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, April 29, 2005

Buy Local Day in Philly

Buy Local Day in Philly
Originally uploaded by rzklkng.
The campaign development for a "Buy Local" campaign in Philadelphia,, is moving along.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Question about links

Don't forget that I am constantly adding links to the right sidebar. Partially this is to put the sites I find useful in one place. It's a sign of my "parochialism" that I put sites like the Library of Congress or the U.S. Capitol Historical Society in the "Greater" Neighborhood links section.

My question, which I would like some comments on, is should I break up the long first section of general links into sections on arts and culture, urban revitalization, citizen engagement and organizing, historic preservation, etc., in the way that I have been "segregating" some links into transit and tourism sections?


YIMBYs from Brooklyn to DC -- Thinking about Community Participation in Shaping Development

Otis White writes "The Urban Notebook" column for Governing Magazine and produces an e-newsletter as part of his Civic Strategies consulting practice. He wrote this today:

Beyond Negative and Provincial

People who study power in cities will tell you that it's shifting away from the business community and toward neighborhood associations. Problem is, these grassroots organizations aren't up to the task in most places. They're far too negative and provincial to wield real power. But there are exceptions. Take what happened recently in the Park Slope area of New York's borough of Brooklyn. Or, better yet, let Aaron Naparstek tell you.

Naparstek is a writer who's active in a group called Park Slope Neighbors. Park Slope is a "classic brownstone New York City neighborhood," Naparstek said recently, whose Fifth Avenue has become a "vibrant, mixed-use, pedestrian-oriented neighborhood Main Street of restaurants, hardware stores, groceries and various other neighborhood services."

Recently, a bank company announced it was placing a branch on Fifth Avenue in a spot that once had a gas station. The neighborhood needs a bank, Naparstek said, but not the building that the bank had in mind: a "standard, cookie-cutter, suburban-style, drive-through" branch. It was the drive-through, of course, that hit the neighborhood's hot button. "It was so wrong," Naparstek said. "It felt like the very type of design that killed so many Main Streets around the country." What to do? Oppose the branch on the grounds that it would cause more traffic congestion, endanger pedestrians and set back the neighborhood's progress.

But here's where Park Slope Neighbors took a slightly different tack. In its campaign, it didn't vilify the bank company. In fact, the opposite: The group made it clear that, if the design could be changed, the branch would be welcomed with open arms - and Park Street Neighbors would lead the parade. Naparstek calls this "YIMBY activism" (for "yes in my back yard").

It's activism, he said, that's "positive, rational and unemotional." Better yet, it worked. The bank changed the design, and neighborhood activists showered the company with credit for its responsiveness. It even arranged a press conference at which it presented the bank with what Naparstek described as "a big, cheesy deposit slip" representing the group's intent to open an account there. "We promised that if they changed their design, we'd open our first account there," he said. "The press loved it and a lot of good vibes were generated for the bank."
Park Slope Neighbors website.
Rendering of the "victory" in Park Slope.

On the pro-urb email list, Larry Felton Johnson (there is a link to his blog in the sidebar), wrote this:

This whole incident had a really nice outcome. It also demonstrated the value of the urban oriented web logs (blogs) in rapidly spreading interesting news. As events unfolded the blog network was getting frequent updates, including interaction with Aaron Naparstek and others in the neighborhood. One of my own posts consisted of corrections by a Park Slope resident who had been involved early, but at that point wasjust following at the local level. Otis White follows the "urblogs" closely, and reviews them. I suspect this article is a result of his keeping his finger on that pulse.

Actually, I sent notice of this Park Slope happening to the pro-urb list first, because I had
read about it in the New York Press when I was in NYC in December. See this for an update on the story in a March issue of New York Press.

Anyway, this dovetails with something that I have been mulling over since last Saturday, when I popped into part of the planning meeting for the baseball stadium-South Capitol area, the process that is being co-led by the Anacostia Waterfront Corporation, DC's Office of Planning, and the DC Department of Transportation. (I mentioned this meeting in a blog entry last Friday.)

The Post reported on the meeting in the Sunday paper, with this headline "Residents Near Stadium Offer Tips, Voice Fears: D.C. Demonstrators Seek Direct Input." I got there late, so I missed the demonstration. By the way, all the materials generated by the workshop will be put up on the Public Space Forum website for the project by the beginning of next week.

After the meeting, I talked with some people for as long as 90 minutes about neighborhood planning, citizen involvement in the process, how under-funded agencies such as the NCRC look to various projects to develop income streams and how this can lead to significant uncorrectable compromises, planning, review of development projects, etc. The pro-urb posting has "forced" me to put together these thoughts.

In DC, we have what are called "Advisory Neighborhood Commissions" which are elected neighborhood councils that do a variety of things, including making recommendations with regard to planning, zoning, and licensing matters, when review is required ("matter of right" developments are not reviewed, only those matters that involve zoning changes, large tract review, variances, exceptions, or where review is specified).

But the "city" doesn't provide much in the way of training resources to these entities and they can be excellent, good, average, bad, or really bad (fisticuffs, embezzlement, etc.). Because of problems over the years, the amount of money allocated to these entities (for community organization grants, etc.) has been drastically reduced, and the city government doesn't provide office space or other infrastructure support, although various agencies occasionally accomodate these entities, but in a non-systematic way. They also don't usually interact with each other, share best practices amongst the various ANCs, and build organizational and community capacity on a neighborhood and city-wide basis. (I wrote about this in a March entry about "Neighborhood Planning".)

Well, lately I have been thinking that we (my ANC, which includes a swath of downtown) pretty much approve of everything that comes before us. Maybe we tweak it, and get something in return, but usually, the developers get what they want.

There are some exceptions, such as historic designations, which can change projects significantly, or out and out fights against particular projects which can either result in a stalemate and/or victory (BP gas station, which now that the market has changed, the property is too valuable and it will become a mixed use non-gas station development, after five years of community organizing) or a big loss (Station Place is an ugly, anti-urban design federally leased building that was greased through the system by the company's choice of architect and that architect's connections within the system).
Station Place on 2nd Street NE, Washington, DC.

The complex is designed by Kevin Roche, a Pritzker Architecture Prize winner. Roche's design of an urban brutalist building in New Haven Connecticut led Vincent Scully to become committed to historic preservation. Certainly Roche's friendship with J. Carter Brown didn't hurt this project when it came before the Commission of Fine Arts. (Design, setback, connections to the neighborhood, how the building fronts on H Street, the possibility of retail at 2nd and F as part of the building were all issues raised by the community that we by and large, lost. The building, in my opinion, looks worse in person.)

Maybe this is because in the city we are "desperate" for investment, and I guess various neighborhoods around the city differ--particularly the neighborhoods in Ward 3, along Wisconsin Avenue, which have been organizing against an intensification of land usage along the Avenue, particularly around the Metro stations.
Station Place backs up to the Daniel Burnham-designed Union Station, which was planned and built as a result of the Senate Park Commission (McMillan) plan of 1901, and was one of the first examples of the "City Beautiful" movement in the United States.

In comparison, my neighborhood is more "urban" but less dense than Dupont Circle and similar neighborhoods, and is within the L'Enfant Plan area, so the idea of density and connectedness isn't completely foreign, even if most of the residents still have a suburban sensibility as far as development is concerned.

The issue really then is over "good" or "quality" development vs. "bad" or "ugly" development as well as developing a base of knowledge or awareness about the broader issues, when there isn't a training infrastructure to provide it. (This idea could be expanded by discussing Molotch's work on environmental and preservation organizing to maintain "use values of place" vs. "exchange values of place," and where it is successful and where it isn't, and whether or not such movements are able to develop in the first place. See Building Rules and Urban Fortunes: A Political Economy of Place.)

(Note: if the Park Slope Commerce Bank branch as rendered is a victory, then I think that Brooklyn and Park Slope needs some remedial design education. I would still be raising a lot of issues of that pretty average design.)

Anyway, individuals with knowledge or interest and a willingness to participate on ANC "Planning and Zoning" committees (the titles vary by ANC) make a big difference in the quality and impact of the ANC's participation on such matters.

In our Ward, we have 4 ANCs, two including mine deal with the H Street neighborhood that I always write about (although they include territory up to East Capitol Street), one focuses on "Capitol Hill" and the other on SW DC, the area that was urban renewaled in the 1950s...

