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, August 29, 2014

Transit (transportation) infrastructure as a key element of civic architecture

Been busy.  Hard to write.

The Germans know how to do train stations.  Essen is not a small city for German (I think it is the seventh largest), as a region, the Ruhr is unusual because it is so dense, and is a contiguous framework of cities, like Greater Los Angeles or Detroit or in New Jersey.   But the transit system isn't massive, with about 300,000 riders daily.

The train station dates to the 1950s and is well organized and full of shops, including great magazine-book stores and a Lidl deep discount grocery store (some of the prices astounded me, for all of the talk that food costs more in Europe--which it does at restaurants especially, which is not news).

Underground there are great connections to the tram and subway networks, and outside the station there are taxi stands in the front and back, and connections to the local bus system--many of the stops are located under the train yard overpass, so they have some protection from the weather, and regional bus services.

The underground areas of the station have nice use of light as an artistic element.

Video of the changing colors behind glass blocks in one of the connecting hallways in the underground section of the station.

Underground tram-subway platforms

The various underground walkways have shops or basement sales floors for above-ground stores.  This kind of setup was definitely a missed opportunity in DC.

The bus station underpass has a kind of Dan Flavin artistic treatment

Informative and attractive bus stop signposts.

Embedded lights in walkways.  Blue is the dominant color scheme.

Labels: , , , ,

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

A couple Essen images

As someone known for partisanship with regard to historic buildings and "traditional commercial districts," a city like Essen demonstrates that 1950s commercial buildings can work in a commercial district just fine, so long as attention is paid to urban design and a focus on creating and maintaining lively streets, or in this case, walkways, with the pedestrian at the forefront.

Essen's city center is still a main shopping district, although there are vacant spaces, especially further from the core. During the week, stores stay open to 7pm or 8pm.  This was past closing time.  There are many cool stores.  Seeing the four-story Mayersche bookstore reminded me that bookstores still exist.

Some of the public spaces are a bit tired, and there probably isn't enough money for maintenance (after all, Europe although not Germany, has been in a Depression for six years)--e.g., lots of old gum stains on the sidewalks.

But there are many nice treatments, and spaces are used for restaurant patios, food sales, etc.

I bought a great herring sandwich from a seafood vendor.

I was surprised to see that graffiti was not removed from prominent public infrastructure. This is the the entrance to Rheinischer Platz subway station.

Many of the public spaces are set up with playground equipment for children. I was surprised to see the use of stainless steel equipment, which is expensive, but will last. While we do see some use of stainless steel bike racks and street furniture in the US, I've never seen a stainless steel swingset or teeter totter.

And in keeping with my discussion about how we need to consider the "civic architecture" aspects of transit infrastructure, I liked the light art treatment in the train station underpass, which also serves as a covered station area for many of the local buses serving the station.

German cities have a very organized, network approach to transit.

 There is the U-Bahn (underground/subway/tram), S-Bahn, suburban railroad services, and then regional and national railroad services run by Deutsche Bahn, the national railroad system.

 In Essen, the local bus system uses the same (plain, yellow) painting scheme for the tram cars.
The city's tram system, running underground in parts of the city, as well as serving suburban destinations, is designated separately from the U- and S-Bahn transit subnetworks.

The logos to denote Underground and Suburban Bahn services are the same across Germany, making it easier for people to find and negotiate transit services. The bus, U-bahn and S-Bahn services are run by the regional transit provider.  In Essen, that's EVAG, which in turn is a member of the regional transport association, VRR, which coordinates cross-jurisdictional services.

Most systems have a day pass option and a tourist card option that bundles transit service with discounts to museums and other cultural attractions.

Separate bike sharing (local, plus DB has its own Call-A-Bike program) is promoted by the transit provider, which also promotes but doesn't run car sharing. Most of the "advertisements" on the locally shared bicycle program promote sustainable transportation.

While there are advertisment boards in the public space, the local transit system tends to not run ads in shelters or on buses and tramcars, unless the messages relate to government-sponsored events. Bus shelter ad spots are used to promote sustainable transportation.

Litter : This week is Keep Australia Beautiful Week and Friday is "Butt Free Friday"

I am always amazed when I visit other places to see how much cleaner they tend to be (well, not Germantown in Philadelphia, or early morning before trash pickup in commercial districts in New York City) than Washington, DC.

That definitely includes the area's suburbs, although arterials definitely have more trash. I always notice how suburban residential streets have almost no litter, but then that is the case in other cities like Seattle or Salt Lake City too (except around bus stops).

DC streets, including residential streets, tend to have a lot of litter, although a lot is relative.  But what astounds me is that people don't even pick up litter that is in front of their houses.

I do pick up litter, a lot on an every day basis, on my street and between the Takoma Metro and home (especially along the perimeter of the Takoma Recreation Center).

Litter pickup as a civic engagement opportunity.  When I was involved in H Street Main Street, we did a litter cleanup once/month.  At first I was skeptical, because the trash just regenerates.

But as I wrote about here, "Every litter bit hurts," it was important for organizational visibility and community building.  (The title of the entry was a take off of an anti-litter advertising campaign from the early 1970s.)

Keep Australia Beautiful anti-litter organization.  In working on the issue back then, I came across the litter survey (starting on page 164 of the most recent National Litter Index report) by Keep Australia Beautiful, which seemed to be the most thorough.

One of the ways KAB tracks litter is through regular surveying and publication of an annual litter survey and review study, called the National Litter Index.  They have also tracked litter by "brand," although I imagine that was controversial since they haven't repeated that study for awhile.

This week is Keep Australia Beautiful Week and this year they are focusing on reducing cigarette butt litter, designating this Friday as "Butt Free Friday."

