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, October 16, 2013

Neighborhood commercial district revitalization in DC

Originally, the city had 12 Main Street commercial district revitalization programs.  Now only 4 of the original programs exist (Mt. Pleasant has an unofficial program still, but they dropped out of the city program).  The city "created" some Main Street programs in Wards 4, 5, and 7 at the behest of elected officials, but I doubt any of those programs are really functioning anymore.

Last year I wrote a piece, "Commercial district revitalization: H Street and an assessment of the Main Street program in DC," in response to it being the 10th anniversary of the Main Street program in DC.   That piece focuses on internal organization of the organizing group being key to the ultimate success of the program.

Adams Morgan "eat" banner, Adams Morgan Day Street FestivalI was talking with a Main Street program director a few weeks ago, and I was told that the Adams-Morgan Main Street program is basically defunct. I know that internal organization was an issue in Adams-Morgan.

Something not adequately discussed in last year's piece was funding.  Sure I mentioned it, but I should have discussed it a bit more deeply, especially as it is an issue in Adams-Morgan.

Typically, across the nation, Business Improvement Districts function in large city commercial districts, especially "Downtown."  Some of the most prominent BIDs in the US are in New York City and Philadelphia, along with DC's Downtown DC BID.  The main actors in BIDs are the property owners.

Note that I have made the point that as BID districts become mixed use with a heavy residential component, organizational and representational structures need to be opened up to resident involvement.  See "NoMA revisited: business planning to develop community."

Main Street groups typically are present in smaller towns and in neighborhood commercial districts that don't have a lot of office buildings.

The Main Street approach is different from the BID approach in that residents and other stakeholders who don't necessarily own businesses in the commercial district are drawn into the organization, to broaden the range of skills and volunteers able to work on issues.  (In my experience, Main Street volunteers tend to be 10-15 years younger than typical historic preservation group members, and live within a couple blocks of the main commercial street.)

Originally in DC, you had neighborhood merchant groups, funded with a wee bit of money from the DC Department of Housing and Community Development, but for the most part, these groups didn't do much.

In the late 1990s, DC authorized the creation of "business improvement districts," which originally focused on districts with large property owners, like Downtown and Georgetown and to some extent Capitol Hill.  Since then BIDs have been created on the Capitol Riverfront and in NoMA, and a variant form was created for Mount Vernon Triangle.

Over time, the BID framework was expanded so that it could be applied to districts with small properties and landholdings, in particular Adams-Morgan.

In 2002, DC launched the Main Street program as an alternative and focused method (the program started in the late 1970s and is active in more than 1,000 communities across North America) for commercial district revitalization that is more appropriately sized for the small commercial districts that typify many of DC's neighborhoods.

A hybrid of the BID and Main Street approach is the "Community Improvement District," a special service district (that's what BIDs are) that covers both commercial and residential areas.  Baltimore has a couple, and one in particular, Charles Village, has been very contentious with a group of residential property owners who resent paying towards the SSD.  California has a lot more types of these districts, especially in San Francisco. 

But I have also written about the BIDs in San Diego, which are somewhat unique, in that they use the BID funding mechanism--a fee per $100/property value--but tend to use the more ground up "Main Street Approach" to shape the programming and orientation of the organization.

So the commercial district revitalization organizations in San Diego have the advantage of steady funding from a property tax assessment like a BID, but the broader organizational, programming, and volunteer structure of a Main Street program.  See "Let's Assess the Assessments" from the San Diego Reader.

That's a form that we're missing in DC, and ultimately the lack of steady funding has been the biggest problem for neighborhood commercial district revitalization organizations in the city.

The Adams Morgan Main Street program had a strong president, but at the same time, there were "my way or the highway" issues with the organization's leadership.  Instead of developing as a Main Street program/BID, the merchants created their own BID, with the support of the Main Street program.

But ultimately, there wasn't enough money and civic capacity for both organizations to exist separately.  So the Main Street program in Adams Morgan, after 11 years, is no more.

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Note that things are changing too as neighborhoods are adding more residents because of the insertion of multiunit residential buildings.  See "Burying the lead: economic value of each new household added to a commercial district-neighborhood-city."

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13 Comments:

At 8:06 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

Great post.


I'd say also divert a small amount of residental property tax as well to the proposed hybrid groups.

How do you layer the ANC and this new hybrid as well?

I'm seeing this on U st, where the commercial detrius (really, cognac bottles?) isn't cleaned up quickly enough by the city on a weekly rotation.*

* I've got to dig up some pictures of the designer garabgage bags in Bruges.

 
At 8:14 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

Picking up bad habits from you in terms of not focusing my comments, but it is a reflection of how useful the post is.

