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.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

NoMA and urban revitalization and community involvement and lessons for PG County

One of happy byproducts of doing things in the community is that you meet other interesting and involved people from particular neighborhoods and around the city.

I suppose if you are a member of groups like the DC Federation of Civic Associations or the Committee of 100 on the Federal City you also get to meet people. I find those organizations to be somewhat hidebound and less interesting to me.

When you testify before City Council, contribute to DC Watch (or blogs), lead tours of interesting areas such as the Florida Market, are involved in quality ANC committees, etc., you do get to interact with people. This is important because otherwise there aren't good structures for bringing people of like minds together from across the city.
New York Avenue Metro Station
One of the people who came on the Florida Market tour on Saturday was Tony Goodman, a very much involved resident of the ANC6C area. He lives a couple blocks from the M Street entrance to the New York Avenue Metro Station and therefore just a couple blocks from 1st and M Streets NE, which is becoming the retail epicenter of the NoMA district--a 24 hour!!!!!! Harris-Teeter is opening there in December, a 24 hour CVS is opening across the street, and cafes and such are starting to open on the block as well.

How cool would it be to be able to walk in less than 10 minutes to a great grocery store 24 hours/day, not to mention having the Metro access, and the easy access to everywhere else provided by the Metro system?

Tony has been heavily involved in the ANC6C Planning, Zoning and the Environment Committee, so he has been very much focused on community-enhancements that can come about as a result of the various NoMA projects.

He came on the tour not because he needed to learn about the Market (he already knows) but to meet me. Afterwards, he took me on an impromptu tour of some of the things that are going on in NoMA from the retail and housing side, and it was very interesting and exhilirating.

Back in the Fall of 2001, I wrote an email of conjecture about the impact of urban trends favoring the city and especially the Metro and the Station Place development on the future of the H Street neighborhood, especially along the railyard. The conjecture never got to the "micro level" of a 24 hour grocery store and it's amazing to see these changes coming together, in ways that we may not have considered.

It's also interesting to see how projects that might have been crap in terms of what they contribute at a micro level (e.g., the ATF building) take on a different shade when you think of them in terms of the overall progress and development of the entire area, how certain projects even if not great, do in fact start the process of reconsideration of an area, which in turn can--if you have the right potential assets and opportunities--lead to significant redevelopment, revitalization, and improvement.

This is important in terms of another article in today's Post, "Online info is used to try to entice developers to Pr. George's Metro stations," about a report, released by the Coalition for Smarter Growth about transit-adjacent opportunities in Prince George's County, as well as an article in yesterday's Post about Rushern Baker becoming the next County Executive, and hopefully righting PG County's somewhat downward trend to cronyism and self-dealing, "In Prince George's, Baker has big plans to improve schools, make government accountable."

In some respects, I think this effort is a bit misdirected. It's important sure, but I don't think most nonprofit types are clued into all the resources and information systems that developers have access to. Developers in the region know all about the opportunities in Prince George's County. It's just right now for a variety of reasons, they are likely to make more money, with less risk, developing elsewhere.

When the broader conditions change, the most enlightened developers will scoop up those opportunities. That's the lesson of NoMA, even if all the developers aren't enlightened, merely smart enough to buy land located within 4 blocks of a subway station.

What I think is more important is preparing residents and other stakeholder groups for change and their ability to shape the opportunities in ways that best help the community and the region grow, change, and improve. Sure the Envision Prince George's planning effort is one such method. See also from the Post, "Pr. George's residents' vision for next 20 years presented." Having a pretty good planning department is another, and PG County does have a reasonably decent planning operation.

What makes a huge difference is the political environment generally (i.e., the Growth Machine) as well as having a good group of involved, engaged, focused, and broad-minded citizens able to help shape the changes in the right way. People like Tony Goodman. That's where PG County has been at a disadvantage.

Plus the county is so large physically, with different interests (urban/rural, inner county vs. outer county, higher income vs. lower income, ethnic and race differences, etc.) that organizing on a broader basis is challenging.

In DC, activists did not understand what a difference it would make to the investment and development community in 1999, once Marion Barry was no longer Mayor, having been replaced by Anthony Williams.

What we didn't understand is what I refer to as "the velocity of change." It's not like the term is unique to me. But the changes that came forward were like a tornado. There were lots of parallel changes, lots of things happening, and we didn't have the right knowledge and skill set to represent community interests. Or enough people.

Plus we still don't have a system that produces neighborhood plans, so communities don't have a good framework from which to address multiple concerns simultaneously, working from a list of consensus priorities.

Plus, we don't have a transportation vision plan. And we lack a bunch of the necessary tools ("transportation management districts" urban-appropriate zoning codes, stronger requirements for design review, etc.) that help shape development in community-supportive ways. Etc.

That is the biggest thing. Advocates lacked the tools necessary to be able to best respond to the potential of and forces for change that were unleashed by the election of Anthony Williams as Mayor of DC in 1998.

The election of Anthony Williams made a huge difference, and came at a good time for the city, as various trends began to show significant takeup in terms of pro-urbanism/pro-living in the city/pro-investing in the city. But we didn't reap all that we could have in terms of "community benefits" because we weren't prepared.

DC of course has huge advantages compared to many communities:

- it has the steady employment engine of the federal government
- it has a pretty good transit system (it still needs investment and to be expanded)
- it has attractive housing stock and neighborhoods
- it has a pedestrian, bicycle, and transit friendly urban design given to us by L'Enfant
- it has history, identity, and authenticity.

(These are the five key competitive advantages that DC has vis-a-vis other communities in the metropolitan area and vis-a-vis other center cities along the east coast.)

PG County doesn't have these advantages in the same manner as DC. Most importantly, it lacks the right urban form to properly leverage investment in transit and higher intensity housing. It has a huge advantage though in having the University of Maryland and various federal research facilities such as one of the USDA experiment stations in Greenbelt, not to mention getting various federal facilities as DC-based space becomes more expensive.

Even if PG County doesn't have the same advantages as DC, activists there need to prepare for the velocity of change that can be unleashed by the change in the political and economic climate towards fairness and honesty.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a post about how "chance favors the prepared city."

Posts on chance and the prepared city:

-- How will Obama relate to the District?
-- End of starchitecture?
-- "Chance" continues to favor the prepared road builders

The point is that you have to have the right plans and community capacity in place in order to be able to reap the full advantages of the opportunities that come your way.

In other words, you worry about affordable housing and policies like inclusionary zoning before change is unleashed, not as a response many years after the problem becomes evident.

That's where PG County is now.

DC is still in the process of developing those plans. And after 12 years of change, that's almost too late.

The thing about meeting Tony Goodman finally (we have had e-dealings over the years) is that it renewed my faith in community involvement and that the city still has the potential and opportunity to improve.

I am kinda burned out in terms of the city and its future. But I realize that is in part the result of a change in what I myself am interested in and work on. I am interested in the big picture, big trends, in comparing cities, in working on big problems.

When you take on programs that take decades to see significant change, it's easy to get discouraged.

When you see the kinds of projects happening in NoMA and recognize that it takes the concerted effort of many interests and stakeholders, and that the results can be positive and can occur faster than you might think is possible -- 6 to 10 years -- it refreshes your outlook.
Image of construction in NoMA from the Invest Dest(ination) website which has an interesting article about this issue from the perspective of developers, "Washington DC: Best US Investment Destination for 2009."

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