Lately, I have to say that cigarette butt litter has been bugging me too, although fortunately with the reduction in smoking/tobacco consumption there is a reduction in discarded cigarette butts.

Litter and ward-based community building, civic engagement and neighborhood metrics

In the platform outline I created when I was considering running for City Council, one of the metrics I was interested in creating on a ward--wide basis was on litter, using the Australia survey, a Ward 4 Litter Index so to speak.

And one of the community building efforts would have been a ward-wide annual cleanup day as well as organizing separate regularly held events in neighborhoods and in commercial districts.

-- Run a Neighborhood Litter Count webpage, Keep Australia Beautiful
-- Simplified Litter Survey Form, Keep Australia Beautiful

Other litter reduction strategies.  DC has passed a 5 cent bag tax levied on certain transactions and it has made a big difference in terms of discarded plastic bags as part of the litter stream.  But it's just one gesture.  A container deposit law would be the best, as well as general campaigning on litter issues more generally.

See "Recycling, waste streams, plastic bags, and bottle bills."

Labels: , , ,

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Kennedyplatz in Essen, Germany (updated)

Rainy and overcast, but a cool space nonetheless.

There are a bunch of pedestrian only streets and spaces in the city square, and the tourist information center is across from the train station.

There is a music festival staring Friday, which is presumably what is being set up in the Plaza now.

Transit: access and support of urban lifestyle vs. speed

Streetcar service is coming to DC. Really. Seeing three streetcars in testing phase yesterday on H Street NE finally convinced me that sometime within the next few months, the streetcar will go into revenue service in DC, only 11-12 years since the beginning of planning in 2003.

But it is happening on H Street/DC "this soon" only because former ANC6A Chairman Joe Fengler organized a campaign to get DDOT to agree to include rail installation as part of the previously approved streetscape upgrade.

Without the rails on H Street as a goad, there would be no streetcar service...

Complaints that streetcars in mixed traffic are a waste.  But it reminded me of the recent discussion about how streetcars in mixed traffic "are a waste."  See "Meet the worst transit project in America" from Vox and how the conversation is misguided, because it's asking the service to answer a different question from its purpose.

Access versus speed.  And in thinking about the photo, I realized that my writing on the same topic, "Making the case for intra-city (vs. inter-city) transit planning" should have referenced the University of Minnesota "Access to Destinations" research project from a few years back.
What is accessibility?
Accessibility is the central organizing concept of the Access to Destinations Study. In the context of transportation studies, accessibility refers to the ability of people to reach the destinations they must visit in order to meet their needs, and desire to visit to satisfy their wants.

Working, shopping, education, and recreation are just some of the human activities that motivate people to travel to a variety of destinations. The ability to reach these destinations is affected by many factors, including the transportation infrastructure, travel behavior preferences, patterns of land use and development, availability of mass transportation services, and traffic management policies. Understanding how these factors interact to affect the lives of urban and suburban residents is a major goal of the Access to Destinations Study.
The point is that access to places can be just as important or even more important than how long it takes to get there.

Don't get me wrong, I like speed too.

But the point of streetcar service is to support urban living--living close to work, shopping, parks and other amenities, and having a number of non-automobile methods to get there--walking, biking, various forms of transit, car sharing, etc.

It's not to move you long distances, where speed matters.

Image from the WCBS-TV story "State Lawmakers Give OK To 25 MPH Speed Limit For New York City."

Sustainable mobility policy and practice requires a wide range of changes to existing practices.  I have been thinking about this too in terms of how the city talks the talk about sustainable mobility, but so many of our policies and practices don't support it fully, ranging from
  • the failure to take bike theft seriously
  • the fact that traffic accident analysis favors the motor vehicle over pedestrians and bicyclists
  • that the city raised speed limits on many arterials--albeit out of the core--rather than lowered them, as NYC just did on Broadway, which required the passage of a new law by the State Legislature authorizing New York City to have posted speed limits under 30mph on arterials (Broadway Is Reined In by a Lower Speed Limit"," New York Times)
  • how NYC has introduced "Neighborhood Slow Zones" of 20mph in neighborhoods
  • etc.
Dedicated transitways for buses especially are perhaps the next major step for urban transit systems.  Arlington and Alexandria have just launched the first phase of the Metroway transitway.  Service started Sunday ("Metroway, the region’s first bus rapid transit, to debut in Northern Virginia," Post).  I'll have to get out there to check it out.

-- Metroway webpage

Vicki Hallett wrote in the Express about how the city needs to up its committment to transit through dedicated transitways ("Lane excuses: Buses deserve dedicated space"). I definitely agree.

Labels: , , , , ,

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Historic preservation is not the bogeyman for finding cheap apartments in DC

Today's Post has an article, "The new housing market: Why it’s so hard to find a cheap apartment in Washington, D.C.," with this line about strategies for producing more and lower cost housing:
In D.C., you could even ditch the large historic districts that make it extremely difficult to build anything substantial in many desirable neighborhoods.
Too bad it's wrong.  (The article doesn't say all that much considering.)

The reason that it's hard to find cheap apartments in DC, is that relative to demand, there is lack of inventory.

But it's not because of historic districcts.

It's because historically, DC had been a small city relatively speaking, and not an industrial city, which would have led to the construction of more and higher capacity apartment buildings and tenements.

Instead, especially in the late 1800s and into the early part of the 1900s, mostly single family housing (rowhouses) was constructed in those inner city neighborhoods that are now considered desirable.
Montreal (tri) plex

Plexes in Montreal.

Compare that to cities like New York (tenements and "walkups"), Cleveland or Boston (three-story buildings with two or more apartments on each floor), and Montreal (plexes--three-story buildings constructed on the equivalent of two rowhouse lots, with 5-6 units total) where the focus was on constructing residential buildings with multiple apartment units.