Well the ANC in the Southwest quadrant of DC is the one that has to deal in particular with it becoming a zone of "intensification of use" because, directly east and south of downtown (jumping the National Mall) and north and south of Union Station is the only place where the city can grow in an intense, commercial, downtown-like fashion.
Urban brutalism in Southwest DC, along the Southeast-Southwest Freeway. Photo from BeyondDC.

But that ANC has no committees that allow for the tapping of the expertise of community residents. And various "hotheads" as Commissioners take anti-development positions that face it, won't fly in a city that is committed to the development agenda. But as a result, the ANC and more importantly, the residents that ANC Commissioners purport to represent, are cut out from having meaningful substantive involvement in the process, getting improvements, benefits, etc.

I suppose, fundamentally, this is difference of magnitude in comparison to one small development site. The NCPC South Capitol plan rendering shows the elimination of a huge swath of SW neighborhood (building stock from the early 1900s) in favor of big albeit mixed use buildings.

Balancing the needs of a "residential" Washington as opposed to the needs of the "Federal City" of Washington is at times, a great dilemma, with no easy resolution.

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Austin's Bike Month -- A Best Practice Example

From the Austin Chronicle:

Austin Bike Month Rolls In

Naked City has found a way to achieve the elusive – the simultaneous trifecta of supporting the troops, saving the environment, and sculpting a set of rock-hard buns. All one has to do is hop on a bicycle and participate in any of the numerous Austin Bike Month activities starting this Friday. In its 12th year, Bike Month incorporates group rides, free bike safety classes, park and trail maintenance, bike giveaways, bike to work day, and some good ol' parties, among other things.

Key Bike Month events include:

The eighth annual Political Pedal, April 29. Join elected officials and City Council candidates on a short meander through downtown, departing City Hall at 4:30pm. The Political Pedal ends an hour later at the Bitter End Bistro & Brewery B-Side, 311 Colorado, in the Warehouse District, where riders can lube the wheels of democracy until 7:30pm at the "Bicyclist's Happy Hour."

• Bike to First Thursday, May 5. Cyclists are invited to ride down to this month's first Thursday festivities on South Congress. Jo's Coffee (1300 S. Congress) is hosting a Bike Month party with complimentary valet parking – for bicycles that is. E-mail for more info.

• Members of the Austin Ridge Riders, a local mountain bike club, will teach the basics May 7 during a Mountain Bike Clinic and Ride at City Park (Emma Long Metropolitan Park), 1600 City Park Rd. Be there at 10am. E-mail Michael Castaneda for more info.

• Ride with licensed instructors and learn about cycling comfortably in traffic during the New to Bicycling Ride, May 8. Come out for a 4- to 10-mile group ride that will circle the Shoal Creek area in North Austin. All you need to bring is a working bicycle, helmet, and a bottle of water. Meet at 9am at Gullet Elementary, 6310 Treadwell, one block west of Shoal Creek Boulevard. Contact Marc Miller at 423-7262 for more info.

For a full list of activities go to

biketoworkDan Tangherlini, Director of DC's Department of Transportation, at Bike to Work Day, 2004. (Photo by Jim Hudnall.)

I particularly like the Political Pedal idea. Maybe we could get some tandem bikes to bring people of different political persuasions together, such as this 10 person tandem bike ridden by the Fishers Rotary Club (Fishers, Indiana) in a local parade.

biketandem3Can't we all just get along? (Photo by Imagine ten elected and appointed officials riding together on a bike such as this.

Area bicycling resources include Washington Area Bicyclist Association and the DDOT Bicycle and Pedestrian Programs office.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Photo tour of H Street

Once again, Frozen Tropics keeps us informed, in "A9 Delivers "Block View" of H Street" we're alerted to the new photo feature of the Amazon A9 search service, which to compete with Google and Yahoo, is offering this and other features.

In the Neighborhood Links section in the sidebar, I have linked to this feature for the north and the south sides of H Street. Click on "Walk left" or "Walk right" to proceed down the corridor.

Bush energy policy: the domestic angle

And the flag was still therePhoto from "Deep Thoughts" blog.

Today's New York Times article "Bush to Offer A Proposal On Refineries" lists a number of proposed energy initiatives by the Bush Administration, which complement the current program to secure supplies in the Mideast as evidenced by the War in Iraq:
  1. Build new oil refineries on closed military bases throughout the country, in an effort to ease long-term shortages of gasoline and other oil products.
  2. Giving the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission clear authority to rule on the siting of new terminals to receive liquified natural gas from overseas. (This would overrule local decision-making.)
  3. Federal risk insurance for new nuclear power plants.

Apparently, Senate Democrats in preparing an energy bill are providing for tax incentives for renewable energy.

Frankly, I think that cities need to develop incentive programs of their own, comparable to some of the programs offered by the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, which was discussed in another blog entry earlier in the week.

Energy use is a matter of local and national import, as well as an economic competitiveness issue.


For another take on the issue, check out this article, "In Portland, living the green American dream: More young urban professionals are forgoing square footage for eco-friendly homes" from the Christian Science Monitor.

Georgetown's Cady's Alley makes the New York Times

In "Developer Infuses Historic Properties With Commerce," today's New York Times has an article on Anthony Lanier's upgrading of the 3300(?) block of M Street NW into "Cady's Alley", an upscale furniture and design district. All in all, it seems like a reasonably accurate article.

Cady's Alley -- Georgetown, Washington, DCCarol T. Powers for The New York Times. Historic buildings along M Street in Washington that had fallen into disrepair have been rehabilitated and turned into elegant shops.

Another image of the 900 block of 2nd Street NE

Stairs to somewhereI shot this a couple weeks ago. In the HAER photo referenced in the previous entry, this side of the block is visible, and appears to be comprised of rowhouses and 3 story brick warehouses and light industrial buildings, likely drawn to the location for access to the railroad, particularly the B&O Freight Terminal in the Eckington area. I have no idea when these buildings came down. I presume it was before Ronald Cohen began assembling all but two lots on the square.

I missed this demonstration...

Originally uploaded by rllayman.
Democratic legislators join a rally against the privatization of Social Security, on Capitol Hill, Tuesday, April 26, 2005, in Washington. The venerable government program was political fodder Tuesday from the buttoned-down confines of a Senate hearing room to a boisterous outdoor rally. Democrats took on President Bush and his Social Security proposals with gusto, rebuffing pleas for bipartisanship from frustrated Republicans.(AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Ronald Cohen's Cherry Blossoms

Ronald Cohen's Cherry BlossomsRonald Cohen's Cherry Blossoms. Photo by Elise Bernard.

The Frozen Tropics blog is great. Yesterday has an entry, "All Boarded up at 2nd and K" on the buildings on the west side of the 1000 block of Third Street, which we call the "Cohen Block" since it is owned by the Cohen Companies, and they have had plans to develop the block for going on towards 15 years. Clearly in the interim, they aren't too concerned about upkeep and how their property management impacts the neighborhood and perceptions. Does this make the company fit enough to deserve continued considerations from the Zoning Commission?

Rowhouses, 1000 block of Third Street NE, Washington, DCMothballing properties. Photo by Elise Bernard.

Here's what I wrote about this project in March:

The project that the Cohen Companies intend to build on this site is discussed in "Developer's patience pays off with Union Place." (Note that in order to proceed, the developer must renew the PUD zoning for this project. The developer has petitioned for a renewal.)

busangArt in neglect. Brett Busang's "Steep Stair, 3rd Street," left, and "Along 3rd" were painted on the west side of the 1000 block of Third Street in Northeast Washington.

rows07-bungaloidMaintained "S-type" rowhouses in Petworth. Photo from BeyondDC.

From the plans I've seen, the project is nothing special (meaning a low-quality site plan with middling attention to urban design principles), no vertical mixed use to speak of) and the community amenities that were negotiated 13 years ago when this project was first proposed are out-of-date compared to the neighborhood's current circumstances.

In "Complex Brings Work, Shops Close to Home" this article from the Washington Post demonstrates that the Cohen Companies are capable of quality work, even if this article shows that they have to be forced into it. The project in our neighborhood, north of the $125-150 million Senate Square Project from Abdo Development, two blocks from the New York Avenue-Florida Avenue-Gallaudet University Metro station, across the street from a 300 unit condominium project, and kitty corner from a 40 unit condo project, is worth doing right.

