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, August 14, 2013

Public buildings as vehicles for community improvement (continued)

I have a bad habit, as long as my pieces are, of taking some things for granted so I don't write them out.  In the recent entry about the "Reeves Building Myth" ("It's time to retire the old saw about the Reeves Center being a great economic development contribution to U Street"), a comment from Charlie forced the elucidation of the basic point, that when such buildings are produced, the way that their "effectiveness" should be judged is by whether or not the building:

1.  Sparks additional investment in existing privately owned buildings
2.  Sparks private investment in new projects
3.  Sparks additional private investment in terms of the opening of retail businesses
4.  Did it bring real estate valuations up at all?  (One example of this is the NoMA Metro Station, once it opened, over a couple year period, property values for houses north of H Street and south of Florida Avenue went up an average of $200,000, totaling a $350 million property value increase--and prices have since gone up even further)
5. Is the building interesting enough that you want to save it for the future?

So the real issue is not that public buildings "suck" at this, but how to produce buildings that actually contribute to revitalization instead of hinder it.

Basically, on those five points, on each, the Reeves Building has been a failure.

For me, that comes down to urban design and the degree to which the building is designed to connect to the community and the area, what we might call the "landscape" or context component, as opposed to the more traditional components of what the building does on the inside and how it looks on the outside.

Architect's Newspaper had an article about a project in Boston's Dudley Square neighborhood, "Dashing Dudley," about a civic building (pictured left) that is under construction, and is designed to be a benefit to the community, in terms of bringing jobs to the area, sure, in keeping some historic facades (although the building was facadomized, which is not necessarily a good thing), and adding other components that make the building a contribution to revitalization, rather than a hindrance to it.

From the article:

Dudley Square in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood has always been a crossroads in the city, first traversed by elevated rail lines and now home to the city’s busiest bus depot. It’s fitting then that a new municipal office building designed by Netherlands-based Mecanoo Architecten—the firm’s first U.S. project—and Watertown, Massachusetts-based Sasaki Associates will create a new civic heart for the historically underserved community. ...

“A major concern for the neighborhood was to create activity and energy past 5:00 pm,” said Vizgaitis. Up to 20,000 square feet of retail space surrounds a generous double-height public lobby, what the architects described as “the New Dudley Square.” It is large enough to hold public performances and a monumental public stair that doubles as seating.

The online article has tons of renderings.

It does reiterate the point that the right design and program improves the environment beyond the site, and the wrong design and program does not. 

The Reeves Building has been a lousy building all along in terms of design and program.  It does have retail sure, but the spaces aren't very good and the building is set so far back from the street that it doesn't have much power.  Not to mention that most of the businesses have failed in those spaces, although that was in part because the blocks around Reeves never improved that much, for most of the building's existence.

More importantly, the building was never designed to be used at night, to contribute to the area past 5 pm.  It's interesting to think about if the building had included a performance space, like how auditoriums are included in public libraries (at least the good ones), or how the Signature Theatre is co-located at Arlington County's Shirlington Library.

Mostly we seem to rely on horizontal mixed use--commercial, civic, and residential buildings in close proximity, but each devoted to a single use--to do this when it comes to government buildings.  But maybe, even with typical agency buildings, there is another way.

For example, the Reeves Center could have been built to include waiting areas for transit patrons (yes, I know this has other problems), since the 14th and U Street intersection is the transfer point for two of the city's busiest bus lines.

Tables and chairs installed in the streetscape, 4th Street SouthwestRight:  4th Street SW streetscape.

But the office buildings that DC Government leases at the Waterfront Metro Station are not lousy in terms of how they connect to the street, proximity to the Metro, and how workers and the in and out activity of the building when it is open contributes to street vitality in ways that the Reeves Center does not.

Similarly, in smaller communities, combined federal buildings with post offices, such as in Ann Arbor, or courthouses, can have similar functions, in anchoring a community.

So while there is still the loss of agglomeration benefits by deconcentrating government agencies and moving them around the city, when this is done, for "economic development purposes," it is possible  to do this in ways that help to further neighborhood revitalization objectives, and project and extend the quality of the civic identity of the city and the neighborhood.

That we more typically fail at this doesn't have to be the default position.

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