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, October 20, 2006

Testimony on the Florida Market New Towns proposal

This is probably my tightest, most direct testimony ever. I printed it off already. Two typos are corrected in this version. The hearing is at 2 pm.

Testimony by Richard Layman
Citizens Planning Coalition

Regarding Bill 16-868, "New Town at Capital City Market Revitalization Development and Public/Private Partnership Act of 2006"

Before the Committee on Economic Development
District of Columbia City Council

Friday October 20, 2006


Thank you Councilmember Ambrose and members of the Committee for the opportunity to testify before you today. I am Richard Layman, a resident of Ward 6, and I am active on a wide variety of issues concerning revitalization of center cities generally, and Washington, DC specifically. With others I am working to relaunch the Citizens Planning Coalition, a grassroots organization created in the late 1970s to address concerns arising from the first post-Home Rule Comprehensive Planning process.

It's hard to know where to begin when discussing problems with the proposed legislation.

These days, farmers and public markets are one of the hottest trends in urban revitalization. For the past three years, the Ford and Kellogg Foundations, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, all in association with the Project for Public Places, have been assisting the development of new public and farmers markets and related efforts across the country. Before this, the Kellogg Foundation published a groundbreaking report linking markets to successful stabilization of distressed urban neighborhoods and the development of entrepreneurialism generally, as well as the fostering of new businesses.
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Public Markets as a Vehicle for Social Integration and Upward Mobility -- Ford report
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San Francisco, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Vancouver, Washington, and other communities have constructed new public market and food distribution facilities. Extant markets in Detroit, Philadelphia, Cleveland, even our own Eastern Market in DC, are experiencing a resurgence of interest and success as they reach out to new customer segments, and to people rediscovering the attraction of the center city.

There is no reason why Washington's Florida Market can't enjoy the same kind of success.

Since the 1930s, the Florida Market--then called the Union Market, and later renamed the Capital City Market--has served as Washington's primary wholesale food distribution center. Many of the largest food distribution companies in the region--each company doing millions of dollars of business annually and employing hundreds of workers--were once located in the Florida Market (that many of these businesses are no longer based in DC should be a matter of great concern). Fine dining restaurants complemented the various wholesale and retail vendors, bakeries, and purveyors.

Today, while needing a good dose of love, attention, and spiffing up--the Florida Market offers tremendous potential and extant strengths. A great variety of food-related businesses are housed there, ranging from one of the best Italian delis south of Brooklyn, to a major catering company, butchers, Korean, African, Latino, Caribbean, Middle Eastern groceries, pasta and noodle production houses, and more.

Businesses in the Florida Market:

(1) employ as many as 2,000 people;
(2) serve thousands of small business and institutional customers--corner stores, restaurants, carryouts; churches; etc.
(3) serve tens of thousands of individual consumers, especially those of limited means; and
(4) are a source of tremendous entrepreneurial energy.

And for those of us living in Ward 6, which abuts the market, it is our neighbor and grocery. Its future is a matter of great concern to us.

The new connectivity offered by the New York Avenue Metro station, as well as the new housing that is being or will be built in NoMa and in Near Northeast along the railyard (starting with the Children's Museum development spearheaded by Abdo Development, with your support Councilmember Ambrose), provides great numbers of potential customers close by as well as the ability to reach new customer segments throughout the region. Both can help to reenergize the Florida Market as a destination.

In 2004 and 2005, the Office of Planning conducted an Economic Revitalization Study for Cluster 23, which includes the Florida Market area. Instead of suggesting that the Florida Market area be eradicated, the plan recognized the benefit of strengthening and extending the character of the market, along the lines of successful efforts elsewhere.

One underappreciated gem is the DC Farmers Market building in the Florida Market. It's much larger compared to Eastern Market. It has many more vendors, offers dry goods and sundries, although it aims at more lower- and middle- income demographics in comparison to Eastern Market.

The Italian Market in Philadelphia is perhaps a perfect example of what could be achieved with the Florida Market. With stores ranging from barebones groceries and butcher shops to a kitchen store that puts Williams-Sonoma to shame, along with gourmet cheese shops, coffee shops, restaurants, and other attractions, the Italian Market meets the needs and interests of a wide variety of customers, from people of lesser means to the epicure. Everybody mixes and has fun, and enjoys the great prices. (I always wonder why prices in Philadelphia--at the Italian Market and Reading Terminal Market both--are so much cheaper compared to Washington's Eastern Market.)