Union Station Railyard, Washington, DCPhoto from the Historic American Engineering Record, available online from the Library of Congress. (HAER, DC,WASH,559-5. RAIL YARD BEHIND UNION STATION. WASHINGTON, D.C.)

If you look at a large view of this image (click through) you can make out details of the buildings on the backside of the "Cohen Block."
Also, for general Office of Planning thoughts on the "NoMa" "north of Massachusetts Avenue" area, including the area around the New York Avenue Metro Station, check out the Powerpoint presentation from the Office of Planning.

ANC6C asked for a "small area plan" for the New York Avenue station area, and this request was consolidated into OP's ongoing efforts in planning the Mt. Vernon Triangle-NoMa area.

One also needs to be aware of other efforts, such as the New York Avenue Corridor Study, the Mount Vernon Triangle Transportation and Public Realm Design Project (missed that meeting...), and the Downtown Action Agenda which influences the westernmost end of our ANC.

Some downtown paintings

While doing some image research I came across these paintings of some scenes from Downtown DC. Enjoy.

Waiting to Cross, Downtown D.C. by Sarah PollockSarah Pollock: Waiting to Cross, Downtown D.C., 2003. 12 x 15 1/2. Pastel on paper. Downtown D.C. at the Farragut North Metro Station during the evening rush hour.

This painting was selected for inclusion in Gallery West's 6th National Juried Show in Alexandria, Virginia in 2004. Also in 2004, it received an Honorable Mention in the Art of Alliance of Central Pennsylvania's annual show.

In This Moment, Downtown D.C. by Sarah PollockSarah Pollock: In This Moment, Downtown D.C. 2004. 22 x 17. Pastel on paper. Near the Farragut North Metro Station during a warm summer evening in the city of Washington, DC.

This painting was exhibited at the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art during their Artists in Our Midst: Art in Common 2004 exhibition. It will also be included in this summer's Art of the State: Pennsylvania 2005 at the State Museum of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

Homeless, Downtown D.C. by Sarah PollockSarah Pollock: Homeless, Downtown D.C. 2003. 16 3/4 x 10 1/4. Pastel on paper.

Seen in downtown D.C. at the Farragut North Metro Station. This painting received an Honorable Mention in the Pastel Journal's 5th Annual "Pastel 100" competition and was reproduced in their April 2004 edition.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Regional thinking doesn't come naturally.

librariesPhoto by Elizabeth Conley, The Detroit News. Lisa LaVallis of Bloomfield Township backs her township library's stance against issuing cards to nonresidents.

Today's Detroit News reports about disputes in the Detroit out-counties about shared library services in "Library Squabbles Could Hurt Readers" . One thing I discovered when I moved from Michigan to Washington, DC is that all the public library systems here practice reciprocity. You have to get separate library cards, but as long as you are a resident of a participating jurisdiction, you can get borrowing privileges. Since I now hang out at the Library of Congress, I don't use this much like I used to, but I used to borrow books from various Montgomery County, MD branches, and I have used PG County MD branches as well. The Arlington County VA main library is supposed to be good, but I have never been there.

From the DC Library website:

Anyone who resides, works, pays property taxes or attends school in the District of Columbia is eligible for a D.C. Public Library borrower's card. Reciprocal borrowing exists for residents of Montgomery and Prince George's Counties in Maryland and Fairfax, Loudoun, Arlington and Prince William Counties and the cities of Falls Church and Alexandria in Virginia to obtain free library cards from the District of Columbia Public Library. Others may apply, after payment of the appropriate fee, for a non-resident library card.

Actually, a big difference between Michigan and the DC region is that in Michigan, counties are weak governments and provide few services in comparison to the individual cities and towns, and sometimes townships (which actually tend to be weaker than counties).

The Detroit area, like Pittsburgh, is now grappling with providing municipal services on a community by community basis, and various communities are looking at jointly consolidating various municipal services to cut costs, such as these communities looking to merge fire services, and Clawson and Troy looking to merge certain "back of the house" police functions. This is happening both with inner-ring longstanding communities that may be contracting or at least not growing, as well as with out-county townships that are growing rapidly and finding that they need to provide new services to meet the demands of their new residents.

Why I don't miss Michigan

Originally uploaded by rllayman.
It snowed this past weekend in the Midwest, but "merely" rained in Washington.

Preservation Advocacy in Washington, DC

Last fall, there was a "defeat" in the creation of an historic district in the greater Tenleytown area. I learned about this from the H-DC email list, which linked to the website of the historic designation opponents. Given that tomorrow there is a meeting about the Comprehensive Plan and historic preservation, it's worth putting up my response to this from last fall.


It is very frustrating that preservation advocates, and I include myself among them, don't seem to do a very good job about explaining the value of historic preservation in the city. It is just as frustrating that residents fail to see what ought to be hitting them in the head, that architectural distinctiveness and history are the defining characteristics of the City of Washington, providing us with a unique sense of place, which makes our city worth living in, and are the source of the city's "unique selling proposition" that makes it attractive to others.

Personally, I feel that the city government isn't really committed to preservation either, by and large seeing it as a hindrance. Merely a handful of City Councilmembers seem to be committed to preservation, and some seem quick to attack preservation if it means pandering to their constituents.

H Street ConnectionYour tax dollars at work--urban-renewal-based economic development in Northeast Washington, DC.

The Tenleytown Fire Station is a case in point. That fiasco had everything to do with the fact that the Fire Department seemed to be over its head in terms of its skill in construction contracting, and the choice of the lowest bidder despite the fact that this bidder had experienced problems on previous construction projects, and little if anyhing to do, fundamentally, with historic preservation. Nonetheless, Kathy Patterson put forth a bill to gut historic preservation protections for "public safety facilities" even though the Department of Defense and other municipalities such as NYC seem to manage just fine in having facilities being regulated by relevant federal or local historic preservation laws.

e20oldEngine House 20 in more historic times.

This failure to explain and lack of commitment to preservation is doubly ironic though, because the only reason the city weathered 30-40 years of disinvestment, outmigration and a serious decline in population is because of the existence of historic residential building stock, which attracted a wide variety of people willing to live in great buildings, despite the serious decline in the provision of quality municipal services in all ways, shapes, and forms, that accompanied the decline in population.

That's why some of the statements in the anti-historic preservation website referenced are so laughable. I can't imagine there exists one historic district across the United States where because of designation "The resale value of your home could decline" as is stated. I refer people to Donovan Rypkema's paper "The Economic Power of Historic Preservation" for a much more thorough discussion of this issue. The general point about designation is that it reduces risk and increases value because of the baseline of quality created by design review, etc.

The reason that I have become such a "zealot" for preservation is that time and time again it is proven that substantive, sustainable, and successful center city revitalization results only from activities that are preservation-based. (See for example, The Living City and Cities: Back from the Edge both by Roberta Gratz, or Changing Places by Richard Moe and Carter Wilkie. For a discussion of this with regard to "community development" which typically has been urban clearance and renewal based, see Organizing for Community Controlled Development by Patricia Murphy and James Cunningham.)

rows01Rowhouses on Capitol Hill.

The anti-designation website seriously mis-states the process for creating historic districts, and these arguments are too frequently repeated (such as the recent discussion over the expansion of the Dupont Circle Historic District). It is impossible for a "secretive" band of neighbors to create an historic district without anyone knowing about it. There is a specific process required that includes notice to impacted property owners.

Note: requirements for creating historic districts are much more difficult today, including the documentation of every building, which was not the case when many of the historic districts in the city were created years ago, i.e., Le Droit Park, Anacostia, and Capitol Hill historic districts.

The increased requirements (before only a sampling of buildings needed to be researched) are complicated by the fact that the federal Historic Preservation Fund, which funds survey efforts, is woefully underfunded, plus the city can (and does) use this money for non-survey activity, which makes it difficult to undertake survey efforts because of the cost and time involved in conducting the research. Figure on a minimum of ten hours/building, plus photography, and the research and writing of a neighborhood history, and you get some idea of how daunting a process this can be. (Now that the Historic Preservation Office is automating building permit data, the amount of time required to document each building in a proposed historic district is significantly reduced.)