And even in neighborhoods where there is a mix of apartment buildings and single family housing, like Dupont Circle or parts of Capitol Hill, Columbia Heights, etc., the apartment buildings aren't that big, limiting inventory.

This is the 300 block of East Capitol Street NE.  Bigger buildings tended to be built near the Capitol and Downtown.  When Congress met on a more limited basis, apartment living in the city was more common.

When demand is high and inventory is low, prices are high.

Personally, I think that neighborhoods with a mix of residential building types are more resilient.

... but getting back to the quoted piece, again, removing historic designation wouldn't all of a sudden yield "cheap apartments," because the issue is lack of apartments, not historic designation.

By definition, newly constructed apartments are priced at today's market rates, so prices are "high."
1022 3rd Street NE
These "Wardman style" rowhouses at 1022 3rd Street NE were torn down in the mid-2000s in favor of a large multiunit apartment building.  (The buildings were left to decay while the developer was assembling the block.)

This Queen Anne style rowhouse, dating probably to the 1890s, was at the southwest corner of 3rd and K Streets NE.
1002 3rd Street NE

So if you were to tear down a bunch of houses, in this case, rowhouses that would be eligible for designation, but were not in a historic district, such as what was done on the 1000 block of 3rd Street NE, where a block of rowhouses were torn down to build the first phase of the Loree Grand apartment building on the 200 block of K Street NE, what is produced are new apartments constructed at current costs, which are priced at the high end of the market.
Banner on the Loree Grand apartment building, Washington, DC

In 30 years or so, the prices will end up being lower relative to new construction. But that doesn't mean much to people today.

According to the Loree Grand website, rental rates for apartments range from about $1,500 for the smallest studios to not quite $4,414/month for a 1,318 s.f. unit.  Prices are dependent on the size of the unit.

And this would be the case, if you were to tear down historic houses too, although prices would end up being even higher, because of the higher costs involved in assembling land.

Labels: , , , , , ,

Friday, August 22, 2014

Commerce as the engine of urbanism and parks

A couple weeks ago the Wall Street Journal had a good article on parks, "Cities' Message to Young Families: Play and Stay--New Features Include Parks, Playgrounds and Beer Gardens," and I was struck by the description of what we might call a blending of business and park, specifically food and beverage service, and that "beer gardens" are the most in-demand feature of new parks.

I guess it makes sense, given the historical connection to beer production, that Milwaukee County in Wisconsin has beer gardens in some of their parks, and a traveling beer garden park promotion program.

This reminds me of the comment by Professor Alex Wall, who wrote a book about Victor Gruen, one of the leaders in the development of shopping malls, which is:

"Commerce is the engine of urbanism."

The flip side is something that they teach in "Main Street Approach" commercial district revitalization training about "events" that there need to be four components:  something to buy; something to do; music; and something to eat.

In short, it's about "activation" but also enabling people to refresh themselves.  Sometimes that means eating.  Other times that means going to the restroom.  But when people can refresh themselves they can also stay longer.

Two entries back I mentioned the Mosaic District in Merrifield/Fairfax.

There is a big green, bracketed by a movie theater with an outside screen for open-air screenings, such as cartoons on Saturday mornings.

The "beer gardens" are on the perimeter, a bunch of restaurants with patios, although the movie theater also has outside food service, plus there is a coffee house building set up separately, supporting the green, and the coffeehouse brackets splash fountains for children and is set up like a beach, but without sand, with Adirondack chairs.

Food booths at Schenley Park, Pittsburgh's Oakland Cultural DistrictThis also reminds me of how food shacks, like Shake Shack in Madison Square Park, food service at Bryant Park, both in New York City, are essential activation elements in those parks.

And in Schenley Plaza in Pittsburgh (pictured at right, but in late fall) as well.

Traditionally, we have been unable to do this in many equivalent spaces in DC because they are run by the National Park Service and subject to various laws and regulations limiting "non-park activity."

Unfortunately, the Park Service has had a difficult time creating a differentiated set of policies for urban parks, which are also complicated by the fact that many park spaces are subject to specific Congressional mandates.

For some of these NPS parks downwotn, the rise of food trucks has filled the breach, and they converge on various downtown parks and set up shop during lunch time.

People lined up for Food Trucks, Farragut SquarePeople lined up for Food Trucks, Farragut Square

I noticed when we were in Salt Lake City that while Liberty Park doesn't have a food stand within, there looks to be a great cafe just across the street, the Park Cafe.

Being more liberal about commercial uses in spaces abutting parks is one way for cities to get around strictures they might have about for profit operations and food services within park spaces.

Salt Lake City's Pioneer Park is also home to the Saturday Downtown Farmers Market, which in my opinion has to be one of the top 15 farmers markets in the U.S., competitive maybe even better than Portland's and better than the Greenmarket in Union Square in NYC.
Shake Shack Madison Square by night

Shake Shack Madison Square by night by Christophe Meusy, on Flickr.

Labels: , , , , ,

What can adjoining cities do when one city is doing well and the other poorly?

For much of my life, driving east on Jefferson Avenue in Detroit towards Macomb County there has been a very clear delineation of urban success and urban failure once you cross Alter Road and enter Grosse Pointe Park, Michigan, one of five "Grosse Pointes" (Grosse Pointe, +Farms, +Woods, +Shores), a higher income set of communities west of Detroit, in Wayne County, with a total population of about 46,000.

Grosse Pointe Park, Michigan has been in the news because of a couple "urban design interventions" they've done that sever through streets that would normally connect the city with Detroit ("Cross-border drive that symbolized city-suburb disparity blocked permanently for farmer's market," MLive).

