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, September 17, 2014

Inner ring suburban community improvement

While I focus on urban or center city revitalization, the reality is that the characteristics of successful community improvement are universal, even if community characteristics and opportunities for improvement vary from place to place.

People often make the mistake of thinking "universally" or "globally" when the reality is that community improvement works at the scale of a district.  And that means that neighborhood "submarkets" in the city vary from each other and from the Downtown, and that at that scale, can be compared to suburban towns and agglomeration in terms of improvement opportunity.

A couple years ago I did break out and add a section of links in the right sidebar on "suburban revitalization," and I discuss various suburban revitalization efforts from time to time, such as recently, when I mentioned the Classic Towns commercial district revitalization initiative of the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission in Greater Philadelphia.

Another good example is the Main Street Oakland County program in Michigan, although some of the county's biggest town commercial districct successes, like Royal Oak, don't actually participate in the program.

Both of these programs use Main Street-based commercial district revitalization practices that aren't particularly unique.  What is unique is that other suburban counties haven't figured out the necessity of taking on such a systematic approach.

Gentrification isn't the issue: investment is.  This comes up because of the recent Urbanophile entry, "A new donut," which discusses inner ring decline and posits the question on whether these communities can be improved, and can it be done without gentrification.

I do think the question is an interesting one.  But it isn't new.  Inner ring suburbs have been declining in many metropolitan areas for decades.  Note that the Washington DC region provides at least three examples of attempts at revitalization of inner ring suburbs over the past 40+ years.  The first two examples, Arlington County (dating to the late 1960s) and Silver Spring, Maryland (various efforts starting in the 1990s), are for the most part, incredible success stories.

Arlington was losing population and businesses when it decided to route the coming Metrorail system through the county's main arterial corridor, Wilson Boulevard, instead of the otherwise preferred routing within the I-66 freeway.  Coincident with zoning changes focused on intensifying development in the new transit corridor, the county has added population, office and commercial space, new businesses and jobs, new retail, and a great deal of multunit housing.

Similarly, Silver Spring,  in Montgomery County, abutting DC and anchored by a Metrorail station, after various unsuccessful efforts, has turned the corner and is adding population.  Although unlike Arlington, Silver Spring has been less successful at attracting and retaining commercial office activity, although it has a successful retail core that is a regional destination for both retail and community activity (such as festivals, farmers markets, etc.).

But neither area was distressed, just languishing, by comparison to developments further out from the core.  Today in Arlington, in the Wilson Boulevard corridor, housing prices are highest in the county and rental rates are high.  Silver Spring's residential real estate market is pretty strong as well, although by no means the best in the county.

It's fair to say that it's difficult for poorer people to compete for housing in these areas, which is part of the animus driving anti-transit sentiment in Arlington County's Columbia Pike Corridor.

On the other hand, in Prince George's County, the Baker Administration's Transforming Neighborhoods Initiative is aiming for something much more difficult, the revitalization of distressed communities.

Because the county has so many different competing economic development objectives, which include both reinvestment within the "urban core" of the county as well as investing in areas of the county that aren't connected by fixed rail transit, and because there is so much underutilized land and lack of enough growth opportunities to absorb it all, it will be interesting to see how their program turns out.

Both Arlington and Silver Spring had the advantage of being focused on smaller areas, which is not an advantage possessed by Prince George's County.

What people often call gentrification to me means inward investment.  Communities in need of investment are declining because of disinvestment.  The solution in a market economy to disinvestment is investment.

The real question: whether or not the communities can be improved while minimizing the displacement of lower income houseolds.

Displacement effects are dependent on the strength of the real estate market at the metropolitan and local scales: in strong markets, people get displaced.  The answer is dependent on whether or not the metropolitan area is experiencing growth and is a "strong" or "weak" real estate market.

It's easy to ward off displacement in weak real estate submarkets.

But given the limited set of tools haphazardly used, it's almost impossible to ward off displacement in strong real estate submarkets--the only way to do it is by doing portfolio investment designed to maintain a large base of rental property with a commitment to not raise prices, and to have moratoria on property tax increases..

