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.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Weak markets are really really really hard to develop: Baltimore's Poppleton (... State Center,; Park Heights) neighborhood

The Washington Post has an article ("This development aimed to overhaul a West Baltimore neighborhood. 15 years later, it’s made minor progress") about how after 15 years of planning, etc., attempts to push revitalization forward in Baltimore's Poppleton neighborhood, the only project moving forward is a small apartment building of 39 units, when the plans for the Center West development there were supposed to yield "thousands of apartments plus commercial space."

1. The first lesson in urban revitalization is that strong markets are a lot easier in which to spur revitalization than weak markets.

2. It's all relative when it comes to strong and weak markets within communities.

3. Most developers only do development in weak markets once most of the development capacity in the strong

Baltimore has lots of issues ("Social urbanism and Baltimore").

Downtown's vacancy rate is over 20% and tourism is down in response to Baltimore's spiraling crime rate post-the Freddie Gray death and subsequent riots.

From a revitalization standpoint, the biggest problem is that the city has a lot more development capacity than demand, and that even though the metropolitan area population is growing, the city continues to lose population.

(Although the neighborhoods in the Charles Street corridor are pretty successful.)

That's why development of neighborhoods and commercial districts like Port Covington originally the Westport redevelopment on the waterfront, now owned by Kevin Plank ("A victim of Port Covington: the “Other Baltimore” in Westport," Baltimore Sun); State Center, where transit oriented development proposals have been kicking around for almost 15 years, Park Heights, where the Pimlico race track remains surrounded by a poor community ("A portrait of the Pimlico neighborhood," Sun), take years and years and years and years.

The only way to spur development along there is to provide exranormal amounts of public money, and there isn't enough to do it.

It's actually just like the Skyland Center in DC ("Blaming Walmart for Skyland's failure is misdirected" and "For the first time, Skyland Town Center's revitalization might have a chance: creating a community focused retail destination").

That development is taking more than 20 years, and that's in DC, which is overall is a much stronger real estate market than Baltimore.


The four biggest things I'd do to "fix" Baltimore ("What Baltimore and D.C. can do to start working better together as a region," Baltimore Business Journal op-ed).

1. Merge Baltimore City and Baltimore County. It'd be one of the largest cities in the US, almost as large as Philadelphia.

2.  Adopt a social urbanism approach to invest in Baltimore's people and civic infrastructure as a way to reverse the high crime and murder rate ("Social urbanism and Baltimore").  Medellin, Colombia is the model.

3.  Create a robust rail transit network in Baltimore and Baltimore County ("From the files: transit planning in Baltimore County"). Right now they have a light rail line and a truncated subway line. A real transit network would reset development and population growth on the core (within the Baltimore Beltway).

4.  Create a state-wide and regional passenger railroad system ("A "Transformational Projects Action Plan" for a statewide passenger railroad program in Maryland").  While it would equally serve DC and Baltimore, it would further strengthen Maryland and Baltimore as its heart as a city with almost 1.5 million residents after combining with Baltimore County.

Now you'd probably say, what about business development, etc.  It had been a major center for insurance and finance, but those industries have waned.

Besides tourism, Baltimore's major business sectors are medical (Johns Hopkins and University of Maryland Medical System/UMB campus) and related biotech, higher education, and the kinds of business still active in cities, like law firms.

Why transit?  Access and connectedness through transportation infrastructure is a key element of the social urbanism approach in Medellin.

In the Joe Berridge webinar last week (I've been meaning to write up my notes), I asked a question about what we might call center-periphery cities partly because I've been meaning to write about Buffalo and Toronto because of an article charlie linked to many months ago ("Toronto's astonishing growth," "Coordination could spread Toronto prosperity" and "Immigration equals growth," Buffalo News), and then thinking about DC-Baltimore, Seattle-Tacoma, Philadelphia-Camden, etc.

I asked because while prosperity in Toronto is impacting the metropolitan area, it hasn't jumped quite as far as Hamilton.

Anyway, he said that if you do the right things placemaking wise (but schools and public safety are key as well) you get new residents who are highly educated, and business development follows them even though it takes awhile.

Besides the investment in placemaking, the creation of a more robust transit network in Greater Baltimore will attract new residents.  Baltimore has the universities, has great civic assets, parks, a waterfront, and proximity to Washington.

A better more robust transit network will help to strengthen Baltimore's position so that it can attract residents.  Although the public safety and schools issues must be addressed.

I'm not happy about it, but on schools, Baltimore probably needs to add the charter school option as a way to build family confidence concerning schooling.