Reading through Boston's list:

http://www.cityofboston.gov/mainstreets/PDFs/BakedBeans_2008.pdf

it strikes me how immigrant driven a lot of it is. DC has a big (lack) of immigration problem although african immigration is ok (compared to rest of region).

Second, I keep banging the drum on free WIFI and I could see BID/Main st providing some of that. Again, useful for international visitors.

 
At 9:18 AM, Blogger Kyle Todd said...

Interesting article, Richard. Just wanted to give a quick comment that Rhode Island Avenue NE will be one of the newest of the DC Main Street programs. We'll sure be keeping an eye on the funding challenges, but the San Diego model does seem like it worked out well for them. It would be interesting to see how successful it could be here in DC.

 
At 1:44 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Interesting that you mentioned U Street. We all figured that one would be wildly and the most successful Main Street program in the city. Instead it was one of the first to fall apart.

That white-black thing was part of it ("gentrification" "displacement" etc.). That happened on H St. too but instead of the group disbanding, instead, I just got kicked off the board.

The North Capitol group was the second to shut down, because of some financial issues with the parent CDC, which eventually dissolved.

There is a lot of dissension in LA over BIDs and the tax and what is done with the money. A lot of people don't understand--like the trash can issue you mention--that such districts need more maintenance, not less. That's the whole point of clean services, and ideally they are provided at night and on weekends as necessary (I don't think the Downtown BID does a good job of providing weekend services, at least as far as emptying trash cans goes), beyond what a city is normally likely to be able to accomplish.

 
At 1:46 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Wifi ... gosh it's been so long I forgot about this. Looked into when I did Brookland Main Street, but that group had its own leadership and intra-neighborhood strife issues and couldn't pull off that or continuing.

You mentioned Boston. One of the things that they have been way better at than DC is providing what we might call "networked services" or structural support for certain kinds of functions, like fundraising.

I don't know if they provide Wifi that way, but it's an obvious thing that the city should do, with parks too. It's something I discussed with Bell Clement when she was the interim director of the HSW, to do at Mount Vernon Square, etc.

 
At 1:54 PM, Anonymous charlie said...

In terms of BID performance, what blows my mind is the constant gardening and tending of tree boxes. And the garbage -- I don't compain about weekend but it is stretch after the food trucks hit.

In terms of U st, I still very little incentive to move to retail beyond it being a nightlife corridor. the rent incentive alone (as you've written about) is too strong.

Wifi could be done in partnership with Comcast or on the FON model. the comcast thing blocks internationals though.

 
At 1:54 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

wrt your point about ethnic groups in Boston, that's a tough row too. DC had ethnic neighborhoods, but they mostly disappeared during the white flight era, especially 1954-1957. You had a synagogue and kosher restaurant on H Street into the 1950s, Anacostia was white, etc.

This is really pronounced if you look at Census enumeration sheets in various neighborhoods from say 1900 to 1920, lots of Germans, Irish, etc. Italians came over to build Union Station, every neighborhood had at least one Chinese family running a laundry, etc.

In cities like Boston and Chicago I don't think that such outmigration was absolutely so pronounced and hyper fast (the velocity was different) so various ethnic neighborhoods maintained their place value and location somewhat.

As far as DC not being attractive to new immigrant groups, I've written about this in the past. It has to do with relatively high property values, so immigrants at certain stages arrived to the suburbs instead of the center city (think the Vietnamese who ended up in Clarendon first, Latinos in Langley Park-Wheaton-Takoma Crossroads after the initial wave that landed in DC in the 1980s, etc.).

Of course, it's more different in many places now. I've read articles in the Boston Globe and the NY Times about the cancellation of "community festivals" longstanding events, because the community being celebrated by the festival is no longer really present in the neighborhood any more.

 
At 1:59 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

ugh, the point I didn't make clear in the networked services comment is that the citywide Boston Main Street administration provides certain program benefits to all of the Main Street programs centrally.

I think that's how the city should support wifi provision, rather than expecting every little group to do their own thing, especially since there is this big DC city program about a network and providing services to all the various city buildings.

I think I read an article in _Govt. Technology_ about how some city is providing wifi by piggybacking on the wifi system that is supporting parking meters.

I don't see why the streetlight pole network can't be similarly leveraged.

... my past writings on networked services for ANCs are based on the points I used to make to the DC Main Streets program on this topic, that we are wasting time and energy by duplicating initiatives within each program, rather than developing common best practices, and leveraging the potential power of the network.

... that goes for ANCs especially.

 
At 2:03 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

the other problem with retail is the nature of the change in how the sector is organized and how people shop.

