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.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

A follow up example with regard to Metropolitan Revolutions: the National Science Foundation moving to Alexandria

As a follow up to the previous entry, it's worth discussing the federal government's role in fostering research and discovery in the context of seeding innovation districts in the National Capital Area.

The fact that the Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency, a USDA experimental station, NIH, FDA, NIST, the Naval Research Laboratory, and other federal research agencies are located "here" is one of the reasons that there is a big research and technology community here, aided by the fact that DOD and the federal government in general are large customers for information technology and telecommunications, hence the large presence of such companies in this region also.

The book focuses on academic, medical center, and private industry research.  But there are scads of federal government laboratories and research centers, dating back to the 1800s, when military-related research and then the creation of the Extension Service of the US Department of Agriculture and federal financial support of agriculture colleges were elements in research-based investment in the nation's future.  Comparable to how USDA funds research at Ag Schools and Experiment Stations and communicates it out through the Extension Service, the US DOT funds research at universities and research centers around the country also, and communicates it out as well (I get publications from some of these centers, based in Minnesota, New Jersey, and California, and try to keep up with the output of the Volpe and Mineta Centers).

Most of the research installations of the federal government are campuses and research laboratories set apart and alone, and mostly they don't function as anchors of "innovation districts."  This is an issue that should be addressed going forward generally, because by re-orienting these facilities to the world, likely we will get greater return on investment.

(Partly this happens because Congressmembers see such installations as "economic development" for otherwise forlorn places, although there are some instances where the remote location was chosen for security reasons, such as for various federal labs like Oak Ridge, Sandia, etc.)

I've been putting off writing about how it has been announced that the National Science Foundation is moving from a very connected location in an innovation district it anchors on Wilson Boulevard in Arlington County (where other science organizations and contractors have located, including DARPA, a research campus for Virginia Tech, the Center for Defense Innovation, and the Arlington campus of George Mason University) to a disconnected location somewhat office-park-y, in Alexandria ("National Science Foundation moving headquarters from Arlington to Alexandria," Washington Post).

This was predicted because of how Congress is so f*ed up that the General Services Administration isn't seeking the approval of what are called "prospectus leases."  GSA has a set rent schedule of something under $45/s.f.  To lease space at higher costs--and higher costs are typical of closer in locations in Arlington and DC specifically--Congress has to approve the lease.  That's not happening in the current political environment.  (Wilson Boulevard as a discovery-innovation district  and the benefit of urban locations as innovation districts is discussed in this blog entry, "The state of Arlington County Virginia's commercial real estate market: 2012 and the future.")

So Arlington wasn't in the position of being able to retain NSF.  Because NSF is being offered what I would consider to be a marginal location, although it is directly across the street from the Eisenhower Avenue Metro, which is probably the only advantage present in the new location other than cheap space--well, it's not too far from the Wilson Bridge/I-95/I-395, although the current location is close to I-66.  (Note that the Ruby Tuesday's located there right now has really marginal food.)

On the other hand, most of the agglomeration economies of being located in an "innovation district" are lost, reducing the spillover benefits from the research and knowledge networks that are presently based in Arlington.

Arlington, Alexandria, and DC face further competition for federal agencies from Fairfax and Loudoun Counties, which through the January 2014 opening of the Silver Line subway extension, will be able to offer to the GSA low rent space with subway transit access. ("Short term vs. long term thinking: transit, the Washington Examiner, Fairfax/Loudoun Counties vs. DC")

So a focus on the short run cost of space and Congressional logjams mean that agglomeration economies from research clusters anchored by federal agencies are likely to be dissipated for the next 10 years.

Another example of how the Federal Government is too focused on the here and now and not investing in the future.

And also counter-examples of how not to organize research organizations spatially.

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At 9:20 PM, Anonymous charlie said...

Not sure if the federal goverment has a real interest in creating innovation districts in the National Capital Region.

Agreed, however, that is a problem. Beltway Bandits show the opposite trend, as does the emerging cybersecurity nexus in Ft. Meade.

Did you read Bruce Sterling's Distraction? Comes to mind.

At 9:52 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Distraction is an amazing book. I blogged about it once, in terms of how it discusses the civic pride and identity of Bostonians.

At 11:43 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

more and more critical businesses and institution smovin gout of the core is not a good trend and in the future they will all be clamoring to return once the short term thinking planners whomake these decisions retire or die off. Few oung people want to live and work in the suburban sprawl- even though Alexandria is really a city it is arguably not the core .

At 12:06 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

this is the sense I am left with from reading the Metropolitan Revolution. I didn't mention Belmont's _Cities in Full_ where he argues the case for recentralization of housing, commerce, and transportation.

The "metropolitan" movement is really a center city movement, at least for those cities that are still functioning.

But it's a reintegration of the city and suburbs into a unit.

Again, after writing the review I was thinking about Muller's writing on the transportational stages of city and metropolitan development.

He calls the 1950 to the present era, "The Metropolitan City." Which was marked by the development of integrated highway networks and a migration of commerce and population to the suburbs, dependent for the most part on the automobile.

As the development of this network has reached its apex, brought down by the cost of gasoline, the physics of congestion and mobility, and the cost to rebuild the road network as it reaches its useful life (50-60 years), it is no longer a competitive advantage.

Hence the re-creation of urban centric mobility networks--transit--augmented by what me might call negatrip urban design--mixed use, denser living patterns where biking and walking (and carsharing) complement transit and reduce demand for driving.

I am gonna have to think about this more. It's worthy of another piece.


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