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Monday, December 09, 2019

Bad additions as an indicator of the need for architectural guidance

Speaking of saying the same stuff, for more than a decade, I've argued that DC needs "mandatory design review," not to be a pain in the a**, but to provide design guidance for projects that are clearly in need of it, in a city where historic residential architecture is a primary element of neighborhood and city identity.

-- "Other arguments for mandatory design review," 2013
-- "Changing matter of right zoning regulations for houses to conform to heights typical within neighborhoods, not the allowable maximum," 2012

Very bad pop up addition on a rowhouse, 163 Rhode Island Avenue NE

"Tear up" of a colonial revival house, 6400 block of 9th Street NW, addition

WRT rowhouse additions, I'm not necessarily against them, but so many are done so badly.  There needs to be a requirement for like materials, etc.

I've argued for many many years that it wouldn't be too hard, I don't think, to provide systematic guidance through a pattern book.

The Chicago Bungalow Association has produced such a guide, The Bungalow Expansion Project Book, out of their #StopThePop initiative, addressing a similar problem.



You can buy the book, but it's also downloadable for free.

They have other cool merchandise, including prints, a wall calendar, a bungalow style birdhouse, and window planter boxes.




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Revisiting stories: urban grocers and the forthcoming Woodward Corners Market in Royal Oak, Michigan

I've been writing about food supermarkets in cities since 2005, the beginnings of the blog, sparked in part by "protests" over the Giant Supermarket in Columbia Heights, which intended to have a "parcel pick up" lane in the sidewalk right of way.

The city didn't favor them doing so, but at the time they were negotiating with Giant to open a store in Ward 7, an underserved area in terms of retail, and the Giant was to be the anchor of a shopping center, and Giant wasn't totally committed.

So the city wasn't willing to demand much vis a vis the Columbia Heights store, even though the city had some leverage because the Tivoli shopping facility involved city loans and other considerations, because they felt in so many words Giant was threatening to walk away from the other project.

The Coalition for Smart Growth organized a protest and eventually Giant and the property owner, Horning Brothers, backed down

-- "Protest Giant Sidewalk Threat,"
-- "That's Not My Giant -- More about Giant-Horning-- NCRC response"
-- "Urbanity, History and the Giant Supermarket at Tivoli Square"

Protest at Giant Supermarket


Protest at Giant Supermarket

But it started me thinking about and writing about the concept of why can't urban grocers, even chains, "open up their store to the street" the way they did decades ago, although some independents still do this in New York City and on in San Francisco.

(This is called "outdoor merchandising.")

In short, why can't supermarkets in cities be urban?

-- "(Urban) Grocery Stores," 2006
-- "Urban Safeway design misses the mark," op-ed, Washington Business Journal, 2011

United Brothers Fruit Market, 30th Avenue, Astoria, Queens
United Brothers Fruit Market, 30th Avenue, Astoria, Queens

24 Fruit & Grocery, Flatbush Avenue
24 Fruit & Grocery, Flatbush Avenue, Brooklyn.

The reason I mention this is a retail e-letter I get has a piece on the soon to be open new "small store" Woodward Corner Market by the hypermarket operator Meijers, on Woodward Avenue in Royal Oak, in the Suburban Detroit county of Oakland. According to the article:
When the weather is warmer, six garage-style doors open to an outdoor fresh produce and floral area.
I've been arguing supermarkets should do that for 14 years!

Not just with produce and flowers but coffee and prepared foods (pizza etc.) too.  Basically just as you have "exhibition kitchens" inside restaurants, have exhibition food sales where the building facade meets the sidewalk.

Cafes and bars do this, including in DC (although this image isn't from DC).  Pearl Dive on 14th Street is one of many places that does this.  In nice weather, their bar opens up to the street and supports the patio.

Restaurant/cafe with see through openable garage doors used to open the facade to the street

Pearl Dive restaurant, 14th Street NW, Washington, DC, open facade/bar

Although the location isn't particularly walkable, it is a prominent location, at 13 Mile Road and Woodward Avenue ("Here's when Meijer's Royal Oak store at Woodward Corners will open," Detroit Free Press).  One feature will be the sale of locally sourced products.  The company says they'll be selling over 2,000 such items.

But for a store like this to support "urbanism," it would have been better to have been located in the more traditional historically walkable commercial district further south in the heart of Royal Oak.