They've installed sidewalks across through streets and a farmers market shed blocks another street, although they've just agreed to take it down and work with the City of Detroit on a mutually agreeable "gateway" ("Detroit and Grosse Pointe Park reach deal to create 'gateway' along the cities' controversial border," MLive).

The farmer sheds in Grosse Pointe Park, as seen from the Detroit side, form a barrier to blight. (David Coates / The Detroit News)

Detroit is a shell of its once great success, as more than 1.2 million residents have moved out of the city over the last 60 years.  The population of Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb Counties as of the 2010 Census is only about 100,000 more people than in 1960.

The difference is that it has been redistributed mostly out of Detroit and to some extent out of Wayne County.  (The metropolitan area has also grown in that time, accounting for greater growth than just within the three counties.)

That matters because ultimately, neighborhood revitalization is dependent on demand for residential building stock.

The Detroit News editorializes ("Grosse Pointe Park stands up to blight: Controversy over blocked road overshadows community's pro-active effort to keep its downtown healthy") in favor of Grosse Pointe Park's acts, justifying them as a form of community protection and maintenance of a successful commercial district.

Instead the newspaper ought to be positing ways that the communities might be able to better work together to spread success back into Detroit, rather than celebrating Grosse Pointe Park's hunkering down and building walls between the communities.

Revitalization is sparked most easily by building off current success.  So what I would recommend is the creation of a Jefferson Avenue-East Side Detroit Revitalization Plan focused on leveraging the success of the Grosse Pointes--the five cities have a very high per capita income--the Ford Family tends to live in this area, amongst others.

This Google Earth image shows the area west (the Detroit side, on the left) and east (in Grosse Pointe Park) of Alter Road.  The Detroit side on the left of the image shows a great loss of most of its residential building stock, to decay and demolition.  From the image, the Detroit side looks almost rural.
Detroit/Grosse Pointe Park

But the big problem is lack of substantial demand for housing in the Detroit metro area, let alone in a declining area of Detroit, and a willingness to pay the very high property taxes that Detroit charges--taxes are high to raise the funds needed to cover the infrastructure that remains for the whole city, even though much is now unpopulated.

(One solution is a long term abatement on property taxes on new housing.  Philadelphia and Baltimore have done this.  But such an abatement, in a city that is broke, could be problematic.)

Concentrated renewal is necessary.  The other problem is that outside of Detroit's Downtown, the areas of relative success are in the bordering communities on the east (Wayne County) and west (The Grosse Pointes), and theoretically in the north (Oakland County), not in Detroit.  Although judging by Google Earth, much of Detroit's west side seems intact, including neighborhoods where I used to live, even if housing prices are low.

To focus Detroit's redevelopment in the outskirts of the city militates against concentrated renewal. Since Downtown is successful as it becomes a mixed use district, the city needs to focus growth there and as demand increases, work to recover adjoining areas, expanding outward.

In as dire straits as Detroit is, very difficult choices have to be made on where to invest public resources in order to maximize the likelihood of success.

Perhaps some of Detroit's land needs to be able to be "deaccessioned" and revert to township status, and the opportunity for renewal in those areas could shift spatially from the core/Detroit, to the energies present on the outskirts, such as the Grosse Pointes on the east side.

Labels: , , , , , ,

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Urban retail blatherings

The Mosaic District has a "public" green, which is framed by a movie theater-restaurant building, with a digital screen mounted on the facade, to support public screens, as well as a coffee shop fronted by a small splash fountain set up for children to play in.

For more than a year, I've been intending to write a piece on the new phase of retail development being hyper-activated and experiential.  The Union Market area is one example.  The Mosaic District in Merrifield/Fairfax County is another.  But that piece is still percolating.  In tthe meantime, the points in "The long term shake out of local retailers and independent commercial districts" from 2013 are still relevant.


1.  GIS for store site selection isn't new.  Yesterday's Post had a story, "Wendy’s uses mapping software from Calif. firm Esri to pick new locations," about how miraculous it is that retail chains use GIS systems to shape store selection.

Um, this has been the case for decades, retailers using GIS to pick stores, although the process continually changes and becomes more powerful coincident with improvements to GIS software systems.

In my 2006 piece, "Why the future of urban retail isn't chains," I discussed how those kinds of demographic software systems undersell urban locations in favor of the suburbs.

2. Retail chains can change and put stores in cities.  But I guess the title and thrust of my 2006 piece is wrong, at least for strong real estate markets like DC or NYC--JC Penney just opened a department store in Brooklyn, and supermarket chains like Kroger and Giant have rediscovered the city, and supermarket chains like Safeway are upgrading their urban stores in part by redeveloping single use supermarket sites into supermarkets on the ground floor with housing on top.

The (re)new(ed) Safeway store in Petworth (pictured at left) is awesome, as is the Giant Supermarket on O St. (which seems to mark a new direction for Giant, something I suggested in 2012 in "Urban retail #4: how to prevent the coming failure of the DC region's Giant Supermarket chain").

Big chains have rediscovered the cities.  And in some cases, like Walmart, smaller stores.

Although the DC market specifically hasn't been marked by a lot of creative experimentation by "local" retailers, because we don't have many locally-based retailers of a significant size any more (although there are some chainlets like Lou Lou, Dawn Price Baby, South Moon Mountain, and the Real Cool Hardware Stores affilated with Ace Hardware Cooperative, etc.).

See for example, "It ain't true: chain retailers are entering the city, but not necessarily on the city's terms,"  "Another point about urban retail: Whole Foods, Design within Reach, and American Apparel" and "Urban retail #3: Ace Hardware Express and Unleasheashed by Petco" from 2012.