There are organizations in other parts of the country that to my mind do amuch better job in explaining the value of historic preservation than we do in DC. First, the Community Design Center of Pittsburgh, in their "Homeowner Resources Section" has some incredible slide shows that demonstrate how people can do "good jobs" or "bad jobs" in renovating, and the kind of impact this has on their neighbors, as well as the value of their home. They publish five 2-page documents on "Your Home," "Your Roof," "Your Windows," "Your Walls," and "Your Porch" because "Anything you do to the outside of your home affects not only the value and character of your own house, but also the entire neighborhood." (The pdf documents are not the highest quality though.)

Certainly, those of you who live in neighborhoods like mine, where people tear off porches, install inappropriate windows, take out tin ceilings, take the wooden clapboards off houses and replace the facade with brick, build cinder block additions, or truck in prefabricated execrable buildings and plop them in as infill across the street from 1880s-1890s Victorian brick buildings understand this full well. In this vein, CDCP needs to add a "Your Door" piece--aren't we all sick of seeing these Home Depot doors with their fake stained glass populating more and more houses in undesignated but eligible neighborhoods?

fanlightdoornewThis "fan light" door, much nicer than the average store-bought door used by renovators in DC, is by and large not an historically accurate choice for DC homeowners.

Second, the Landmark Society of Western New York publishes a great book called Rehab Rochester which discusses historic house architecture as well as how to take care of your house in architecturally appropriate ways. If you think of the historic building stock we have in the city as the architectural legacy that is left to us in stewardship for the future, a book like this is important in explaining why our historic buildings and neighborhoods matter (which is especially important because people still have a hard time thinking of "everyday" neighborhoods as historic in comparison to buildings and places that are sites of important historic events and people--such as Mt. Vernon, the home of George Washington).

This book is comparable to books published by other preservation organizations and even to LeDroit Park Conserved and Anacostia Conserved which were produced under the guidance of the great urban design critic, professor, and practitioner Kevin Lynch. The handbooks, published in 1979 by DHCD and are lamentably out of print, but are available at Washingtoniana and probably the City Museum research library.

Third, the State of Ohio Historic Preservation Office has a great, great, great program called "The Building Doctor" which is a two-part program. The first part explains the relevant history of architecture, preservation, the Secretary of Interior's Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties, renovation, etc., and the second part is "field-based" where preservation staff go out and assess particular houses and/or commercial structures. Recognize that this program goes all across the state of Ohio, so it's a bit different than we'd need for our 67 square mile city.

The reason that I like this program so much is like the others referenced above, it explains why historic preservation matters, using both architectural history and community history to explain these issues. The Old Building Owners Manual and Caring for Your Old House companion books to this program are available for purchase.

Last fall, I attended the National Trust for Historic Preservation annual meeting, and two of the workshops I attended stressed the necessity of sussing out the themes and stories of your house museum/historic site/heritage area/historic district.

I love the buildings, but it's the stories that resonate with people. And I think we need to do a better job as preservationists in explaining these stories as well as combining the stories, history, and the economic and preservation of neighborhood character and architectural distinctiveness into successful arguments in favor of historic preservation throughout the city.

In fairness to us preservation advocates, who toil away often with little support and in face of organized opposition (note that in areas facing serious development pressures, opposition is fomented and/or organized by development interests, the pro-development land use bar, community development corporations, and other folk), it is difficult to argue in favor of saving "old buildings" in a society that reveres the new, and the prevalent attitude that "new" means "improved" and that suburbanization of the center city is the best course of action for revitalization. James Kunstler explains all this far better than I ever could, in Home from Nowhere and Geography of Nowhere.

H Street 1200 block ClosePhoto.jpgOn the top of this aerial photo of the 1200 block of H Street, buildings eligible for historic designation are visible, while on the south side, such buildings were torn down, to be replaced by a cinder-block Autozone store and parking lot.

Similarly, I find it incredible that after 43 years, the precepts laid out by Jane Jacobs in Death and Life of Great American Cities are still studiously ignored and/or explained away by professionals and government officials that should know better. Frankly, in these campaigns to get "everyone" in a city to read the same book, I think we should read Death and Life or Gratz's Cities: Back from the Edge just so that all caring citizens of this great city could begin to operate from the same place in consideration of fundamental development issues that face all of us as concerned residents of the City of Washington, the baseball stadium being a case in point.

L'enfant planA good read for today, again by Donovan Rypkema, is "Planning the Future, Using the Past: The Role of Historic Preservation in Building Tomorrow's Washington, DC" . (Another great paper by Rypkema is "Affordable Housing and Historic Preservation: The Missed Connection".

In our city, it all starts with L'Enfant.

Rigorous analysis and hard facts in the face of conventional wisdom

baseballmetroPeople using the subway to go the home opener for the Washington Nationals. Photo from the Washington Post.

The Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program writes about the Richard Shatten Prize in Cleveland. According to an article by Bruce Katz and Jeanne Shatten, reprinted on their website, but originally in the Cleveland Plain Dealer:

"The prize is a befitting testimonial to Richard, who played such a significant role in projects like the Playhouse Square renovation, development of Cleveland's Inner Harbor and a plethora of other neighborhood housing and development efforts. As director of Cleveland Tomorrow, Richard insisted that rigorous analysis and hard facts had a critical role to play in public policymaking, even when such analysis flew in the face of conventional wisdom.

Richard understood that the history of U.S. cities is one of relentless change and evolution. Neighborhoods change with the arrival of new immigrants and the aging of residents. Economies change with the introduction of new technologies and global relationships. Even popular images of "the city" change with the shifting of cultural attitudes and consumption preferences.

Like many cities in the Northeast and Midwest, the pace of demographic and economic change is forcing Cleveland to reassess its position in the economy and re-imagine its form and function. Across our country, broad forces are increasingly promoting diversity, density and urbanity. Demographic trends—population growth, immigration, migration, aging, smaller household size—are giving cities and urban places a better shot at attracting and retaining residents than at any time since the 1950s. Economic trends—globalization, technological innovation, deindustrialization—are also giving cities and urban places a renewed economic function and purpose.

An economy based on knowledge bestows new importance on universities and medical research centers, many of which, like Case, are located in the heart of central cities.

More generally, the shift to an economy based on ideas and innovation - where metropolitan areas compete fiercely for educated workers and entrepreneurs - changes the value and function of density and natural assets like rivers, lakes and parks.

The real question for Cleveland and the region, is whether a metropolis built for the industries and residential patterns of the 20th century can adapt to the very different climate of the 21st century. (...)

As Richard said to a Brookings Institution forum in 2000, "being right is irrelevant" to the growth of cities and metropolitan areas. Good ideas are critical, but they only have impact when they are implemented thoughtfully and effectively. And sound implementation only happens when a community develops a civic, corporate and political culture that can translate good ideas into action and execute with discipline and imagination. How a city and region creates, sustains and nurtures such a culture is the question for our time.

Compare "A Good Deal for the Nats" co-authored by Mayor Williams and Councilmember Jack Evans versus these two editorials about baseball from the Washington Times, "Baseball, TV and the Anti-trust exemption" and "Sponsoring RFK."

Video blogging

Update: Also look at "Can Video Replace the Written Word" from the Christian Science Monitor. It does address some of my concerns about video, an appeal to emotion rather than to fact, and the too frequent informational paucity--Rocketboom being an example, as discussed below.

This article, "An early peek into the Vlogosphere" from the ClickZ e-newsletter discusses the video blogging (vlog) phenomenon. What interests me about this is the ability for people to create their own ads, and to create fan-ads for products or services that they like (or don't).

From the article:

Embrace the vlogosphere. The blog, vlog, and moblog phenomenon is nascent but powerful. Don't underestimate the power the medium can have on your brand. Monitor vlogs and learn from them. After all, they can represent free, incredibly useful customer feedback (that all of your customers have access to, particularly now that most blog entries have a long search engine shelf life).

Your customers will produce your commercials. What happens when every customer, or potential customer, can produce a commercial for your product or service -- damaging or championing your brand? Vlogs have reach and credibility, even more than traditional broadcast stations in some cases. Think about the Dan Rather fiasco. Reading a blog about the scale of a new IKEA store is a much different online experience than actually seeing it, as Christian Brower showed viewers on his vlog recently.

