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.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

More on commerz in the 'hood

Cover, h street revival plan, washington DC
An H Street e-list calls our attention to this piece, " D.C. Residents Call for Fewer Bars on H Street" from the Washington Informer, with quotes from African-American residents about the gentrification of the commercial district.

Note that this isn't a new story. See the blog entries from 2006, which responded to similar articles in the Washington Post, including "Whose H Street Is It, Anyway? A Dispute Over Restaurant Zoning Creates a Chasm Between Northeast Washington's Old and New Residents" (the first entry below includes cites to other Post articles about other neighborhoods, recycling the same issues):

H Street, Block by Block
Post graphic on the H Street revitalization plan, 2007.

From the Informer article:

Residents of the gentrified H Street area are troubled by the block on block of bars that line the Northeast corridor. Margaret D. Lewis said not all of the improvement projects left the corridor better than it was found.
"They have too many bars and too many restaurants," said Lewis who has lived in the area for more years than she cared to remember. "They need to have more retail stores." ...

Lewis' friend, who didn't want to be identified, shared Lewis' frustration. She was bothered by the lack of grocery stores in the area and also saw evidence she was being pushed out of the corridor.

"They have come and taken H Street over as their place," [Dineen Method] said. "It should be a place for anybody -- not just for them." She said she lived in the area when nobody else wanted to be here and made the best of a bad situation.

She also blamed city planners for not making Black people an integral part of the rebuilding of the H Street Northeast corridor. "They built it up around them," she said. "They are putting up condominiums, but they are not putting up low-income housing for people in the area. That leaves more people homeless and jobless."

... Meanwhile, if Darnell Thomas has his way, he would choose youth friendly activities to put on the corridor and fewer watering holes. The youth need places to go, too, said Thomas who is a Muslim.

"They took the library. Why would you take a library down? So now the youth have no place to go," he said, referencing the closing of the R.L. Christian Library kiosk in 2008. "Every neighborhood should at least have a library," he sighed.

He didn't understand the closing of the Children's Museum at 3rd and H streets. It was converted to luxury condominiums, one of which is occupied by former Mayor Anthony Williams, who targeted H Street as one of the areas slated for revitalization.

My response:

When there was a hearing on the Main Street program, convened by then Councilman Kwame Brown, at the Atlas in 2007, the same argument was made about the need for more retail stores.

My response at the time was that commercial districts revitalize in phases. My "Richard's Rules for Restaurant-Based Revitalization" piece focuses on how restaurants/taverns are necessary to get people to resample commercial districts. And are needed so that people can "refresh" themselves (by eating, using the restroom, etc.) and stay longer in the district, rather than just accomplishing one or two errands and leaving.

This is a phase that lasts upwards of 10 years, before you can seed substantive retail. Plus, DC has a different dynamic going on with rents, and the rents are too high to allow for a significant amount of independent retail to develop, because the revenue potential of the space isn't high enough to support the asking price for retail rents. Whereas because of the small spaces, otherwise you'd think that these spaces would be great for retail...

- "Cleveland Park Retail, my off-hand assessment is that the rents are too high"
- "Commercial retail rents #2"
- this article by columnist Neal Peirce discusses how the period of Main Street revitalization is a 15-20 year process,

Although as certain blocks are redeveloped in a more large scale fashion, like 600, 800, 900, + parts of the 300 and 1200 blocks, especially after the introduction of the streetcar, chain retailers are likely to come to the corridor. The fact that Giant Supermarkets is building a store on the 300 block communicates to other retailers that the submarket is worthy of consideration.

The other challenge is that the economics of retail are much different than the economics of restaurants/nightlife establishments. People consume food every day. They don't buy apparel, furniture, books, etc. every day, or even as frequently as every month.

Therefore you need much larger numbers of people coming to your district to support retailers in these categories than are traditionally available within an immediate area. So the district has to become the equivalent of a "regional shopping center" (like Friendship Heights) to offer the array of retailers that people quoted in the Informer want.

And actually, that is how H Street functioned in its glory days, as one of the city's three primary shopping districts (after Downtown, and arguably ahead of 14th Street). H Street didn't have the downtown department stores, but it did have a Sears, and the "5 and 10 stores"--national chains and local versions, a local department store (Mortons) and apparel shops and all the rest.
400 block south, H Street NE

Hechts didn't build its first suburban department store until the late 1940s. Once it did, other shopping districts formed in the suburbs, and DC's top commercial districts began to languish in response to the new and ever growing competition. In 1964(?, maybe it was 1962) Ourisman Chevrolet left H Street for Marlow Heights. Plus Kresge converted its store to its downmarket division ("Jupiter") banner, making it more of a dollar store, etc. These are indicators about how suburban locations became superior to city locations, at least in terms of H Street.

The riots were the denouement for H Street, and even downtown, which was also affected by national trends which made it almost impossible for locally owned department stores (Jellefs, Kanns, Woodward & Lothrop, etc.) to survive, further dooming downtown shopping districts (although that's a separate issue).

