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.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

REVISED DUE TO ERROR | The consequences of not working "within the (planning) system"

In the commentt thread to this article, an anonymous commenter and Tom Bridge, President of the Brookland Neighborhood Civic Association and quoted below, correct my interpretation of his statement and position, which I will concede in reading too fast, was somewhat incorrect. 

Unfortunately, due to "ripping and reading" I do sometimes make mistakes.  Fortunately, I catch most of them.  E.g., today I almost wrote an incorrect entry about CVS's acquisition of Navarro Pharmacies in South Florida, but reading the Miami Herald in addition to the initial article, I caught myself. 

Corrections below.

Because of my mentor, in the early part of the last decade I got involved in some issues in Brookland, working with people she was working with, and for most of 2007, serving as the program manager of the Brookland Main Street (which ceased operating later in 2008).

I thought Brookland was interesting because it appeared to me to be one of the few places in DC where there was "racial mixing," where whites and African-Americans interacted, ate at the same restaurants, and worked together in community organizations and projects.

Where that might be the case, working there, I came to understand that there is a lot of behavior there that is not conducive to "progress," however you define the word.

The neighborhood narrative is that they are successful in opposing any change, because residents were key to successful opposition to freeways and later to an ill-advised proposal to build townhouses on the Brookland Metro Station grounds.

But I think they learned the wrong lesson, that opposition is the best course, always, and not that they needed to be discerning.

Plus those successes "taught them" to be not just strident, but jerks.

New streetlights on 12th Street NE, Brookland, Washington, DCOne example was the Brookland Streetscape Study, which was an opportunity to get the city to commit to undergrounding the power lines on 12th Street even in the face of opposition by the local utility Pepco.

Instead of focusing on achieving that, which would have been difficult but was achievable, they spent their time being obstreperous and lambasting the city agency staff and consultants on just about everything.

The result was that undergrounding wasn't part of the final plan, and then some residents sued the city about it, after most of the street was reconstructed.  Of course, the lawsuit failed.

Since the road likely won't get reconstructed for another 50+ years, it'll be a long time before change here becomes possible.

Although citizen agitation has been successful in retaining the block of WMATA land between Newton and Otis as open space, which was not the recommendation in the Brookland Small Area Plan, even though myself and others recommended it (past blog entry, "Rare example of community activism getting a positive change from the government: Brookland Green").  Although this is one instance when the community was 100% right.

Yesterday I was riding up 12th Street NE and noticed a 7-11 is being built in place of an old gas station.

FWIW, that was the spot I thought Catholic University could put their book store, although with the start of this academic year, the store is now a part of the Monroe Street Market development on Monroe Street immediately adjacent to the campus ("Catholic University bookstore to move to Monroe Street Market project").

The Small Area Plan recommended systematic zoning changes for the 12th Street commercial district, to help it retain its relevance in the face of more intense development by the Metro Station--three projects are in process and more, along the railroad tracks will come.

But the "involved" residents fought that recommendation, stating that they'd rather deal with proposed changes as they come up.

So instead of getting a decent building, they are getting a 7-11.  I laughed when I saw the site yesterday.

In my testimony on the plan, I said that piecemeal zoning improvements for 12th Street doomed it to irrelevance.

While it's great to be proved right, it's sad to see the negative results from when people's flawed efforts get results in ways that damage rather than improve their communities.

Or I was an advocate for creating a historic district in Brookland, although that got all "fouled up," for reasons I won't go into.

I laughed again, chagrined, when one of the opponents of creating a historic district wanted me to make a presentation on what the community could do in the face of the proposal to demolish the Colonel Brooks Restaurant and adjacent housing in favor of a larger multiunit apartment building.  I declined to participate.

You live in the bed you make.  Historic preservation designation is the best tool for neighborhoods wanting more tools to manage--not prevent--change.

I was not surprised to read more recently about how some of the "better" development proposals for the Brookland Metro Station appear to be opposed.

For example, a Brookland civic leader, who obviously is against any and all development, was quoted in the Washington Business Journal, "MRP, A&R, Four Points, Donatelli among  Brookland Metro bidders," as being against one of the proposals, which calls for constructing a mixed use building at the Metro, a building that would have apartments and a Harris-Teeter Supermarket. From the article:
Tom Bridge, president of the Brookland Neighborhood Civic Association, said all of the proposals looked good, artistically. But he was particularly impressed with the A&R/Urban Atlantic bid for condos in a four-story building, as opposed to apartments in five or six stories, as the others offered. He also suggested that a supermarket on congested Michigan Avenue would be a tough sell to the community.
Why wouldn't people want a supermarket in the heart of their community, one they could walk to?

They do, at least most people do.
My only answer is that this person doesn't want any development in the community at all wants to minimize change as much as possible.  And in that context (1) a smaller building is "better" than a bigger one in that context and (2) owners are better than renters, even though owner occupied housing predominates.

