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, October 19, 2011

Capturing best practices/the process and promise of urban revitalization (in strong markets)

I was at the Railvolution Conference--the fixed rail transit advocates-professionals meeting with sessions, tours, and exhibits--as an exhibitor, so I didn't have a chance to attend but one session.

But H Street Northeast's revitalization was the talk of the conference with dedicated tours and sessions (the other talk of the conference was probably Capital Bikeshare), and having run into Anwar Saleem, director of H Street Main Street and one of the co-founders of the program (I was a founding board member and a lead on the preparation of the original application and presentation) on the exhibit floor we talked for a long time about the lessons of the process, the seven key factors that have made H Street the success it is about to become:

1. BP wanting to build a gas station (1999-2000 and later), the negative reaction to which brought previously disconnected residents living north and south of H Street together, along with the Merchants Association, which led to the creation of the H Street Main Street program, and contributed to

2. The creation of the H Street revitalization plan in 2002-2003, and subsequent promotion and guidance efforts;

3. Which supported the creation of the H Street Streetscape and Transportation Plan in 2003-2004; which wasn't just put on a shelf but the plan was fast tracked for design and engineering and prioritized so that construction commenced a few years ago and is now basically finished--10 to 11 years for a transportation project is very fast in the U.S.;

4. Simultaneously during this period was the revitalization of the Atlas Theater into the Atlas Performing Arts Center at the instigation of Jane Lang and the Sprenger-Lang Foundation, complemented by the creation of the H Street Playhouse by Adele and Bruce Robey and the Theater Alliance, and Abdo Development's purchase of the Children's Museum and the conversion of that block into 400+ units of condominiums and apartments;

5. The New York Avenue Metro Station abutting the neighborhood on the north side opened in November 2004--and was WMATA's first "infill station" that hadn't been planned as part of the original system--which removed the mental barrier that people with choices had in terms of living north of H Street, for choosing the area as a place to live;

6. DC nightlife impresario Joe Englert's decision to stake a claim to what he called "the Atlas District" and his creation of a "system" to reproduce nightlife establishments by bringing together capital, properties, people with concepts and operations experience, vendor relationships (and financing), and in-house expertise for dealing with building regulations and the permitting process, taxation, and the general regulatory process; and

7. The effort instigated and shepherded by Joe Fengler, then chair of ANC6A, to get the 5 ANCs along the H Street-Benning Road corridor to press the city to install the streetcar tracks during the construction process for the streetscape, even though commitments hadn't been made to move the H Street part of the streetcar planning process forward. The city agreed, and then when efforts in Anacostia for streetcars ran into roadblocks, H Street was prioritized.

This built the stage for the kinds of things we are seeing now, such as the plans for about 1,500 units of new housing, a Giant grocery store, and other new retail development along the corridor, as evidenced in the DC Urban Turf blog entry, "The (Many) Residential Developments on Tap For H Street." (The Flats at the Atlas District were planned, in a different guise, before the H Street revitalization plan was even finished.)

These developers for the most part haven't initiated change, they jump on the bandwagon
Amenities building and the Senate Square Condominiums
Grand opening of Senate Square, 2008.

This is complemented by the Senate Square project (200 block of H Street)--the Abdo Development project which did initiate change, the Loree Grand apartments (200 block of K Street NE)--which took almost 20 years to happen from the very first iteration of the proposed project in the early 1990s, the residential housing unit for college student interns on the 1000 block of 3rd Street NE, and the residential housing that will be built by Louis Dreyfus company on the south side of the 200 block of H Street, across from their Station Place commercial development on 2nd Street NE abutting Union Station.

Plus whatever happens with the Akridge project above the railyard (Burnham Place), not to mention NoMA, which will be close by, and with relatively few night-time amenities, the 6,000 people who will eventually live there will probably be H Street patrons too.

Things will explode when the streetcar is operational in 2013.
DC Streetcar
DC Streetcar in the New Carrollton railyard, waiting for the day it will enter service.
Anyway, the way that H Street is hyped up in the trade these days doesn't really get at this nuance. The people who made these things happen are mostly supplanted in the presentations by the people who are in office or agencies now, and they take the credit for events that they had little if anything to do with.

Anwar was sounding like me, talking about how there is little evaluation of what's worked and what hasn't, capturing the learning, etc.

So I told him about this Transit Cooperative Research Project report I was reading about transit wayfinding systems, Traveler Information Systems and Wayfinding Technologies in Transit Systems: Summary of State-of-the-Practice and State-of-the-Art Applications.

Even if you don't care about that issue, the report is great for the methodology and framework it provides for evaluating new technologies and their implementation.

The framework can be extended as a way to evaluate policies and actions as opposed to technologies.

But the report also makes a key point about the necessity of evaluation and capturing learning:

In addition, an evaluation component should be included in the wayfinding technologies implementation project. The evaluation enables a heightened understanding by the implementing partners how customers (both internal and external) use advanced wayfinding technologies. An evaluation also identifies any associated benefits, which are deemed essential to achieve optimal effectiveness. Lastly, an evaluation is critical for planning for future activities, not only by the implementing partners but for other agencies interested in following the lead of the implementing agencies.

Too infrequently we don't do that, we just focus on victories and/or the hype, and without capturing, evaluating, processing, and understanding the learning, it takes a lot more time and a lot more money to improve neighborhoods and cities--I was lamenting to Anwar about how I never knew about the Transit and Placemaking report (which needs to be updated) from 1997...

Other key factors that absolutely must be understood if you are trying to apply learnings from one place to another include that pesky issue of strong or weak real estate markets--meaning that things are possible in DC right now that for the most part aren't possible anywhere else in the county.

And the other key factor of the difference between the value capture that results or doesn't result as a result of having a transit line or two in a place or a region vs. having a transit network.

Again, DC has 5 major subway lines, complemented by railroad commuter services. So when you add light rail and streetcars to the network, the reach is extended, the value of the network is extended, making the land proximate to transit stations even more valuable.

This matters because mixed use, while having greater revenue projections, takes more upfront investment, is harder to do, and takes a bit longer for positive economic returns to start showing.

So if the value of transit proximity isn't there, being able to do successful "TOD"--transit oriented development--is pretty remote.

That's the difference between places like DC and Baltimore: DC strong market, transit network; Baltimore weak market, a couple disconnected and truncated transit lines, or even the addition of a transit line to Minneapolis (and now St. Paul): comparatively strong market; versus the creation of a light rail on Woodward Avenue in Detroit and Oakland County, Michigan: Detroit: really really really really really really really really weak market.

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