The Florida Market area offers tremendous opportunity. Vision and execution of that vision is what is required:

-- Bakeries and tortilla manufactories are needed.
-- So are restaurants.
-- and wayfinding systems and marketing assistance.
-- The land owned by Gallaudet University could be put to better, market-supporting, use.
-- Certain parcels could be expanded upwards, offering more space for food-related businesses.
-- Space is needed for a plaza and other spaces that can accommodate festivals -- ranging from the Italian Festivals sponsored in the Italian Market in Philadelphia and in Little Italys across the U.S., to events celebrating the end of Ramadan or Nigerian Independence Day.
-- Why not incorporate space that allows for cooking classes and nutrition education, perhaps in conjunction with the DC Office on Aging, and WIC programs, and the DC Public Schools?
-- In Athens, Ohio) and Greenbelt Maryland, community kitchens, with commercial certification, are used to support the development of food-related businesses, including catering.
-- The H Street Community Market, or another organic food oriented business would allow the filling of a hole in current market offerings.
-- Even the latest trend--franchises such as "Build-a-Meal" type operations where customers come in to prepare a week's worth of meals--in a commercial kitchen, with ingredients already diced and sliced--and take the items home for freezing and eating throughout the week.
-- And the possible forced closing of the Burtonsville Maryland Amish Market offers additional opportunity.

But instead of considering the vision sparked by the DC Government in the Cluster 23 Economic Revitalization Study, let us consider the New Towns proposal.

I am not fond of using the word "gentrification" because it is politically charged, often an epithet, and it usually doesn't afford a nuanced view of change, especially because most new investments in neighborhoods should be applauded, not derided.

Generally, gentrification refers to a process where "improvement" comes about by displacing poorer people in favor of people who are more well off financially, more advantaged.

The New Towns plan is gentrification, pure and simple.

It proposes to get rid of sometimes gritty businesses and gritty customers, in favor of something new and seemingly more pretty. The New Towns proponents ignore the asset-based revitalization strategies suggested by the Cluster 23 Economic Revitalization Study.

From the standpoint of design, the New Towns proposal is a fundamentally suburban idea, designed by suburban-based architects, oriented to the car, for a space in the heart of the city that is fundamentally urban.

The New Towns group misleads and seeks support by subterfuge, by using the chimera of "affordable housing" to justify destroying hundreds of businesses and thousands of jobs (and at the cost of hundreds of millions of city-provided subsidies which they do not acknowledge when making public presentations).

The New Towns group tells the extant businesses that there is a place for them in the new proposal, without being honest about how the cost of new construction means much much higher rents, probably 4 to 6 times higher than what they are paying now, price hikes that will likely put them out of business.

If the New Towns proponents are being honest about keeping the food businesses and adding housing, they are setting from the outset a massive disconnect between residents likely desiring peace and quiet with the rumbling trucks and constant traffic of a busy food distribution area.

The Florida Market is a light industrial area. It is not a shopping mall or a quiet residential neighborhood with limited activity. Bringing residents into proximity with such businesses will only create a lobby seeking to shut the businesses down. This is a recipe for failure--if keeping some form of market is truly desired.

At this time, any proposal to add housing to the Florida Market area should probably be rejected, until significant further study of the possible and likely consequences is conducted.

The New Towns proponents tell owners of properties eligible for historic designation that to participate in the proposed plan, that they will be forced to upgrade their properties "to historic standards" even though nothing in the DC Historic Preservation Laws requires such an investment.

The New Towns proponents get Gallaudet's support, by promising to trade the two parcels in the market that Gallaudet owns, in return for Hamilton School, property coveted by Gallaudet for decades, even though the Hamilton School site is controlled by DC Public Schools, and is scheduled to be used as swing space for school reconstruction efforts for years to come.

And in the post Kelo v. City of New London era, where property rights advocates across the country are seeking strictures on the ability of municipalities to exercise eminent domain authority--in fact Councilmember Schwartz has entered such a bill in this session of Council-- New Towns proponents are already threatening to condemn the properties of merchants who are unwilling to toe the line.

Not to mention the hundreds of millions of dollars of city monies the New Towns proponents seek to make this project happen.

What is more amazing to me is that anyone can propose such a bill, and that DC City Council procedures do not require that before such a bill is entered, that an economic and market study be performed in advance of Council consideration, to provide assessment of the viability of the plan as offered.

Neither is it required that rather than give exclusive authority to one group without seeking competitive proposals, a Request for Proposals be issued --an open, transparent process designed to attract the best, most mutually agreeable proposal.

Instead, we have before us a project designed to enrich a small group of investors at the expense of 600,000 residents of the City of Washington, 2,000 employees suddenly jobless, 200 destroyed businesses, and as many as 100,000 destroyed customer relationships, both small businesses and individuals--forced to seek new places to buy, possibly outside of the District proper, recognizing that some of the small business customers, reliant on the low prices available in the Florida Market, will end up closing as well once the fundamental character of the Market is destroyed by the New Towns proponents.

