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, March 10, 2015

A little more about DC's location within the metropolitan economy

This is a snippet from an email exchange, where I wrote in response to the suggestion that maybe since many city employees don't live in the city they don't really care about it. My response:

They have to live in the city to have those jobs, including those that get elected. But I don't feel that they have a strong and deep understanding of what "urban economic development" is in actuality and specifically, what are DC's competitive advantages.

Easter Sunday - Columbia Heights Civic Plaza
Columbia Heights Civic Plaza.  Photo by William Jordan.

[Compared to suburban jurisdictions] DC's "unique selling proposition" is livability and quality of place, based on walkability, bikeability, transit and the ability to get around without a car.

For 13 years I've been saying DC has five competitive advantages:

1. historic architecture
2. an urban design dating from the walking and transit city eras of urban development, therefore supporting walkability, transit, and biking
3. historicity and identity (the nexus of people, historic architecture, and urban design)
4. a transit-centric mobility infrastructure that frees people from dependence on the automobile
5. the steady employment engine of the federal government

But #5 is declining and the suburbs are getting their s*** together on quality of place attributes (Reston, Tysons, White Flint redevelopment efforts, Arlington, etc. + developments like Bethesda Row and the Mosaic District), making those locations much more competitive, and for people afraid of African-Americans, more attractive.

DC cannot afford to sit on its hand,s as to stay the same is to fall behind because the best of our competition continues to move forward.

I know you'll say, DC doesn't have competitors, blah blah blah, but the reality is that at the micro scale for investment activity, residents, business location, etc., DC does compete with other places in the metropolitan area.

As you remember, for many years, we didn't hold our own in that competition. Now we do. But our beneficial position isn't static, it's dynamic, and we have to continue to strive to improve or just to run in place and stay the same.

=======
I didn't say this in the email, but have written it in planning documents I've produced and thereby reprinted it in blog entries.

... I wrote in the COMMERCIAL DISTRICT REVITALIZATION FRAMEWORK PLAN FOR DOWNTOWN CAMBRIDGE, MARYLAND that elected officials need to take their responsibilities as stewards and managers of a community's image very seriously:

Just as the study team believes that “we are all destination managers now,” elected and appointed officials in particular and in association with other community stakeholders serve as a community’s “brand managers”—whether or not they choose to think of their roles in this manner.

That means that decision-making on land use and zoning, business issues, infrastructure development (roads, sewers, water, utilities, transit), technology (broadband Internet, etc.) and quality of place factors (arts, culture, historic preservation and heritage, education, public schools and libraries, urban design, etc.) must be consistent and focused on making the right decisions, the decisions that collectively achieve and support the realization of the community’s desired vision and positioning.

Something else I read termed this as making "brand deposits" or "brand withdrawals," how the decisions and actions concerning a brand either make positive contributions and build the brand or the actions are negative and diminish the value of the brand, its reputation, aspirational qualities, etc.

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10 Comments:

At 12:04 PM, Blogger dan reed! said...

" making those locations much more competitive, and for people afraid of African-Americans, more attractive."

and yet DC lost its black majority, while four of the surrounding counties (Montgomery, Prince George's, Charles, and Prince William) are now majority-minority - as are many of the communities where downtowns and town centers are thriving (Silver Spring, Wheaton, Gaithersburg, Germantown, Hyattsville, etc.) Even the Mosaic District in Fairfax is adjacent to two Asian supermarkets and there's a substantial Asian population in the surrounding area (particularly in nearby Annandale, the region's Koreatown).

DC may be "Chocolate City," but I don't think diversity is something it can claim as a competitive advantage (or even as a distinguishing characteristic) compared to other parts of the region anymore.

 
At 12:27 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

another item DC needs to get a handle on- retaining federal agencies. More and more agencies now seek to leave the city- some of these reasons are not necessarily sound and might be based upon obsolete thinking about the city- or made by those who are older decision makers in government who shun the city and want nothing to do with us. Fact is that most new young people working in the federal government or elsewhere do not wish to work where they have to drive or live the life of a car dependent person if at all possible-yet the trends of fed agencies leaving defy and ignore these changes and transformations- the people in my own agency are living in a fantasy world where DC is a super dangerous ghetto region from 1975 and this concept is firmly planted in their psyches. How to halt this - a movement that clearly benefits the suburbs and drains the city of our lifesblood. While I am in favor of diversifying the work situation in the city this gross movement of agencies out of DC is an understated dilemma for which the city is doing ZERO ZERO ZERO.

