Election: one insider picking off another insider is not a "game changer"

After the 2012 At Large election, when David Grosso, running as an independent defeated Michael Brown, this was touted as an insurgent defeating the system.

I disagreed, writing "DC At large City Council Election: one insider picking off another insider is not a "game changer"," making the point that someone who had worked for many years for Councilmember Ambrose and Delegate Norton, both Democrats, before going to work for as a lobbyist for a regional health care provider in the "government relations" section, is hardly an outsider, even if he had a non-standard upbringing.

Image from Petworth News.

Despite the Post's article today ("How a DC political novice unseated longtime council member"), which terms Robert White as a novice, the same is true.

He might be a neophyte as a candidate, this being his second try, but he is already a member of the city's system of political insiders, having worked for Delegate Norton and Attorney General Karl Racine.

From the article:
White, a former aide to D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), lost his first race, in 2014, for an open at-large seat. Soon after that loss, he was hired by newly elected Attorney General Karl A. Racine as director of community outreach, boosting his visibility for nearly a year before he decided to take on Orange.

Heeding the lessons of his failed 2014 bid, White hired the same consultants who ran Racine’s campaign. He worked to clear the field of potential spoiler candidates, though Garber stayed in and drew 15 percent of the vote.

Those actions illustrate how Robert White was integrated into the system, and even that it is a misnomer to term him a neophyte.

As older members of the system lose their allure with the electorate they need to be replaced with other equally agreeable actors so that the system can maintain its control and influence. To keep control, there will be turnover, as legacy Councilmembers are defeated by newer members of the machine.

(Disclosure: I voted for him, figuring that as a newer member of the machine he has less baggage than the incumbent.  But that doesn't mean that things won't change over time.)

The Growth Machine.  I am a fervent believer in the Growth Machine thesis, first laid out by sociologist Harvey Molotch, in the seminal article,"City as a Growth Machine: Toward a Political Economy of Place." From the abstract:
A city and, more generally, any locality, is conceived as the areal expression of the interests of some land-based elite. Such an elite is seen to profit through the increasing intensification of the land use of the area in which its members hold a common interest. An elite competes with other land-based elites in an effort to have growth-inducing resources invested within its own area as opposed to that of another. Governmental authority, at the local and nonlocal levels, is utilized to assist in achieving this growth at the expense of competing localities. Conditions of community life are largely a consequence of the social, economic, and political forces embodied in this growth machine.
It is troubling that Attorney General Karl Racine is shaping up as another political force, as two proteges, Robert White and Trayon White, having won the Democratic nomination for At Large and Ward 8 seats respectively.

I was strongly supportive of creating a separately elected AG, partly because "the law belongs to the people, not the Executive," and to add capacity to the city's governance and political structure.

Some people raised the issue of an elected AG becoming another power center within the city's political system in ways that could be counter to better government.

I scoffed, figuring that the duties of the AG office would be more than enough to keep the AG occupied.  Little did I know.

The Growth Machine thesis doesn't preclude intra-elite competition within a locality.  But media coverage tends to focus on this kind of intra-elite competition without recognizing that there is an overarching political-economic coalition with for the most part, a shared agenda.

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BTMFBA: the best way to ward off artist or retail displacement is to buy the building

The Savage Love column had a running theme for awhile featuring letters where the writer lamented their terrible partner.  His response was "why stay with such a person" which he abbreviated as DTMFA (Dump The M* F* Already).

In  "The song remains the same: DC's continued failures in cultural planning," and other writings I keep making a similar point, if you want to avoid displacement, if you think arts (and by extension interesting retail) uses are important, the local government, working with other partners, needs to step in and acquire buildings to maintain desirable cultural or retail uses.  The piece listed a number of examples of failed or failing arts ventures.

What I wrote then (edited):

Repeated failure as an indicator of structural issues. As I wrote in 2007:

When the same kind of thing keeps happening over and over, it's an indicator that there is a problem with the system of supporting (or not) cultural resources more generally within the City of Washington.

What to do/Recommendations
  • Have a capital acquisition and improvements fund to buy and maintain buildings. Without ownership of the buildings, in a market economy, cultural uses will be outbid, especially in high-value sub-markets.
  • Create an implementation organization to accomplish this, operating at the scale of the entire community.  (This is a new recommendation, which extends the previous.)
But there is no such fund or implementing organization in DC.  The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust or the Playhouse Square Development Corporation in Cleveland are models for how to do it, but they don't operate at the scale of the entire city, which is what is needed in places like DC.

Such a fund needs to be able to be proactive, innovative, and fast.

I DO NOT UNDERSTAND why the leading locally-focused cultural organizations in DC don't advocate for building acquisition and the creation of a portfolio of cultural spaces owned by the city or a nonprofit development corporation in partnership with the local government.

