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.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Reprinting with a slight update, "Arts, culture districts and revitalization" from 2009

"Arts, culture districts, and revitalization" is a reprint of a talk I gave at a national conference for the theater sector.  But copying it from a Word document yielded weird formatting that I could never seem to fix.  Plus, last year, I updated it slightly, adding one point ("Revisiting stories: cultural planning and the need for arts-based community development corporations as real estate operators").

Given that in an email back and forth I mentioned John Montgomery's paper, "Cultural Quarters as Mechanisms for Urban Regeneration. Part 1: Conceptualising Cultural Quarters," Saturday there was a "Made in DC" creative conference that I didn't know about and that the draft DC Cultural Plan has been moribund since last year's February 28th due date for comments, it's worth reprinting with the update.

First published July 21st, 2009

My basic point is that real estate development interests have their own interests apart from artists, and that artists and arts organizations need to be conscious of what those interests are, harvest what they can from them, but never stop representing their own interests first and foremost.

I am really sorry that I didn't come across this image before the talk.
Hewitt & Jordan - The Economic Function.jpg
The Economic Function, Billboard text at the corner of Corporation Street & Alma Street, Sheffield S3. 6 April - 20 April 2004. The work 'The economic function of public art is to increase the value of private property' sets out to question the function of art in the public realm within the economic regeneration of post industrial cities. The image will accompany a text in a journal by Public Art Forum to be published later this year. This work is the second part of a commission for Public Art Forum by Hewitt & Jordan.

There is some great academic writing on this issue. The sad thing is that it doesn't percolate down and get read by many people in the arts and revitalization field, although there are a number of papers published by the Social Impact of the Arts Project at Penn, some in association with The Reinvestment Fund, that discuss the issues and have a number of great citations to writings from academic journals.

-- Cultivating “Natural” Cultural Districts
-- Culture and Urban Revitalization: A Harvest Document
-- Creativity and Neighborhood Development: Strategies for Community Investment

Although there wasn't time to discuss the issues in great detail--we could have done an entire conference on the topic of "Theatre and Urban Renewal"--as a planner I did have some key points. This is the bulk of the paper (not all of it), but I spoke extemporaneously.

The intro was brief and didn't discuss the specifics of revitalization much at all. Note also that while arts and community building is important, and important to many people, it's not what I am personally interested in, and it is something different from economic revitalization.

This weekend we went to Artscape in Baltimore and the Station North Arts and Entertainment District there is a classic illustration of Montgomery's paper (below) as well as just about anything ever written by Jane Jacobs, in particular her point that vibrant cities need "a large stock of old buildings" because they have low running costs and therefore low rents and are available at low cost to support innovation and creative efforts.

For a long time, the area north of Penn Station and anchored by the Charles Theater complex was still pretty much bombed out... Now it might not show well, but it is amazing how it is starting to "fill in" between the cultural anchor of the Loads of Fun building at Howard Street and North Avenue and the Charles Theater. In between, along Charles Street and on North Avenue between Howard and Charles there are many "new" spaces that function as bar-restaurant and venues, a live music venue/bookstore, many independent and very small theater companies, of course bars and taverns.
This was part of the introduction to the paper, and the contrast between Baltimore and DC illustrates the points to a t...

Lacking the large stock of old buildings[1] that comes from having a manufacturing base which is the basis of bottom-up conditions that support artistic endeavors elsewhere, Washington DC is a textbook example of complications that arise from translating theory into on-the-ground reality, in a place where large and national-global arts institutions (Smithsonian Institution, Kennedy Center) dominate the cultural landscape, making it difficult to develop a thriving local arts scene.

Remembering that the impetus for developing an “arts district” tends to be driven by a desire to enhance real estate values
, too often questions around how we develop, support and strengthen artists, creative organizations, artistic disciplines, and the creative economy are glossed over or under-considered throughout the various stages of the process of creating, developing and managing “arts districts.”

A big problem for artists is that the role of art and artists, their importance and relevance, may be secondary to institutional or real estate interests. This conflict is illustrated by the State of Maryland’s program of designated arts districts. Some are very much focused on entertainment and tourism, while others are more focused on building multi-faceted cultural production centers and contributing in significant ways to the development and furtherance of artistic practice.

Artist Mode of Production

Sharon Zukin in her study of SoHo in New York City[2], wrote about the “artist mode of production" where the arts and artists are used to convert (reproduce) low value (often abandoned industrial) property into high value commercial and residential property, and get displaced/priced out in the process.

The displacement effect is most likely to occur in places like DC and New York City, which are high value real estate markets.

In weak market cities like Pittsburgh or Baltimore, displacement is less of an issue because there are plenty of abandoned or underutilized low cost buildings available—although artists have other things to worry about—finding support and audiences, and remaining relevant are issues that matter to all of us, regardless of the size of our community or the strength of the real estate market, and especially the state of the economy.

Observations and Experiences in DC

DC has a successful local arts scene. The City of Washington spends millions of dollars supporting arts venues and organizations. At the same time, there is a high rate of organizational failure, and the ability to develop a wide and deep arts scene from the ground up is very difficult. Because the city’s identity is wrapped up in the story of the founding of the United States, it can be difficult to define and develop the local arts agenda separately from supporting large institutions [which are mostly national institutions controlled by the federal government such as the National Gallery of Art and the Smithsonian Institution], “National Myth” and what we might call “dead artists.” This comes at the expense of living artists, innovation, and the creation of new organizations.

Some of the things I have learned or am still trying to figure out, from working on urban revitalization in DC derive from the lack of a fully developed cultural infrastructure in the city [operating at the local scale]:

1. How communities support the development, maintenance, and type of cultural facilities and organizations matters. DC is ad-hoc. And the system generally is focused on supporting arts organizations, especially large institutions, not artists.

2. Arts organizations must represent their own interests but at the same time must look outwards towards best practices and bring that knowledge home. How can arts organizations ward off displacement as neighborhoods and districts improve?

3. There need to be more anchor organizations focused on supporting and developing artists, disciplines, and the creative impulse.

4. We need to leverage the power of the (creative) network.

5. At the same time how do cities protect their investments in arts organizations and facilities if problems occur with the owner-tenant-organization, and the municipality has invested in the organization and/or facilities?

6. How is the creative impulse, the ability of art and artists to challenge the status quo supported, not compromised? [Note this is still a problem, last year the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities put out an artist call that forbade substantive criticism in art, although it was later rescinded. See "After outcry, D.C. commission backs down on censoring art," Washington Post].

7. Individual theaters compete against each other any one night, but the focus should be on generating audiences and repeat business -- people willing to come to a downtown or urban location need to be shared amongst the facilities, and that audience needs to be nurtured and expanded.

8. Community building [and arts education] is important but it isn’t economic revitalization.

Towards a Framework for Understanding Cultural Infrastructure

As a planner, I believe in plans and comprehensive frameworks, and believe that we can move forward by coming up with more complete ways of conceptualizing and addressing these issues.

Artists and organizations need plans and frameworks (both general and discipline specific) for understanding how the systems of cultural production and cultural consumption are conducted and to ensure that the right infrastructure is in place to support the creative impulse, arts production, and sustainable arts initiatives.

Cultural infrastructure is both hard and soft. The academic literature has tended to not differentiate between hard and soft infrastructure, but instead focuses on the definition of types of facilities, focusing on differences in type of space and programming. Instead, I argue that cultural infrastructure is comprised of at least five elements:
  • Artists
  • Place
  • Space and facilities
  • Cultural organizations and support networks
  • Cultural-creative businesses;
and we should differentiate between hard (buildings/the physical), squishy (organizations) and soft (people) infrastructure. These five elements—artists, place, space, organizations, and businesses—are the components of cultural clusters or cultural quarters.

Organizational failures should be seen as indicators of problems within the subsystems of cultural infrastructure

Furthermore, I would argue that failures, when they occur within the network of artists, arts organizations, facilities, and businesses, are indicators of weakness in one or more of these elements of cultural infrastructure.