 
At 7:47 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anon, The city is more than doing zero for preventing government agencies moving out, oftentimes they are FACILITATING it. And media (hello Aaron Weiner at CP, and GGW) are right there, cheerleading. It's incredibly short-sighted and ... stupid.

DR, the diversity is way higher in the suburbs. Diversity needs cheap real estate, and that is what we don't have anymore in DC - cheap places to live. The suburbs do. So in many ways, they will be more intersting than the city. And they will have much much better restaurants, with much better cooking. It's all about the cooking. I'm not sure of the numbers, but are AAs still the majority in DC? I keep hearing that they've fallen below 50 percent.

GS

 
At 9:01 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

the problem with retaining federal agencies is that they now come with much higher security requirements, which typically militate against locating agencies in a manner which is pro-urbanism. E.g. the ATF with its security perimeter, or what the FBI wants.

Plus, in RFPs GSA will set criteria that DC can't meet. E.g., the FBI could have been accommodated in Barry Farms (suggested to me by an anonymous colleague, which I wrote about in a couple of blog entries), which would have been adjacent to the Anacostia Metro and to the eventual Dept. of Homeland Security campus and still close to major federal agencies.

But a Barry Farm site wouldn't have met the 55 acre requirement probably--which is somewhat ridiculous for an in-city location, and to have do it, would have required a lot of internal (within DC) creativity as well.

Note the Mobil campus that INOVA is leasing, with an option to buy for $180MM, paying $8MM/year to lease.

It's 117 acres yet has only about 1.2MMM s.f. of built space. That's two DC office buildings, which can be accommodated on less than 5 acres.

The current FBI headquarters is 2.1MM s.f., even if they need double that, you don't need 55 acres to do so.

 
At 9:04 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Diversity is a tough value to fully elucidate. There is demographic diversity, then there is what we might call cultural and intellectual diversity.

I don't think DC proper has done so well on the latter, even if it was demographically diverse statistically.

Frankly, DC, especially at the local government and civic involvement scale, is incredibly insular and parochial.

Look at the streetcar issue as an example. Why is it that Cincinnati or Little Rock or Tucson can be successful (in Cincinnati, they have had battles comparable to DC and Arlington County) but DC is incapable of it?

It's not because DC is a "world class" level functioning polity at the local scale, even if it says it is.

 
At 9:09 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Oh, but the one bad thing about DC losing federal agencies is that it reduces the effectiveness of WMATA as a "killler app" for mobility (charlie's point about how to value transit).

Agencies located "Downtown" have access to 3-6 lines within a few block walking distance.

Agencies locating outside of the transit network's sweet spot typically have access to one or two lines only, making transit trips longer and requiring more transfers, and increasing the cost of a round trip fare beyond the $5/day that is covered by the federal agency transit benefit.

And this contributes to reduced use of the Metrorail system more generally, and financial problems.

If FBI moves to Greenbelt say, it will have access to the green and yellow lines directly (at least during rush), whereas now people can easily get to the headquarters from all the lines without necessarily having to transfer if they are willing to walk a few blocks from Gallery Place or Metro Center.

 
At 11:12 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The FBI moving out of the city is Exhibit 1 in how DC will fail. No, I change that - maybe exhibit 5 or 10. The process has been in the works.

Such short-sighted thinking.

There are many ways to do something.

New buildings do not have to look like the ATF. They do if we blindly follow a piece of paper. But not if we,

Think.

GS

 
At 11:58 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

it's not about looks. I think the new requirements are something like a minimum 100 feet distance from the road to parking and more from parking to the building.

That's 1/3 of the length of a typical block. ATF was designed before 9/11, so it is more permissive than what is allowed now.

the big thing about the FBI is that it is supposed to be on a cloistered campus surrounded by the equivalent of a moat. It's hard to do that in a functioning city and it isn't a good thing to allow anyway.

They could have gone to St. Elizabeths east (the DC campus), but with the requirements baked into the RFP, it's very hard to provide alternatives.

In any case, a St. E's location is suboptimal from a transit perspective. Then again, so are the other alternatives.

 
At 3:09 PM, Anonymous Alex B. said...

If you want to keep the FBI in DC, then you need to change the FBI's site requirements. That isn't DC's fault.

 
At 11:34 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

DC's having "gotten better" seems to follow the trend of decreased concentration of federal agencies. Correlation or causation? Frankly, there are block and blocks of the city which would benefit from a more diversified work/live population, mixed uses, and the removal of what are in effect vast empty fortresses and block killers for about 16 hours a day and all weekend.

 

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