Oakland County is an automobile-centric place, but shopping districts along Woodward Avenue in Ferndale, Royal Oak, and Birmingham were walking districts, albeit once people drove their and parked ("Don't Royal Oak my Ferndale? Progress tugs at progressive suburb," DFP -- the story has a video using stills, including of the "great" Federals Department Store at 9 Mile and Woodward, a store that I remember shopping in).
The old Federals Department Store at Woodward Avenue and 9 Mile Road in Ferndale, Michigan
Wayne State University Virtual Motor City collection.

More than any other chain, Whole Foods does some of this, not with open storefronts, but on the front side of many of their stores, they do outdoor merchandising of fruits more than vegetables, like pineapples and watermelons, and garden items.
Promoting pineapples outside the Whole Foods Supermarket, Silver Spring
At the Silver Spring, Maryland store, they've even done a food stand outside opening coconuts for fresh coconut water.

Sometimes, Giant Supermarkets will do a hot dog and burger stand outside their stores.  And in the summer and fall, working with Hooper's Crab House, they do an outdoor seafood promotion as you enter the store (2019 schedule).
Hoopers Crab House Crab Wagon outside a Giant Supermarket

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Sunday, December 08, 2019

Package receipt devices for houses

Add for Majestic Mile and Package Retriever

I remember in the early days in discussions concerning e-commerce and secure package delivery, there was talk about creating/installing package delivery devices for houses, including even the capacity of refrigeration.

Someone sent an article about this to the Takoma e-list, and it included the above image.

Something like this, maybe even these particular versions, was installed in many houses on Warwick Street in the Rosedale Park neigthborhood in Detroit, where I lived from about 5 years old to 8 years old.  I used to crawl through them for neighbors who locked themselves out.

We called them "milk chutes."

Even a door-based device like a doggy door, but code activated could work (exception for the refrigeration part).

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Thursday, December 05, 2019

American Prospect special issue on the Green New Deal

From email:

The American Prospect has published an entire special issue on the specifics of a Green New Deal. The purpose is to demonstrate that urgently needed public investment in a sustainable economy is practical — fiscally, technically and politically.

Some skeptics have dismissed the entire concept of a Green New Deal as hopelessly utopian. This package of 22 articles by leading authors on climate change shows that we can achieve a post-carbon economy for about two percent of GDP or less, and that the benefits will far outweigh the costs.

The issue will be introduced at a press conference and discussion with Sen. Ed Markey and several of the authors, in room SVC 215 at the Capitol, at 1 p.m. Thursday Dec. 5, 2019. The public is invited to attend.

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I think this is the right direction, even if I have some issues and questions with various approaches.  I definitely need to read more about it.

There is a parallel effort in the UK.

-- Green New Deal, New Economics Foundation
-- The Case for a Green New Deal, book, Ann Pettifor

In some respects I think I don't think big enough.

OTOH, there are lots of measures that can be taken now that would have tremendous, from national recycling requirements ("The EPA’s new recycling plan is straight out of 1985," Los Angeles Times), product development and packaging standards, to a huge focus on transit expansion in major cities and reorienting land use regulation around reducing sprawl--Alon Levy has an important piece on development capacity in New York City in areas already served by transit

-- The Green New Deal, book, Jeremy Rifkin

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Wednesday, December 04, 2019

The real problem with the I-270/HOT Lanes proposal is that they've already come up with the solution: HOT Lanes

GGW has an entry discussing the possibility of monorail as an element of the I-270 expansion program ("Is a monorail on I-270 in Maryland a crazy idea? Here are its legit pros & cons").  It makes the good point that there should be a complete Alternatives Analysis.

But while offering a seemingly complete list, it's actually inadequate.

First, the biggest problem planning-wise, besides the fact that the Republican Governor does not favor transit at all, is that there isn't a "corridor management" approach to the I-270 to Beltway to DC mobility corridor.

-- "Maryland HOT lane study versus "corridor management", 2018
-- "Transportation network interruptions as an opportunity: Part 2," 2016

Second, consideration of monorail is a sop to some quarters (see item #3 in this entry, "Revisiting the Purple Line (series) and a more complete program of complementary improvements to the transit network).

The GGW post recommends an Alternatives Analysis, but without a more complete corridor management approach, it misses elements that should be considered.

The basic point of a study is to determine opportunities for shifting traffic from I-270.

1.  In the past, I've suggested that a separate underground MARC Line on I-270 should be considered, to better serve the business parks along the way and to provide service to Bethesda.

2.  This line could branch off and serve Northern Virginia across the American Legion Bridge, and even to Georgetown and Arlington, but this would require tunneling under Wisconsin Avenue in DC and then crossing the Potomac.

