Commercial district revitalization: H Street and an assessment of the Main Street program in DC
I keep forgetting to mention that a couple weeks ago, the Saturday House & Home section of the Financial Times' feature on upcoming neighborhoods around the globe featured H Street NE, in "From riots to a rebirth."
It's been just over 10 years (April 2002) since the H Street Main Street program was selected by DC Government as one of the city's initial five official "Main Street" commercial district revitalization programs. The next year an additional 7 programs were selected. Later, some programs were created at the behest of City Council, but most of those programs have since failed.
The Main Street Approach is based on historic preservation, is focused on rebuilding the micro-economy of the commercial district, is mostly volunteer-driven with some staff support, and adds residents, professional businesspeople, and other stakeholders to the base of merchants.
I have written plenty over the years about lessons learned from the process, including:
- (Yesterday's) Testimony on the DC Main Streets program (2005)
- (Yesterday's) Testimony on the DC Main Streets program (2007)
- I hope New Orleans('s urban Main Street program) can learn from DC (2006)
- It's true that the winners in history revise it: misleading people about the process of change, H Street revitalization edition (2011)
- H Street Yet Again (2011)
- Testimony -- Historic Neighborhood Retail Business Property Tax Relief Act (2006)
- A solution for the overtaxing of properties in neighborhood commercial districts (2009)
- Displacement of retail businesses through increasing property tax assessments (2005)
- Forcing Displacement by the disconnection of tax assessment models from public policy goals (2005)
- Globalization of the DC real estate market catches neighborhood commercial districts up in the wake (2006)
- Avoiding the real problem with DC's property tax assessment methodologies (2007)
- The hot real estate market Downtown and Georgetown (2007)
- Even more on commercial property tax assessment policies (2007)
- Soft side of commercial district competition (2006)
- (Why aren't people) Learning from Jane Jacobs (2005)
- (Why aren't people) Learning from Jane Jacobs revisited (2006)
- Nurturing independent businesses through creatively reducing capital requirements (2005)
- To get independent businesses you need to rebuild the supporting infrastructure (2005)
- Why the future of urban retail isn't chains (2005)
- Store siting decisions (2005)
- Why ask why?: Because (2007)
- Independent retailers can succeed and thrive (2008)
As far as organizing goes, a nascent program needs to be able to do five things simultaneously:
1. Complete all the pieces of the application;
2. Do outreach/build community support;
3. Prepare and give a presentation to the selection committee;
4. Focus on organizational development (incorporate, get nonprofit status, secure office space, design and present a logo, etc.)
Just finishing and completing the application is an indication of potential success. Groups that can't get it together likely can't manage to get it together.
Of the five initial programs, three went defunct (North Capitol, 14th and U, Upper 14th Street, although later a North Capitol program was created by City Council), leaving Barracks Row (8th St. SE) and H Street NE. Of the seven programs in the second wave, four "failed" (Mount Pleasant, although the program still exists, just not officially, Anacostia, Upper Georgia Avenue, Brookland), leaving Shaw, Adams-Morgan and Dupont Circle. Separately, the Takoma (Park Maryland) Main Street program is sanctioned by Maryland, but also provides some uncompensated service to the DC side of Takoma as well.
A big problem is that the city just isn't big enough so that there are enough indigeneous funding sources to keep all programs. That is an advantage of Business Improvement Districts, which are funded through an additional property tax assessment on commercial properties in their service areas. (I have written about how most of the San Diego commercial district revitalization programs are set up as BIDs in terms of funding, but as Main Street programs in terms of how they are set up to operate and engage residents in operations).
What also makes these programs hard in DC is that a lot of people think they know everything, making them unwilling to learn and reach out to other people and places, and the programs and the city didn't adequately leverage the opportunities presented within the network of at one time 12 programs to generate efficiencies and success across the network. The Boston City Main Street program, with 19 individual programs, is probably the best example nationally of leveraging resources across the programs.
It probably helps that Boston has had the same Mayor for a long time, who before being mayor was a City Councilman, and his district had one of the pilot urban Main Street programs, which solidified his interest in and support of the Main Street Approach generally and specifically.
In DC, once Adrian Fenty succeeded Anthony Williams, the Main Street program was pushed to the curb as an unwanted initiative of the previous mayor.
STILL, it is a "shock" to see H Street featured in articles in the New York Times and the Financial Times, even Smithsonian Magazine.
While I am not sure what the small group of us (without Kevin O'Conner and myself, the group wouldn't have been able to produce a completed application, and probably the presentation, at least back then) who came together to create the Main Street program expected, that wasn't quite on the table. (cf. the column "Main Street Niches In A Mass Sales World," by Neal Peirce, which makes the point that the Main Street Approach is a 15-20 year process).
One of the biggest other problems in terms of contributions to program failure is a disconnect between merchants and the other stakeholders.
The Main Street Approach makes the point that typically, merchants aren't very skilled at broader marketing and other elements concerning the commercial district as a whole. That's why you bring in other stakeholders, especially residents.
(I found that Main Street volunteers tended to be 10-15 years younger than members of traditional historic preservation organizations, and the most active volunteers tend to live within two blocks of the commercial district.)
But the thing that the new organization has to do is build a new consensus going forward about what needs to change.
Something that I came across that was done by happenstance in Littleton, New Hampshire is what I would require be done for any new Main Street program, especially any program I'd get involved in. Project for Public Spaces was doing a transportation project there, and one of their tools is called the "Place Game."
Residents on the advisory committee for the study went ahead and did the Place Game with each of the merchants, and they looked at their store specifically, the district as a whole, and then how they connected to the buildings and businesses on either side of them. (Also see the presentation, "How to Evaluate a Place.")
Only by doing an exercise like that can you get to a new beginning.
Otherwise it's pretty easy to fall back on doing things the way you've always done them, and the reason that businesses and commercial districts tend to fail is because they aren't competitive, which means that how they used to do things needs to be reconsidered.
Staying the same means falling behind.