-- "Cultural resources planning in DC: In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king," 2007

Instead of focusing on individual failures, although we grant that this often is an issue, we prefer to look at problems as part of the greater whole.

Cultural quarters/clusters

John Montgomery[3] discusses in great detail the necessary conditions and the factors that support the development of balanced cultural districts. A balanced district is a place for cultural production (making objects, goods, products, and providing services) as well as cultural consumption (people going to shows, visiting venues and galleries).

A cluster is a grouping of industries linked together through customer, supplier and other relationships enhancing competitive advantage. Over time the network of suppliers and organizations builds as organizations work together, and new businesses are created. Competitive clusters are characterized by organizations that are active in both local and non-local markets, and constant improvement and innovation. Montgomery calls this a production–distribution–consumption value chain.

Characteristics of cultural quarters
(from Montgomery [2003] -- slightly revised and reordered)

1. Cultural venues at a variety of scales, including small and medium.
2. Availability of workspaces for artists and low-cost cultural producers.
3. Small-firm economic development in the cultural sectors.
4. Managed workspaces for office and studio users.
5. Location of arts development agencies and companies.
6. Arts and media training and education.
7. Art in the environment.
8. Community arts development initiatives.
9. Stable arts funding.
10. Identity, image development, branding and marketing support
11. Complementary day-time uses.
12. Complementary evening uses.

Six* things artists and arts organizations must do to represent their interests

(The original piece had five elements, this updates the list with the addition of the creation of an arts-focused community development corporation to buy, develop, and hold property.)

If we can agree that the characteristics enumerated above are the kinds of elements of a creative community that we want to achieve within our cities and sub-districts, then we have to figure out what pieces of the cultural infrastructure are missing within our communities and/or the arts and cultural districts and how to bring them about. There are many things that need to be done, but in the interest of time I will list the six that are most important.

The new list should be:

1. Create an arts-focused community development corporation to buy, hold, and develop arts properties operating at the scale of the city.
The biggest problem is that DC is a hyper strong real estate market with various conditions that make reproduction of space for higher priced uses inexorable.

While many efforts are focused on short term uses, the reality is that the local arts ecosystem requires a portfolio of permanently affordable space in order to thrive and maintain itself.  Therefore, a mechanism for acquiring and holding arts-related spaces and facilities is required.

The best way to do this is through an arts-focused community development corporation. There are at least three such types. First, the multi-property large-scale initiatives of organizations such as the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, Playhouse Square Foundation (Cleveland), the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and SEMAEST in Paris (the latter is more focused on providing retail spaces to creative endeavors rather than arts facilities).

Second, are multi-faceted cultural districts, usually managed by a coordinating organization comparable to a business improvement district (so over a geography smaller than the city], such as the Station North Arts District in Baltimore, and the aforementioned districts in Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Brooklyn, as well as the Dallas Arts Public Improvement District. The smallish Penn Avenue Arts Initiative in Pittsburgh notably has facilitated the location of significant anchoring institutions such as the Pittsburgh Glass Center, the Kelly Strayhorn Theater, a 350-seat performance space, and the KST Alloy studios, two studio spaces suitable for rehearsals, classes, presentations, etc.

Third are one-off specific projects and facilities such as the Creative Alliance in the Highlandtown Arts District in Baltimore, which is housed in the former Patterson cinema building, various theater restoration efforts, projects by organizations which are members of the Nonprofit Centers Network, etc.

(While focused on the development of affordable artist housing, the Jubilee Housing Corporation of Baltimore is a premier example of a local CDC doing multiple quality artist-focused housing developments.)

-- "How the Arts Drove Pittsburgh's Revitalization," CityLab, on the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust.

2. Create discipline-specific cultural plans (as part of an overarching plan).

Many communities have cultural plans. Usually these are broad documents covering many issues including facilities, funding, disciplines, education, and community building. Some cities may have sub-plans within their cultural plan for facilities or public art. Seattle and Chicago are discussing the creation of framework plans to support the music industry within their communities.

But it appears that no city has developed what we might call a “theater plan.” Not New York City, where Broadway is central to the city’s identity and to tourism and where the theater industry is a key component of the region’s creative industry. Not Chicago, which is known for the most thriving theater scene between the coasts, ranging from neighborhood and repertory productions to “national” plays and musicals at Downtown theaters. The plans must be multifaceted, and address the needs of artists and cultural organizations, not just the economic or community building concerns of various constituencies. And, the plans must focus on matters concerning cultural production equally with the promotion of cultural consumption, arts-oriented tourism, etc.

Write a theater plan for your community.

[Examples to reference: Hamburg ["Tarzan' and 'Lion King' Make Hamburg a Theater City," New York Times]; Chicago; New York City; Branson, Missouri, although with a very specific family-friendly positioning.]

3. Come up with a sustainable cultural facilities plan serving the community, artists, and specific disciplines.

Part of your theater plan should include a sub-plan on facilities. Communities should develop holistic facilities plans that maximize use and revenues, and reduce overall costs, especially the demand for rent, so that arts organizations can achieve a relatively sustainable cost basis.

Washington, DC and nearby Arlington County in Virginia have two very different methods for supporting arts organizations. Arlington prefers to support a wide variety of organizations, and chooses to develop government-owned or controlled space in ways that support cultural initiatives in addition to other objectives. The County provides space (at low or no cost), access to a shared costume shop, and the use of a costume library to many theater organizations. The county has developed some facilities, including the Shirlington Library, which includes the Signature Theatre Company, and the Thomas Jefferson Middle School, which contains a large auditorium supporting a resident theater company and other productions, in ways that most communities do not. Arlington calls this approach their “Arts Incubator.”[4]

DC provides money to organizations for the acquisition or rehabilitation of facilities, but not in the context of a broader cultural plan focused on consensus priorities. In the past few years, many of the organizations that have received this support, including the Source Theater and the Lincoln Theater, have either ceased operations or have been pushed to the brink of financial solvency. In the broader cultural program, certain arts anchors have been pushed out of the city in favor of the baseball stadium, while other organizations, depending on their relationship with the Executive or Legislative Branches of Government, enjoy preferential earmarks. These grants are made without regard to a vetted set of priorities or through an open and competitive grant process.

4. Create anchoring institutions for the arts generally and disciplines specifically.

Artists, advocates, and organizations need to build their capacity to plan, organize, develop, and execute. Markusen and Johnson[5] found that the arts best contribute to regional economic and social development when there are “dedicated centers where artists can learn, network, get and give feedback, exhibit, perform, and share space and equipment.“

In their paper on creative infrastructure[6], the Creative City Network of Canada outlines six types of creative space, and four of the six: multi-use hubs; incubators; multi-sector convergence projects; and production habitats; are anchors, a set of either cross-disciplinary or discipline-specific facilities and programs that support the development of art, artists, partnerships, networking, connections, and cultural production.

Building the capacity of artists and organizations through these types of investment supports local economic and community building objectives, and improves the likelihood of success for all types of cultural initiatives. There are many examples of these types of facilities across North America (just not in DC) that serve as examples that you can consider for your own communities.

5. Networking with other disciplines to represent cultural interests at the scale of the community.

In addition to artistic centers and anchors—support and capacity development entities—arts organizations need to engage in some rethinking about how to work together to develop the arts community as a component of the community’s cultural infrastructure and as a force to represent artists and artist organizational interests in land use, capital investment, public finance, cultural, tourism, education, and other local policy matters, along with fundraising.

[Note: because this was focused on one discipline, I didn't mention overarching fundraising mechanisms. A number of communities have philanthropic initiatives that are quite interesting, especially Cincinnati. See "Funding arts and culture: ArtsWave, Cincinnati, 2018."]

6. Sharing Audiences between and across organizations

Another matter to consider is whether or not organizations can share and maximize the value of audiences within your community. Years ago I applied for a job at the Warner Theater, not knowing at the time it was owned by the big entertainment venue firm Live Nation. The Warner is one block from the National Theatre. In my cover letter, I made the point that while the theaters compete against each other at one level on any given night, at another level they share audiences amongst people willing to come Downtown to consume cultural events. (This was when going Downtown was seen as a risky adventure, when DC's reputation was somewhat unseemly.)

