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, August 04, 2011

Nuanced approaches are really hard

Image: Mixed use development in the Hollywood District of Portland, Oregon. Photo by Lara Swimmer.

In a world where everything is yes/no, the "third way" based on more nuanced approaches are increasingly rare and misunderstood. (My problem, my "ability" to see multiple shades of gray or gradations, actually holds me back in a world that wants simple answers.)

The City Paper criticized people "against" the creation of a proposed homeless shelter operation in "NIMBY Watch: Anacostia Protesting Homeless Women." The "nimbys" responded in a piece in Greater Greater Washington, "Homeless shelter with no retail will hinder Anacostia," which led to another WCP piece, "What I Talk About When I Talk About NIMBYism."

For me the issue is more complicated than calling people "nimbys."

First is the concern that in commercial districts, ground floor space should be used primarily by commercial establishments.

Because for the most part a variety of noncommercial establishments are also considered matter of right uses in commercial zones, commercial users can be crowded out by nonprofits who can outbid for-profit businesses using noneconomic considerations, other funding sources, and the fact that they don't have to pay property taxes.

The fewer the number of spaces in a commercial district directed to retail, restaurants, and attractions, the greater is the reduction in street vitality and the potential for commercial success.

Some commercial districts in the city have additional zoning protections (neighborhood commercial district overlays) that can require that a minimum percentage of ground floor space be directed to retail uses (or maximums for food-related services), but for the most part, these types of protections aren't present generally in the zoning regulations, which are mostly focused on minimum rather than optimal requirements.

Seattle has a more fine grained approach to use requirements in its commercial districts (even if I don't agree with how they classify certain of the uses, such as banks), classifying uses based on their pedestrian traffic generation qualities, mapping all locations within the commercial districts for their street vitality characteristics, and requiring that B and C uses cannot be put in A locations.

DC needs something more like this requirement.

(Similarly, DC needs a more fine grained approach on a block by block basis for design in commercial districts in the city. Opposition to higher buildings at key nodes such as at 8th and Pennsylvania Ave. SE or in Anacostia (see "Why Aren’t These Buildings Taller?" from the City Paper) tends to not acknowledge that nodes (usually at key intersections where major north-south and east-west streets cross) have different design considerations from other blocks within a commercial districts because they are gateways.)

Second, some people have expressed concerns that the proposed building will eliminate historic building stock, which isn't beneficial to the ability of the commercial district to present a unique positioning vis-a-vis other commercial locations in the regional retail landscape.

Being a fervent preservationist, I lean to this position, although in some instances, if considerable new value is created, it can be acceptable ("special merit") to demolish and replace, especially for very ordinary buildings. (I don't know the specifics of the situation with this particular project so I can't comment further.)

Criticizing preservationists for being preservation focused without acknowledging the reasoning behind preservation-based commercial district revitalization is unfair.

Third, some people have expressed concerns that opposition to the social service organization is unfair because they do good work, while others make the over-concentration argument, that having an overconcentration of social service facilities in a particular location makes revitalization difficult.

It happens that I am in favor of the overconcentration argument, for which I was an early proponent of concerning the sales of alcoholic beverages in the city ("Restaurants and liquor licenses--How much is too much on H Street?" from 2005), and I have made a case for this argument as it relates to social service facilities and churches ("Balancing the provision of social services facilities vs. overconcentration and "nimbyism"").

Pointing to an organization's good work as an excuse for ignoring problems with particular proposals should never be supported.

These are tough issues, and reflexively calling "opponents" to a shelter proposal "nimbys" fails to address in a substantive way the actual issues.

I have mentioned in other writings about Anacostia (this entry has back links to many of my best writings on the topic "New Years post #7: Anacostia and sustainable economic development and revitalization") that for all intents and purposes, there isn't a master revitalization plan for the community (the issue of whether or not it would be a creative, innovative plan is another question entirely).

This is but one example of an issue that ought to be addressed in a truly comprehensive and innovative plan.

1. Be that as it may, I do think that Anacostia needs to have overlay zoning for the commercial district requiring a variance process for nonretail use on the first floor, and a special exception process that makes agreements for nonretail use to be granted only for a particular period of time, with mandatory review (see section two of this entry for a discussion of a similar procedure in Laguna Beach, California, "The rest of the story").

2. But really this should be a general requirement in the zoning regulations, not specific to any particular district.

3. Separately, but equally important, there are examples of how government building and social service type uses can be integrated into communities in ways that further retail and commercial district revitalization objectives, although it is relatively rare and very rare in DC.

This should be a required provision for first floor uses of government and social services buildings in mixed use districts.

DC has many examples of bad practice (Reeves Center, H St. Community Development Corp. office buildings on the 600 block of H Street NE, senior housing complexes, such as on 7th St. NW and H Street NE in DC, etc.) where for the most part, either space for retail isn't provided at all, or the space allocated to retail uses is sub sub sub sub sub optimal and ends up being unsuccessful.

The best practice example that maybe impresses me the most is a project in SOMA in San Francisco, where an affordable housing building has a high quality urban market on the first floor. See "A SOMA complex with a coffee shop and lively mural proves that affordable housing doesn't have to be ugly housing" from the San Francisco Chronicle.
Harvest Urban Market
The housing complex at Eighth and Howard streets is home to 88 small apartments -- and the Harvest Urban Market. Chronicle photo by Chris Hardy.

From the article:

There's an over-enrolled school of thought that claims affordable housing drags a neighborhood down. But the corner of Eighth and Howard streets in San Francisco shows how much brighter the truth can be.

Instead of hunkering behind the bleak walls and tight grates that adorn market-rate lofts nearby, the newest building on the corner opens up with a glassy ground floor containing a grocery store and politically correct cafe (soy protein frittata, anyone?). Upstairs are 88 small apartments -- and a facade where the stucco around the metal bays doubles as a canvas for a four- story-high abstract mural that brings to mind a pastel circuit board.

Even the entrance has style: a small courtyard that announces its presence on Howard Street with a fence that's a collage of thick glass and rusted steel, while maples and palms peek out from inside.

And while not in a distressed/emerging commercial district, the example of the library-housing project in the Hollywood district of Portland is another example of using a public-private partnership to further multiple objectives that support pedestrian activity in commercial districts. See "A living library" from Metropolis Magazine. The ground floor of the building has a restaurant and a library branch, and the three floors above have 47 apartments, of which 19 are affordable.

If projects like these were on the table for Anacostia, I don't think we'd have the opposition that we are seeing at present.

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