That should be considered.  But so should

3.  Extending the Metrorail Red Line to Germantown.  (Suggested by GGW commenter BTA.)  It'd probably mean a couple stations between the Shady Grove Metro and Gaithersburg, and then it's 3 more miles to Germantown.

4.  Expanding service on the MARC Brunswick Line to capture more trips between Frederick and DC.  This would include more service as well as

5.  Bi-directional service on the MARC Brunswick Line.


Note that the Brunswick Line terminates in West Virginia, but WV hadn't been paying towards the service which creates issues.  Maryland's threat to truncate the line got WV's attention and they agreed to funding. And other entities in West Virginia want the line to be extended further into the state ("Economic development board backs rail service to Hancock," Morgan Messenger). From the article:
This year, Maryland officials have demanded that West Virginia pay a larger portion of the costs of running the commuter trains into the state.

West Virginia legislators agreed to pay $1.1 million to keep the trains running into the Eastern Panhandle. Maryland has said it needs $3.4 million to continue running three trains each morning and three each evening.

According to news reports, West Virginia governor Jim Justice said the state would pay the additional $2 million to Maryland if the towns and counties served by the rail line would come up with the additional $300,000. A deadline to come up with the funds was set for November 30.

Eight localities, including Shepherdstown, Ranson, Charles Town, Harpers Ferry, Bolivar, Martinsburg, Berkeley and Jefferson Counties have all agreed to contribute to the rail costs.

Morgan County EDA Executive Director Daryl Cowles, who is also a West Virginia Delegate, said the idea of bringing passenger train service back to the Hancock station has resurfaced several times in the last two decades.


6.  Infill railroad stations where demand can be stoked.

7. In addition, since freeway based rail systems don't work so well without strong complementary bus service connections to nearby destinations, a MARC 270 Line would have to be paired with shuttle services.

One example is the Irvine Shuttle in Orange County, California, which complements Metrolink.  And the Airport Corridor Transportation Association in Suburban Pittsburgh is a good example of organizing a "transportation association" to provide such services ("Transit super stop coming to Robinson," Pittsburgh Post-Gaette, 2014).

8.  And a MARC Line from Frederick to Baltimore, as discussed in "A "Transformational Projects Action Plan" for a statewide passenger railroad program in Maryland."

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Listening to the webinar today featuring international planning consultant Joe Berridge, after having read the GGW entry, I couldn't help but think how Governor Hogan really isn't thinking very big.

The question they should be asking is what should they be doing transportation-wise/infrastructure wise to make Montgomery and Frederick Counties much stronger economic engines for the State of Maryland in the context of their being suburban counties outside the City of Washington.

Especially in the context of the Climate Change Crisis and the need for a Green New Deal and decarbonization within the mobility paradigm.

HOT Lanes aren't it.

Relatedly, the Post has an article about how the Federal Government has stopped subsidizing airline flights to Dulles and BWI Airports from Hagerstown ("Maryland airport goes to court after getting booted from federal subsidy program"). The article makes the point that Hagerstown is less than 90 minutes from either airport by motor vehicle.

Shouldn't the state be emphasizing the creation of an intra-state railroad and inter-city bus network to strengthen the connections between Maryland's more rural areas to the urban areas?
Railroad system Washington-Baltimore region
Graphic by BeyondDC showing the potential for a statewide passenger rail program in Maryland.

Rail from Hagerstown is another element of strengthening rural areas but also decarbonizing transportation.

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Managing the brand promise of cities in the face of corruption

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Update: 12/4/2019

The DC City Council did vote, 12-0, to trigger the process of expulsion, which will require a hearing at which Councilmember Evans has the opportunity to make his case, before a final vote ("D.C. Council votes to recommend Jack Evans for expulsion," Washington Post).
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Officials and stakeholders as managers of the city's identity and "brand."  In 2005 I wrote a piece about commercial district revitalization making the point that if we think of ourselves as "destination managers" we will make places great for both residents and visitors.

In 2008, I extended this concept to city elected and appointed officials and stakeholders as a community's collective of "brand managers" responsible for the brand promise of a community:

In 2015 I extended this even further, that officials and stakeholders need to see their roles as the managers of a community's assets, and I've been meaning to do this around risk management too, although I have written about that in the context of lawsuits around policing.

Failure as indication of system failures that should be addressed.  For example, Chicago spends many tens of millions of dollars every year in settlements concerning police misconduct. You'd think that elected officials would take that as an indicator of a problem with the police department, and look at the need for management, process, and policing reforms, rather than merely a "cost of doing business."