And that they need to do co-marketing and joint audience development. What best practice examples of arts marketing and membership can be adapted to your community, both for individual organizations as well as to build the success and identity of the theater community as a whole? Urban revitalization focuses on neighborhood improvement, usually through real estate-based strategies. Arts and culture strategies are particularly useful methods for reinvigorating otherwise ignored or abandoned places. But supporting and developing a place doesn’t always mean the support of arts, culture, artists, and the creative impulse in the manner that artists may prefer.

If we are to create balanced cultural quarters where new work is created, culture is maintained and developed, and the economy grows by reaping the value of production through the consumption of work in theaters, galleries, concert facilities and other venues, then artists and arts organizations are going to have to step up and better represent their interests in the context of a complicated economic, political, social, and creative environment.

By focusing on building a robust network of hard and soft cultural infrastructure, anchoring institutions and networking systems, in part through the development and implementation of discipline-specific culture and facilities plans, the theater community will be better placed to represent its financial and creative interests within the framework of broader community cultural planning.


[1] In Death and Life of the Great American City(1961), Jane Jacobs wrote that successful cities have four characteristics: density (which supports diversity); mixed uses; permeable spaces; and a large stock of old buildings to support innovative new uses.

[2] Zukin, Sharon. Loft Living: Culture and Capital in Urban Change. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982

[3] Montgomery, J. “Cultural Quarters as Mechanisms for Urban Regeneration. Part 1: Conceptualising Cultural Quarter.” Planning, Practice & Research, Vol. 18, No. 4, pp. 293–306, November 2003

[4] Arts Incubator, Government Innovators Network, Harvard School of Government

[5] Artists’ Centers: Evolution and Impact on Careers, Neighborhoods and Economies. Project on Regional and Industrial Economics, Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota, February, 2006.

[6] Cultural Infrastructure: An Integral Component of Canadian Communities. Online document, 2009. Creative City Network of Canada,

Other relevant entries

Cultural quarters and innovation districts

-- discussion on the Arabianranta district within "Helsinki as an example of creative industries driving urban revitalization programs," Europe in Baltimore, 2013
-- discussion on the Liverpool Knowledge Quarter within "Liverpool regeneration as a process for regaining relevance at the regional, national, and global scales," Europe in Baltimore, 2014
-- "Naturally occurring innovation districts | Technology districts and the tech sector," 2014

CDCs and owning culture-related property

-- "The Howard and Lincoln Theatres: run them like the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust/Playhouse Square Cleveland model," 2012
-- "BTMFBA: the best way to ward off artist or retail displacement is to buy the building," 2016
-- "When BTMFBA isn't enough: keeping civic assets public through cy pres review," 2016
-- "BTMFBA revisited: nonprofits and facilities planning and acquisition," 2016
-- "BTMFBA: Artists and Los Angeles," 2017

Important elements often missed in creating city/county culture plans

-- "Should community culture master plans include elements on higher education arts programs?," 2016
-- "The song remains the same: DC's continued failures in cultural planning as evidenced by failures with Bohemian Caverns, Howard Theatre, Union Arts, Takoma Theatre...," 2016
-- "The tension between monetizing public space and placemaking | rethinking how neighborhoods are supported by local governments," 2018
-- "Leveraging music for cultural and economic development: part one, opera," 2017
-- "Leveraging music as cultural heritage for economic development: part two, popular music," 2017

Transformational Projects Action Planning

-- "Why can't the "Bilbao Effect" be reproduced? | Bilbao as an example of Transformational Projects Action Planning," 2017
-- "Downtown Edmonton cultural facilities development as an example of "Transformational Projects Action Planning," 2018

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EU's best practice capitals for 2019 (are a model for the US/North American best practice promotion)

When I was writing a series of articles for a project in Baltimore by the Washington Chapter of the European Union National Institutes of Culture (archived here) I was struck by what the focus of the European Commission on the creation and codification of best practice knowledge through the creation of adoption networks, in part focused on strengthening economically weaker sections of the Union.

A major element is the mounting of annual "European Capital of ____" programs to highlight best practice in particular communities, as a way to demonstrate a better way forward to other cities and countries.

Capitals of Culture.  The first major program was the Capital of Culture program, which highlights two cities each year, one tends to be a larger city from a OECD country and one tends to be a smaller city from a non-OECD country, although at times nonmember countries in the EU orbit may be selected, such as Istanbul, Turkey in 2010.

The 2019 Capitals are Matera, Italy and Plovdiv, Bulgaria.

Green Capital.  The EU extended this concept to the environment, by creating the Green Capital program.  The first city so designated, was Stockholm in 2008.  Other cities have included Hamburg and Essen in Germany, Copenhagen, Denmark, and Bristol, UK.

The 2019 European Green Capital is Oslo, Norway.

They have quite a line up of events related to it, including the Urban Future Global Conference, Nordic Electric Vehicle Summit, Oslo Innovation Week, Nordic Biogas Conference, World Green Infrastructure Congress, and the IFLA World Congress for landscape architecture.

Youth Capital.  The Youth Capital program is sponsored by the European Youth Forum and is "designed to empower young people, boost youth participation and strengthen European identity." The first city designated was Rotterdam, in 2009. The 2019 capital is Novi Sad, Serbia.

Separate national initiatives by European states

Germany's International Building Exhibition.  The Internationale Bauausstellung is a unique German event that usually takes place over a decade including planning, project realization, and the expo showing off specific projects, modelling large scale urban and environmental revitalization.

The most recent event was in Hamburg, in 2013, and while many future scheduled events are underway, the next public expositions are scheduled for 2020.  For the first time, these events will be held outside of Germany, in Basel, Switzerland and Parkstad, Netherlands.

-- "The contemporary International Building Exhibition (IBA) : innovative regeneration strategies in Germany," Alice Shay, MIT thesis
-- "The German Internationale Bauausstellung (IBA) and Urban Regeneration: Lessons from the IBA Emscher Park," book chapter by Philip Pinch and Neil Adams, London South Bank University

German Garden Festival.  One of the things I missed in my article series was another German expo, the Internationale Gartenbauausstellung (IGA), Germany's International Horticultural Exhibition. Like IBA it is not an annual event. Technically, it's supposed to be mounted every ten years, although that hasn't been the case exactly over the last 20 years. The most recent event was in Berlin in 2017, and the next scheduled IGA is in the Ruhr Valley, in 2027.  The exhibitions feature gardens, landscape architecture projects, horticulture and plant breeding, gardening equipment, and park and garden furniture.  The 2013 event in Hamburg was coordinated with IBA, but that type of congruence was atypical.
Postcard for the International Garden Festival, Erfurt, Germany (Internationale Gartenbauausstellung)

Britain "City of Culture" program. Separately, adopting the European Capital of Culture model, the UK has created the City of Culture program to put a shine on various cities and their culture programs with the aim of promoting tourism and arts-based revitalization ("How to become the next UK City of Culture," Hatch Regeneris).

This program runs every four years, and with Coventry the designee in 2021.

Global programs: World Design Capital program.  Separately, the World Design Organization designates a World Design Capital every two years.  Last year it was Mexico City and next year it will be Lille, France.  Helsinki was World Design Capital in 2012.

The US and/or North America should adopt the EU "Capital" model as a way to demonstrate best practice in culture, the environment, youth affairs, and community revitalization.  In my sum up piece about what I learned, I fulsomely listed lessons for the EU, Baltimore, and the US, with the recommendation that the US should do something similar.

Although now, in a spirit of hemispherical cooperation, something sorely missing from the Trump Administration at present, it would better to extend the invitation to participate to Canada and Mexico as well.

From the piece:

European revitalization and cultural development lessons that the United States/Federal Government should consider for adoption

The biggest lesson for me from this writing project has to do with recognizing the vast scale and opportunity to learn from the knowledge and best practice innovation systems operated by the European Union/European Commission, and whose programs are not necessarily limited to nations that are members of the EU so long as they are in Europe and/or part of the EU’s strategic interests.