  • Such a fund presupposes the existence of a comprehensive cultural plan with sub-plans for neighborhoods/districts.  In DC, there is no such plan. Create one. (Allegedly that's going to happen, but it's not like they're going to contact me.) This would put into place a process for dealing with preserving potential assets at both the city-wide and neighborhood scale.
As examples of discipline-specific plans, cities like Austin, Chicago, and Seattle have master plans for the music industry. While New York City and Chicago do not have master plans for their theater industries, some planning documents have been produced.
  • Neighborhood/sector culture plans. Besides the need for elements addressing city-wide arts institutions and specific artistic disciplines, city/county culture master plans need to include planning guidance at the sub-city level.
Most neighborhoods lack the means to preserve and operate expensive cultural assets within them (one exception was how the Chevy Chase community came together to buy/revive the Avalon Theater, others are the Hill Center and the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop in Capitol Hill, and there are private unfunded community-oriented micro-facilities in Takoma--Electrik Maid, and Columbia Heights--Bloombar.

Examples of failure at the neighborhood level include the Takoma Theatre, and the need for better guidance for dealing with projects as they come up, such as the "Brookland Arts Walk" project that is part of the Monroe Street Market. It's a cool project, but the spaces are all designed to support arts consumption, with little room for arts production besides prints and objects and crafts.


1. Bookstores/retail in Paris and how Paris has a program to BTMFBs.  The New York Times has an article, "New Chapter for Classic Paris Bookstore: Books Printed on Demand," about he reopening of the Librairie des PUF bookstore, and how it doesn't carry a large inventory of books, but prints them on demand, using a Espresso book machine.

Because it is owned by the major university press in France, it has access to a deep backlist of books and is positioned to develop similar relationships with other publishers.

Interestingly, bookstores in NYC, such as McNally-Jackson already have the same machine and have been doing this since 2011, and the NYT has reported on it.

From the article:
... From 2000 to 2014, 28 percent of Paris bookstores closed, according to a 2015 report from the Paris Urban Planning Agency, a body assembled by the City Council in 1967 to chart social and economic evolution in the French capital. Crippling rent increases in Paris’s densely populated center were mostly to blame, as well as growing competition from e-commerce sites that are able to offer far more titles than a cramped city bookstore. The decline in sales of newspapers and magazines also contributed, since these are often sold alongside books in French bookstores

The Latin Quarter, which has the highest concentration of bookshops in the city, was among the worst-hit areas. In an effort to protect the neighborhood’s unique character — and prevent so-called blandification — the Paris City Council in 2008 made it the center of its Vital'Quartier program. The program buys retail spaces across Paris, renovates them and rents them to small culturally significant enterprises at far below market rates. Les Puf was leased one of these spaces on Rue Monsieur-le-Prince, allowing it to reopen in March just a few blocks from where it closed.
Missing the most significant take-away from the story.  A lot of the urbanist-oriented media has picked up on the Times story from the standpoint of the "technology" element, acting as if what Les Puf is doing is new or even complete.  For example, McNally-Jackson works with writers so that they can publish and print their own books.  I bought their manual on how to do it years ago, inspired by the thought.

What is the most interesting element disclosed in the story is the creation of the Vital'Quartier initiative in Paris where the SEMAEST community development corporation has been charged by the city to buy and hold real estate and rent it to desired retailers at sub-market prices.

According to Next Paris ("Opération Vital'Quartier: pour le commerce de proximité à Paris!") so far the initiative has supported 372 businesses in more than 500,000 s.f. of space.

That's a huge accomplishment.  And the real lesson from the story.

Meanwhile, there have been many articles in the NYT (and others,"New York City's Disappearing Mom-and-Pop Storefronts," Smithsonian Magazine) about the constant threat to independent retail and restaurants in NYC such as "Surging Rents Force Booksellers From Manhattan" and despite a great deal of coverage on the decline of independently owned retailers and restaurants, the paper seems to have failed to notice the lesson that Paris offers us, which is relevant to NYC, DC, Boston, SF--last year they passed an initiative, the Legacy Business Historic Preservation Fund, but compared to Paris it's a stopgap measure and is biased to "legacy" businesses rather than open to new creative retail ventures, Seattle, and other hyper-strong real estate markets facing displacement of retailers and arts and culture uses

BTMFBA.  And in the case of Paris, rent it much more cheaply to cool retailers.  (In hyper strong markets, probably rather than buying the building, an entity could acquire master leases on important retail spaces, and in terms of dealing with retailers the entity would act like SEMAEST.)

WAMU photo of the old General Typographers building.

2.  Union Arts building: continued.  One of the examples in the "Song remains the same" post was about how the old General Typographers building on New York Avenue abutting "Union Market" and renamed "Union Arts" a few years ago got bought by a developer for reuse as a boutique hotel with much better economic return ("Union Arts to become a boutique hotel with an arts program," Washington City Paper; "Is An Art-Focused Hotel The Answer To D.C.’s Artist Displacement Issues?," Kojo Nnamdi Radio Show, WAMU).

WAMU reports ("This Time, It Was Quiet: Fight Over Union Arts Dissipates As Artists Negotiate Exit") that some of the artists will get relocation assistance, but the building will be redeveloped. Although as a sop to artists there will be a handful of artist studios in the new building (these are the kinds of projects that DC's Cultural Development Corporation occupies itself).