The "Brand Promise" of a local government should be managed.

Brand Promise
From "Living up to your brand promise," R+M Agency

DC City Council is faced with an equally tough "brand promise" decision over what to do about Councilmemmber Jack Evans, who looks to be guilty of significant ethics violations and misuse of his office to do "consulting work" on the side.

In DC, the Councilmember job is considered part-time, so all but the Council Chairman can have side jobs. Typically the jobs Councilmembers get, outside of teaching, are with companies doing business with the city, and it's what I call "designing conflict in," setting up a structure and process that builds in opportunity for graft, corruption, and the trafficking of confidential information.

The Post has an article, "Most D.C. lawmakers want to boot Jack Evans from committees, but not the council," about how the City Council is torn on what to do: (1) to let the voters decide; (2) to censure him and strip him of all his committee memberships; or (3) to expell him from the Council, which they have the power to do.

From "Brand promise vs. tagline?: what's the difference,," SimpleStrat.

Separately, a recall petition has been filed, although Evans is challenging up to one-third of the signatures, and next year the Ward 2 position is up for reelection anyway, and already six people have filed their intent to run.

But combining the roles of (1) destination managers; (2) brand managers; (3) asset managers; and (4) risk managers, the City Council is all of that for the City of Washington.

They are responsible for communicating the city's values in vision and practice.


I used to get into "arguments" about the brand of Eastern Market, DC's public market, while sitting on the Community Advisory Council for the organization.

The "Inverted Jenny" is probably the most famous stamp printing error for the US Postal Service.

One instance was during the reconstruction of 7th Street SE, we came up with branded manhole covers, and some were received with a typo. For obvious reasons, the manufacturer didn't want them back (too heavy to pay for shipping), and they said we could have them. The decision was made to sell them for fundraising purposes. 

I objected stating that if our brand is valuable, then we should make the hard choice and discard items that have a typo.  Because being error free was more important than making a little bit of money.

I was the only dissenting vote.

Similarly, I would make the argument that each individual business contributes to the collective, the whole of the brand for Eastern Market, and that businesses that don't measure up need to be addressed.  That didn't go over well either.

Manage the brand: Expel Jack Evans.

Jack Evans is one element of the brand of DC City Council.  He is the longest sitting Councilmember.

Councilmembers need to make the tough decision and:

(1) Make Councilmember jobs full-time and banning outside income, with the possible exception of teaching.

(2) Expel Jack Evans.

If the voters want him back, like Adam Clayton Powell, he can run again next year and make his case ("New York voters restore Powell to his congressional seat," Politico).

But the City Council as "brand managers" of the city's brand promise as well as the City Council's brand promise, need to take a stand.

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I've been doing some research in the Washington Post backfile and came across an article from the 1970s probably about corrupt practices in DC government, and how this doesn't justify statehood, with the response, why should DC be held to a higher standard than existing states.

While I have come around to that position, it doesn't justify not taking a strong stand against corruption and ethics violations.

On that score, DC City Council lags.

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Monday, December 02, 2019

Smart Growth Network webinar, December 4th: Perfect City: Lessons, Challenges and Pitfalls of the World’s Greatest Cities

-- "Smart Growth Network webpage on the Joe Berridge webinar

One of the many books in my stack for reading and review is Joe Berridge's Perfect City: Lessons, Challenges and Pitfalls of the World’s Greatest Cities.

Coming across his work a few years ago in some writings by Royson Green of the Toronto Star, his approach definitely influenced the concept that I now call "Transformational Projects Action Planning."

He was even kind enough to send me a pdf copy of the original proposal paper referenced by the Toronto Star.

From "(Big Hairy) Projects Action Plan(s) as an element of Comprehensive/Master Plans":

Toronto as a world city.  Last fall, reading about Toronto planner Joe Berridge, in two articles by Toronto Star columnist Royson James ("Toronto needs to take one last step to reach civic greatness," "Toronto needs a new wave of world-scale projects"), I was struck by how many of the big projects outlined by Mr. Berridge came to be.  From the first article:
... what Toronto needs is a greater push toward the next transformational wave of civic improvements. Double down. Find the money that’s obviously there. Invest and grow or slip back to the tier of cities occupied by Houston, San Francisco, Manchester.
From the second article:
Berridge’s 1999 seminal report, “Reinvesting in Toronto: What the Competition is Doing” gave wings to the movement that prodded governments and civic philanthropists to invest in fixing up Toronto’s derelict waterfront, remake and rebrand its cultural attractions, and think big...