This piece, "Retail Action Strategy," links to some of my best writings on urban retail.

3.  The opportunity for independent stores is more narrow and lies in traditional commercial districts with unusually-sized spaces, often owned independently, not by big real estate companies, compared to the large and open spaces necessary to support big stores.

4.  Just as brick and mortar storefronts need to be engaged in e-commerce, it helps branding for people to be able to see storefronts associated with e-commerce businesses.  Today's Post has a story, "Online shopping is the future. So why do so many Web retailers want to be in stores?," about how amazing it is that online commerce sites are adding "brick and mortar" storefronts to support and extend their business reach.

Probably the most important book I ever read on these kinds of issues was in 1988, when I read Maximarketing.  It's about "direct marketing" (of which e-commerce is a variant).  The point the book makes is that marketers need to maximize their use of all of the channels that are at their disposal to move product.

5.  Relatedly, "sales" and "sales advertising" are other kinds of events that push people to commit and to buy.  People need reminders.  That's why, unless you can be the absolute market leader, like WinCo, a supermarket chain based in Boise, Idaho, "everyday low pricing" doesn't work as a marketing strategy, because people need reminders to go and shop for things that they don't necessarily need.

That's where Ron Johnson got JC Penney's totally and completely wrong (The 5 Big Mistakes That Led to Ron Johnson's Ouster at JC Penney"," Time Magazine).

6.  Delivery services like Uber's new service will always be niche, for higher income segments  ("Uber delivering convenience store goods in DC but only in wealthy neighborhoods," Post) .  Whether such businesses can scale--except on the race to the bottom standpoint of poor driver-messengers desperate for money being forced to continually lower their asking prices--is an open question, although I think unlikely.

E-commerce options do broaden the ability to provide more such services a little more cost-effectively, but the demand isn't high enough to make these big businesses worthy of stratospheric valuations.  Good thing for entrepreneurs that Wall Street and venture capitalists haven't figured that out.

If home delivery were so great, PanAm International or MegaMart, Latino supermarkets in the area that will drive patrons home if they spend at least $50, would dominate the market.

7.  Did anyone notice that in a market basket comparison of four DC-area supermarket options--Safeway, Giant, Walmart, and Harris-Teeter--Giant had the lowest price?  See "Food desert no more: the tightening battle for D.C. grocery" from the Post.  I like Giant well enough, but except for their newest store at 8th and O Streets NW, they mostly don't have the specialty items I am searching for.

8.  Walmart's same store sales keep dropping, but the smaller store formats, Express and the Neighborhood Market supermarkets, are doing comparatively well.

9.  Greater Takoma has been highlighted by the Express as a hot DC neighborhood ("Takoma and Takoma Park share a hippie history that lingers today").  That's basically my neighborhood.

One of the reasons we chose to live here (we actually live in Manor Park, the neighborhood that borders Takoma) as opposed to somewhere else is because there was a commercial district core--albeit in Maryland, right on the border with DC (although part of the commercial district is in DC too) + a "short walk" to the Metrorail station and close enough (five miles) to downtown.

A big reason for the area's success is the Metrorail station--large parcels around the Metro are getting developed for housing, and as housing is added and housing in the greater neighborhood turns over, there are new customers for retail.

But the other is that there is an active commercial district revitalization planning, management and recruitment organization, the Old Takoma Business Association, which runs a Main Street program that is recognized by the State of Maryland, but not DC.  Even so, it gets occasional grants from DC (e.g., for a facade program a few years ago).  But the group, with the assistance of the City of Takoma Park!!!! actively recruits quality retail businesses, for example a hardware store and a restaurant affiliated with Jeff Black called Republic are in the Maryland side, but they help recruit businesses to the DC side too.

The City of Takoma Park does this because they recognize that a strong commercial district in the DC side helps the Maryland side, and vice versa.

Takoma TheatreA sorry problem is that the Takoma Theatre is vacant and the cantankerous owners prefer to redevelop the building as condos rather than "let it go" (a la the Frozen movie) and let others take it on and bring back a multipurpose theater and arts facility.

Were there an active theater there, it would help draw more patrons to the commercial district, especially to restaurants, and it would distinguish the commercial district from most others in the area.
The building is one of the most intact neighborhood theaters still extant, although it has been closed up for many years.

We were just in Salt Lake City as part of a family reunion, and friends who live there are a couple blocks from the 9th and 9th neighborhood district, which was written up in the Post Travel Section last year ("Travel: In Salt Lake City, a dynamic enclave gives new life to a neighborhood").  One of the distinguishing elements of that commercial district is the Tower Theatre, which is run by the Salt Lake Film Society.

If only... Next time we're there, We'll have to take in a showing.

10.  Unfortunately, the Express article didn't mention the restaurant that sealed the deal on why we chose the Greater Takoma neighborhood, Middle Eastern Cuisine.  (Plus it has two supermarkets within easy biking distance, a Giant, just over the border in Maryland, and a Safeway.)  Mark's Kitchen is over-rated in my opinion.

We really like Middle Eastern Cuisine.  It's basic Middle Eastern food that's very good, the prices are great, the food is consistent, the service is decent, and now they also have a separate bar called Olive Lounge, located in the back, although it's a bit noisy.

At the time I had been working in Brookland and eating in Colonel Brooks Tavern a lot, and their food was way overpriced and inconsistent.  So by comparison, Middle East Kitchen seemed like a great draw and asset.

11.  Speaking of Market Basket, a supermarket chain in Greater Boston, strife between ownership factions (not unlike the dynamics that pushed the ownership of the DC area Giant Supermarket company to a Dutch company) is destroying the company.  Employees loyal to the CEO who was ousted have walked off their jobs, and the operations of the stores are grinding to a halt  (Market Basket Saga in Massachusetts," Boston Globe).