So in St. Paul Minnesota, people can be proud of their successful efforts to improve communities without displacement, but it's almost impossible to pull off in the core of Washington, DC, where the general real estate market at the metropolitan scale is strong and it is especially strong in most core submarkets in the city, where it is virtually impossible to add to the inventory of single family housing, which is the segment of the market experiencing the greatest demand.

On the other hand, as the Urbanophile entry points out, in many metropolitan areas, there isn't enough demand present to generate the necessary level of reinvestment required to fix things.  For example, in a place like Greater Cleveland, which at the metropolitan scale isn't experiencing growth--the population today is less than it was in 1960-- it's hard for suburbs to improve except on a relative basis, just as it is hard for the center city to improve, because there is far more ability to accommodate growth than there is demand to absorb .

In  response, almost 20 years ago, a number of Cleveland's suburbs came together to organize the First Suburbs Consortium to coordinate revitalization efforts.

Gentrification is relative.  Even in weak markets, strong submarkets will experience price appreciation and people can get displaced.  But usually there is enough slack capacity that when people get displaced, they have many other alternatives.

Resources.  I wouldn't consider this list to be in any way definitive, but it is useful.



At 7:51 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

small correction; SFH is seeing the strong price increases but unclear whether that is due to demand.

SFH inventory is the problem. new SFH housing starts are the same as 1982.

I don't have a read on "used" homes but you can see that inventory isn't large either.

We've talked about whether there is a paradigm shift, maybe Americans will want to raise families in multiunit housing.

But outside of Vancouver with Chinese immigrants, it isn't a popular option. And even there it requires a lot of regulation to get builders to make family friendly untis.

And so it is a safe call that this is not something that will turn on a dime.

Extending transit will relieve housing pressure. Best argument for Columbia Pike streetcar, except the plans are reallly to rip out garden style aparments and replace them with condos.

The purple line MAY be a better example.

The ultimate reality is that the strong market areas (NYC, DC, SF) will become wealthy enclaves. High income (over 100K people) with skills might spend a few months a year in those areas but will buy elsewhere.

(Why should I drop 800K for a bad post ww2 house in arlington? I can actually buy a very nice country home for that price)

DC has done that for a long time, probably one of the strongest short term rental markets in the country.

At 9:16 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

well, demand is demand. Because of the small inventory and an increased interest in living in the city... it doesn't take much to lead to significant escalation.

2. your general comment is more like a counterfactual to my perspective, and I mean that in a good way. As Gerald Ford said to a former NYT editorial writer teaching at the U of Michigan who gave a fiery speech countering the general tenor of the conference "it's good to have a divergent view."

... although I agree about the multiunit issue with families. I don't know if DC can ever achieve the conditions that make this "normal" for higher income households in DC but abnormal everywhere else in the US.

3. To me, the thing about the Purple Line is two fold, not only can it do what you say, but it gives PG County the opportunity to rearticulate a transit oriented planning paradigm and put renewed attention on the existing Metrorail footprint.

a. but they need to be pushing for planning from New Carrollton to Alexandria to massively expand their ability to leverage this opportunity.

b. and the two counties need to begin the steps to create the massive bi-county transportation renewal district I've proposed, to line up the money so they can be more purposeful in shaping the future.

The reports about the failure to deal with the Apex building is one example of how having extranormal funding sources could enable them to do more "right things" that have much longer payback periods, and where other property owners may gain more value than the specific entity.

At 8:04 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

couple other points:

1. Scale -- most suburbs don't have the scale on a larger city, which means they face a financial pressure even greater as they "age". Double that if poor people take over.

2. Crime -the pervasive level of property and/or violent crimes in certain poverty areas is going to strongly deter private investment.

3. Public vs private investment; and while the public investment can ignore that, the size and unwieldily nature of large projects have significant blowback. Clearly people who supported downtown freeways though it was going to revitalize retail and downtown areas. There may have bee other agendas but the downtown department stores were big backers until they realized the mall was a better option.