The US, especially our higher education institutions and many federal government agencies, generates plenty of knowledge, reports, and information, but our systems and networks for integrating this knowledge into transformational practice are much less well developed, so the success rate and time line for innovation diffusion is much more labored.  The EU and various pan-European initiatives actively develop communities of practice while in the US comparable efforts tend to be more parochial, one-off events.

While the Federal Government has various cultural and economic development promotion programs delivered via various agencies ranging from the National Endowment of the Arts “Creative Placemaking” program to the “Promise Neighborhoods” initiative by multiple agencies spearheaded by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, as well as various smart growth initiatives, especially those involving the Environmental Protection Agency, and transportation programs under the US Department of Transportation*, no program in the United States operates at the city level with the same level of “audacity” of Germany’s International Building Exhibition (IBA), where a multi-year program culminates in a variety of physical transformation projects that change the built and natural environment in a wide variety of ways that are truly remarkable–the Emscher Landscape Park project in the Ruhr region of Germany is
(* This was written during the Obama Administration. The Trump Administration has dropped most of these initiatives)

Imagine promotion of US revitalization financing and planning programs partly by having demonstration projects comparable to the massive scale of IBA, rather than the small scale efforts that are more typical and take decades to begin to see critical mass improvements.

That would be far better than undertaking large scale demolition programs, as Detroit is planning to do, which will end up with the demolition of at least 10% of that city’s already dwindling building stock (“Blight Cleanup Will Cost a Bankrupt Detroit $850 Million,” New York Times) just to end up with empty land.

By contrast, about €2 billion of public and private investment will be spent on IBA Hamburg, on physical improvements to the the communities within the project area over the period of 2006-2020, when the entire program is expected to be completed–even though the exhibition year of the program was limited to 2013, when a majority of the projects were completed and on display.

(Yes, we have the legacy of failure in the 1950s-1980s era urban renewal program, but a program like IBA is focused on innovation, transformation, and doing and is much more participative and engaged than traditional top-down revitalization programs that typify various city efforts today or in the past.)

The European Capital of Culture program is also a great model, where, with the support of national and state-regional governments, city revitalization efforts and the development and realization of a wide range of new cultural and physical infrastructure are fostered and accelerated.

Cities like Liverpool have had tremendous success in leveraging these events to rebrand and reposition and expand their tourism promotion efforts on a multifold basis.

 The US could do a similar program, just as the UK is doing with its new City of Culture program, with separate tranches for large cities and smaller towns and rural areas. In some respects, the “heritage areas” programs at the state and national level do some of this, but in the US these programs do not receive the kind of attention and funding accorded to the European Capital of Culture program.

Other Pan-European programs could be adapted to the US as well with the aim of achieving similar impacts, not just for economic development and best practice adoption, but on community building, sustainabilitly, and social inclusion dimensions also. These programs include the European Green Capital and European Youth Capital programs by the EU and the EuroScience Open Forum “Science in the City” festival, although the latter festival appears to have been a one-off event.

These are great models for transforming how the federal, state, and local governments should refocus on innovation diffusion and the development of best practice initiatives and programs that result in fundamental change and improvement in how we address difficult and seemingly intractable urban problems, especially in the face of declining budgets at all levels of government.

The Garden Festival as another model.  Not as part of the EU article series, I wrote a separate piece on garden festivals, which with a more park and open space orientation, are also a method to demonstrate best practice revitalization initiatives ("European Garden Festivals as a model urban planning initiative for Detroit and other US cities").

(Britain did garden festivals in the early 1980s, although they didn't have much long term effect, and so it wasn't relevant to the piece I wrote on Liverpool.)

When I was on the Design Review Committee weighing in on proposals by the finalist design teams for the 11th Street Bridge Park project, I wrote a piece for this blog suggesting that DC could be a pilot site, doing such a program along the Anacostia River ("DC has a big "Garden Festival" opportunity in the Anacostia River").

There are various garden festivals extant across North America such as Buffalo's GardenWalk as well as the developing concept of "garden tourism," but there isn't a nationally-scaled travelling event on the scale of Germany's IGA.

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Friday, January 18, 2019

Poletown, GM, the Archdiocese, etc. and the closure of the Detroit Hamtramack GM plant

Another story I didn't get around to discussing was the November announcement that General Motors will be closing some car plants to rightsize production in the face of reduced sales of cars (as opposed to trucks and SUVs).

It's a surprise to many that with low gas prices (that's why you need higher excise taxes on gasoline) more and more people are buying SUVs and trucks, so plants making cars are redundant.

The reason that this announcement is particularly poignant is because the Poletown neighborhood was wiped out in the early 1980s, because GM wanted to build a plant there.    Hamtramck is a small city enveloped by Detroit that at the time was Polish-majority, hence the name "Poletown."

Immaculate Conception Church.  Historic American Building Survey photo.

The residents fought with the help of organizers (I knew some of them back when I was in college), but the air was kicked out of them when the Catholic Church agreed to sell the various church sites in the district.

- "GM Hamtramck plant closing reopens old Detroit controversy," Detroit Free Press
-- "Thousands lost their homes in epic fight to build GM’s Detroit plant. Now it’s closing," Washington Post

In 1981, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled that the use of eminent domain for this project was legal, although a couple decades later the same Court sheepishly ruled they were in error.

-- "Michigan Legal Milestones: 33. Poletown and Eminent Domain," Michigan Bar Association
-- "Michigan Court Reverses "Poletown" Decision on Eminent Domain," Appraisal Institute

"Poletown Lives" was a documentary made about what happened.  And books and journal articles have been published as well.

-- Lost Poletown webpage, Detroit Historical Society

Houses in Poletown.  Photo from a Detroit Free Press image gallery.

Ironically, GM "needed" the land occupied by the Poletown neighborhood for a parking lot for the workers.  A big one, sure.  But a parking lot. 

If the company had been willing to build a parking garage, they wouldn't have even needed the land and a neighborhood wouldn't have been demolished.

One lesson is that even back then, Detroit had lots of empty land and the company should have been directed to empty land, rather than land that was utilized productively with residences, businesses, even a hospital.

Today, GM announced it's not likely that another vehicle will be assigned to the plant for manufacture ("GM's Barra signals no new vehicles for Detroit Hamtramck, Lordstown," Detroit Free Press).

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Urbanism/community building obituaries: 2018

From the better late than never department...

Each year, the New York Times Magazine runs a special issue featuring obituaries of signature people who died in the past year.  While I have written from time to time about people who've died and their contributions to urbanism, comparable to the NYT feature, I have realized it would be good to do a similar piece for people who who have influenced, positively -- or negatively -- urbanism. I wouldn't claim it's a comprehensive list, but hopefully it's somewhat representative.

These are some of the people and organizations who caught my attention in 2018.

Jose Antonio Abreu, El Sistema, Venezuela ("José Abreu: Founder of world renowned El Sistema music project dies," BBC); Henry Bridges, Jr., Community School of the Arts, Charlotte, North Carolina ("Charlotte church musician who started school for poor kids dies at 90," Charlotte Observer); Robert Capanna, Settlement Music School, Philadelphia ("What really matters in the arts? Bob Capanna remembrance served as a reminder," Philadelphia Inquirer).; In their respective communities, each created successful music-specific community arts initiatives.

Todd Bol, creator of Little Free Libraries ("Todd Bol, founder of Little Free Libraries, dies").
Younkers in Coral Ridge Mall 4-30-18 02
Bon-Ton Department Stores.  The company, an amalgamation of many regional chains including Bon Ton out of York, Pennsylvania, Carsons (formerly Carson, Pirie, Scott) of Chicago, Bergners of Illinois, Herbergers in the Upper Midwest, Younkers of Iowa, and other companies, shut down over the course of the past summer.  More than 200 stores closed.  Although another company bought the brands and other intellectual property and will be reopening some stores. ("Bankrupt Department Store Chain Carson's To Reopen Suburban Store," CBS Chicago ).