I am always interested in stories of "value destruction" (DC Government is full of them) but this doesn't seem to be necessary.

Labels: , , ,

A world class water/environmental education center at Poplar Point as another opportunity for Anacostia River programming (+ move the Anacostia Community Museum next door)

Out of the activities concerning the design competition for the 11th Street Bridge Park project in DC, I've been struck by some conceptual and highly visionary opportunities that could grow out of the project, were DC Government to engage with the community and the world at that level.

One is the idea of DC championing the idea of the "International Garden Festival" as a large scale urban revitalization program operating at the national scale in the US and launching the idea with a program around the Anacostia River ("DC has a big "Garden Festival" opportunity in the Anacostia River").
Northwest Branch, Anacostia River
Northwest Branch, Anacostia River.

Another is thinking of the bridges on the Anacostia River ("The Anacostia River and considering the bridges as a unit and as a premier element of public art and civic architecture" and "Saving the South Capitol Bridge as an exclusive pedestrian and and bicycle bridge") in a coordinated fashion in terms of design and public realm improvement and civic architecture.

Chesapeake Bay, the largest estuarine system in the contiguous United States, has a watershed of almost 64,000 square miles. The total surface area of the Bay is 3,830 square miles. Of these, 153 square miles are tidal fresh waters, 3,562 square miles constitute the mixing zone, and 115 square miles are salt waters. This unique ecosystem also contains more than 1,500 square miles of wetlands that provide critical habitat for fish, shellfish, and wildlife; filter and process residential, agricultural, and industrial wastes; and buffer coastal areas against storm and wave damage.

Environmental education element to the Bridge Park design brief.  At the round of meetings last week for the design advisory committee of the 11th Street Bridge Park project, in discussions about an environmental education component it seemed pretty obvious that the amount of space on the bridge park site is constrained and the requirements for a comprehensive environmental center are difficult to meet within the project as currently conceptualized.

The need to bring more attention to water issues of all types. But the desire for an environmental education center there/in DC is a recognition of the need to bring more attention to DC's rivers, the Anacostia especially but also the Potomac, neither of which is safe for fishing or swimming within DC, as well as the broader ramifications of watershed quality for the entire Chesapeake Bay region.

Downtown Peoria, Illinois, 2013.  

And the issues are important locally and regionally as well as nationally.

DC has another opportunity to do something pathbreaking and visionary.

Here are some recent events that demonstrate the need for a high profile urban water/environmental education center:
  • Ongoing water quality problems in the Chesapeake Bay and the Anacostia River
  • Global warming and sea level rise and the impact on coastal and waterfront lands
  • EPA mandates on water quality, combined sewer and outflow systems and discharge impact on rivers in general, and in the Chesapeake Bay
  • EPA mandates on protection of drinking water supplies
  • Green infrastructure 
  • More powerful storms and more frequent flooding (especially in the Midwest)
  • The impact of Hurricanes in the Southeastern United States including Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and Mississippi
  • Storm surges from Superstorm Sandy destroying waterfront land in New York and New Jersey 
  • chemical discharge in the water system serving parts of West Virginia
  • algae blooms in Lake Erie recently contaminated Toledo, Ohio's drinking water supply
  • drought, especially in the West, which has led to widespread restrictions on water usage (note that 65% of water is used for agriculture world-wide)
  • decline of the aquifer/water table in many parts of the country
  • sinkholes
  • bottled water vs. tap water and environmental impact
  • privatization of water utilities
  • aquaculture
  • North Carolina Legislature's passage of a law forcing an understatement of the likelihood of coastal sea level rise because of a concern about real estate values of beachfront property
  • etc.
Current conditions, Poplar Point.  NPS diagram. The 11th Street bridges are at the top right of the diagram.

Poplar Point has space for cultural facilities adjacent to the Bridge Park site. And there is a great place to locate such a facility, right next to the Bridge Park site, on Poplar Point, which is in the process of being transferred from the National Park Service to the DC Government.

DC is about to embark on a long range planning initiative for Poplar Point--the current agreement allows for 40 acres to be developed while 70 will remain "park land."

One question that needs to be answered is whether or not museums and educational facilities be considered part of the "park portion" of the development), there is an opportunity to complement the proposed program of the Bridge Park onto adjoining Poplar Point lands.

Why not integrate certain elements of planning for Poplar Point and the Bridge Park by including access to some of the adjoining land of Poplar Point to accommodate an expanded environmental education program and related cultural facilities.

Villa Méditerranée and the MuCEM complex, Marseille as a model for a DC urban/environmental education facility.  In last week's discussions, it occurred to me that a high profile best practice urban water education facility could be modelled after Villa Méditerranée in Marseille (and Ecotrust in Portland).
Soirée Orange au MuCEM | Marseille | France | 17 décembre 2013
Villa Méditerranée and the Musée des civilisations de l'Europe et de la Méditerranée (MuCEM) complex, Marseille.  Flickr photo by Franck Vallet.

The Villa is a research, conference, and exhibition center fostering cooperation and cultural exchange within the Mediterranean basin by presenting conferences, lectures, debates, films, concerts, art and cultural exhibitions, and performances. An unusual feature of the building is that the conference center is below ground, under water, with an aquarium-like effect.

The idea behind Villa Méditerranée was to position prominently France's national agenda with regard to the Mediterranean countries in Northern Africa and Europe and to push forward Marseille's claim against Barcelona as the unofficial capital of the cross-national Mediterranean region.

