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.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Community benefits agreements: revised (again)

In February, I came out with a revised discussion and structure for thinking about community benefits agreements associated with development projects, in "Community benefits agreements (revised)."

That piece said that proffers can be categorized as one of four types:

1. National benefits;
2. City-wide benefits;
3. Neighborhood benefits within a geographically defined area such as an ANC; and
4. Micro-benefits within a couple block radius of the project.

I think this needs a slight refinement, because building-specific design improvements are so significant and needed that they should to be separated out into a separate category thusly:

1. National benefits;
2. City-wide benefits;
3. Building-specific design improvements;
4. Neighborhood benefits within a geographically defined area such as an ANC; and
5. Micro-benefits within a couple block radius of the project.

Building-specific design improvements would be things like masonry instead of siding, having design gee-gaws like a building clock viewable by all.

In the previous typology, I included these types of benefits within the micro-benefits category, writing this:

A possible improvement would be urban design additions to the project that the developer does not want to make because of value engineering desires. This is a tougher nut to crack, and could be considered a neighborhood improvement as well.

For example, I was not able to convince the developer of the 600 H project to develop the south side of the project, rear buildings which will border houses and a historic alley, to comparable to traditional rowhouses--think crappy south Fairfax new townhouses around Fort Belvoir vs. the 1890s brick rowhouses that typify Greater Capitol Hill.

Partly this was a failure due to their suburban design sensibilities, but part was over cost, as the labor cost for traditional masonry is $15/s.f., much higher than the cost of slapping up a commercial window or some hideous siding.
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So here is the rewrite of that section:

How should a community structure its thinking about community benefits?

Proffers can be categorized as one of five types:

1. National benefits;
2. City-wide benefits;
3. Neighborhood benefits within a geographically defined area such as an ANC;
4. Building-specific design improvements; and
5. Site/area physical improvements located within a couple block radius of the project, the area most impacted by the project during and after construction.

National benefits. This category covers green/environmental/LEED type requirements. Generally, these kinds of investments pay back to the developer, and for the most part are "merely" good business practices that deserve little in the way of special consideration when valuing community benefits agreements.

It is important that these types of project improvements be considered in an absolute rather than a relative manner. E.g., who cares if a gas station has a couple solar panels? And losing the embodied energy of a building through demolition can likely not be recovered through green construction practices on new construction.

However, building materials recycling should be considered a national benefit deserving of special consideration as a proffer, because the cost of deconstruction is higher than standard demolition. Construction materials make up 50% of the waste stream and much could be recovered through building deconstruction.

City-wide benefits. This category relates to city-wide policy, and would cover affordable housing, DC-based employment agreements, minority contracting requirements, and transportation demand management requirements, etc. These are public policies that serve the city more broadly, rather than the specific neighborhood in which a project is located.

Employment and contracting requirements should be considered standard business practices not deserving of special consideration. Affordable housing requirements do cost money and should be awarded consideration.

Transportation demand management practices (spaces for car sharing, secured bicycle facilities, showers [for office developments]) should have been required as part of the recent Comprehensive Plan revision but were not. ANCs could step and demand that TDM planning and facilities be required for new housing and commercial developments.

Certain of these investments could be considered community amenities to the extent that they provide neighborhood benefits beyond benefits strictly for users of the site, such as car sharing spaces where the car can be used by members not living on the property and shared parking facilities.

Funding improvements of important city-wide projects could also be included within the proffer system, e.g., the rehabilitation of a cultural resource asset such as a neighborhood movie theater, deaccessioned school building, etc.

Neighborhood benefits. This category would encompass proffers that are directed to facilities, organizations, services, and residents located within the defined geographical area where the project is located. For example, affordable housing, hiring policies, and business source agreements that target neighborhood/Ward residents and businesses specifically would be considered community benefits deserving of special consideration.

So would improvements made to local public schools, parks, and libraries. Or assistance made to important neighborhood projects. (For example, in the H Street neighborhood, proffers could have been used to help fund the cost of rehabilitating the Atlas Theater.)

Other examples of neighborhood benefits would be the provision of shared parking facilities, i.e., a parking garage supporting residents but also providing access to consumers visiting an adjacent commercial district, funding of historic preservation/cultural resource surveys, paying into community development education programs at the neighborhood level, funding of commercial and neighborhood improvement projects such as:

• community heritage/history interpretation and signage programs;
• public art projects;
• business directories/maps for installation in neighborhood-commercial bus shelters;
• bus stop, treebox, street furniture, sidewalk lighting, and other streetscape/infrastructure improvements deemed important by a neighborhood;
• neighborhood marketing programs including the development of brochures, booklets, and banner programs;
• traffic calming projects including bulb outs;
• funds paid into business development programs to support the development and improvement of local retail and home-based businesses; etc.

For example, in Brookland, the east side of the station does not have a canopy over the escalator/stairs. The cost to install a canopy is $900,000, and installation of such at the Brookland station is not currently scheduled. Proffers could fund the installation of a canopy there independent of WMATA funding streams.

Similarly, the 600 H Street NE development has agreed to pay for the creation of a mid-block crosswalk and the cost of the installation of a traffic signal. The signal alone costs $150,000.

Building-specific design improvements. A possible improvement would be urban design additions to the project that the developer does not want to make because of value engineering desires. This is a tougher nut to crack, and could be considered a neighborhood improvement as well.

For example, I was not able to convince the developer of the 600 H project to develop the south side of the project, rear buildings which will border houses and a historic alley, to comparable to traditional rowhouses--think crappy south Fairfax new townhouses around Fort Belvoir vs. the 1890s brick rowhouses that typify Greater Capitol Hill.

Partly this was a failure due to their suburban design sensibilities, but part was over cost, as the labor cost for traditional masonry is $15/s.f., much higher than the cost of slapping up a commercial window or some hideous siding.

Site/area physical improvements. This category covers activities benefiting the area immediately around the specific development activity, the area that is most impacted physically, and on a day-to-day basis, by the project both during construction, and after it is finished. This includes streetscape improvements and other enhancements.

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