Edwin G. Burrows, co-author of Gotham, a history of New York City ("Edwin G. Burrows, Historian and Co-Author of 'Gotham,' Dies at 74," New York Times). I have it on my nightstand, but haven't finished it...

James H. Cone, Black Liberation Theologist ("Why James Cone Was the Most Important Theologian of His Time" Sojourners Magazine).

Hank Dittmar, co-founder of Reconnecting America, a past chairman of the Congress for the New Urbanism, and director of Prince Charles' foundation focusing on higher quality architecture in the UK,  ("Former Prince's Foundation chief Hank Dittmar dies aged 62," Architect's Journal). My one interaction with him was not positive, he was very dismissive, but he did good work...

Farm Fresh Supermarkets, Hampton Roads and Richmond, Virginia. In March, the company sold 21 stores to competitors and began closing their remaining stores.  The company faced problems before and was bought in the late 1990s by its wholesaler, to maintain the store base as a company.  That company was then acquired by Supervalu, a national food wholesaler, which still owned the chain when they decided to shut it down.

General Electric Transportation.  It's not dead exactly but was sold off to Wabtec, which in turn is a remnant of the old Westinghouse Corporation ("GE's latest sale: Its 111-year-old rail business," CNN).

The roots of the  GE Transportation division go back to electric streetcars and the purchase of Sprague Electric, where Frank Sprague pioneered a variety of technological advances that led to the mass production of electric streetcars and underground subways.  Sadly, once Thomas Edison bought the Sprague assets, he scraped off the Sprague brand and replaced it with his.

The book The Race Underground: Boston, New York, and the Incredible Rivalry That Built America’s First Subway and the PBS "American Experience" documentary based on it discuss Sprague's work.

Jeremy Gold, actuary, "foresaw crisis in public pensions" ("Jeremy Gold, Actuary Who Warned of Pension Crisis, Dies at 75," New York Times).  Unfunded pension liabilities is driving many local governments toward bankruptcy, and funding pensions from past years crowds out spending on other priorities.

Richard N. Goodwin, White House speechwriter and writer, coined the phrase and concept "Great Society" for President Johnson and wrote other key speeches, including on civil rights ("Richard Goodwin, 86, Kennedy speechwriter and husband to Doris Kearns Goodwin," Boston Glober)).

Gump's Department Store, San Francisco.  I've never been there but it was one of the last of the iconic city-specific independent department stores.  (I sent an email to Hall Department Store in Kansas City, suggesting they take it over, but they didn't., clearly.)

Albert Hirsch, historian  ("Arnold Hirsch, influential historian of urban segregation, dies at 69," Washington Post).  From the NYT obituary:
Professor Hirsch’s best-known book, “Making the Second Ghetto: Race and Housing in Chicago, 1940-1960,” published in 1983, began as an inquiry into the causes of the urban riots that racked American cities in the late 1960s, including the disturbances that followed the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Unlike the Kerner Commission and other bodies that focused on the proximate causes of the civil unrest, Professor Hirsch focused on the period immediately after the Great Depression and, in particular, the two decades following World War II. In that period, millions of AfricanAmericans moved from the South to the North in a second Great Migration as transformative as the earlier one, which lasted from 1890 to 1930.

Most ended up in hypersegregated neighborhoods, often in cheaply constructed and poorly maintained public housing that, in the 1970s, would become emblems of urban decay and malaise.

Segregation, Professor Hirsch found, was not a natural process, or the mere outcome of individual prejudice and choices, but was rooted in institutional interests, including profitseeking.
Love Sculpture by Robert Indiana in John F. Kennedy Plaza, Philadelphia.  Photo by Alec Rogers for the Association of Public Art.

Robert Indiana, artist-sculptor, known for large sculptures that became icons of public art, in particular the LOVE sculpture first installed in Philadelphia, and then elsewhere ("Robert Indiana, Pop Purveyor of Love, Hope, and American Darkness dies at 89," ArtNews).

The installation of his works in cities across the country brought renewed attention to public art as an element of urban design and placemaking.

George S. Kaufman, real estate developer, Astoria Studios, Queens, New York ("George S. Kaufman, Who Revived Astoria Studios, Dies at 89," New York Times). The studio complex in Astoria was the original unit of the company that became Paramount Studios and was brought back to life after decades of decline and besides supporting television and movie production work is also home to the Museum of the Moving Image.  It also spurred revitalization in the nearby residential and commercial districts.

He was the first chair of the business improvement district in the Garment District in Manhattan and helped to found the Sinatra High School of the Arts in Queens.

Charles Lazarus, Toys R Us.  Ironically, the toy store Toys R Us went bankrupt and shut down in  he US less than one year before the main person behind the company also died.  Lazarus had worked for the parent company, which owned discount department stores.  The parent went bankrupt but they realized there was a viable business in Toys R Us, which they rapidly expanded.

But the company's stores were suburban for the most part, except when they bought the iconic NYC store FAO Schwarz, which among its stores, was the landmark store on Fifth Avenue, and featured in a scene of the Tom Hanks movie "Big."

Getty Images.

Jane Maas, advertising, executed the "I Love New York" campaign which was a transcendent branding and marketing campaign for the State of New York, originally aimed to increase demand at Upstate ski resorts, which became a model for other city and state tourism marketing programs ("Jane Maas, a Pioneer for Women in Advertising, Dies at 86," New York Times).

William Murtagh, historic preservationist and first Keeper of the National Register for Historic Places ("William J. Murtagh, 'pied piper' of American historic preservation, dies" Washington Post). The NRHP was created as part of the National Historic Preservation Act, passed in 1966. Listed buildings, districts, and sites have some protection from federal undertakings and are eligible for federal historic tax credits for rehabilitation projects.

Oramenta Newsome, director of the DC branch of the Local Initiative Support Corporation ("Oramenta Newsome of LISC dies," Washington Business Journal).  LISC is an organization that was created to support community development organizations.  Each branch operates somewhat independently.  Some are great, others are not.  I thought the DC branch enabled bad work. ("The community development approach and the revitalization of DC's H Street corridor: congruent or oppositional approaches?," 2013).

J. Paul's Restaurant, Georgetown, Washington, DC.  (I worked there.)  It was a very successful restaurant on M Street NW for a long time, known for a oyster bar in the window.  I think it's interesting because the company, Capital Restaurant Concepts, had more than a dozen restaurants, clustered in Georgetown, Reston, and Baltimore, plus Georgia Brown's Downtown.  Now they are down to one, Georgia Brown's.

It shows how management is important.  (One of the leaders of the Clyde's Restaurant Group died in early January.  His company is going strong with $135 million in annual sales over 13 restaurants.) 

Lee Harris Pomeroy, architect, New York City ("Lee Harris Pomeroy, 85, Dies; Architect Revived Subway Stations," New York Times). From the AIANY obituary:
Lee’s early interest in urban planning influenced his work throughout his career. One of his early adaptive reuse projects, the Henry Street Studios in Brooklyn, involved the conversion of a 19th-century candy factory into studios and housing units for working artists. When the demolition of historic Broadway theaters was proposed to make room for a new Marriott Hotel in Times Square, Lee worked with preservation groups, eventually helping to draft the plan to establish the Historic Broadway Theater District. Lee’s plan for Fulton Street Pedestrian Mall and Transitway in downtown Brooklyn won the Bard Award for Excellence in Architecture and Urban Design from The City Club of New York.
-- LHP Architects webpage (click on subpages for discussion on transportation, planning, and historic preservation projects)

A house in the Concord Green subdivision in Bloomfield Township, Michigan, which was the first subdivision built by William Pulte.

William J. Pulte, mass homebuilder and leader in spreading post-war suburbanization ("Funeral arrangements set for PulteGroup founder," Detroit News).

Along with William Levitt and Kaufman and (Eli) Broad, Pulte Corporation was a builder of subdivisions in many leading markets across the country.  Both Pulte and Kaufman and Broad started in Michigan, but spread out across the country, in lockstep with post-war outmigration and the growth of the American economy.

