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.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Role of the civic in local land use planning, building regulation and public space

As a continuation of the arguments in the recent blog entry "The DC Central Library, the Civic identity and the public realm," which was produced in response to the DC Public Library's planning initiative designed to promote the idea that the Martin Luther King Central library downtown could also incorporate for-rent at market rates commercial office space--justified to pay for the building's necessary renovations and improvements--I have been thinking about the waterfront revitalization effort in Alexandria, Virginia, and then the Los Angeles Times has an interesting opinion piece about when advertising is too much in the public space, "Billboards and parks don't mix; Yes, L.A. needs new revenue: But its people need open spaces to play and relax, free from ads," which is also relevant to the Washington City Paper piece, "Not in My Condo's Backyard!."

The Washington Post has run a number of articles about planning for revitalization of the Alexandria waterfront. (The Post also has a financial interest in this, in that their old newsprint warehouse is slated for redevelopment. They have disclosed this in their reporting, although their financial interest likely slowed coverage of the issue in earlier stages.)

Basically, the City proposes a plan heavy on commercial activity ("In Old Town, planners look to the future with sensitivity to the past"). A resident group proposes more park and civic activity ("Alexandria asked to ban waterfront high-rise hotels" Citizens for an Alternative Alexandria Waterfront Plan) and the city says that the resident plan won't generate enough revenue to pay for improvements ("City officials reject alternative Alexandria waterfront plan").

There are many reasons to promote change at the waterfront in Alexandria. In part, there isn't much public access to it. The city needs more property tax revenue. And there are fears that the new mixed use development "National Harbor," across the river in Prince George's County, will siphon off customers-patrons, so there is a felt need to respond with improvements to Alexandria's competitive positioning and offer.

A letter to the editor in the Friday Post, "A compromise plan for the Alexandria waterfront" ends its argument with this point:

There are those who believe Old Town must compete with National Harbor, but Old Town is not National Harbor. There are many National Harbors around the country; there is only one Old Town. We should stick to our knitting. This is our time to stand up so that, generations from now, there will still be an Old Town Alexandria.

That's an important point, that communities need to figure out what their competitive advantages are and strengthen them, rather than degrade them.

(Note too that the Anacostia Community Museum has a waterfronts revitalization study initiative going on currently.)

One "problem" with a waterfront being completely "parked" is that if the waterfront is located some distance from the community's commercial and residential areas, the waterfront becomes kind of disconnected from the community. I feel that way about much of the Potomac River waterfront as it lies within DC--because it is on the absolute western edge of the city, it lies far away from most of the residential and commercial precincts of the city, and residents don't get over their very much.

On the other hand, much of the Lake Michigan waterfront in Chicago is completely parked, although the design is more active than passive, including various civic attractions (museums, Navy Pier, etc.) and bike and walking paths, and because much of the Lake Michigan Waterfront is close to downtown or neighborhoods, and there are many entry points, their, the waterfront is actively used.

But these days, communities are pretty much broke and unable to fund grand civic visions, ventures, and ideas, so instead they look to integrate commercial activities into various initiatives--waterfront, park, neighborhoods, downtowns--to pay for revitalization programs and other activities.

This week's Current newspaper lead editorial is in favor of co-locating commercial office space into an expanded MLK Library.

I understand that in a society that no longer reveres the role of the civic and civil society there is a belief that commercial activity is somehow better and more exalted than government activities.

But at the very least, I would expect that certain anchor type civic assets should be maintained in a manner that promotes civil society and the place of local government within the activity of a community.

Certainly the main branch of the public library, along with the City Hall, and the courts buildings, would have to be considered key buildings/civic assets to be held inviolate from "mixing" substantively with commercial activities.

I mention the library because the issue of how a community should reuse/ integrate/ revitalize its civic assets--be they waterfronts or libraries--and the question of "how much is enough" in terms of community/civic uses vs. commercial uses, is an issue fully relevant to DC in terms of both the management of historic assets and the management of community-civic assets more generally.

The LA Times opinion piece, while focused on advertising, starkly defines the issue as a city up for bid versus a community out of touch with today's opportunities:

Los Angeles' civic argument over billboards covers many nuanced positions and attitudes, but stripped to the bare essentials, it often seems to come down to these two competing worldviews:

One side sees Los Angeles as a city up for bid. It sees advertisers ready to cover every public space with garish billboards -- lighted, digitized, turning every commute to work and every drive to the grocery store into a succession of pitches for movies, cut-rate cognac and liposuction.

It sees city officials only too happy to accept campaign donations from sign companies, and only too eager to return the favor by presenting a city full of captive consumers. It sees a concerted effort by commercial interests and elected officials to sell Los Angeles on the cheap as one giant billboard ...

The other side sees Los Angeles as a city strangled by an outmoded self-image of quiet bedroom neighborhoods, a city of aging fussbudget suburbanites unhappy with a younger, hipper population of more recent arrivals from Eastern states and a multitude of nations, people who carry with them a different notion of urban sophistication. It sees a city squandering its potential as the world's entertainment and communications capital, as well as its opportunity to reap the financial benefits of a huge audience of car and bus commuters. And it sees a city with failing streets, cracked sidewalks and breaking pipes whose residents complain about decline yet won't tax themselves to raise the money needed to put things back together -- but who will scold elected officials for not finding enough new alternative revenue sources.

The desperation for money and expedience and the limited options makes public officials much more willing to do "public-private partnerships" that commodify public space and/or lease out civic assets on the cheap, for what seems like a large upfront payment, even though this comes at a huge long term cost.

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