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, August 17, 2011

The sky is not falling: hand-wringing about commercial real estate foreclosures in PG County, but missing what really matters

Today's Post has an article about foreclosure on some property at the University Town Center in Hyattsville, in the vicinity of the Prince George's Plaza Metro Station, "Commercial foreclosures threaten Prince George’s tax base."

I think the headline misses the point.

If commercial real estate foreclosures were place-killers, then DC would be screwed. I don't have enough fingers and toes to count the number of significant commercial property foreclosures in DC since 2008. Most of the projects are now thriving under the ownership of different, well-capitalized actors, such as Brookfield Properties or Equity Residential.

What is happening is the over-leveraged properties end up in the hands of people with more capital, and life goes on.

The issue is why do properties become over-leveraged? In other words, why are they failing properties to begin with?

The UTC properties--a portion of the overall site--included retail sections, two un-sold condominium buildings, and a cinema--are an example of properties that are "mixed use" but function as a disconnected pod proximate to transit.

I remember how these additions to the landscape were heralded in the Gazette (e.g., "Movies Return to Hyattsville after 30 years" and "Tenants to move into University Town Center" from 2007) at the time they opened.

I think the more important question is why did these properties fail economically, because, after all, it's "transit oriented development" and because it is "mixed use" development and because, comparatively speaking, it's "dense" development.

So, by definition, shouldn't it have been successful?

I think it's because it's transit-adjacent development, but not development with place affirming qualities, with the kinds of qualities laid out in the out-of-print DC Office of Planning publication TRANS-FORMATION: Recreating Transit-Oriented Neighborhood Centers in Washington D.C. | A DESIGN HANDBOOK FOR NEIGHBORHOOD RESIDENTS (thanks to Bradley Heard of GGW for providing a better link to this report).

Note that this isn't the first "TOD" project that is failing. The heralded Fruitvale Transit Village in Oakland, California isn't doing very well either. See "Five keys to successful retail in a transit-oriented development" from New Urban News.)

In both cases, I would argue it has to do with not strengthening truly urban design qualities, those focused on "walkability," complemented by the right mix of uses, enough housing, and density.

(This is a nice piece on walkability, "Reclaiming the Walkable City" from Frameworks, the journal of the UC Berkeley College of Environmental Design.)

I think this is an important lesson to understand, given the big push in Prince George's County to better leverage the opportunity for "transit oriented development," which is discussed in the comment thread to this GGW entry, "New hospital a prime opportunity for TOD in Prince George's."

Interestingly, I might argue that the problems with the "transit oriented development" around PG Plaza Metro Station derive from the fact that the design framework for this development was created 50 years ago, when the planning for what became the WMATA system began, and when planning practices were decidedly oriented to big blocky buildings common to urban renewal planning. Walkability wasn't a factor in design at all.

This aerial is from a write up on the area from the Coalition for Smarter Growth.

Even though the subway station is there, the area was never designed to become walkable and connected, just dense.

It's not unlike the missed opportunity in DC at Rhode Island Metro and to some extent at Fort Totten Metro (although both are changing a little bit, though not enough). By not "changing" the urban design model for the station area, much of the opportunity to leverage transit for placemaking benefits was squandered.

The Washington Business Journal had an article about the history of this area in 2007, "Back to the future: Herschel Blumberg and his brother snagged a world-class architect to design New Town Center in Hyattsville, promising to change the way Washington developed. So why did it take nearly 50 years to build?." (The Post mentioned this history in a short brief in 2005.)

From the article:

In the mid-1950s, Blumberg was the quintessential thirty-something developer, gushing with ideas and a bank account more suited to buying a house than developing a city. He and his brother, Marvin, nascent home builders at the time, bought 140 acres in Prince George's County from Baltimore contractor Isadore Gudelsky, a family acquaintance.

Residential. Commercial. Leisure. A subway stop and an exit off the highway. It would have it all. They convinced Edward Durell Stone, one of the most famous and controversial architects of the time, to devise the master plan for the mini-metropolis. Stone, based in New York, was working on designs for the Kennedy Center at the time.

Dubbed New Town Center, the $78 million project was like a slice of downtown in the suburbs. It would feature the biggest office building in the suburbs, the tallest residential tower, a planned complex with no equal in the region. Cars on one level. Walkers on another. A public plaza with a skating rink, a movie theater and all the retail you could want one level down.

While it will take a long time to fix the urban design of that area, eventually it will most likely succeed. But if it had put the right urban design in place at the outset of the project, likely we wouldn't be talking about University Town Center today. But we could still be learning from it, just positively.

As Bruce Liedstrand commented on the NUN article, about Fruitvale Village:

There are even more lessons to be learned from the Fruitvale Village “TOD” than the 5 listed in the article.

First, a real TOD is a neighborhood or district at a transit stop, not an individual project. The Fruitvale Village project needed to be planned as an integrated part of a larger neighborhood, not a freestanding project. The retail couldn’t survive without a whole neighborhood of customers

Second, the project design contributed to the retail failure. The design assumed BART commuters as retail customers, but the site plan let the commuters exit the train and walk directly to the parking area without going through the retail area.

Third, the portion of the site the BART commuters experienced was designed as the project back door (with trash and loading areas), not a pleasant entryway. And this commuter walking area was not kept clean and attractive.

A realistic look at the project before construction should have alerted the project sponsors to these problems. This project is one to learn from, not one to emulate.

These comments are relevant to the PG Plaza issue, as well as Rhode Island Metro and Fort Totten among others.

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