Harness the power of brand love. If you're confident about your brand, give your customers a voice, a community, even a camera, so they can share the love for your brand or actively participate in your brand experience. A great example of that is Microsoft's Channel 9. The site attracts 900,000 software developers a month, who flock to watch interviews and demos and share their experiences.

Know thy vlogger. Although I haven't seen any data on the vlogging demographic, based on the vlogs I've seen it's a younger, tech-savvy market -- ages 15-34. They are, of course, the most highly coveted consumer market, as they are the cultural tastemakers.

The article has links to a story done by someone about the opening of a new Ikea store in Phoenix, as well as to Amanda Congdon, who does a "news" videolog called Rocketboom, which I found to be pretty news-less, or at least time-consuming for little if any informational payoff. However, the one good thing about Rocketboom is that they offer the choice of different viewing formats.

Separately in an article from today's Austin American-Statesman, about African-American quality of life issues in Austin, there is video about the plans to rebuild an African-American business that was destroyed by fire. Lamentably, the video is only available in Quicktime format, which doesn't work on the particular computer where I am writing this. (You will have to register for online access to the paper.)

For the start of the H Street Main Street program, Kevin Palmer, Anwar Saleem, and I created a 5 minute video that we showed at the selection committee presentation. At the time, I was very proud of it, as it was produced in 12 hours of editing on a Mac (by Kevin, with my kibbitzing); Anwar shot the footage, for which I acted as the producer-reporter. That was another 3 hours. Later people referred to it as amateurish, and I suppose I was hurt somewhat by that, but looking back, I still feel pretty good about it--however, since I've seen it about 50 times I'm "been there, done that" about it, although it has some decent images. I'm not sure that the link for the video works, but I'll ask Kevin about it.

These days, I'd like to produce vlog-type ads on land use and transit topics, but that's one of many things on my long list of things I'd like to do.

One downside is that as technologies become more widespread, local community groups are at a disadvantage in comparison to the architecture firms, government agencies, planning consultants, etc., that make presentations with bells and whistles and beautiful renderings that all too often don't translate that well into real-life projects that residents must live with.

Speaking of video, WCAU-TV in Philadelphia uncovered a documentary that they produced in 1961 about the problems of traffic. It's pretty interesting, a little slow, definitely an artifact of its times (smoking on camera by the host, etc.).

Monday, April 25, 2005

Customer Service

Seattle Post-Intelligencer Funky Winkerbean.gifI find that "Funky Winkerbean" and the related "Crankshaft", comic strips that run in the Washington Times, tend to have some pretty good commentary about "Main Street" and customer service type issues.

Lucky Cow Comic StripNo local newspaper runs "Lucky Cow," a comic strip set in the workplace of a fast food restaurant (the Washington Post considered it but chose not to, instead they have "Pearls before Swine" which is hit or miss, but distributed by the Washington Post Writers Group) but I like it.

Renewable energy trust program in Massachusetts

The DC Energy Office promotes energy conservation, but seems to have a low profile (although I did see a car wrapped in a DC Energy Office logo recently).

Saturday's Boston Globe has an article, "Making Solar Hot," about the renewable energy promotion programs of the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, a quasi-public agency. MTC "is the state’s development agency for renewable energy and the innovation economy, which is responsible for one-quarter of all jobs in the state. MTC administers the John Adams Innovation Institute and the Renewable Energy Trust. We work to stimulate economic activity in communities throughout the Commonwealth."

Given all the office buildings we have, and with most of the tops of downtown office buildings doing nothing much in the green roof or passive solar collector department, maybe this is a program we need to look at for DC.

Solar panels on top of Harvard Business School Fitness CenterSolar panels on top of Harvard Business School Fitness Center. This project was supported by funds from the MTPC program.

Press release on the Harvard project -- "On a sunny day, the 192 photovoltaic panels on top of Shad convert sunlight into enough electricity to power twenty to thirty homes. In addition to reducing HBS's energy bill over the next quarter century, the photovoltaic project will supplant the emission of about 75,000 pounds of carbon monoxide annually -- the equivalent of about 220 fewer cars on the road each year. "

This New House, part one

This New House, part oneFrom "This New House," in the March/April issue of Mother Jones magazine.

The feature has a lot of good data (sources are cited in the article).

- Since 1950, the average new house has increased by 1,247 sq. ft. Meanwhile, the average household has shrunk by 1 person.
- The National Association of Home Builders’ “showcase home” for 2005 is 5,950 sq. ft. That’s 15% bigger than last year’s model.
- 1 in 4 Americans want at least a 3-car garage.
- 88% of American commuters drive to work.
- - 76% of those drivers commute alone.
- The number of Americans with commutes of longer than 90 minutes each way has increased 95% since 1990.
- Since 1982, 35 million acres—an area the equivalent of New York state—have been developed.
- More than 50% of exurban lots are 10 acres or larger. Exurban homes account for 80% of residential development since 1994.
- In 1950, 1 in 100 homes had 2.5 baths or more. Today, 1 in 2 do.
- 14 million households own 4 or more TVs.
- Americans spend more to power home audio and video equipment that is “off” but still plugged in than they do to power such devices while actually in use.
- Such “energy vampires” consume 5% of the nation’s electricity.
- Extreme Makeover: Home Edition recently gave a 6-bedroom, 7-bath, 7-television house to a family of 4.
- Americans with cable TV have 30 hours of home-improvement programming available to them each day.
- Sales of Sub-Zero and other “premium” and “superpremium” refrigerators have been rising by 15% a year.
1- in 5 new homes is larger than 3,000 sq. ft.—the size at which it becomes unmanageable to clean without hired help.
- The average cost of a luxury kitchen remodel is $57,000. That’s $10,000 more than it costs to build a typical Habitat for Humanity home.
- Suburban and urban kids use illegal drugs, have sex, fight, and steal at the same rates, but suburban kids are more likely to drink and smoke.
- 0.03% of U.S. homes are fueled by solar energy. 0.4% lack complete plumbing facilities.
- People who live in cities use half as much energy as suburbanites.
- If Americans bought only appliances with an“Energy Star” rating over the next 15 years, the reduction in greenhouse gases would equate to taking 17 million cars off the road.
- 1/3 of a home’s heating oil is used for hot water. Multiple-head shower systems can drain a 40-gallon tank in less than 4 minutes.
- The average new home requires 13,837 board feet of lumber and 19 tons of cement.
- Since 1976, federal housing assistance has been slashed by 48%.
- Last spring, the Bush administration proposed an additional $1 billion cut to the Section 8 housing subsidy.
- 87% of homeowners are white.
- Overall, blacks receive subprime loans 2.83 times more often than whites. The disparity increases when affluent blacks are compared to affluent whites.
- If it were a state, New York City would rank 51st in energy use per capita.
- Suburban white men weigh 10 pounds more than men in cities.
- Only 2.7% of San Francisco’s teachers, 5.7% of its cops, and 4.2% of its nurses can afford to buy a home there. (Note: Mother Jones is based in San Francisco)
- 1 in 4 Californians are considering moving out of state to reduce their housing costs.
- 7% of all homes are in gated communities.
- 7% of all homes are mobile homes.
- Since 2001, the number of Americans who have bought second homes has increased by 24%.

This New House, Part Two

This New House, part twoFrom "This New House," in the March/April issue of Mother Jones magazine.

Ideas on the DC Historic Preservation Agenda

Of course, since there is this upcoming meeting, there has been some discussion about some of the issues. The agenda for the meeting seems pretty packed. I hope we can get to some of the meaty issues. Here's an email that I sent around on some, but only some, of my thoughts on this.

1. Everyone should read Donovan Rypkema's paper on historic preservation and DC, which was commissioned as a thought paper to help guide the Comprehensive Plan revision process: "Planning for the Future, Using the Past: The Role of Historic Preservation in Building Tomorrow’s Washington, DC."

2. I too think that Alley Dwelling issues need to be reconsidered. Encouraging this will add a diversity of housing types, and provide more "eyes on the street" in the interior of squares, which will add safety.

An urban design studio class taught last fall by Terry Williams at Catholic looked at H Street, and among their work was a focus on alley dwelling "accessory units." I think they came up with some good ideas that need to be communicated more widely within the broader community. Currently, lot coverage regulations in the Zoning Code make bringing back alley dwellings very difficult.