In the comment thread Mr. Bridge states his preference for the four-story condo project is because of likely difficulties in making deliveries to the supermarket via Michigan Avenue via a constrained and problematically placed loading dock.  I think those issues can be addressed in a way that minimizes problems.  It's a lot less constrained that the Giant Supermarket on Park Road, which is still problematic.  And deliveries via Michigan Avenue ensure that the impact on neighborhood (as opposed to through) traffic will be minimal.

Development will happen.  That's the nature of property ownership and strong markets.

Putting your head in the sand only makes it impossible for you to better shape what occurs so that more of your needs and interests are served.

In the case of Brookland, its primary center of commercial activity will shift to Monroe Street and the Brookland Metro.  That works on many levels, and gives the neighborhood a new and more coherent center, but at the expense of property owners and businesses on the existing 12th Street commercial district.
Some of my learnings from Brookland:

1.  You are only as strong as your weakest link--deficient leaders and board members do not a successful organization make.

2.  You can't be a community development corporation and not engage the community in your agenda setting and operations.

3. It doesn't matter how good your ideas are if the community is disengaged or actively oppositional.

4.  Neighborhoods in DC aren't just "flawed up" because of disinvestment, part of the problem comes from legacy leadership and whether or not leaders are committed to excellence, best practice, and a willingness to work with others.

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At 12:30 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

what always amazed me about Gallaudet and Catholic Universities was the total lack of a "student town" area in both places- the hostility of the surrounding inhabitants and crime certainly prevented this from developing or happening. Gallaudet in fact appears more of a walled Roman villa from the 6th century AD than a world class & famous university . Sure hope to see this happen in the next decade or so.

At 12:43 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Gallaudet did have that planning paradigm because of how deaf people were treated ("deaf and dumb") and the idea of creating an intellectual oasis in the face of unsupportive attitudes.

And yes, they are now focused on engaging, reengaging, which is quite exciting.

CUA is a typical university campus built to be separate.

I wasn't around during the main part of the decline of the city. I know that many years ago I talked to the president of Trinity U DC and she said that 1/10 of the university's budget was spent on public safety.

CUA was built to be separate too. And the campus is small enough that it was difficult to create that kind of student town.

in fairness to CUA, College Park doesn't have it either, and UMD is 10 times or more larger.

But yes, I miss "campus town" next to Central Campus in Ann Arbor.

Oh, what spurred Penn to refocus on fixing the community around it was the recognition that it was too expensive to move, which they were considering in the 1960s and 1970s.

At 12:45 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

... back when I proposed to CUA that they move the student bookstore to 12th St. They said "why do you think we built the new university center, with a cafe and a bookstore and comfortable spaces? To provide the kind of environment that doesn't exist in Brookland, which is too unsafe for our students to go into anyway."

At 3:56 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It seems to me that you're seriously misrepresenting Tom Bridge's position here. He said that "all of the proposals looked good." A couple sentences later in the WBJ article, in a quote you neglected to include, he says. "We welcome working with whomever Metro suggests and we hope they reach out to the community as soon as possible."

How do you get from there to "this person doesn't want any development in the community at all"?

At 4:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Uof Md has more of student town than any other school in the area except perhaps for Georgetown- but College park aint much compared to a place like Princeton or to UVa Charlottesville.
Still Gallaudet has a lot of potential as does Catholic- and Brookland is the obvious choice of the town area. Having such a student town adds a lot to the school and makes life easier for the visiting families and staff as well as research people, etc. Hotels and restaurants, etc. should all be a part of this.

At 4:34 PM, Blogger Tom Bridge said...

Hi Richard,

I wanted to set the record straight from some comments that you made within your post. The first is the most erroneous - and the easiest to rebut:

"a Brookland civic leader, who obviously is against any and all development"

While I am a civic leader, I am certainly not against "any and all development." I testified before the Zoning Commission in favor of the 901 Monroe Project, and I spearheaded BNCA's work to preserve the Brookland Green while stressing that we wanted the site developed for the community.

In addition, you cite:

So instead of getting a decent building, they are getting a 7-11.

In my role as President of the Civic Association, it's my job to engage with developers to find out what's happening. I was just as confused as you to find out about the 7-11 going into the lot across from the Shell Station, until I talked with the developer about what they're planning there.

SGA Companies' Sassan Gharai had a lengthy talk about what they're planning for that intersection and conjoined lots, and this is not your standard standalone 7-11 that we're talking about. It's not going to be like the 20th & RIA store which is a focus of frustration for the community. Rather, we're looking at a mixed use development with a 7-11 at lobby level, facing away from the street and accessible off Otis.

I hope that we'll have some plans to discuss come the Fall.