Berridge says it is the city’s “moral obligation” to use its taxing power, its wealth, its status as Canada’s only global city and the historical advantages of public education, public health and public services to propel Toronto into super city status.
From the first article:
Coming out of the SARS crisis, Toronto was in woeful shape. Civic advocacy — much of it centred on a platform erected in the pages of the Star and its campaign for a New Deal for Cities — resulted in a cultural renaissance.

Six new major cultural buildings popped on the architectural horizon and created a buzz that reverberated beyond our shores. Luminato arrived, as did the MaRS project. Waterfront revitalization started. The ROM, Art Gallery of Ontario, opera house and OCAD University are a testament to that time.
According to James, Toronto's trajectory was significantly reset as a result of the city and stakeholders coming together to build a set of new and expanded institutions that were transformative.

These days there is a lot of lament on Toronto and the lack of vision by the current Mayor, on  the various ways that the Provincial Government is screwing the city, and the screwing up of transit expansion planning.

While there are some new strides forward like the Bentway and the prioritization of transit on King Street and arguably, Google's Sidewalk Labs project on the waterfront, while there are a number of proposals for new projects, they haven't been codified into an actionable program.  are aimed at getting Toronto's elected officials to think more broadly but also get much more focused and realistic (about funding) to achieve new transit investments, big park proposals, and other projects.

Also see:

-- "Toronto’s OCAD University may boast another city landmark" Toronto Globe and Mail
-- "Toronto's rail deck park proposal a 'golden opportunity,' experts say," Toronto Star
-- "This man wants to build a cable car in the Don Valley. Can he sell it," Toronto Globe and Mail
-- "Mayor on transit: Keeping Toronto on the move," Toronto Sun

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Sunday, December 01, 2019

Johnny Marr and Maxine Peake - The Priest - spoken word and music based short video about homelessness



Pretty Powerful.  See "Johnny Marr and Maxine Peake: ‘You can’t avoid homelessness in Manchester. It touched us both’," Guardian.

Many Johnny Marr videos feature urban scenes, especially the video for "New Town Velocity". Marr is interested in psychogeography.
I've always been into architecture, but now I'm getting more specific. I had an interest in buildings and cities and towns particularly from being really quite young and growing up near the city. I had a fairly vivid imagination about them. When I put my first solo album out, The Messenger, the word "psychogeography" came up quite a lot in regard to the way I was writing my words. What "psychogeography" was, the culture of it, I found it was true, but didn't really know until then that there was a term for it. I was happy to discover that what I was doing was psychogeography, and there was a culture of it that was rich, from everyone from Baudelaire and Thomas de Quincy to Walter Benjamin and architecture and lot of different aspects of physical and esoteric city life. That's a big preoccupation of mine at the moment.

Saturday, November 30, 2019

On the other hand: counter programming can be too much of a good thing | North Park San Diego and Small Business Saturday

One of the reasons that I don't tend to apply for Main Street commercial district revitalization management positions (although I do from time to time) is that rather than be high level planning and community economic development jobs, they are mostly about events development and programming.

It's not that I don't like events and programming, and I really like doing marketing and promotion, but that's not the best use of my talents.  That being said, "anchor events" are an important element of commercial district marketing ("Events and programming in a systematic manner").

But one of the issues in events development and Main Street work is "knowing your limitations."  It's very difficult to counter program against strong inertia in favor of massively promoted events like the Super Bowl or shopping over the Thanksgiving holiday.

Once, I worked at a restaurant that wasn't a sports bar and they thought that by bringing in a bunch of extra tvs somehow people would come to the restaurant during the Super Bowl instead of going to a a more traditional sports bar where they were more accustomed to going out to watch a game over the course of the football season.  Needless to say, the promotion didn't work.

The lesson is to know what your opportunities are and aren't and act accordingly.  OTOH, as the quote in a recent Washington City Paper article ("What Are the Warning Signs That Your Favorite Restaurant Is About to Close?") makes clear, unwarranted optimism is endemic to restaurant proprietors:
"We believe the solution is one special away. One good night will trigger another good night."

North Park
I have followed the North Park Main Street program from the beginning of my involvement in Main Street work in 2002, because it is an urban program in a transitioning district of San Diego, and they were ahead of many programs in creating development and design guidelines, parking management initiatives (some didn't succeed but were truly innovative), etc.

(Plus they have the advantage of San Diego's insight in creating a funding stream for commercial district development (a fee on property) separate from the decision to create either a Business Improvement District or a "Main Street" program.  The former tend to be property owner centric while Main Street programs are business and community centric.  By contrast, in DC, Main Street programs don't have access to a regularized funding stream, unlike the city's BIDs.)