E.g. with regard to retail, look at 8th St. SE (Barracks Row). They have about 8-10 actual retail stores (2 bike shops, a gift shop or two, a couple housewares/kitchen stores, knitting, a couple cell phone stores including Radio Shack). But to show how districts develop in stages, the Main Street program there is about 13-14 years old, and now an apparel store is coming in. But most of the businesses in that area and along 7th St. by Eastern Market are restaurants/nightlife places. And the income demographics of the residential area there are much better than they are for H St.

I now have a term for this, entertainment/commercial districts rather than just "commercial districts."

Other points in the story are misleading. By relying on quotes and not digging deeper, the story takes on a bad tinge. E.g., the Children's Museum wasn't kicked out. They had no interest in staying. They saw the corridor as dingy and unable to improve. They wanted to leave and they did. But the H Street plan didn't even consider that the Children's Museum would leave and didn't recommend changes in its location.

Similarly, the H St. neighborhood was provided with tons of "low income" housing or lower income housing in terms of 2 senior housing complexes, the creation of a garden apartments complex (Pentacle) by tearing down a streetcar barn, a garden apartment type condo complex (Wiley Courts), and other lower cost new construction of rowhouses.

One could argue the new market rate construction is about providing a wider variety of housing at different price points. The reality is that people with income support retail. Whereas the building of low income housing may have stabilized urban neighborhoods (that's arguable), low income residents in and of themselves lack the income to support the development of a wide array of retail.

That's why the H Street Urban Renewal Plan, which was mostly successful*:
- bridge over the railyard
- Hechinger Mall
- 2 senior housing complexes
- Wiley Court condominiums
- Pentacle Apartments
- two office buildings on the 600 block
-3 sets of new rowhouses on the 700 block of 8th and 10th Streets, and the 800 block of 10th St. (on the 700 block of 3rd St. an old distribution complex was converted to gated condominiums as well)
- H street connection strip shopping center
- plus the DC government coming through and leasing the office buildings

didn't improve the corridor overall, because those initiatives didn't add enough income to the local micro-economy to spur revitalization of the retail corridor. Plus, Hechinger Mall, by drawing off the post office, Safeway, and CVS, diverted retail customers from H Street to the Mall, and forced them to drive to get there, and away from walking to shop.

* these projects added up to over $100 million when they were constructed, not in current values, which is higher, which is why I always LOL when people argue that the H Street neighborhood was ignored all those years by the city government.

The fact that the H Street Urban Renewal Plan" "worked" and yet the corridor still languished is what propelled me into urban planning as a profession. I've spent all this time trying to figure why investing $100+ million in the H Street commercial district didn't "fix" it.

The lesson was that in a city/neighborhood with historic architecture/great building stock, a pedestrian centric urban design, history, authenticity and identity, and great transit access (proximity to Union Station--subway, train, highways, high frequency bus service), an urban renewal strategy focused on building housing for poor people and wiping away the past was a losing strategy.

My other lesson came from the New York Avenue infill subway station. The development of that station meant that H Street was no longer a barrier for people with the ability to choose where they wanted to live. Because of the new subway station, people were now willng to buy and live north of H St.

E.g., seeing white people live on Orleans Place still boggles my mind, as in the late 1980s/early 1990s that was a key center for crack distribution in the city and dozens of people were murdered in that general area. Now, the demographics of the people walking on the streets north of H Street or K Street are truly shocking, given the past.

Anyway, seeing how the investment in the right kind of public transit (at New York Ave. station) propelled neighborhood revitalization faster than almost any other investment is what pushed me along towards transportation planning.

Atlas Marquee, H Street NE, Washington DC
Flickr photo by DCMatt.

Note: as pointed out by some of the people quoted in the Informer article, it is reasonable to acknowledge that the plans for H Street inadequately addressed the provision of non-commercial public places and spaces, other than arts-related functions around what became the Atlas Performing Arts Center.

This is the result of flaws in how we do planning in DC.

So called "small area plans" aren't comprehensive neighborhood plans covering all issues thoroughly, such as parks, open spaces, libraries, schools, and other civic assets as well as commercial property development opportunities and transportation.

Mostly, small area plans are management plans to address development opportunities. So the provision of cultural and other non-"commodified" spaces within a neighborhood or commercial district often is overlooked in DC planning processes. And this is the case in part with the H Street plan.

This planning document "summarizes the successes" of the H Street small area plan so far. But it doesn't try to determine what if any gaps there were/are in the process and how to address them.

(Note that when the H Street revitalization process started, I knew a lot less about urban planning than I know today. I hope that I would have raised some of these issues back then, had I known.

A few years ago, I did raise with the chair of ANC6A's zoning committee the opportunity to carve out a public parklet at the southeast corner of 8th Street in association with the future redevelopment of the H Street connection strip shopping center. But it was too late in the process. Had ideas like this been addressed in either the H Street revitalization plan or the streetscape and transportation plan, the chances would have been much greater that something like that could have been done.)

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