Dovey Roundtree, attorney ("Dovey Johnson Roundtree, defense lawyer and civil rights warrior," Washington Post). She argued the first (and only) bus desegregation case before the Interstate Commerce Commission, which held that "separate but equal" accommodations were unconstitutional.

Her 1955 victory before the Interstate Commerce Commission in the first bus desegregation case to be brought before the ICC resulted in the only explicit repudiation of the "separate but equal" doctrine in the field of interstate bus transportation by a court  

-- Sarah Keys v. Carolina Coach Company (64 MCC 769 (1955)

Robert S. Rubin, banker, helped to create Brooklyn Heights Historic District, was chair of the Brooklyn Museum when Mayor Giuliani demanded the museum remove an artwork that he termed "pornographic and anti-Catholic."  Rubin stood up to the Mayor and defended artistic expression.

He also was a co-founder of St. Ann's School and a leader in the effort to create new parks on the Brooklyn waterfront ("Robert S. Rubin, Banker Who Defended Brooklyn Museum, Dies at 86," New York Times).
In a letter to the New York Times in 1961, he wrote that the homeowners who had first been attracted there were "among those who feel that a nation or a city too hurried or careless to take pride in its past can have little hope for a worthwhile future."
Alan Sagner, revitalized the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey ("Alan Sagner, Who Revitalized the Port Authority, Dies at 97," New York Times). Although as a builder, he helped push sprawl further out into New Jersey, and also helped to build social housing for seniors and the disabled in suburbs that were often opposed.

Russ Solomon, founder of Tower Records, which grew into a chain of mostly great stores in prominent locations in center cities, with late hours, events, and great book and magazine sections too.  Record stores died as a result of the Internet and the shift to digital download and streaming of music.  But record stores, like bookstores, were "third places" and building blocks of thriving commercial districts.

Linda Brown Thompson, the name plaintiff in the Brown v. Board of Education case (which consolidated multiple cases) that led to the Supreme Court ruling in 1954 in favor of school desegregation.  School systems directly part of the case, including DC, had to desegregate effective with the 1954-1955 school year.

Marsha Thompson, arts administrator, helped to create financially sound practices for arts organizations ("Marcia Thompson, Prudent Promoter of the Arts, Dies at 94," New York Times).

Tatsuro Toyoda, spearheaded Toyota's development as a globally significant automobile manufacturer, shifting the US auto market away from being dominated by US-based companies (GM, Ford, Chrysler).

Jonny Walker, Street performer advocating for the rights of buskers, UK
"Renowned busker who campaigned for the rights of street performers," From the article:
... a busy busker who played in more than 50 British towns and cities every year, leading many of his fans in each location to adopt him as their local minstrel. But he was more than just a very good singer and guitar player. As he developed as a street performer he became a leading campaigner for the preservation of street culture in Britain, taking the fight to local councils over the rights of artists, musicians and entertainers to occupy public space and perform.

The son of an Evangelical Anglican vicar, Walker had campaigning in his blood and it was in 2012, in response to new proposals by Liverpool city council to control busking, that he founded the campaign group Keep Streets Live. Later he helped to set up the Association of Street Artists and Performers.

Richard Weinstein, urban planner in NYC (",a href="">Architect and Planner Richard Weinstein passes away at 85," Architect's Newspaper), who later went on to be dean of the architecture and planning school at UCLA. According to the UCLA obituary:
In this role [as director of planning for New York City], Weinstein helped transform the way cities manage development, insisting that public benefit had to be identified as a fundamental principal of zoning variance. He believed that part of the city’s mandate was to preserve and enrich the life of the public and cultural streetscape as the city grew taller with private investment. Refuting the practice of simply granting variances to developers in exchange for increased taxes, these zoning codes became a new and different means of implementing complex planning objectives.ledge of New York’s complex system of air rights facilitated economic self-sufficiency for the city’s landmarks and simultaneously guided development along predetermined channels.
Projects under these principles included retaining historic Broadway theaters, reviving the South Street Seaport, and using revenue from a residential tower to help fund the Museum of Modern Art.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

A brief comment on the connection between newspapers and civic affairs with the offer by a vulture hedge fund to purchase Gannett Newspapers

It's a bit ironic writing a piece in favor of keeping the Gannett Newspaper group intact, because historically they were known for buying newspapers and cutting staff to increase profits.

But in the context of a chained up newspaper sector, they do support enterprise reporting on the part of the various newspapers, for example, the Indianapolis Star did an incredible series on the impact of selling tax liens and losing control of area housing stock to non-local firms, the Sioux Falls Argus-Leader did a great series on the importance of learning to read by the age of nine and the various efforts in local school systems, and the Arizona Republic does great reporting on water issues.

And USA Today, criticized as McPaper, does some important reporting too, ranging from test cheating in the DC Public Schools, to treatment of truck drivers at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, and just recently, a great digital feature on the various security measures deployed along every mile of the US border with Mexico.

-- "The Wall – An in-depth examination"

But I do find troubling the announcement that Alden Global Capital wants to acquire Gannett ("Newsonomics: Let the 2019 Consolidation Games begin! First up: Alden seeks to swallow Gannett," Nieman Media) because the newspapers that the firm acquires have fewer staff and less local reportage afterwards.

In response the Journalist's Resource initiative of the Shorenstein Media Center at the Harvard Kennedy School offers a couple of interesting articles:

-- "Political polarization increases after local newspapers close"
-- "Civic engagement declines when local newspapers shut down"

The Newsonomics post makes the point that Gannett is now in play, regardless of what happens with Alden. Hopefully, it would mean that Gannett and Tribune Newspapers hook up and remain out of the clutches of private equity. Even in their reduced form, the newspapers owned by Gannett and Tribune "show better" than those owned by Alden, which include the Orange County Register, Denver Post, San Jose Mercury News, and the Boston Herald.

Past entries include:

-- "One more blow against community media: Washington Post drops Thursday "county" news special sections," 2017
-- "Voting vs. civic participation | elections vs. governance," 2016
-- "DC's Current Newspapers introduce weekly e-letter," 2013. Note that post-bankruptcy (last year), the Current Newspaper is a pale copy of its previous form, with almost no news, limited editorials, letters to the editor and op-ed, and what was once the city's best community calendar is now significantly shrunken.
-- "The ongoing tragedy of dying print media, the latest being community newspapers in Montgomery and Prince George's Counties, Maryland," 2015
-- "Grassroots communications capability in the city," 2015
-- "Protest as Civic Engagement and the role of the media," 2007

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Monday, January 14, 2019

NBC4 asks if DC can become a concert capital like Nashville, Austin, and New Orleans?

Photo: Destination DC.

-- "Concert Capital: Can DC Become America's Next Big Music Town?"

From the article:
It may be years before D.C. has the reputation of a music city like Austin, Texas, Chicago, Nashville, Tennessee, New Orleans, New York or Los Angeles. Yet the foundation has been laid with a rich history, from the jazz of Duke Ellington to the go-go of Chuck Brown, the R&B of Screamin' Joe Neal to the telecasters of Link Wray, and the punk scene of Dischord Records.

Today, the D.C. music landscape is as vibrant as it has ever been. From big stadium shows to a variety of intimate venues popping up all over town, this buffet of options paints a stark artistic contrast to tired Beltway stereotypes of stuffy lobbyists and pretentious politicians.

"The DMV is exploding with music," Wolf Trap President Arvind Manocha told WTOP.

The creative economy means booming business. Marketing company Destination D.C. said the city saw a record 22.8 million visitors in 2017, spending $7.5 billion and supporting 75,000 jobs. Of the "eclectic cultural travelers" surveyed, 86 percent were interested in "music in nationally known venues," while 68 percent noted "headliner entertainment" as important.
Probably not.

Although technically, I'm arguing a different point, about a being a center for music creation (arts as production) versus being a center for music presentation (arts as consumption).