The Villa is complemented by the Museum of European and Meditterranean Civilizations, which is the first national French museum located outside of Paris.  The Villa + MuCEM combination is a model for how a Poplar Point cultural complex could include not just a multifaceted Water/Urban Environmental Education Center but also other cultural facilities.

Anacostia Community Museum.  To complement the Environmental Education Center, I'd recommed moving next door the Anacostia Community Museum, which is poorly located and as a result has extremely low patronage--just over 100 people visit the museum daily.  A much more accessible and prominent site on the Anacostia River in Poplar Point, next to the proposed water-focused environmental center, would be a much better location.

Originally the museum was located in a vacant theater on Martin Luther King Avenue, but then moved to its current location in Fort Stanton Park, which is somewhat distant from the commercial district as well as the Metro Station, and is significantly uphill.

While the Museum is only 1.3 miles from the Anacostia Metro Station, it's difficult to walk or bike to, has limited transit connections (a shuttle bus runs from the Metro), and there are limited opportunities to leverage the presence of the Museum for ancillary neighborhood revitalization.

A new location would provide the opportunity for a fresh start and an update of the Museum's mission, approach, and exhibits.  It could also be involved in shaping and presenting the exhibit program in the DC Villa.

Programming the DC Villa.  Another example of a facility to use as a model for a DC program is the Ecotrust Natural Capital Center in Portland.

Long before the creation of the LEED system, they took an old warehouse building, rehabilitated it with best practice green building and earthquake-proofing practices, and made it a center for environmental organizations.  Today more than 24 environmental and social enterprise organizations are based there.  It's located in Downtown Portland, rather than in a distant suburban or exurban location where most people get to the center via motor vehicle.

Programming could include:
  • conferences, lectures, debates, presentations, films, concerts, art and cultural exhibitions, and performances
  • environmental education programming by government and nonprofit agencies
  • consolidated space for the environmental programs of various DC government agencies
  • space for environmentally-related nonprofit organizations
  • space for university academic research programs
  • cafe and gift shop
Creating a formal DC marine/environmental extension program.   DC has a seemingly pathbreaking Sustainability Plan, although I have questioned the ability and willingness of the government to make significant changes in its approach and practices in accordance with the document's stated wishes ("goals").  See "Realizing all aspects of Sustainable DC."

DC Water Authority truck branded with their "drink tap water" campaignIn association with a new "Water/Urban environmental center," DC Government could reorganize various agency programs concerning the environment and elements of the University of the District of Columbia's cooperative extension program into an integrated and comprehensive marine/environmental extension program.

Cornell, the University of Wisconsin, and the University of Minnesota are examples of university "agriculture" extension programs with extensive "environmental and sustainability" components.

Broken water main, Prince George's County, Maryland. 

Some universities have marine extension programs as well, such as the marine program of Cornell Extension in Suffolk County, NY.  

Most of these programs tend to be focused on the ocean side of water, including commercial fishing and aquaculture (Georgia, Oregon) and are affiliates of the federal Sea Grant program arm of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of the US Department of Commerce.

The model is extendable to the interior of the country and rivers, bays, and watersheds.

Given the recent discussion of what's missing from the Clean Water Act and the regulatory structure that has developed in response ("Behind Toledo's Water Crisis, a Long-Troubled Lake Erie," "The Threats to Our Drinking Water," and "The War on New York's Waterfront," New York Times), it's worth raising the issue of creating a formal Marine Extension Program focused on the interior of the country and involving the EPA as well as other government agencies like the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Forest Service, and harvesting best practice programs from around the country (such as the Texas "Major Rivers" children education program, and the Urban River Visions planning initiative of Massachusetts (which is now defunct).

-- Mid-Atlantic Ocean Regional Research Program, Sea Grant program

Besides UDC, units could include DC Water and Sewer Authority, DC Department of Environment,and the Department of Parks and Recreation Urban Agriculture program.

DC Water and DDOE already have some best practice outreach and education programs, including the "Drink Tap" and River Smart Homes programs.

Note that because the Anacostia River is in Maryland too, perhaps UMD cooperative extension and Sea Grant programs could be engaged in the center's activities. Similarly, because DC shares the Potomac River with Virginia, perhaps the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences could be convinced to participate as well.


1.  Create a multifaceted education, conference, exhibit, research and outreach center dedicated to water issues impacting cities and rivers, with the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers and the Chesapeake Bay as the primary focus of study, but with the center mounting programs of regional, national, and international interest.

2.  Various DC government agencies and UDC should create a marine extension program as one of the components of the center.

3.  Move the Anacostia Community Museum, a unit of the Smithsonian Museums, to a location abutting this proposed center.

Labels: , , , ,

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Setting newspapers up for failure: retail real estate lessons for the newspaper industry

Given the importance of newspapers to civic life ("Dead Newspapers and Citizens’ Civic Engagement", Political Communications Journal), the fact that Tribune Broadcasting and Digital First Media are screwing their newspapers, setting up them for failure, because they are separating the ownership of individual newspapers from their real estate holdings (offices and printing plants) is a concern that trenscends their business circumstances, it's a matter of civic vitality.  

A newspaper having fewer economic resources at its disposal when revenues are precipitously declining increases significantly the risk of failure.

Tribune is spinning off the newspapers, which were the original basis of the company, and provided the revenues that bought the broadcasting properties that are now the lifeblood of the company, but first they kept the ownership of the buildings in which the newspapers are located, are selling some of the properties ("Tribune Publishing puts Chicago Freedom Center space on market," Crain's Chicago Business), and second they dropped a big dividend payment (debt) on the newspapers before letting them go ("Wall Street asset-strips Tribune's newspapers," Columbia Journalism Review).

Actually, the Graham Family did the same thing to the Washington Post when they sold it to Jeff Bezos.  Fortunately, for him it's not a big deal financially.

