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, November 19, 2004

Revitalization Lessons from comparing Philadelphia and Washington, DC

This is something I wrote last year. It lays down some of my thinking about these issues.

Posted on Wed, Oct. 29, 2003 -- Philadelphia Daily News

An outsider's vision for saving Philly

RECENTLY, I was in Philadelphia attending a conference on commercial corridor revitalization.

Comparing your city to my own Washington, D.C., made me think. While I can't claim to have all the solutions, I realized that three things are needed to enhance the vitality of our traditional cities, regardless of public-safety and substandard services, including public schools.

No. 1 is the job core at the heart of the city.
We know that a strong core is required to drive demand to reoccupy vacant housing, particularly by those who don't want to spend a lot of time commuting. Focus on job development, retaining businesses and attracting new ones.

No. 2 is solid public transportation.
A tour of Girard Avenue convinced me that major investment in non-automobile transportation is essential to the revitalization of our traditional cities. Bringing back the trolleys to surface streets like Girard makes vacant houses worth occupying and rehabilitating.

No. 3 - recognize the value of your historic housing stock.
Buildings that Philadelphians think are worthless would go for a million dollars in Washington.

It's pretty much proven that the only urban revitalization strategies that work long term are based on historic preservation. Ignore that at your peril.

Dump the demolition piece of the Neighborhood Transformation Initiative - begin by transforming the neighborhoods within 2 miles of the central city - and sell the houses for $1 with covenants that forbid teardowns. Instead of spending millions on demolition, put the money into a revolving fund to provide loans for restoration and rehabilitation.

Forget the people who want to live in the suburbs. Attract urban pioneers-homesteaders interested in buying historic houses with seemingly little value but great attributes and close-in location. Provide incentives for public transportation, not autos.

Think D.C.'s Capitol Hill in 1979, when rowhouses cost $80,000. They're now worth over $500,000. People walk to work or use public transit, and many use cars only on weekends.
Architecture and history define Philadelphia. Taking your city away from the pedestrian and remaking it for the automobile destroys your marketing and competitive advantage.

Sure, you need to improve municipal services and public safety. But in Washington, our crime rate is going up, our public schools aren't great, and the improvement of most city services seems to have stalled. Even so, demand for housing in the center city is strong - thousands of new units are being constructed, houses vacant for years are being renovated, and our neighborhood commercial districts are beginning to turn around.

In D.C., we have a retail broker named Len Harris. He works diligently to attract retail to the city. He said something to me that really hit home - that we aren't working on these issues for us as much as we are rebuilding the city for the next generation. Maybe we can't convert people who live in their cars or who value a historic row house only for a post-demolition empty lot. Focus on the people who cherish city living. There are enough of us to make the difference.

After the conference, we walked South Street, stocked up at the Italian Market, where food costs as little as a third of that at D.C.'s wonderful Eastern Market. We hit the art walk in Centro de Oro, saw amazing street theater and the beautiful "La Casita" art-photographic installation at Congreso de Latinos Unidos.

Finally, we drove along Germantown Avenue and ended up in Mount Airy, at a wonderful restaurant and club called North by Northwest. After dinner we stuck around. At 10 p.m., they pulled out the tables and it became a dance floor - perfect for the explosive Brazilian dance and music performance that featured as many as 13 performers on the stage at any one time.
I left Philadelphia intrigued and heartened and wanting to come back - soon. What a city you have.

Richard Layman is a founding board member of the H Street Main Street neighborhood commercial district revitalization program near Washington's Union Station.



At 3:43 PM, Blogger mattinphila said...

Philadelphia's public transit system (SEPTA) is on the brink of failure because the GOP-controlled state house refuses to provide it with a dedicated funding source - every year SEPTA says in will have to raise rates and reduce service and every year the GOP-controlled state house says "too bad for Philadelphia". This state has multiple personalities: the urban core of Philadelphia, the ever-expanding suburbs around Philadelphia, and "Alabama" (as James Carville referred to the middle of the state) - I ignore Pittsburgh only because of my lack of knowledge of that region. We need more public transit, not less, and I truly believe that those in Philadelphia's suburbs will only realize how important public transit is when the undereducated massess that staff their malls can't commute from the inner city any more.

With respect to ending NTI's demolition piece, you need to appreciate the local politics. Some of the largest local political donors are real estate developers. As long as they need to keep the engine of their development business moving, they need more cheap land and subsidies from the city - clearing large parcels on their behalf and then handpicking the buyers guarantees more and larger political donations. Until Philadelphia can enact real campaign finance reform, this pastime will not end.

P.S. I live around the corner from North by Northwest - the Mt. Airy neighborhood of the city has been gentrifying rapidly over the last 5 years, driving housing prices through the roof (houses on my block have increased in price by 70% in the last 3 years alone). Much of this success is related to the access to public transit. 2 of SEPTA's regional rail lines run through the neighborhood. I fear that elimination of one of them will destroy this part of the city that attracts a highly educated, diverse, and potentialy mobile population.

At 4:17 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Matt, you're absolutely right about local politics. I just finished reading _Urban Fortunes: A Political Economy of Place_ which is all about this issue. The book is 17 years old, but it is still a revelation, even if you have plenty of experience in local land use issues. Within the next week or so, I hope to post a review of the book.

At 4:11 PM, Anonymous Native Wildflowers said...

Amazing and discusting how fast homes go up. I saw where a family could rent an appt in NY for almost 1 million and they bought a 5 bedroom extravagent home in another state for 300k. Seems unfair somehow.


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