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.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Is commercial district revitalization racist?


According to H Street Main Street and various African-American business owners on H Street it is, based on an article, "H Street Revitalization Hits a Snag," in the Washington Informer.

From the article:

A group of African-American vendors who operate small businesses along the busy H Street corridor in Northeast, have expressed dismay over a revitalization project, four years in the making, that has not only derailed sales, but resulted in the closing of some 30 shops and the tax sale of several others. ...

“We had instituted a deal with the city for a tax delay for merchants but they were not afforded that relief,” said Anwar Saleem 56, executive director of H Street Main Street, the nonprofit which was created in 2002 as a voice for businesses and residents along the corridor. Saleem lives in Northeast and owns a beauty parlor on H Street. ...

Saleem further noted that construction along the 13-block area that stretches from Benning Road onto H Street – and which has included installation of new utility lines, median strips and tracks for a new trolley service – was supposed to have paved the way for new businesses while helping to strengthen existing establishments.

He said that instead, the project has appeared to be a form of “forced urban gentrification,” the result of “unsophisticated city leaders” who have failed to understand economic revitalization.

In making his point, Saleem referred to a growing influx of white entrepreneurs armed with grant money, tax abatements and other perks, who have set up shop in the predominantly black community.

I don't know the breakdown of tax breaks and other assistance on H Street. Heretofore, not much money has gone to individual businesses at all, more to property owners, except for a few rounds of facade improvements.

Interestingly, night time shuttle bus service (which I was against for other reasons, believing that the focus should have been on enhancing the extant bus service on H Street, which is amongst the most frequent in the city), is called racist in the article:

Pam Johnson, 49, a real estate broker who also owns property along the corridor, lives in Northwest. She said her main contention has been with shuttle buses. “I pay taxes just like all these other businesses on H Street but the city, under Fenty decided to subsidize the shuttle bus” Johnson said, referencing the $500,000 the District is expected to shell out for the project over a two-year period. ...

However, Johnson said the shuttle would only serve businesses along the corridor that operate from 5 p.m. until 3 a.m. Since most of the black businesses that still exist there are closed those hours, Johnson said they would be further pushed out of the loop.

“It’s not equitable nor is it fair for us,” Johnson said. “We’ve been working on this for the last six months – and maybe even longer, begging the city for assistance.” She added that with property taxes having escalated, she wondered why minority businesses would have to pay as much in taxes as the new white-owned bars and clubs.

“So I see it as discrimination with the city providing selective assistance to certain types of businesses,” Johnson said.
H Street shuttle bus
Youch. The point of the shuttle bus was to make it easier for nonresidents to come to the corridor at night and patronize businesses there.

This is one of the perception problems that comes from creating what I call "political bus services." Shuttle buses for the most part are a political response to business people claiming that they need more people to patronize their businesses, without a deeper look into other issues impacting their business, such as the quality of the business, marketing, etc.

The problem with the H Street corridor as a _retail_ destination is that there isn't a lot of retail business there, except for convenience goods (foods, basic pharmacy, hardware) and services, especially hair care.

I do agree that during periods of road reconstruction, that extra steps need to be taken to support extant businesses. Raising tax assessments during this period seems to be a big mistake. And somehow, the city could reduce tax assessments during such reconstruction periods. Although DC is not the only city in the U.S. that mishandles this.

But the deeper issue is the quality of business district as a whole as well as the quality of each individual business. As far as the business district goes, this is what I call "The soft side of commercial district competition," because people know what your place offers and they compare it to their other options. It doesn't pay to not be direct about your offer, because your customers make their choices based on reality.

One thing that the Main Street program doesn't do, and no commercial district revitalization program really does is an individual analysis of each business, something like these:

- Restaurant Business Check up survey
- Retail Business Check up survey

combined with a kind of complementary business analysis for each business focused on making connections between merchants and their customer bases. Basically an application of the Project for Public Spaces Place Game but focused on businesses, not places per se. But of course, the Place Game as it is can be a good way for a neighborhood and/or commercial district to begin a process of self-evaluation.

There is no question that the business district is being reproduced into a night-time destination attractive to hipsters etc. See the 2005 Washington Post article "Plans to Set The Bar High On H Street NE."

But this is but a point in the process of strengthening the commercial district overall.
Developments on the 300, 690, and 800-900 blocks will significantly upgrade the quality of the retail, providing anchors, and therefore more reasons for people to patronize the district during more traditional "shopping hours" (during the day, every day of the week).

Is that racist? I don't think so. But it is change.

Also see these series of blog entries from 2006:

- Commerz in the 'hood... (aka Commerce is the Engine of Urbanism)
- Commerz in the 'hood, part two
- Commerz in the 'hood, part three
- Commerce dans de quartier de la ville, partie quatre

The Informer article ends with this:

Nevertheless, Bachir said many of the now-defunct businesses had been doing well until the revitalization project. He said for that matter, the project was flawed in its design, implementation and approach – mainly because it has not been inclusive of stakeholders.

“It should have been designed in a way that’s inclusive to businesses and beneficial to the community with positive impacts,” Bachir said.

“We don’t doubt the benefits this revitalization could bring for small minority businesses, but the way in which it is being implemented has been really harmful to existing businesses.

I don't think this is true, at least about the businesses being successful before the street reconstruction. The reason that the Main Street program was created was to build business for a seen to be declining business district. Many businesses, long before the commencement of the street reconstruction program a couple years ago, had been complaining about an ongoing decline in business.

I opined in 2004 that this was a result of the business district being focused on the lower income consumer, how similar districts in the region (such as the former shopping center in Landover where Walmart is now and Iverson Mall) were declining, and that was likely an indicator that the number of low income consumers is decreasing and that the commercial district and individual stores need to reposition.

Probably the reconstruction and loss of business was the kicker that put many already marginal businesses under.

A lot of this was predicted.
Heritage & Change bus advertisement for H Street NE, DC
Old-School & Cutting Edge bus advertisement for H Street NE, DC
Was this kind of advertising (and ads in the Hill Rag) really going to get people to come out and patronize marginal retail businesses on H Street or at Hechinger Mall? (I also saw an inside the bus placard ad similar in design to that used on the H Street Shuttle, but I didn't have my camera with me at the time...)

I think that the problems resulted because of a focus on things like marketing--trying to get more people to come to a commercial district that was already uncompetitive--rather than assisting businesses in changing for new consumer segments, while providing financial assistance (lower taxes especially) during the reconstruction period.

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