I got an email promotion from the Explore North Main Street tourism promotion element of the program, and today for Small  Business Saturday they have a full range of events.


While it's great that they have organized this, I think it's a mistake--too much of a good thing.

1.  As mentioned in the previous post, like with cities like Fredericksburg, Frederick, and Takoma Park, it's better to spread events out across the holiday season rather than cram them into one day.  Give people multiple reasons to visit your commercial district, not just one.  (This is the same criticism I have of DC's Art All Night initiative.)
Line up of Holiday Events, 12/2018, Main Street Takoma Park, Maryland
Main Street Takoma posts a banner showing their holiday events in Old Town and Takoma Junction.  Some cities use digital billboards to communicate similarly.

2.  People are out shopping over Thanksgiving.  Even if they are shopping at independents and traditional commercial districts more on Saturday, they are still likely to want to spend more time in stores than at events.

3.  On Thanksgiving weekend especially, they are likely to be wanting to go to multiple places and districts, not just one.  Although granted, San Diego has great weather. 

4.  Events keep people from shopping and buying.

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Small Business Saturday

That American Express, a big corporation which mostly makes its money from big corporations, is the sponsor of Small Business Saturday, which focuses on independent businesses, is ironic and illustrates the contradictions in the American economy.

We laud independent businesses.  But we promote and support bigness.

Independent businesses often focus on providing artisanal goods, but such goods are more expensive, usually being produced with a lot more labor, and at the same time, our consumer economy is focused on buying a lot, but at the lowest cost.

In business there is the line: "Price, Quality, Speed: pick any two."  With a focus on price, independent business in terms of production and sales is usually the loser.

Furthering the contradictions, as part of its focus on Small Business Saturday, American Express has produced a set of videos focusing on small businesses, called "Saving Main."  The first one is on a clothing-focused store in Oakland, California, called OwlNWood.


Interestingly, while most of the economic changes--especially housing production and the attraction of higher income residents (because they can't afford to live in San Francisco) in Oakland are likely to benefit her ability to sell more product, it could affect her ability to stay in the same location if rents rise/she doesn't own the property. 

And in the video she mentions specifically how her local supplier for custom sewing, a small manufacturer, is likely to be displaced as higher value property uses replace industrial uses.

Her business closes.

But to me, not covered in the video, the issue is likely more than the changes in Oakland, although yes, they are an issue, but more about the commercial district and its foot traffic, and possibly the way that the store is managed.

Shifting to Salt Lake mostly, before moving we joked about opening an apparel, gift, and coffee shop, based on the way a couple stores in DC work.

Coffee bar at the back of the Modern General Store by Sylvester & Company in Savannah.   (This branch has closed but I think it would have worked in a more walking, less touristy district, in a community with a bigger population.  The company still has a store on Long Island, albeit in the tourist destination of Sag Harbor.)

But besides SLC being 1/3 the size of DC, the reality is that this is an automobile-centric community, not transit-walking based like many neighborhoods in DC, which was the model for the business concept.

(Other models are a couple stores in Hampden in Baltimore and in Savannah, where a bunch of stores--books, apparel and gifts, housewares--also incorporate coffee shops, which is a great element because as I say "people eat and drink every day, but they don't buy a shirt or book every day..."  More recently, the Shop Made in DC store which was on Dupont Circle had a cafe.)

So I am skeptical that the concept could work (or at least, I feel more confident about doing such a store in a walking district), unless we get the absolutely right space, and place, and rent, and publicity able to attract customers who have to consciously make the decision to visit, as opposed to stopping in while walking home from the transit station.

That being said, there are a fair amount of independent businesses here.

And they do succeed in the context of an automobile-centric community.

It's important to distinguish the characteristics a business needs in order to be successful.

The general belief is that an apparel shop like OwlNWood can't succeed in a small commercial district, they need to be located in a larger, more regionally serving district--that can still be a traditional commercial district, the big issue is being able to draw on a much larger customer base.

There are exceptions though.  And it's important to know why those exceptions work.

-- "Why ask why? Because," 2007
-- "Retail and restaurant check up surveys," 2009
-- "Indepependent retail businesses can succeed and thrive," 2008
-- "Critical analysis and critical analysis of retail, communities, etc.," 2014
-- "Little room for error: small retail business in general and in DC in particular," 2019

A couple that I've come across in my work are Pavement in the Lawrenceville District in Pittsburgh and Willow on Upshur Street in DC.