But it's a fact that Austin, Nashville, and New Orleans, among others are "music cities" because they are a home to performing artists, and there is a creative ecosystem that supports music development and production, as well as venues of all types and sizes to see music performed.

(The same issue of arts as production vs. arts as production is key to understanding DC in terms of the visual arts ecosystem and as a home to working artists.)

Not to mention Austin has its own problems in maintaining its positioning as "live music capital of the US" because (1) there are lots of places that offer music and the audience isn't necessarily growing; (2) the rise in the cost of commercial space means that venues are closing; (3) the reduction in the sales of music through CDs etc. reduces artist income; and (4) the increase in rents and cost to buy a house make it harder for cultural professionals not making a lot of money to afford to live in Austin.

-- "Under threat: Austin's music industry as an element of the city's cultural ecosystem and economy"

And Nashville has its problems, losing many of the original music studios to new development, although housing is still comparatively cheap.

And there have been many issues in New Orleans post-Katrina  

-- "Veteran musicians note changes in New Orleans music scene since Hurricane Katrina," New Orleans Advocate

DC has these same issues.  While it doesn't have tons of venues, it has some, and new ones are being added, which is what has triggered the NBC piece.  The audience isn't necessarily growing and the rising cost of commercial space makes it harder for venues to open and remain open.  Not to mention that the limited amount of Class B and Class C commercial space means that cheap rehearsal and studio space is hard to come by ("Ground up (guerrilla) art #2: community halls and music (among other things)").  And the cost of housing makes it hard for young musicians to come and live in the city and stay here while they develop their chops.

Some other recent articles that are related:

-- "Hip-Hop Museum Preserves Rap Music History in D.C.," Washington Afro-American
-- "The In Series’ Latest Musical Traces A History Of Black Music And Migration On U Street," DCist

and this from a past blog entry, "The song remains the same: DC's continued failures in cultural planning as evidenced by failures with Bohemian Caverns, Howard Theatre, Union Arts, Takoma Theatre..." among others


There is an interesting exhibit, "Twisted Teenage Plot," at American University's Katzen Arts Center on the artist-driven art rock movement in the city in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and how it was facilitated by the availability of cheap studio space in post-riot Washington and supported by various arts institutions (the Phillips, the Corcoran, galleries, arts organizations) that at the time were open and available to new ideas, programs, and ways of doing things, and a tight spatial footprint centered around 7th Street NW, Downtown.

Actually, the exhibit on the art produced by the artist-musicians isn't that exciting, but the collection catalog is excellent, featuring the artists, their stories, and their stories of the scene at the time.

This period is an element of the city's recent music history that has been overshadowed by the city's punk movement, which developed a little later in the mid-1980s.  Had bands like the Urban Verbs made it (albeit in my opinion the music isn't quite at the level of Television, Talking Heads, Velvet Underground, etc.), the story would be more prominently remembered.

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Friday, January 11, 2019

40th anniversary of the local historic preservation law in DC as an opportunity for assessment

The difference between federal and local laws.  One of the things that's often frustrating in talking about historic preservation is the dichotomy between promotion and protection.

By that I mean that people argue that a building or district is protected by being listed on the "National Register of Historic Places," run by the National Park Service/Department of Interior as one of the elements that derived from the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act.

The NHPA was in part a reaction to urban freeways and urban renewal destroying extant places.  The law is only relevant to "federal undertakings" like building a road or transit system, funding urban renewal, etc.

Local actions by a local or state government are not covered, unless funding for the project includes federal funds. Actions by developers and property owners are not covered at all, because they aren't federal undertakings.

To have the most protection, you need local laws. Some states preclude this (for example in the past few years, the Utah Legislature passed laws making it impossible for the City of Salt Lake to create more historic districts), but that's pretty rare.

I've written about this in terms of "remedies," with laws you have remedies or a course of action when buildings are threatened, without remedies you can only hope you will be successful at persuading a property owner to save a building when they've already decided not to.

-- "Preservation advocacy may be more successful when companies are vulnerable to public pressure: Baltimore County vs. Fairfax County, Virginia vs. Robbinsdale, Minnesota," 2016
-- "The real historic preservation lesson from DC's Uptown Theater is about legal protections and remedies, not activism," 2017

Mary's Blue Room, Capitol HillMary's Blue Room was demolished in the early 1970s by the Capitol Hill Baptist Church for a parking lot.  Ironically, about 30 years later, they sold this and adjoining lots for redevelopment as large rowhouses.

DC passed its own law in 1978, which took effect in 1979.  (DC functions as a state as far as historic preservation is concerned.  There are also some other wrinkles with regard to federal properties and Georgetown because of separate federal laws.)

-- Historic Landmark and Historic District Protection Act of 1978, Washington, DC

There were a number of reasons behind the law, but one was the recognition that despite many neighborhoods like Capitol Hill being on "the National Register" there were many instances where buildings or the neighborhood's architectural integrity were threatened by non-federal undertakings.

2019 is the 40th Anniversary of the DC Historic Landmarks Act.  Last Fall, DC Preservation League sponsored a conference, and actually was quite good, when my expectations were low.

At the conference, in response to a point I made, DCPL director Rebecca Miller made an interesting observation, that since 2019 is the 40th anniversary of the local landmarks and preservation law taking effect, it would be worthwhile to do an assessment of the law/state of preservation/gaps in the city.

DC's local preservation law is one of the strongest in the nation.  The reality is that DC's local law is arguably the strongest in the country. The decision to designate a building or historic district is not subject (in normal circumstances--there is a process of judicial review if the property owner continues to object) to extraordinary review or final approval by either the Executive or Legislative Branches. Neither the Executive nor the Legislative Branches has the legal authority to remove the historic designation of a building, site or district.

Non-property owners can submit nominations for buildings they don't own, providing they have standing as a preservation-related group. Religious buildings are not exempt from the law.

That being said, while protections are significant for buildings and districts that are designated, there are virtually zero protections for buildings that aren't designated.

And it is almost impossible to stop an undesignated building from being demolished or altered in significant and damaging ways unless as an individual building (not a contributing structure in a historic district) it meets the criteria for designation..

Safeway asks for a determination that a building is not historic.  On the HistoricWashington e-list, someone sent an email about how the company that owns Safeway and specifically the Safeway on MacArthur Boulevard in the Palisades neighborhood, has submitted a nomination for the building, but asking for a determination that the building isn't worthy of designation, which is "unprecedented".

-- Submission by Safeway for the property at 4865 MacArthur Boulevard, Palisades, DC

That reminded me of the 40th anniversary of the local law and provides the excuse for summarizing my thoughts about the state of historic preservation in the city.

Gaps in DC's historic preservation practice

1. Lack of a systematic and complete inventory of buildings. With regard to this specific point, about the owners of the Safeway in the Palisades seeking a determination that the building isn't a historic resource, in other cities, there has been a more systematic process for inventorying "all buildings" for their potential to be listed as a historic resource, either individually or as a contributing building to a historic district.

Not having such an inventory makes it hard for property owners to determine the potential for historic status of an undesignated building.

That doesn't mean those cities have either completed the inventories, or acted on the recommendations. (In fact, DC doesn't have a process for reacting to a Section 106 review that recommends whether or not properties/districts should be protected as part of a process that is a federal undertaking.)

When I first got involved in preservation in the early 2000s, a couple years into my involvement, there was a scintillating series of articles in the Chicago Tribune, called Squandered Heritage, about the demolition of buildings there that in preliminary city wide inventory processes had been determined to be eligible for designation.

The print sections were pretty amazing. Usually each article had about two full pages on the inside, with many color photographs (these links are text only).

-- "Squandered Heritage Part 1: Search and Destroy"
-- "Squandered Heritage Part 2: Demolition Machine"
-- "Squandered Heritage Part 3: Alternatives"

Book cover, The Future of the Past A CONSERVATION ETHIC FOR ARCHITECTURE, URBANISM, AND HISTORIC PRESERVATION, by Steven Semes2. New construction as decidedly different or as part of the neighborhood as an "ensemble". Professor Stephen Semes, author of The Future of the Past: A Conservation Ethic for Architecture, Urbanism, and Historic Preservation argues that the concept of newly constructed buildings being decidedly new in style--architecture of its time--clashes with the predominate "era of architectural significance" of historic districts--architecture of its place--as an ensemble and that this guidance is damaging to historic districts as intact representations.