3. As many people know, I am particularly concerned about the demolition of properties eligible but not listed on the DC Inventory-National Register. Current DC law affords protections only for listed properties/contributing structures in an historic district, and no protections whatsoever for anything else (other than filing a nomination, which can stop the process for awhile).

The Comprehensive Plan says that housing is a good thing and that historic preservation is a good thing. So the other laws should use those as principles in guiding them.

The City of San Francisco has a good policy for addressing this issue, which is online here. It focuses strictly on residential demolition. (This is an issue with the Board of Condemnation of Insanitary Buildings as well, but that is at least being addressed currently, although we are still losing buildings in the interim.)

I think it's important to look at both, residential and commercial properties, and to consider

4. Creating a fund for moving buildings. I know that strict historicists don't like the idea of moving buildings, but if you take the position that losing buildings is a bad thing but that it is difficult to upright the maw and inexorable nature of development, then we need a backstop position in order to be able to satisfy multiple constituencies.

419 and 439 Massachusetts Avenue NW.jpgThe developer, Trammell Crow?, ripped off the facade of the building at 439 Massachusetts Avenue NW. The permit for this rape of a facade called it an "alteration." Photo by Peter Sefton.

See this page on Victorian Secrets for a couple more photos of the buildings on the 400 block of Mass. Ave. NW where the developer ripped off the face of the buildings, likely to prevent a nomination from being filed. (Since the assembler is Trammell Crow, developers of the property that includes Hochenmeyer Hall, for which a landmark nomination was filed, it's pretty likely that is why this was done.) Rather than have this happen again and again, let's set up a way to move buildings.

419 and 439 Massachusetts Avenue NW.jpg439 Massachusetts Avenue NW in happier times. Photo by Peter Sefton.

5. HPO is very big on the idea of conservation districts, to provide protections for eligible properties. I still haven't made up my mind. In any case, the Business revitalization district zoning overlay in Cleveland affords a model that could be enacted without the possible negatives that often accompany attempts at creating historic districts and the like.

I have appended some testimony about that below. BRD zoning could provide both for design review and demolition protections. Both are necessary. Demolition protection without design review only gets us half way.

From testimony, reprinted from this blog entry:

The City of Cleveland has created a zoning overlay called a "Business Revitalization District" to "...ensure appropriate design of buildings, signage, and property in business areas targeted for concentrated improvements. More specifically, it is the purpose of this [zoning] chapter to achieve among others, the following objectives:

a) To preserve jobs, tax revenues and local services through the upgrading of business districts;
b) To safeguard the public investment in revitalization through prevention of inappropriate signage and property design in business areas targeted for concentrated public improvements and rehabilitation financing: and
c) To protect residential and commercial property values, particularly for businesses and residents committing private funds to rehabilitation in designated revitalization areas (Ord. No. 1664-88. Passed 10-3-88, eff. 10-6-8)."

This reasoning seems indisputable. Scarce economic resources, and in places where investment can be risky, requires that we ensure that property design, construction, and signage is created that meets the highest standards of quality urban design. (In any case, it is the opinion of this writer that all projects in the city, regardless of location, should attempt to achieve the best urban design standards and expectations, following the intentions of both the original L’Enfant Plan for the City of Washington, and its "successor," the McMillan Commission in 1901.)

High standards can best be attained through the application of design guidelines and careful project review. In fact, projects funded by various agencies of the DC Government, and in particular the DC Department of Housing and Community Development ,should set the standard for "appropriate design of buildings, signage, and property in business areas targeted for concentrated improvements." These projects have significant impact in neighborhoods throughout the city, and it is imperative to ensure that they are uniformly excellent!
Creating a Business Revitalization District Overlay providing for design review and protections against untoward demolition is a necessary tool for ensuring attention to placemaking and quality in urban revitalization.

Bad Mayor Update: San Diego

The San Diego Union-Tribune reports that Mayor Dick Murphy is resigning: "SAN DIEGO – Amid recall demands by the city attorney and a week after being named by Time magazine as one of the three worst big-city mayors in the United States, Mayor Dick Murphy announced he will resign effective July 15."

This is from the April 19th set of blog entries:

Dick Murphy, San Diego

When he was elected mayor in 2000, Dick Murphy thought he had his hands full dealing with a troubled ballpark project and sewer spills that were shutting down San Diego's beaches. But then Murphy, 62, a state superior court judge, became embroiled in an even bigger mess: a $1.35 billion deficit at the city's public-employee pension fund. The crisis has so discredited him, he almost lost his job last November to Donna Frye, a last-minute write-in candidate who runs a surf shop. She actually won more votes, but some 5,500 people who wrote in her name failed to shade in an oval box, and the courts ruled the ballots invalid.

It was Murphy's predecessor who first approved underfunding the pension fund. But when a balloon payment became due in 2002, Murphy dodged it by fashioning another underfunding plan, winning the pension board's acceptance with a promise to hike pension payouts and give special benefits to the union presidents. Now the FBI, the U.S. Attorney and the SEC are investigating the deal.

--By Terry McCarthy. With reporting by Jill Underwood/San Diego

Meeting Wednesday on the Comprehensive Plan Update and Historic Preservation

education_print.jpgFrom the "History is in our Hands" campaign from the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The Historic Districts Coalition, a developing group linking the various neighborhood preservation groups across the city (and modeled somewhat after the Historic Districts Council in New York City) has a meeting this Wednesday.

From Nancy Metzger:

What: District of Columbia Comprehensive Plan / Preservation Plan @ Historic Districts Coalition
Where: Christ Church Parish Hall, 620 G Street, SE
When: Wednesday, April 27, 2005
6:30 -- Light refreshments and networking
7:00 pm -- Meeting begins


Welcome and Introduction of Panelists -- Nancy Metzger, Capitol Hill Restoration Society
Agenda Overview -- Don Edwards, Facilitator, Institute for Global Communications
Comp Plan Overview -- Barry Miller, Assistant Director, Comprehensive Planning, Office of Planning Preservation Plan Overview -- Lisa Burcham, Associate Director, Historic Preservation Office, State Historic Preservation Officer
Questions and Comments -- Distinctions between the Preservation Plan and Comp Plan
Group Discussion -- Looking ahead 5 - 20 years, what are the key issues and opportunities relative to historic preservation
Ranking of Issues and Opportunities -- Audience members will rank the issues/opportunities identified to gauge the highest priorities
Policy Issues Related to highest ranking -- Discussion focusing on issues related to highest ranking priorities identified by the group
Next steps in the Planning Process -- Barry Miller and Lisa Burcham

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Thoughts about the Census projections for DC

Steve Morris writes:

You said in your testimony on the DC Main Streets program that "people are moving back to the city in droves." Capitol Hill seems to be growing with lots of new housing and apts. The Mayor agrees, but the Census numbers show a continuation of the city's declining population. What's your take on it? (This was first reported in "U.S. Census Bureau Foresees A Diminished District in 2030" in the Washington Post.)

census_dc_1870_dowd_sidneyA Census enumeration sheet for Washington County, District of Columbia, 1870. Image from

Richard Layman writes:

I admit that I don't get around to all parts of the city, but the Census projections make no sense to me. (1) There are many new units coming on line and occupied in Downtown, on 14th Street, Adams Morgan, Columbia Heights, Logan Circle, along Massachusetts Avenue NW, and in other places (although the rents seem high to me and I wonder if there will be an overhang of inventory soon) . (2) Many previously vacant houses are being renovated and occupied all over the city. (3) Infill housing is being constructed (e.g., I saw some units being constructed on 32nd St. between P and Q in Georgetown just the other day).

All this seems to add plenty of inventory which implies an increase in population.

But I am not familiar with the ins and outs of far southeast, where in particular many large families have been displaced and replaced with smaller households. Similarly large projects have been redone into a smaller number of total units, leading to big reductions in population for particular housing projects. And in the short run, upwards of a couple thousand people have been displaced at Capper-Carrollsburg, by the rebuilding of this housing project as part of a HOPEVI redesign, etc.

There was an excellent piece about the impact of HOPE VI, the overall reduction of dwelling units for the poorest among us, and displacement to PG County, called "Shouldering the Burden", in the Gazette Newspapers (Maryland counties) in 2003.