Storefront window, Willow retail storeI wrote down my 12 lessons from Willow, but those notes are boxed away somewhere.

For Willow, it's key that the store has an ever changing inventory of clothes that are competitively priced (constantly changing means that if you don't buy it when you first see it it might not be there when you return), is neighborhood-anchored, but also on the walking route to and from transit--both bus and subway, and that the owner lives in the neighborhood, and has developed what I call "a brigade", that is a group of fans, mostly neighborhood residents but not exclusively, who stop by to shop frequently.  The store also supports and develops events both for the store and the commercial district.

Bene hat shop, 6200 block of 3rd Street NWThis is key.  My Manor Park DC neighborhood has a little one block shopping district on the 6200 block of 3rd St. NW and there are three clothing stores there--a hat shop, a boutique, and a consignment store.

All do great window displays.

But by contrast to Willow--which also does great window displays--few people walk in Manor Park, and the displays are wasted.

Pavement is in a more widely known commercial district, but it isn't a setting with a lot of foot traffic.  So there has to be constant promotion in order to attract customers.  Although 10 years later when I first came across it, Lawrenceville has more than come into its own.

Trying to figure out why Pavement was an exception to the rule about apparel retail I read Designing Brand Identity which led to this table:

Principles for creating complete concepts/identity systems for independent retail businesses*

• Understand the needs, preferences, habits, and aspirations of the target audience.
• Good design sells. It is a competitive advantage. Design is systems and processes, not just graphics.
• A disciplined, coherent approach leads to a unified and powerful brand presence.
• Create a distinct position and complete identity for your store/concept.
• Experience and study the competition and learn from their successes and failures.
• Understand traffic flow, the volume of business, and economic considerations of your location.
• The storefront is a mass communications medium that works 24/7 and can attract new customers, influence purchasing decisions, and increase sales.
• Logo and signage expresses the brand and builds on understanding the needs and habits of users in the environment.
• Exterior signage must consider both vehicular and pedestrian traffic.
• Design an interior space that is sustainable, durable, easy to maintain and clean, and is energy efficient.
• Consider the dimensions of space: visual, auditory, olfactory, tactile, and thermal.
• Understand the psychological effect of light and lighting sources.
• Consider the needs of handicapped customers and those of different ages.
• The shelf is the most competitive marketing environment that exists.
• Align merchandising strategies with displays, advertising, and sales strategies.
• Create an experience and environment that makes it easy for customers to buy, and that inspires them to come back again and again.
• Create an environment that helps the sales force sell and makes it easy to complete a transaction.
• Align the quality and speed of service with the experience of the environment.
• Benchmark the quality and speed of service against the competition.
• Consider all operational needs so that the store delivers on the brand promise.
• Anticipate future growth. Measure, evaluate, change. Constantly ask: is the message clear?; is the content accessible?; is the experience positive?

* This table was built from the section on "creating touchpoints" from Designing Brand Identity (second edition) by Alina Wheeler

(Social media barely existed when I produced that table.  It's a necessary addition now.)


carytown3By contrast the Hampden district in Baltimore and Carytown in Richmond are regional destinations in that they are known for providing a wide range of independently run retail businesses.

So even though those communities are automobile-centric, those districts are destinations.

In "Little room for error: small retail business in general and in DC in particular," I listed 11 reasons why small retail businesses can fail:
  1. Rents are too high relative to sales.
  2. Property taxes for retail space are too high generally and in neighborhood commercial districts specifically.
  3. Size of the market.
  4. Too much retail space overall.
  5. Constant addition of new retail districts and space to the city's footprint and inventory of space. (WRT restaurants, there are some articles about the number of restaurants closing in DC, including the Washington City Paper article "What Are the Warning Signs That Your Favorite Restaurant Is About to Close?." Many chalk it up to there being too many restaurants relative the market. They didn't mention the number of "new" destination districts in the city such as the Wharf, Navy Yard, and Union Market.)
  6. Consolidation and chaining of the retail industry.
  7. Competition/Fit of the business model/lack of robust concept and operations model.
  8. The impact of e-commerce.
  9. Location (both generally and whether or not a particular location is a good fit for a particular business -- e.g., waterfront districts seem to be better for food and beverage and not so great for retail).
  10. Lack of a good commercial district marketing and coordination mechanism (the original list uses different wording, referring to DC's failure to have a differentiated set of commercial district revitalization approaches that can fitted to the conditions and needs of particular districts), especially ongoing marketing.  Also see "The "soft side" of commercial district competition"
  11. Store sizes are too big relative to sales.

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