The detroit example is the best of the investment divide, where you can see at the border the difference.

Likewise, Georgia Ave is the investment story as there just isn't the open space that you had on 14th (thank to riots and metro construction),

I've said in the past that accounting is what kills American cities, and the inability to account for real investments. Need better tax treatment of landlords and the ability for them to cash out without worrying so much on the gain.

At 10:51 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

1. Absolutely true. Less of an issue in those places (like MD) where counties are the dominant organizational entity, but a huge issue in places like Detroit, Cleveland, St. Louiss, Pittsburgh, Chicago, etc.

But still very difficult to pull off even for counties.

Counties in MD have an advantage because the state income tax is half for the counties (and Balt. City).

Even so, there are many issues. Difficult for counties, and more specifically, their residents to developed more nuanced ways of thinking in terms of urban and suburban sections of the county and needing to change for the 21st century. Look at the anti-intensification efforts in MoCo, opposition to the Purple Line, etc.

2. I was trying to discuss this in the point about Rushern Baker, but I don't think I was as direct as your point. The TNI is trying to direct investment to areas that are distressed and problematic. Sure these areas have Metro stations, but that isn't enough as stations in disadvantaged areas of DC prove, such as Anacostia, Deanwood, Minnesota Ave., Congress Heights.

And as you point out, for obvious reasons, the private sector doesn't champ at the bit to invest in such situations.

PG is acting like DC Govt. which is super dissipating certain investment opportunities in DC by directing primary energies to places like Skyland.

It's not that the city shouldn't be focusing resources on the most difficult to improve areas, but like TNI, to almost force attention there exclusively makes it difficult to improve the areas that can develop now.

This is an issue with Reservation 13/RFK. Or even Anacostia Metro vs. St. Elizabeths. Even Congress Heights.

- cont. -

At 11:04 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

3. 14th St. has a significant advantage over Georgia Ave. because it is compact and immediately proximate to one of DC's most successful areas (Dupont Circle).

Even then it has taken a long time and had the advantage of some motivated developers, specifically Jim Abdo (Logan Circle) and Chris Donatelli (U Street and then 14th St.), who do high quality work, which then triggers other good word.

Plus, 14th St. and the abutting neighborhoods have a lot more density. This is a problem on GA Ave. past Petworth.

Georgia Ave. is much longer, more than double the distance from U St. to Eastern Ave. than 14th St. from Thomas Circle to Columbia Heights.

Georgia Avenue also has a bunch of institutional properties (HU generally, the Banneker Recreation Center, the HU Hospital specifically) that inhibit fixing the lower end of the campus, which could be pretty vibrant, even though the area around the 7th St. Metrorail station is significantly improving and expanding beyond that area, along 9th St. etc.

Georgia Avenue still has the opportunity to revitalize, if the focus is at nodes, and growing from nodes.

What is happening in Petworth is a great example. It has the Metro station. And the key development of the Park Place housing on WMATA land, again, by Donatelli.

The HU area is an opportunity, but HU is not the right leader to pull it off, even if some other universities (Penn, Ohio State, Johns Hopkins U, hell, even Catholic University) demonstrate that it is possible and can be done very well.

And the Georgia-Missouri node is totally f*ed because of the single use Walmart development.

Had a project there been as transformational as the Donatelli project at Petworth, the improvements in that section of the corridor could have been very significant.

Now they are not likely for the next 20 years.

Walter Reed is another issue. In a way it is both a problem and an opportunity.

It's grayfield redevelopment sure, but it "adds capacity" and takes away the focus from improving what exists along the corridor already.


The reason this "node" is failing is because of comparative lack of density and disconnection from fixed rail transit. (That's a problem with the Missouri Ave. node too.)

... Were there to be separated yellow line up Georgia Avenue, with a willingness to rezone like what Arlington did would change things a lot.

But politically it is almost impossible to pull off, because it's saying to SFH owners that the city is sanctioning demolition and redevelopment.


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