3. The Philadelphia Sculpture Gym has closed.  As an example of the need for a standing fund able to act quickly to purchase buildings or to step in and facilitate the retention of desirable arts organizations and retail spaces there is the sad story of the Philadelphia Sculpture Gym.

It was a really cool "maker space" with a number of different sections outfitted with high quality tools for woodworking, welding, ceramics, etc. that members can use to make art, furniture, etc.

Seemingly, they had a great lease--ten years-- and paid very little rent, something like $4/s.f.  It was a major anchor of the arts district developing on Frankford Avenue in the Fishtown neighborhood.

But the property owner sold the building and because of changes in the group running the organization, and the difficulties that accompany a group still in the start up phase, they decided to dissolve, rather than try to buy the building or move to a different space and set up again.

BTMFBA.  Or facilitate the retention of cool organizations by helping them to relocate.

The saddest element of the story is that all the great (analog) equipment that they acquired is being sold off piecemeal.  I still don't understand why an overarching organization didn't step in to ward this off--although Philadelphia has a number of foundations and interest groups that could have responded, even on the accelerated timeline that was required.

More cities, especially those with strong real estate markets, need the equivalent of an organization like SEMAEST.

Conclusion: BTMFBA.  Any other response pretty much ignores the reality of the problem.  Create an arts focused community development corporation--in "The Howard and Lincoln Theatres: run them like the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust/Playhouse Square Cleveland model" I discussed examples and their relevance to DC to buy and hold buildings that support the creative function.

Create a retail-focused community development corporation like SEMAEST to do the same thing for the retail sector. Unlike San Francisco, don't limit support to "legacy" businesses but open it up to old and new creative and interesting retailers of all types.

Market buildings as shared retail spaces.  However, to realize business opportunities in distressed commercial districts much more support may need to be provided.

In those situations, some CDCs have worked to create food and retail group spaces -- like a public market building. (Food halls are a variant run by for profit organizations.)

Some examples include the Midtown Global Exchange in Minneapolis, the Thai Town Marketplace initiative in Los Angeles, the Portland Mercado and the Food Building in Minneapolis.

Each is an example of BTMFBA as a way to seed entrepreneurship and retail and business development.

A way to "use up" a so-called "white elephant" buildings: multi-faceted arts centers.  With deindustrialization, many communities have large manufacturing buildings that have been abandoned.

In many instances, buildings and communities have been revived by redeveloping these buildings or complexes into multi-faceted arts centers.  Examples include the creation of the MassMOCA contemporary arts museum in North Adams, Massachusetts, which has huge spaces capable of displaying very large art pieces and installations, the GoggleWorks in Reading, Pennsylvania, the Cablefactory in Helsinki, or LaFriche in Marseille, France.

The Trans-Europe Halles organization is a collective of such arts facilities across Europe.

-- New times, new models: Investigating the internal governance models and external relations of independent cultural centres in times of change
-- CREATIVE BUSINESS MODELS: Insights into the Business Models of Cultural Centers in Trans Europe Halles
-- Managing Independent Cultural Centres

In my opinion, DC should have done this with the old Walter Reed Medical Center building on Georgia Avenue in Northwest DC.

The 2.1 million s.f. building could have seeded arts and cultural initiatives for a generation.

Central libraries have the potential to become multi-faceted cultural centers.  There are some examples of libraries sharing some of their space with related organizations.

In the DC area, Arlington County expanded the Shirlington Library to include theater facilities, the Signature Theatre Company. Some Montreal neighborhood libraries include cultural centers.  The provincial "state" library in Montreal has spaces on its back alley/court for small booksellers.  The Hollywood library branch in Portland has a cafe on the ground floor and affordable housing above. The Drumbrae Library in England has a teen center, cafe, and day care.  Some libraries have space for used bookstores.

The best example is how the Salt Lake Central Library has space for related facilities such as the local NPR station and the Community Writing Center program of the local community college.  I've suggested that libraries could expand upon the SLC example in significant ways ("Civic assets and mixed use: Central Library edition") but thus far it hasn't happened.

Note that community center facilities could be similarly reconfigured to serve more and multiple uses.

Photo: Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register.

Nonprofit shared spaces.  The Nonprofit Centers Network is an organization that assists facilities across the country that offer shared spaces for nonprofit groups.

The Village in Orange County is one example, with a focus is providing space to housing-related organizations ("This Village is Orange County's first building dedicated to housing nonprofits," Orange County Register).

More communities should work to develop spaces to support nonprofit groups as well as civil society initiatives (although neighborhood groups could be provided space/facilities access at community centers and branch libraries).

Grant programs help, but aren't enough. Note that DC has a retail support grants and loans program, but it doesn't address situations of high or rapidly rising rents.

The program has been criticized for providing support to areas that are already succeeding ("D.C.'s Great Streets Grant Program Helps Fund Restaurants," Washington City Paper). But I think that is a facile reading of the program.  New businesses of all kinds need support to thrive.

But in areas where rising rents aren't a problem, maybe grants and other aid is enough.  Boston's Neighborhood Restaurant Initiative provides up to $75,000 to new restaurants aiming to opening in neighborhoods that have been identified as underserved.  Another Boston program supports capital improvement projects for nonprofits.

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