Similarly as rented households are converted to owner occupied dwellings, this is often accompanied by a decrease in household size (and an increase in rents, for existing units, as the supply contracts).

I do believe that household sizes are shrinking. But I think the in-migration is high. In short, I have a hard time believing the Census numbers. (And I worked on the 2000 Census.) Perhaps their models must project all center cities shrinking, with the possible exception of Manhattan and Brooklyn. I think Washington is an odd exception overall, partly because of the strength of the core employment center as a driver of demand for in-city housing, but also because the city is small (39 square miles of livable non-federal space) and with an urban design that favors livability, which is attractive as well, further driving demand for living in the center city as opposed to the suburbs.

It's not that other cities aren't growing in parts. E.g., certain neighborhoods in Baltimore, Philly's Center City, the University City District is growing marginally, etc., but overall these cities are still experiencing population declines. DC could be a Paris-like, Manhattan-like exception to the rule.

What do other people think?

Displacement of retail businesses through increasing property tax assessments

On the pro-urb list, there is a thread, still, about the gentrification article that ran in USA Today, based on the work of Columbia University Professor Lance Freeman. It reminded me of something that came up in the testimony about DC Main Street.

Here's what I wrote:

With regard to your point about displacement of small businesses from the commercial side, this came up in a hearing a couple days ago at the DC City Council. Councilmember Kwame Brown made the point that long time property owners that run retail businesses are being displaced, because of increasing valuations, which lead to increased property taxes, which end up taking a larger portion of the retail business revenue stream.

Extemporaneously, I made the point that the rule of thumb from the Main Street world is that businesses can afford 4-10% of their revenue stream to be paid for in rent (I know that restaurants pay more, etc.).

So I said that the city needs to take this into account when setting property tax assessment models for commercial properties, particularly in neighborhood commercial districts.

If assessments are greater than what the average business can afford to pay in rent, then such businesses and uses will be pushed out, perhaps unintentionally (or maybe not?, see Urban Fortunes), and chains will win out over locally owned and operated businesses.

Of course, the councilmember that asked the question didn't understand my response at all, which I found quite disappointing and disconcerting.

Signs, Signs, and the necessity of design review

In testimonies to the Zoning Commission (for the H Street Neighborhood Commercial District Overlay) and to the DC City Council Committee on Economic Development (about the DC Main Streets program), I submitted a document picturing various signs on H Street, to make the point about the necessity of sign guidelines as part of the overlay for the former, and for the necessity of design review in Main Street districts for the latter testimony. (Here's a related blog entry from last month.) The last two images are new.
415 H Street. Photo by Michael Berman.

This typical lightbox sign was purchased and installed as part of the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG)-funded facade improvements on H Street in 2003. It is counter to the recommendation of the signage recommendations in the Office of Planning produced Thrive: A Guide to Storefront Design in the District of Columbia, which recommends that alcohol, among other products, not be promoted, and that lightbox signs not be used as part of creating distinctive and quality storefronts.
506 and 508 H Street. Photo by Michael Berman.

The sign on the left was installed as part of the CDBG project. The two signs on the right have been installed within the past few months as part of the opening of two new businesses on the H Street corridor.

The new signs demonstrate that providing examples of quality signs such as through the "Expressive Signs" project from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities, isn't enough.

Review and guidelines seem to be required to ensure quality.
832 H Street. Photo by Michael Berman.

The newest "Stan's" sign was installed as part of the Expressive Signs project spearheaded by Derrick Woody of the Office of Planning and Economic Development, and implemented by the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities. The lightbox sign visible in the rear of the photo was installed as part of the CDBG program in 2003, and was moved to the east facade of the building in 2004.
1000 and 1002 H Street. Photo by Michael Berman. Run-of-the-mill signs on the H Street corridor.

New business on the 1000 block of H Street. Photo by Elise Bernard.

Signs installed within the past three months, another indication that a guidance and review procedure seem to be required to better ensure a quality signage environment.
Stalwart business on the 1300 block of H Street. Photo by Elise Bernard.

This new sign was installed as part of the Expressive Signs project.
Neon sign at R&B Cafe by Marty King. Photo by Elise Bernard. From the Expressive Signs project. (I really like Marty King's neon!)

There are a couple other examples of quality signage, including Urban Legends and the logo design for Stella Bleu, a salon-boutique. Lamentably, these are exceptions. We'll see what happens here...
Photo by Elise Bernard.


Friday, April 22, 2005

Yesterday's testimony on the DC Main Streets program

Yesterday, the City Council Committee on Economic Development held a hearing on funding for the DC Main Streets program, which for a time was in jeapordy, because the funding source originally provided is now fully tapped out.

I took the opportunity to raise some issues about additional steps the city (and community) needs to take in order to ensure greater success from such a program. I analyze the success of Barracks Row Main Street, to make indirect comparisons of other programs that are less likely to be successful.

And I point out the need for the creation of design overlays to ensure that public and private investment in these commercial districts isn't wasted through the ill-considered decisions of others. Included are photos of various sign installations, which illustrate the limited gains obtained through other city programs, because clearly good examples are not enough. More must be required to ensure a quality design environment on H Street and in other neighborhood commercial districts throughout the city. (The sign photos were also distributed to the Zoning Commission with regard to their hearing on the proposed H Street Neighborhood Commercial Overlay.)

Testimony Submitted to the DC City Council (slightly edited)
Committee on Economic Development
Thursday April 21st, 2004

Regarding the DC Main Streets Program and coordinating DC Government Policies and Actions to Ensure Successful Community Revitalization

My name is Richard Layman and I am a resident of the H Street NE neighborhood. I am a member of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the National Main Street Center, and other local and national organizations concerned with cultural heritage and tourism, new urbanism, and placemaking.

I was one of the founders of H Street Main Street, and currently I assist local community economic development efforts in Ivy City, Brookland, and Columbia Heights. However, these comments represent my own views and not those of any of the organizations with which I am affiliated.

The DC Main Streets program was created to direct financial and technical assistance towards the revitalization of neighborhood commercial districts throughout the city of Washington.
It is based on an intricate model of community economic development honed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation's National Main Street Center, beginning in the late 1970s*. The program's genesis was in the desire of preservationists to "save" dying small town downtowns.

Very soon into the program, the Trust realized that the issue wasn't saving the buildings as much as it was righting the economic model of the local commercial district, refocusing on how to make businesses successful, because it is the revenue of successful businesses that is required to be able to allow for proper building maintenance and property tax revenues great enough to pay for the kinds of services and communities that citizens desire. (*Some people consider Cornell New York to be the first Main Street program because in 1974, the City was the first in the country to hire a downtown retail coordinator. Certainly this influenced the National Trust's conception of how to develop the Main Street program in 1977.)

While the Main Street program started in small Midwest towns, by 1985 big city neighborhoods such as Pittsburgh's East Carson Street, and Boston's Roslindale, home of then City Councilman, now Mayor, Tom Menino, began participating.

Success in cities small and large proved that the Main Street model--based on ground-up citizen and stakeholder involvement, focused on assets of all kinds--people, organizational, and physical, partnerships between public and private organizations, committed to the Four Points of the Main Street approach--rebuilding the economic strength of the commercial district and its businesses through simultaneous attention on organization development, a high quality design of the physical environment, and promotion of the businesses and the district--would work anywhere.

The Main Street approach adapts the coordinated marketing model of the shopping center to the local commercial district, which is typified by independent property owners and independent businesses, as opposed to the one property owner of the Mall, standardized leases, and branches of national chains.

While each neighborhood commercial district and its history is unique--in DC and around the world--the trends that buffeted DC's commercial districts--upwards of five decades of neglect and disinvestment in the face of suburban out-migration, post-integration white flight, and business flight in response to development of the suburbs as well as the civil disturbances following Dr. King's assasination--are not.

DC is fortunate to have a strong employment center, behind only Manhattan and Chicago in terms of the number of people and businesses located and thriving at the center, even though our population is 5 to 13 times smaller than these cities.

Because of our great public transportation system, historic residential building stock, and an urban design that makes Washington neighborhoods walkable, livable, vital, and exciting, with of mix of uses throughout the day and into the evening, and a renewed interest in urban living, people want to live in our city once again, and people are moving back to the city in droves.

