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, June 13, 2012

Preservation and development "almost inseparable": DC's economic planning

Last week, the press reported ("City Swears It'll Actually Implement An Economic Development Planfrom the Washington City Paper) on an economic development conference convened by the Executive Branch of the city, as part of a process to develop a well balanced economic development plan for the city.  From the press release:

The Five-­‐Year Economic Development Strategy will be formulated via a Strategy Advisory Group. Advisory group members include D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown, other elected officials, District government agency directors, university presidents, and leading employers in each target sector. The group will be overseen by staff from the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development (including Deputy Mayor Hoskins and Director of Business Development David Zipper) along with business school deans Doug Guthrie of The George Washington University and Dave Thomas of Georgetown University, plus a lead consultant from McKinsey and Company. Another project consultant will also shepherd the work of the business school students along with their respective academic staff. 

The seven industry sectors represented in the Strategy Advisory Group are: 
• Federal Government and Federal Government Contractors 
• Higher Education and Health Care 
• Hospitality 
• Professional Services 
• Real Estate and Construction 
• Retail 
• Technology 
• Public Sector 

Of course, this is long overdue.  I lament about the lack of a strategic or vision plan all the time (e.g., see this past entry, "Unstrategy for economic development in DC"). 

But it's not clear to me that the crew picked for this important effort has the broad range of experiences and approaches necessary to produce a truly stellar, deep, and wide plan.

E.g., just in the context of a commercial district revitalization framework plan I did for Cambridge, Maryland, on the creative rural economy initiative in Prince Edward County, Ontario.  This was the general approach taken by the city Office of Planning and the Washington DC Economic Partnership last year, when they produced a draft plan in association with a grant proposal to the Department of Commerce.  While I didn't read all of that plan, it was surprisingly honest and critically analytical of DC's economic position.

But the articles I read concerned me, because I still don't think that most of the movers and shakers in the city understand the fundamentals of the city's economic-competitive advantage as a place to do business, locate business, live, work, or be entertained.

DC-based historic preservation economic consultant Donovan Rypkema (his website, Place Economics, has links to many reports he has authored on the topic, read a couple and you'll know a lot more than you do right now) spoke in Milwaukee last week about the inextricable connection between historic preservation and urban economic development and revitalization, which was written about in the Milwaukee Business Journal, "Consultant tells Milwaukee to marry preservation and development."

It reminds me of how I am meaning to find out more about DC's economic development planning process.  I wonder how much the people picked will consider preservation and history (as well as transportation) in the creation of this plan.

For 10+ years, I've made the point that DC's competitive advantage is based on five factors (I used to say four factors but came to understand that I needed to separate out urban design distinct from architecture, basically place and spatial/cultural landscape is covered by urban design and the buildings by architecture).  One factor we have little control over.  Three of the other four are preservation/architecture/history related.

They are:

1.  Historic architecture
2.  Pedestrian centric urban design (which is also transit friendly)
3.  History, identity, and authenticity  (the city is a real and distinct place)
4.  A rich transit infrastructure (currently somewhat in peril) that enables efficient travel without having to rely on the automobile
5.  The relatively stable employment engine of the federal government

I remember at the press conference when Eastern Market reopened in 2009--the building was rehabilitated after a terrible fire in 2007--and then Council Chairman (now Mayor) Vincent Gray spoke about "economic development," and there, at Eastern Market, he didn't mention the phrase "historic preservation" even once.
Washington DC - Eastern Market
Flickr image of Eastern Market by Point Images.

What made me a preservationist was a couple things: (1) realizing my then neighborhood (H St. NE) was attractive and worth preserving even if it wasn't pretty at the level of say, Charleston or Savannah; and (2) learning/figuring out that the only sustainable urban revitalization strategy there is is preservation based (note that all the urban renewal areas of the city are now going through almost complete redevelopment in order to remain viable and to correct the urban renewal era mistakes of development and urban design).

Both the preservation community and the sustainable transportation community need to get involved in the "economic development planning process for the city to ensure that these competitive advantages that the city possesses are not diminished, but emphasized and made central and foundational, in the city's economic planning going forward.

P.S. this dichotomy with longtime preservationists and opposition to streetcars is bugging the s*** out of me.  For one, the city (the L'Enfant City in particular) was designed to optimize walking, biking, and transit.   I understand the wire issue, don't get me wrong, but "preservationists" ought to be pushing all modes that reduce dependence on the car, because sustainable transportation modes build place value and quality, everything else wrecks it.

And streetcars, being powered by electricity, are much quieter than buses.  If you live on a bus corridor, I bet you're not a proponent of buses.  If only for noise reduction purposes, not even the quality improvement, ridership increases, and economic development aspects, preservationists should be in favor of streetcars.

For the preparation of the Comprehensive Plan update (2005-2006), the city commissioned a number of think papers on various topics relevant to the plan.  Don Rypkema wrote the one on historic preservation, "Planning the Future, Using the Past (Historic Preservation)," which every civic activist in the city should read.

Also,  I discussed what I call the nexus of preservation as "architecture, place, and history" in this 2005 entry, "Who can you turn to when the most active, aggressive destroyers of the city's livable places are DC Government agencies?"

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