Richard, I think you can do a lot better in your reasoning than "Clearly against development" in the face of my comments on the grocery store. My complaints - which I laid out to Mike Neibauer of WBJ - are that supply of the grocery as proposed would be difficult if not impossible due to the complicated intersection suggested by Donatelli.

It has nothing to do with not wanting a grocery in Brookland, I'll be the first to admit I'd like a second option other than the YES Organic on 12th. It has everything to do with the inability to supply that grocery with a reasonable fleet of grocery trucks, due to the sharp angled turn required to enter that parcel from 10th street, OR from Michigan Avenue westbound, both of which would have severely negative consequences for pedestrians along the 10th Street corridor.

In short: do your homework next time.

Tom Bridge
President, BNCA
Rather A Fan of Good Urban Development

At 5:19 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

first, you're right that I read too fast and so I mischaracterized your position. It's an occupational hazard considering all that I try to read generally and in a day. Sometimes I do make mistakes. Fortunately, I catch most of them.

But not all.

I will correct the entry.

However, I still stand by the point about the preference inferences.

It's not like the H-T at 1st and M Street NE creates significant issues for delivery. And a freight delivery plan could be put in place so that the vast majority of deliveries occur overnight, something I've pushed forward for years.

Obviously, I haven't looked at the proposals, but it wouldn't be hard to incorporate the right kind of infrastructure making this unproblematic.

Am I wrong about a preference for smaller and owner-occupied?

At 5:23 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

p.s. SGA ain't perfect. Look them up in the Post database with the criteria SGA and "Florida Avenue."

But a standalone 7-11 is a standalone 7-11 and will not add signficant value to the corridor in any significant way, unless people are really hankering for cheap hot dogs, which is about the only thing that 711 sells that isn't available on the corridor now.

(Note I've written about more upscale 7-11s being tested in NYC and Miami, but I doubt that's what's coming to 12th St. Frankly, I'd rather have a sheetz or a wawa, except that they don't do non-gas locations.

At 5:29 PM, Blogger Tom Bridge said...


I'm assuming you meant to say "I'm sorry" or "I apologize" in there, and I'll accept it if that's what you meant to say.

In the meantime: slow down. Posts like this one are why people in neighborhoods like Brookland don't trust urban development types: You're badly mischaracterizing objections, you're resorting to thin caricatures, and you fully admit that you read too fast, and I'm not sure that you have a good grasp on the events that you're writing about.

There are residents on 10th Street there who have grave noise concerns about overnight deliveries, and I can't blame them, and if you couple that with a bad intersection for delivery, we've got a situation that I would prefer not to see built, but rather an alternate retail option presented.

As for 7-11, until the drawings are out, and it's clear what's being proposed, don't be so quick to laugh and point and gloat and say "Ha, I told you you suck!"


At 5:33 PM, Blogger Tom Bridge said...


As to your direct last question, yes, I prefer condo to rental, and 4 stories to 6.

At 9:46 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

I don't feel a need to have the last word, even though this sounds like I do.

Just that there is a large body of work represented by 7-11s (and convenience stores generally) and even SGA, and it's reasonable to make an inference about the final product. And it isn't good. It's an example of not having the right framework in place to "force" development more towards what you want. It's an example of path dependence and having a weak framework generating a weak path.

WRT Harris-Teeter, again, they have a few hundred stores and now they are part of Kroger which has thousands of stores.

Granted most are suburban stores, but H-T has been developing an urban format that is generally ahead of all the other major supermarket companies in the US.

So my sense is that they can do a better job wrt freight management and delivery, that a Michigan Avenue delivery configuration would make the most sense.

Also, JBG is a leading firm in the city/region doing urban-focused urban design appropriate projects in urban settings.

I am not happy about Walmart, but of all the proposals in the city, thus far, the two done by JBG are by far the best.

The same goes with may of their other projects. JBG, Donatelli, Abdo are examples of companies doing work that pushes urbanity and placemaking forward in important ways.

And none of that should be required to be especially packaged for Brookland in unique ways.

At 7:46 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

why 4 stories over 6? Aren't you being short sighted about our housing crisis in DC? It is NIMBY attitudes towards density that are making it harder and harder for young people to live here. With new young people we get affluence, fewer people using social services and fewer cars, hopefully less taxes and a larger jury pool so we all do not have to go to the court every two or more years. I am fed up with bickering older people who all drive, never take transit, own an d expect to park 2-3 cars and have a mentality that the city is theirs only. We need density BADLY here in DC and we need it around metro stations and other places where people live- we also need corner stores and more retail - not less. If you want to live in a quiet suburb or a place with plenty of parking move to Houston or Dallas. DC is a real city- not a sprawl dead zone like those dumps. And we will only improve as more people can be allowed to live here - in TALLER buildings !!!


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