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, July 01, 2011

Transportation and economic development: H Street edition

Yesterday included a press conference feel good event about the "completion" of the H Street streetscape improvement project, which really isn't totally finished, and it will be another two years or so before the streetcar system is up and running, after the construction of the electrical powering infrastructure (see "Ready for DC streetcars? It's going to be a while‎" from WTOP radio).

The press conference was bothersome to me somewhat because most of the people speaking and in attendance had nothing to do with what had happened, although they might have been involved in later phases of the actual construction.

Many other people should have been there and speaking, people like Karina Ricks, recently the Associate Director of Planning for the DC Department of Transportation, Kiran Mathema, then at Michael Baker Corp., the project manager for the streetscape and transportation study, and the designer of some of the key elements incorporated into the streetscape such as the metal "banners," former chair of ANC6A Joe Fengler, who we can call the "father of the streetcar tracks", even Gina Arlotto, the area resident whose idea about using conglomerate topped sidewalks comparable to those in the federal interest area like the National Mall led to their adoption on H Street and later to other commercial district areas in the city such as in Brookland.

Left: Metal banner designed by Kiran Mathema.

Be that as it may, I was really struck by something Mayor Gray said at the H St. press conference, which left me very unsettled, and wondering about whether or not he really understands why development happens where it does.

He applauded how the H St. project shows that development isn't just a downtown phenomenon, and is an indicator of spreading the benefits of development to other parts of the city.

But the real lesson is the value of better and/or high quality transit and investment in placemaking qualities in communities, and how this attracts development.

Development outside of the central business district doesn't happen everywhere. It's happening in the places in the city with the best transit connections. It's happening where the city is investing in high quality transit extensions, such as the streetcar on H Street, but in places that already have other attractive characteristics that support development such as location, density, existing connections, decent income potential, enlightened developers, property owners, and business proprietors, etc.

Mayor Gray sort of understands this. He talked about visiting Portland twice, and seeing the impact of the streetcar system there in terms of enhanced connectivity and economic development.

So the lesson should be to invest in transit, and invest in Metrorail expansion.

Even so, I have never gotten the feeling that Mayor Gray, Council Chairman Brown, and much of the Council understands this to the level that is necessary for it to be understood.

DC's #1 economic development priority needs to be transit development and extension, in order to maintain the ability to conduct "exchange" while minimizing the need to travel.

Except for Arlington, DC's commute times are at about the national average, while in the region, DC's average commute times are much lower than the other jurisdictions.

And as long as it is relatively easy to get around (certain entryways in and out of the city will always remain as significant chokepoints, especially during rush hours), people will continue to want to live here and businesses will continue to see the value in locating here (provided that other certain basic foundational qualities, such as safety, relatively stable government, quality housing stock, etc. remain in place).

But in order for such a stable state to be achieved, the focus on transit as economic development needs to be foremost, and within this context, there needs to be a recognition that streetcars are great for intra-city transit, but not a substitute for heavy rail maintenance and expansion.

From left: Harriet Tregoning, Director, DC Office of Planning; Julia Robey Christian, Director, Capitol Hill Area Merchants and Professionals Association; Mayor Vincent Gray; Anwar Saleem, Executive Director, H Street Main Street; Terry Bellamy, Director, DC Department of Transportation.

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