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, November 18, 2014

Back to the 'hood for the "National" Children's Museum

The former Capital Children's Museum was on H Street NE for decades and so it was a leading cultural asset back when we created the H Street Main Street program back in 2001/2002.

By then it was a pretty tired facility that needed a jump start.  And the consultants working on the H Street revitalization plan, released in 2003, felt that the museum did need to move, although they didn't recommend it in the plan because it wasn't politically palatable.

But they thought it would work better as part of a nascent museum complex including the Smithsonian National Postal Museum, on the west side of Union Station, in the old Main Post Office building, across from Union Station.  (Since then the Postal Museum has expanded, kicking out a restaurant, although it is still one of the least visited of the Smithsonian Museums.)

Shortly afterwards, the Children's Museum decided to sell their H St. property, which is now a condominium and apartment complex, for space in a redeveloped L'Enfant Plaza.

But soon after that, not being too successful in fundraising for a new space, with a great offer--likely free rent--from a developer wanting "activation", they agreed to move to the National Harbor development in Prince George's County, a location disconnected from transit.

The move pretty much made them a non-factor in the area's cultural offer generally, and for children specifically.  And they haven't been all that successful in their new location ("Children's museum plans stall; new space a 'downgrade,' official says" from the Gazette) although they did open a small space eventually, one that when reviewed, didn't receive favorable reactions when it finally opened in 2012 ("New National Children's Museum underwhelms the under-8," Post).

Hence the decision to move back to DC, reported today in the Washington Post ("National Children's Museum leaving Prince George's to return to DC").

Ideas for a great Children's Museum, circa 2002.  In late 2002, during the planning process for H Street improvement, I wrote a short memo including ideas for how to improve significantly the Children's Museum and leverage it as a destination for the H Street commercial district.

Museums that focus on children visiting via class trips don't make much money.  Partly it recognizes the biggest problems with museums and educational centers targeting kids--they don't make much money.  See for example ("Please Touch Museum may be forced to sell assets, exhibits" and "Sluggish economy, stifling debt imperil city’s cultural future," Philadelphia Business Journal; and "Good grief! Just look at Port Discovery - Baltimore Sun," Baltimore Sun).

Most of the attendees come via class trips. And they bring their lunch. SO most of the visits during the week don't generate much in the way of additional revenue or support for retailers on or off site.

ImaginOn, Charlotte, NC.

Note that I expanded these ideas after the Children's Museum left the city, in suggesting new children's museum in Poplar Point ("Thinking Really Really Really Big for Poplar Point") which frankly would work well with some of the other recommendations I've made concerning civic facilities in the context of the 11th Street Bridge Park and Poplar Point ("A world class water/environmental education center at Poplar Point as another opportunity for Anacostia River programming (+ move the Anacostia Community Museum next door)").

But the differences are slight, a ferris wheel and a specific mention of the ImaginOn, which is a combined library-children's theatre facility in Charlotte, NC and the children-serving elements of the then new Connecticut Science Center "Future shock made science play," Boston Globe).

Note that I am not holding my breath that any of these ideas are on the table for a revitalized children's museum in DC.

-------- From 2002 --------

-- A revitalized Children's Museum with attractions such as an IMAX theater and a Children's live theater, a carousel, a children's library--a museum really focused on "building creativity in children" would offer the opportunity to draw retail serving children to the immediate vicinity.

The kinds of stores I am thinking about would be a quality toy store, a store that serves teachers, a children's book store, a "Crayola" store (one was opened in Arundel Mills I believe), a "Lego" store, a gallery focused on children's art or perhaps Dr. Seuss.

[At the time there was a traveling Dr. Seuss art exhibit, which I had recently seen in Cleveland  Since then there has been the creation of the musical, Seussical, and I also wrote about a play about the US Presidents, "Rock the presidents (cultural planning and the national experience in DC)" in Arizona that would be a logical offering for DC.]

-- Doubling the attendance of the Children's Museum by revitalizing the programs they offer would bring great numbers of families into the neighborhood on weekends, presumably with a fair amount of disposable income.

The stores would also serve as destinations, whether or not people are visiting the Museum. I understand the Museum wants to leave the neighborhood, but I think it's important to maximize the benefit of its presence while it is here. We should also work to convince them that this neighborhood remains the best location for their facility.

Rock the Presidents children's play promotion, Tempe Center for the Arts.

Attachments mentioned stores like Build-a-Bear Workshop ("Build-A-Bear to open 50th store," St. Louis Business Journal) and a children's hair salon ("Hair salon aimed at kids opens," Denver Business Journal--although there is a newer concept, Snip-Its, as well [story]) as additional complementary retail and service options.

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At 2:39 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

it will be interesting to see if this effect - in the future- also happens to federal and other employers who have decided to leave the city. This whole notion of leaving the city as an "efficiency move" is ridiculous and obsolete when the young folks and new employees do not wish to live in far flung suburbs any longer. The decisions to leave the city are being made by the older people who all hate the citiy/cities. we will have to pay for their stupidity down the road when everyone again wants to be back in the city and cannot afford it any longer

At 5:48 PM, Anonymous Richard Layman said...

well, I think the "N"CM thought they would be getting a lot of financial support and assistance from the Peterson Companies. But I imagine that Peterson only cared a little bit and they got all the benefit they could get, and with the later winning of the Casino, they don't need something like a children's museum. So NCM was in a bad location with not much of a partner.


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