Despite this increased interest in urban living, the retail and development industries are still focused on and comfortable with the suburbs, not to mention these industries have become incredibly concentrated. In a time of hyper-competition impacting even the largest companies--we all know Hecht's is likely to become but another branch of Macy's--it is clear that neighborhood commercial districts need greater attention, organization, and citizen and stakeholder involvement and investment in order to be able to rebuild.

Because of the way the retail industry works, most of the city's funds and efforts have gone towards attracting large retail companies and developers, as signified by the efforts of the DC Marketing Center, the city and the Mayor exhibiting at the International Council of Shopping Centers annual meeting in Las Vegas, and the monies and incentives provided to attract various companies such as Home Depot or Best Buy.

This makes the DC Main Streets program, and the other programs in the ReSTORE DC program, and allied small business development programs in other agencies, all the more important.

DCMS directly serves 12 DC neighborhoods that have created "Main Street" programs that were designated by Mayor Williams as official Main Street communities. The DC Main Streets program serves as many other neighborhoods through the CD-TAP program, which helps to build the capacity of emerging commercial areas, such as Deanwood, Capitol Hill East, and Columbia Heights.

I implore you to take the time to correct this great oversight and ensure that these programs, to which the Williams Administration ostensibly made a minimum five year commitment, continue.
At the same time, I thought I would take a few moments to alert you to some gaps in how the city has approached the revitalization of our local commercial districts, in hopes that the City Council and the Committee on Economic Development can direct attention and effort to ensure that all District agencies are working towards the same objectives of building, extending, and enhancing a livable city for all.

Everyone talks about the great success of the Barracks Row Main Street program and I agree, it's great. But I think it's important to figure out why this is. In my analysis, I would argue that it is based on eight interconnected factors:

• High-quality community leadership, including residents and stakeholders at all levels; who are

• Committed to working together, despite the existence of pre-existing, possibly competitive organizations; and are

• Committed to implementing and following the Main Street Approach;

• Securing of additional financial support to supplement and extend the impact of monies awarded by the DC Government;

• Enlightened property owners;

• Business proprietors that know what they are doing;

• DDOT investment in and upgrading of the streetscape (a significant infrastructure investment greater than $8 million); and

• the fortuitous implementation of the Capitol Hill BID to provide daily cleaning and maintenance on the newly constructed sidewalks and streets of Barracks Row.

(It strikes me that the Mayor's "Great Streets" initiative is but a repackaging and extension of the great strides that the DC Department of Transportation is making throughout the city to recenter our "main" streets and commercial districts towards the resident and the pedestrian as opposed to a focus on helping cars, usually driven by commuters, in and out of the city as fast as possible. But implementation at the ground level, without using the ground-up citizen asset-based approach that the Main Street Approach is all about, should be of great concern.)

Skipping over the key investment in infrastructure that Barracks Row experienced, it is clear that their commitment to the Main Street model, to resident and stakeholder volunteers, based on a quality base of property owners and business owners is essential.

Unfortunately too many people throughout the city, the Main Street model is but one more in a long line of community revitalization programs, no better or no worse than any other.

The Barracks Row experience demonstrates that, with commitment to and implementation of the model that the Main Street program is (or can be) truly different, and successful in the face of myriad failures throughout the decades in this city, and across the country. (I have testified before City Council a number of times about these failures, as typified by the experience of community development corporations in this city and the use of CDBG monies.)

The Main Street districts that are having difficulties are not likely to share the success factors that make Barracks Row Main Street a contender for this year's "Great American Main Street" designation, which will be awarded at next month's National Main Street conference.
One of the difficulties is a failure to ensure that other District government agencies are equally committed to the development of exemplary programs and projects.

In 2003, I provided an extended testimony to the DC Department of Housing and Community Development, which discussed how a lack of concern on achieving quality in various CDBG projects actually reduced the likelihood of successful neighborhood revitalization. This is certainly the case on H Street, where in the past few years, close to $2 million has been expended on run of the mill efforts that have contributed little to the revitalization of the corridor, meanwhile the H Street Main Street program was working with less than $150,000 over the same period of time. (The testimony also focused on the execrable design of the new HSCDC constructed building at 721-727 H Street NE.)

The City of Cleveland has created a zoning overlay called a "Business Revitalization District" to "...ensure appropriate design of buildings, signage, and property in business areas targeted for concentrated improvements. More specifically, it is the purpose of this [zoning] chapter to achieve among others, the following objectives:

a) To preserve jobs, tax revenues and local services through the upgrading of business districts;
b) To safeguard the public investment in revitalization through prevention of inappropriate signage and property design in business areas targeted for concentrated public improvements and rehabilitation financing: and
c) To protect residential and commercial property values, particularly for businesses and residents committing private funds to rehabilitation in designated revitalization areas (Ord. No. 1664-88. Passed 10-3-88, eff. 10-6-8)."

This reasoning seems indisputable. Scarce economic resources, and in places where investment can be risky, requires that we ensure that property design, construction, and signage is created that meets the highest standards of quality urban design. (In any case, it is the opinion of this writer that all projects in the city, regardless of location, should attempt to achieve the best urban design standards and expectations, following the intentions of both the original L’Enfant Plan for the City of Washington, and its "successor," the McMillan Commission in 1901.)

High standards can best be attained through the application of design guidelines and careful project review. In fact, projects funded by various agencies of the DC Government, and in particular the DC Department of Housing and Community Development ,should set the standard for "appropriate design of buildings, signage, and property in business areas targeted for concentrated improvements." These projects have significant impact in neighborhoods throughout the city, and it is imperative to ensure that they are uniformly excellent!

This is particularly true on H Street NE, which is the fortunate beneficiary of a great deal of public investment –the Main Street program, the development of the H Street Strategic Development Plan by the Office of Planning, the Transportation Enhancement Program initiated by the DC Department of Transportation, and other programs, in addition to significant amounts of private investment. However, the same argument holds true for every neighborhood in the city.

In the testimony to DHCD, I made a number of recommendations that the City Council needs to consider with the aim of ensuring that public and private investments truly work together to bring about true community revitalization.

Recommendation 1: That the publication Thrive: A Guide to Storefront Design in the District of Columbia, produced by the DC Office of Planning, provides excellent design guidelines for property owners, and that projects funded with DC Government monies or federal monies administered by the DC Government, including all projects initiated by DHCD, should treat the Thrive guidelines as REQUIREMENTS to ensure quality design and improvements that truly forward the objectives of commercial district revitalization.

Recommendation 2: That DHCD create a set of design guidelines to be used in the development and execution of all renovation, rehabilitation, and construction projects undertaken, licensed, or funded, in whole or in part, by the agency.

Recommendation 3: That, as part of the contract agreement between grantees, DHCD, and the Government of the District of Columbia, and as a condition of receiving funding, all grantees of projects funded in whole or in part by DHCD shall be required to adhere to design guidelines and related requirements to ensure the production of quality projects that contribute positively to community and commercial revitalization in the District of Columbia.

Recommendation 4: That for designated DC Main Streets communities, Mayor Williams promulgate an Executive Order holding all Executive Agencies of the Government of the District of Columbia responsible for ensuring that agency policies, programs, and actions are implemented in concert with Main Street precepts for successful commercial district revitalization. This shall be done in consultation with the DC Main Streets office and individual Main Street programs throughout the city.

Recommendation 5: That, when the design guidelines are created by DHCD as a result of Recommendation 2 above, Mayor Williams promulgate an Executive Order holding all Executive Agencies of the Government of the District of Columbia responsible for adopting the guidelines, and incorporating them into all agency projects involving renovation, rehabilitation, or construction, including contracts with third parties.

Creating a companion "Revitalization District" law, to ensure appropriate design of buildings, signage, and property in business areas targeted for concentrated improvements be it through the DC Main Streets or other ReSTORE DC programs, through the new "Great Streets" or "New Communities" initiatives, or other programs, is as necessary to the Main Street program as its continued funding, and I hope that you will consider adding this to your Committee's agenda.

Thank you.

ARRGH--Flickr, my photo database, is down until late tonight, so I will have to insert the photographs tomorrow. I guess I will just put them in a separate entry. RL