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.

Friday, January 10, 2014

New development in Twinbrook as a contrast to Route 1 in Fairfax County: an exception that proves the rule about the need for development and design guidelines

Route 1 in Fairfax County as a Revitalization District.  A couple weeks ago, the Washington Post ran a story, "Mount Vernon residents seeking to revitalize Route 1 corridor oppose auto title loan firm," about how residents in Fairfax County in the Rte. 1 corridor--where there is a redevelopment agency, the Southeast Fairfax Development Corporation--are upset that a new car title loan business on the corridor contributes to continued squalor rather than improvement.

Rte. 1 is a typical commercial arterial lined with a variety of businesses, some successful and others marginal, and buildings, many old and disinvested.

In the initial stages of revitalization, it is very difficult to attract "preferred businesses" like the Starbucks that everyone seems to think is the one key anchor.  So rather than ban business types and encourage vacancy, instead more tightly regulate where such uses can be placed.

Most property owners are motivated by the greatest short term profits, not long term value.  The way real estate development works, there are three main types of actors: firms that develop for the long haul, and realize that if they are going to hold the property, investing in quality has greater yield; firms that construct new properties with the intent to sell them to operators; and portfolio managers who may or may not be concerned about the absolute highest return over the long term, but may prefer simplicity.

The need for development and urban design guidelines.  In my experience over the years, the key to fixing such problems, and it will take a long time regardless, is putting development and design guidelines in place to guide future development and to reshape what's there.  

Instead, whenever a community embarks on a revitalization initiative, it should start the effort with development and design guidelines, including signage regulations, to begin the process of reshaping the built environment more towards people-centricity--what Forterra, a Pacific Northwest smart growth organization, calls "complete, compact, and connected communities."  I think their description of what this means is one of the best I have come across.  From their website:
  • Complete Communities have neighborhoods with a vibrant mix of people, jobs, public gathering places, civic and cultural anchors and retail establishments.
  • Compact Communities develop existing neighborhoods in their towns and cities to make them walkable, affordable, attractive and healthy.
  • Connected Communities are designed to make it easy for residents to use transit, walk and bike safely to their daily destinations. They link the natural and urban world to give residents easy access to waterfronts, parks and trails.
Not having comparable guidelines in most of DC's commercial districts has made getting the right output very difficult, until recently even in high value submarkets unless they were located in historic districts which require additional levels of design review and compatibility with historic architectre, because property owners tend/ed to be focused on the quick buck.

Markets that we see as valuable may not be so to property owners and financiers and so often, we get crap.  New crap makes improvement very difficult.

In areas outside of traditional compact commercial districts, typically, the building pattern on arterials is parking lots in front, buildings in back.  Instead, I said reverse the pattern. 

I made such recommendations in plans for Cambridge, Maryland and Brunswick, Georgia, and similar recommendations for reshaping the built environment form on traditional arterials in Baltimore Countyin the Western Baltimore County Pedestrian and Bicycle Access Plan, which remained in the plan despite the fact that they are controversial.

Changing allowable uses for revitalization districts.  The reality is that built-form-wise, the Title Max firm located on Rte. 1 that has people up in arms (image right, John McDonnell, Washington Post) has the right form--it's up at the front of the lot line--but offensive signage.

So it may be reasonable to restrict "matter of right" uses as a redevelopment priority.

But, it can get very acrimonious to say that some businesses are preferred and some aren't--this often comes up in hetereogeneous areas like H Street (see "Is commercial district revitalization racist?").  Hey, I am against pawn shops and such marginal businesses as much as anyone.  But you end up fighting a lot of battles that absorb a great deal of energy and capacity, and the loss of focus isn't worth it.

Instead, I prefer having tighter regulations that require special exception review for such businesses, which allows for more careful review of signage, building placement, and occupancy permit periods.