People say they want local stores, but they won't pay high prices for stuff sold at little stores, they'll go to a bigger store or a mall (like for clothes).

So most categories can't easily be represented at the scale of a neighborhood shopping district + the rent issue.

Basically, the only solution I see is providing spaces for "swap meets", flea markets and the like, but with an upscaling of the offer.

Not unlike Crafty Bastards.

When someone I know contacted me about a flea market for Mt. Pleasant, I said 1. Don't do it every week, do it once/month. 2. Make it special.

That would be a way to do it.

The reason I haven't been impressed with the city's various Temporarium initiatives is that there is no sense of sustaining the effort so that the temporary merchants or people represented can work towards something more permanent.

Another option is to support co-operative type business ventures. People do it in NYC. So there is a boutique that represents 8 or more local producers. They run the store collectively. Etc. But people have to be willing to pay artisan prices for the goods.

 
At 2:09 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Kyle -- good luck. I don't know much about how DC funds such programs these days. The big issue is community capital and the ability to have a significant initial new business anchor, like a great restaurant, to help reshape perceptions. There is some great building stock on that stretch of the Avenue.

But the biggest hindrance is a relative lack of population density. That's why for the most part, retail is unsupportable. Not enough customers.

Abigail Padou touts that her paper goes to about 8,000 households in Greater Brookland. That's about 30% to 40% of the households you need to support roughly 60,000 s.f. of retail in a neighborhood serving district.

That's why 12th St. NE in Brookland languishes. That's why Rhode Island Avenue languishes too--besides the fact that the area is automobile centric and the "retail" district is more walking oriented, plus for drivers there are minimal parking options.

I hope that Ward 5 civil society is less wacked post-Harry Thomas. My experiences working for the Brookland Main Street program strongly shaped my emphatic decision to not live in Ward 5 EVER.

 
At 2:10 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Kyle -- you really need to read the "why ask why (because)" and "the soft side of commercial district revitalization" pieces. They are linked in the cited piece. There are many more pieces linked in it as well that anyone trying to do Main St. in DC ought to read.

 
At 5:24 PM, Anonymous charlie said...


yes, the speed of white flight was different here. And it might have been a bit earlier before immigration took off in the later 70s/80s.

That being said, I don't think pricing was so much as issue. It was a conscious decision -- especially by asians immigrants -- to avoid blacks and black-majority areas. DC has captured a decent amount of african immigration. Some latino but not much.

And when immigration did pick up nationwide you already had early 80s gentrification pick up as well. Perhaps that is what you mean by price.

You've then got a huge separate problem, which is how to take a immigration population and then turn it into a commercial hub. In particular, how do you take it and turn it into something white people like -- food as opposed to what immigrant what -- cheap retail. Retail pricing in DC certainly doesn't help. Lack of market awareness isn't great either.

Then finally how do you sustain that. Immigrant move is driven by recent immigrants who don't have better options for employment. Some are successful at transitioning -- look at all the Persian kebab places that don't have a persian around. Others are not -- I went to the Sacrificial Kabob place on 17th and it was terrible, African immigrant imitations of Indian food.

For example, you can have a relatively large (for DC) korean merchant community but they all live and eat out in annaldale. Getting them to ban single serving alcohol is one thing, but then getting them to serve Korean BBQ in DC? much harder.

 
At 6:05 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

1. Your points about what immigrants want vs. what others want is a big issue wrt Langley Park, which I hope to write about this fall sometime.

2. In ann arbor, in the early 1980s, a lot of the Greek owned restaurants were bought by Koreans, who then added Korean items to their menues. So I like Korean food. But I don't like to pay a lot for it... (Union Market, the place on Morse Street is where I go).

But I see your point.

3. Daavi's, a West African place used to be on H St. and I ate there a couple times. (Eventually they moved to Georgia Ave. but I think they are closed now.)

WRT your point about the Kabob place, my reaction to the food at Daavi's was "maybe West African food is just really really bad."

4. But this point is problematic generally to legacy residents. I wrote a bunch in 2005 about the negative reaction of African Americans to designating part of 9th St. NW as "Little Ethiopia." The issue was written up in the Post and by AP.

http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com/2005/10/one-reason-why-i-think-gentrification.html

this is related, about reformulating your ethnic business for new audiences:

http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com/2006/04/commerce-dans-de-quartier-de-la-ville.html

but your general point pertains. I go to ethnic markets to pay less money for food, not more...

The little ethiopia reaction happens a lot, especially in response to foreign language signs (an issue in Fairfax, in Flushing, Queens, California, etc.).

 

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