From a review of the book in Traditional Building Magazine:
This book rejects the Modernist ideology that is embedded in current preservation philosophy, which has led to government promotion of architecturally dissonant construction in historic places. Instead, Semes argues persuasively that visual wholeness and architectural continuity of historic areas should be the paramount design imperative. In many historic settings, new traditional architecture provides the best route to harmony with existing building fabric, and Semes calls for rethinking preservation policies that have blocked the use of compatibly styled traditional design.
3.  Treat the entire city as a "heritage area" from the standpoint of the design management of the built environment, using the concept of the cultural landscape, so that all buildings would have some basic design review and demolition protections, regardless of whether or not they are listed either individually or as part of an existing historic district.

Otherwise, so many buildings and neighborhoods are unprotected now, and likelihood of protection is slim, e.g., our 1929 bungalow is quite intact, but there is no chance our neighborhood would ever become a historic district, or that a typical building of its type (e.g., bungalow, Craftsman style rowhouse, Italianate frame or rowhouse, Queen Anne rowhouse, etc.) would be able to be designated individually as opposed to being a contributing structure in a neighborhood historic district, except in exceptional circumstances.

In the US, there are two types of heritage areas, either state or federally designated.  I am not arguing that we need to create a formal heritage area in DC.  Rather we can use that framework, that is thinking about the city in its entirety as a cultural landscape, for managing the city's built environment.

Locally, Maryland has a system of state heritage areas, although they have limited additional protections concerning designation and protection and are more focused on tourism development.

4. Lack of architectural integrity means some buildings shouldn't be designated. When I first got involved, I had less tacit knowledge and so the concept of architectural integrity was somewhat elusive to me. The case of a building on H Street made it clearer. The building

 "was old" but while it dated to the 1800s, sometime in the 1930s it had been subjected to an update of its facade as a kind of "Colonial Revival" which until that time didn't have antecedents in DC's history of its built environment. The loss of the building's architectural integrity made it impossible to "save" the building individually in terms of the historic preservation guidelines/regulation because it didn't meet the standards embodied in the decision-making criteria.

5. Are ordinary commercial buildings worthy of protection? While originally I thought it was important to save every building, the reality is that a box of a building, even if dating to the 1920s or earlier, isn't necessarily noteworthy, and the urban planning side of me understands the argument of "sacrificing" such buildings to more intensely developed projects.

This is the primary issue wrt the Safeway in the Palisades.

OTOH, Safeway had a distinctive building type dating to the 1950s and 1960s that was constructed in DC and across country.  But now in DC, buildings of this design are no longer in their portfolio, having been abandoned to other uses or demolished.
Abandoned Safeway store
This store was in Wheaton, Maryland, but is of the same design.

6. Special design review considerations for Avenues (and Circles). The Comprehensive Land Use Plan says that the avenues are special, but there are no special design review or architectural design requirements for these streets, unless a particular portion is part of a historic district. New buildings tend to be designed in ignorance of the qualities of the historic architecture on these streets. This is true too in the sub-ordinary design of new buildings on triangular lots along avenues and circles.

-- "An argument for the aesthetic quality of the ensemble: special design guidelines are required for DC's avenues," 2015
Dupont Circle Aerial
Dupont Circle.

7. The ouevre of an architect or style overall versus the presence of buildings in DC in making a determination of historicity. In terms of both the Mies van der Rohe designed MLK Library and the now no longer extant brutalist Church of Christ Scientist building on 16th Street NW, is it justifiable to say that yes, these buildings are examples of the work of a particular architect or style, but no these particular examples do not rise to the level of being worthy of designation in DC, even though these may be some of or the only examples of this kind in DC?

Martin Luther King Jr. Library, Washington, DC
Martin Luther King Jr. Library, DC.

Seagram Building
Seagram Building, Manhattan, New York City.

In terms of brutalism, this is relevant to the FBI HQ, maybe the HUD HQ, theoretically the Reeves Building, were nominations submitted for those buildings. In any case, Section 106 reviews (the review process under the NHPA concerning "federal undertakings") will happen wrt the FBI and HUD buildings if changes to those sites are proposed.

8. Historic district review committees. In other cities, each historic district tends to a have a review committee, with members meeting criteria for eligibility for membership similar to that of DC's HPRB.

In DC, we don't have a comparable structure. We do have the Advisory Neighborhood Commission structure where various matters are referred as a matter of course, and some neighborhood historic preservation groups, such as Capitol Hill Restoration Society, have standing committees that weigh in on proposed changes to buildings and districts.

This process often doesn't work that well, in part because there is little substantive training made available to nonprofessionals concerning historic preservation. This is a particular problem with ANCs.

I myself took the "Design" training from the Main Street program four times, which helped quite a bit.

HPO publishes a number of fine materials on various relevant topics. CHRS published a bunch of good topic-specific newsletters, many groups have guidelines publications (like Mount Pleasant), and HPO has been producing guidelines documents with each newly created district. And back in the 1970s, DC published guidebooks for the LeDroit Park and Anacostia districts.

But there needs to be a workshop series too, to help people put this all together. Sometimes reading isn't enough...

But besides the need for a training infrastructure, perhaps a more formal historic district review process should be created for each historic district.  It could be done in conjunction with ANCs, but with a knowledge requirement in line with the federal requirements for certification of such bodies as part of the historic preservation review process.

While I don't know for certain, I presume this had been a two-story Italianate style frame building that has been added to in a way that is stylistically inappropriate.  However, there are examples of taller Italianate rowhouse buildings that could have been referenced to make the addition more appropriate in terms of architectural design.

9.  The dilemma of popups.  Popups are the addition of one or more additional stories to a building, usually a rowhouse, that had been originally constructed as a two-story building.  Most efforts are discordant.

On the other hand, there is the property owner interest of adding more space, and the community interest of adding more dwelling units in a market where demand for living in the city greatly exceeds the supply of housing.
Worst popup ever
Rather than ban the process altogether, I do believe it would be possible by the creation of the equivalent of a pattern book ("History of the Pattern Book," City of Roanoke; "The Institution of Residential Investment in Seventeenth-Century London," Business History Review), to generate much higher quality outcomes.

10.  Lack of support for historic preservation in the context of property rights and the ability of the city to grow.  I argue that preservation "saved" DC during the many decades when the city was shrinking in population and residential choice trends did not favor urban living.  Preservationists stabilized neighborhoods and "kept them up" and then starting around 2000, attitudes and preferences changed and an increasingly number of people wanted to live in the city.

But even though preservation saved the city, many people resent the review requirements that it entails, and it has been difficult to create new historic districts in the face of changing federal and local laws and political sentiments.

I also argue that this is more difficult because outside of sustainability arguments, preservation as a movement was more focused on urban stabilization and now that DC (and many other cities) have the opportunity to grow, a somewhat reflexive opposition to change doesn't help position the preservation movement or argument for the 21st century.

11.  People still have a hard time understanding the concept of a neighborhood historic district.  While most people get the idea of saving buildings that are high art or particularly significant in history, like Mount Vernon, George Washington's plantation, or the Empire State Building, they have a hard time understanding "ordinary preservation," specifically residential neighborhoods, because the buildings don't rise to that level of historical importance.

More resources need to be directed to explaining why this type of preservation is important, why buildings are neighborhoods are important historically as a record and as an explanation for particular periods in society in terms of local, regional, national, international, social, economic, and other conditions.

How I got involved in historic preservation.  (1) I appreciated the aesthetic qualities of historic architecture, especially the vernacular architecture typical of DC's rowhouse neighborhoods in the core.

(2) I came to believe that historic preservation tends to be the most successful strategy for improving neighborhoods and cities over long periods of time.

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