Digital First Media, which owns some decent newspapers across the country, including the Salt Lake Tribune and the Denver Post, has been selling real estate assets of some of the newspapers and has just put the buildings housing 51 of their newspapers on the market ("Denver Post parent Digital First Media puts 51 buildings up for sale," Denver Business Journal).

The problem is when you don't own your property, as a "retail" business you don't control a significant proportion of your destiny.   A more recent example is how successful restaurants in New York City are being priced out--faced with 500% increases in their rent--once their long term leases have run out ("Union Square Cafe joins other victims of New York City's rising rents," New York Times).  But there are scads and scads of examples, both of businesses being priced out of real estate, or closing down, because the real estate they own is worth more than the business.

One of the elements that destroyed the Mervyns department store chain in California is after Dayton Hudson sold it to a private equity firm, the firm separated the stores from the real estate, making the company extremely vulnerable financially to any substantive change in economic conditions.  The company eventually shut down.  See "How Private Equity Strangled Mervyns" from Bloomberg Businessweek.

Sears and KMart, being run mostly as a real estate play, are still in steep decline ("Sears Cashes Out of Prime Stores," Wall Street Journal; "Sears is trying to spin off or sell anything that has value," Crain's Chicago Business).

Labels: , ,

Monday, August 18, 2014

Policing: escalation versus de-escalation

Guns do kill people/when your primary tool is a gun, people get killed.  For years I've been "surprised" when people express outrage when a mental illness distress call is made to the police, and the incident ends with the person being killed by the police.

Police officers tend to have a limited tool set, a gun being the primary tool.

The increased militarization of police departments, with SWAT teams used to execute warrants for low-level crimes, armored vehicles, etc., reiterates that too often, the primary tools that police officers have--at least in the US--are violent.

Broken windows theory.  There has been controversy lately over "broken windows" theoretical approaches to policing because of the stop and frisk case in NYC as well as the recent death of a person arrested for illegally selling cigarettes, who died in custody ("NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio walks thin blue line in chokehold aftermath," Christian Science Monitor).

WRT "broken windows theory," there are two elements.  One is the general idea of order maintenance and management in communities ("Broken Windows," Atlantic Monthly, 1982).

In my personal experience, living in places that had been reasonably tough (if you call living a few blocks from a major crack distribution area "tough") the broken windows theory--that if you don't maintain order by for example, fixing broken windows, removing abandoned cars, picking up litter, eradicating graffiti, etc., order tends to further decline, including vacant properties being taken over by criminal elements, etc.--is an important, powerful, explanatory, and useful theory that is borne out by practice and observation in the real world.

The other aspect is as a policing technique.  What William Bratton originally figured out is that criminals who commit big crimes tend to commit small crimes too, so if you arrest people for crimes that do matter but are little, such as turnstile jumping on the subway, you catch "big criminals" in the process.   The same goes for going after guns and gun crimes.

Unfortunately, too many police departments think that it means arresting or ticketing any offense, no matter how small, such as taking up two seats on the subway when there is plenty of room but is still against the law, as opposed to when the trains are full.

Take this too far and you break the sense of trust that is necessary between police who exercise "the coercive power of the state" and citizens.

Note that George Kelling, one of the original co-authors of this work, argues that the theory is better termed "problem-oriented policing" and focusing limited personnel on interdicting problems and crimes in specific, directed ways, rather than merely reacting or "being passive."  (Literature review, "Community Oriented and Problem Policing," US Department of Justice)

As crime drops do police officers have less to do?   One of the problems, in cities like New York City, is that as crime drops, police departments need to keep their statistics and action up, so they have more time to focus on minor crimes, but which can backfire, such as with the deaths of people taken into custody.

Ferguson, Missouri.  Sunday's Richmond Times-Dispatch has an editorial, "Today’s top opinion: Law enforcement — the Brown slaying," about the recent tragedy of the shooting of an unarmed 18-year-old, the resulting protests and the police department's response, which has escalated problems.

From the article:
it will require proof of extraordinary circumstances indeed to find the killing justified. Police are supposed to act professionally and with restraint even when ordinary citizens do not. They receive training in how to de-escalate confrontations. Shooting Brown did not, to put it mildly, achieve that end.
I guess I disagree. Police departments don't spend enough time training police officers in de-escalation.

It happens that I was reading an old National Georgraphic (June 2009) and it reported on research in the UK about "embedding" police officers in crowd situations, especially soccer games, to reduce the likelihoood of violence.

From the article:
Actually, "crowd control" is the wrong phrase. ...  Rather than focus on cowing a crowd, officers look at its members.  If a person acts criminally, the cops step in.  They also encourage organizers to monitor their events.  "We are nervous every time." ... But the approach is promising. 
Clifford Stott ... studies soccer riots.  His conclusion?  If officers are embedded in a crowd they aren't seen as a threat and can quietly nab hooligans.
This FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin article, "Crowd Management: Adopting a New Paradigm," covers the same work (image above from this article).

Granted it won't work when the police department is so different and disconnected from the demographics of the community it is policing, when various elements (like Bay area anarchists) are focused on fomenting violence, and when the police department adopts militaristic techniques ("Ferguson and the Shocking Nature of US Police Militarization," US News).

Conclusion.  There needs to be an upgrade of requirements on police departments in terms of training, especially in de-escalation, for both crowds and individual acts, and de-militarization (see the book Rise of the Warrior Cop, Wall Street Journal article by the author).

States are in the position to be able to regulate the operation of police departments.  However, the herocization of police officers, demonization of the poor, and the power of police unions in political campaign financing at the state and local level will make this difficult.

Labels: , , , , ,