Right now, vendors are afraid. Many wanted to be here today, but because this hearing is scheduled on one of their busiest days (Friday), they cannot attend. But many have discussed with me how they have suspended any plans they have to invest in their facilities, because they don't know what is going to happen, if their businesses will be forced to close.

Apparently, the City Administrator "ordered" the Office of Planning to work with the New Towns proponents, to discuss future plans for the market. But the New Towns proponents are holding meetings that violate the spirit of this agreement, implying to vendors that they also represent the DC government's interests in their presentation, meanwhile, no Planning and other agency personnel are at the table, part of the discussions, or part of the public presentations that the New Towns proponents are making.

Some of the vendors and property owners are aware of the recent NoMa study, and of the Cluster 23 plan, and they are asking why are the New Towns proposals not subject to the same kind of open process that requires public participation?

In the past few months, we have sponsored a tour of the market once/month. We've not massively promoted any of the tours, but we have had as many as 20 attendees. We take them around to about 15 places in the Florida Market that sell retail. Most are amazed. Even people who live within a block or two of the market area don't know about all the riches that are contained within it.

One person commented, upon entering Obeng International Market, which specializes in African food items, with an active butchery on the premises, and African music played proudly and loudly on the premises, that he felt that he was in a market or bazaar in Africa, not in DC.

The Florida Market is truly one of the only places in the city (Eastern Market is another) where all kinds of people of widely differing faiths, races, ethnicities, income, and other characteristics, come together. In a city that claims to be "world class" and "international," the Florida Market is one of the only places in the city where the walk truly meets the talk.

To destroy it is to destroy authenticity, and replace it with some sort of modern suburban-like New Town subdivision, rather than respect and extend the urbanity that makes Washington DC an attractive place to live today.

I have to assume that most Councilmembers are unfamiliar with the Florida Market. I would ask that Councilmembers or at least some of your staff members actually tour the market, talk with some of the vendors--customers too--so that you can arm yourselves with information about what the market really is and assess the opportunities. Up to now, you have not been given the full story.

Until this changes, and until the Cluster 23 Economic Revitalization Plan is moved forward to Council--the Mayor's hearing is scheduled for next week--it does not make sense to move forward with this bill.

That is our preference and recommendation, that this bill not move forward, pending Council consideration and action on the Cluster 23 Economic Revitalization Plan and the NoMa Plan, as these plans set the framework for general planning and land use actions in the greater area, and provide the framework with which to judge the appropriateness and viability of the New Towns proposal and any other proposals that may be offered for this district.

Thank you.

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Addendum -- this is something I wrote in October 2005, which is relevant to the consideration of such proposals as Bill 16-868.

After the fallout after the Kelo decision, some professors wrote a great op-ed in the Boston Globe, offering guidance on the ideal way for municipal agencies to approach the very difficult and seemingly sensitive issue of eminent domain.

Big projects are not the only hope for center cities, and cities do need to continue to grow and change to meet new realities, and big projects are part of this process. And I will say that Eminent Domain is a tool that cities need to be able to use to push foward. But it is a tool that needs to be used with great care, and with a great deal of transparency. Too often it is seen, justifiably, as a tool to make already rich people richer, and so people paint it with the same "noxious use" brush that I call "blaming the building" in another context.

In the Boston Globe op-ed "Make eminent domain fair for all," the authors make some good points about how such takings should be evaluated. I think the suggestions they offer provide a good framework for considering public-private undertakings of all sorts.

From the article:

State court judges have emphasized in the past that, to comply with the Massachusetts Constitution's own requirement that eminent domain be for a public use, the government must demonstrate that eminent domain will really benefit the public. New legislation could respond to that by:

-- Requiring, as Justice Anthony M. Kennedy suggested in his Kelo concurrence, that any exercise of eminent domain for economic development have a primarily public purpose rather than a merely incidental one.

-- Requiring the government to demonstrate the public benefit through a full-scale financial analysis that could be challenged in court.

-- Requiring that eminent domain not be used for a solely fiscal purpose and that it instead must be part of a comprehensive land use plan.

-- Requiring that the affected neighborhood have adequate participation in the planning process, a right that would be backed up by state-provided technical assistance upon the neighborhood's request.

I think these are pretty good guidelines that appear to be blown off by too many jurisdictions. It is for this reason, not just ur-beliefs about the sanctity of property rights, that so many people are so concerned and worked up about eminent domain issues.

We need this set of procedures to be added to DC Law, providing for a vetting of such proposals before DC residents get saddled with the results of ill-formed proposals.

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