Left: 1800 Rockville Pike, Rockville, Maryland

Rockville Pike as the exception that proves the rule, and JBG.  In my work in revitalization, it feels like there are only a handful of real estate firms that invest for the long term, and invest in quality buildings with the right kind of urban design that promotes quality of life and placemaking objectives.  JBG, active in Greater Washington, is one such firm.

In the Twinbrook area of Rockville Pike and separate from a similar transformational initiative in the White Flint District, just a bit south, JBG is in the process of "reproducing" key land parcels towards a more urban, less typically suburban, form.  Granted, the property values in Montgomery County make this a logical choice.

About 1/4 mile from the Twinbrook Metrorail Station, the Galvan at Twinbrook project (rendering pictured at right) is redeveloping an old shopping center and big parking lot, and will transform it into a mixed use transit oriented development that contributes to the reshaping of the urban form along Rockville Pike.  

Previously, an Ethan Allen furniture store had been on the site, and will continue forward as  part of the new development.

The building will have 356 apartments, 15% dedicated as affordable, paired with 100,000 square feet of street-level retail, including a 63,000 square-foot flagship Safeway with two levels of underground parking, sidewalk cafes, and the aforementioned Ethan Allen.

The development is one of three by JBG in the Twinbrook station area. The Terano (underway), and Alaire (complete) developments are located on the east side of the Metro station. JBG’s 30-acre Twinbrook Station redevelopment will total about 2 million square feet of office space, retail space, and about 1,600 apartments and condominiums.

Here's what Sam Stiebel, the JBG official on the job says about what they are doing:
"JBG has been happy to work with the City of Rockville to implement developments that, in line with both the City's zoning code and a shared goal to create vibrant pedestrian-friendly environments, will favor transit-oriented mixed-use buildings rather than surface parking lots."
Wood Partners and Rte. 1.  Note that in the Route 1 corridor, the Atlanta-based Wood Partners has created an apartment building, the Beacon of Groveton, a 290-unit apartment building with 10,000 s.f. of retail, and community spaces that are designed to appeal to millennials, using Smart Growth and livability principles comparable to those employed by JBG.

Television/theater amenity room at the Beacon at Groveton.

Unlike JBG, Wood Partners/Wood Residential is active in many high value real estate markets across the country, but like JBG they also have  has many developments underway in the DC metropolitan area.

But on the Route 1 corridor, they are the smart growth development outlier and are one of the only property developers focused on creating urban forward projects, but their project is too small to reshape the attitudes of other property owners at least right now.

Route 1, Fairfax in the Beacon Hill area, circa 1980.  Image:  Southeast Fairfax Development Corporation.

The building is about 2 miles from the Huntington Metro Station, and they do provide shuttle service to the station for residents.  (There are Metrobus and Fairfax Connector bus stops serving the property as well.)

The problem in the Rte. 1 corridor is that there isn't a Metro Line to reshape property values and the value of transit access and intensification in the same way that Rockville Pike does--Fairfax has one Metrorail station in that corridor, Montgomery County has six.  (Also see the past blog entry "The future of mixed use development/urbanization: Part 3, Prince George's County, where's the there?.")

If there were development and design guidelines for the corridor and more Metro stations, improvement could be accelerated and projects like the Beacon of Groveton could have more impact.

Fairfax should have made Metrorail extension to Fort Belvoir one of the county's foremost economic development priorities, but they haven't as their energy has been absorbed by the redevelopment of the Tysons Corner area and the development of the Silver Line Metrorail extension.

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At 4:22 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Richmond Highway already has design guidelines, so there's a whole lot more to it than that. Sure Fairfax has been preoccupied with Tyson's for quite a while now, but its not like it was a cakewalk getting metro to go there. I really don't see it happening on Rt 1. The long game is going to require different strategies, and finally letting go of the idea that WMATA, Whole Foods, and Trader Joe's are going to swoop in and magically transform everything.

At 5:57 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

... damn, I knew I should have double checked on that.

At 12:45 AM, Blogger Imran Seo said...

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