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, April 01, 2015

Another example of how a RFP (request for proposals) isn't a plan

The Washington Post reports on how the DC Government has issued RFPs for various land parcels ("With real estate deals, DC Mayor pushes to “keep prosperity moving"").  According to the article:
As the Washington region grapples with a flat economy, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) asked real estate executives and small business owners Monday to partner with her in developing a slew of city-owned properties across the city, projects that she said could increase the city’s stock of affordable housing and bring new amenities to under-served neighborhoods.

Bowser said that too often residents told her they felt excluded from the development process and that the District needed to incorporate more community input in development decisions and create opportunities for District-based small or minority-owned businesses.

“Today’s event was to announce new parcels that will become available, and also a different approach,” Bowser said. “We’ve talked a lot in economic development about cranes. Our focus will be on how we’re creating jobs and opportunities for D.C. residents and small businesses.”
The process proposed is backwards.

An RFP isn't a plan, a plan is a plan.  In neighborhoods marked by weak residential and commercial real estate markets, development needs to be more purposeful.  RFPs should be issued after you have a good plan in place.  (Alternatively, you can release RFEIs--requests for expression of interest--and use the responses in developing a plan.)

DC Government, when selling land, typically issues RFPs, rather than first create a plan or action agenda for an area, including recommendations for how to redevelop parcels that agencies of the government may control.

A large number of DC Government involved land sales or development projects generally have extremely limited "return on investment" in terms of sparking broader revitalization, because of a failure to have good plans and to ensure that projects are intended to generate multiple benefits, rather than just one--developing a parcel so it isn't vacant.

The problem is that by not having a plan, you only get what developers figure will work, and in weak markets, typically the final project doesn't move forward broader objectives on neighborhood revitalization.  (This can also be the case with projects by community development corporations.  For example, most of the projects executed "successfully" by the H Street Community Development Corporation didn't move the corridor forward economically.  See "The community development approach and the revitalization of DC's H Street corridor: congruent or oppositional approaches?.")

Since the point of government investment and the utilization of publicly-controlled land is to further a variety of community-supporting and positive objectives, it's generally a mistake to expect the private sector to create, set, and execute a broader agenda that moves a weak market forward.

From Building Neighborhood Confidence by Rolf Goetze:
Since humanistic planning seeks to use public resources for stimulating private investment as far as possible, public programs must be tailored to neighborhood dynamics, not simply applied where the need seems greatest. (p. 23) 
Strong market areas mean there are more applicants than vacancies, or more households who wish to live in the neighborhood than there are available vacancies, or more households who wish to be in the neighborhood than there are available dwelling units.  In stable neighborhoods, supply and demand balance out, whereas in weak market areas there are fewer households seeking to remain than available dwellings. (p. 30)
The book is almost 40 years old, and focused specifically on the residential housing market.  Specific prescriptions are a bit out-of-date because of the changes in various government programs that were present then. But the general discussion about how to tailor involvement strategies based on whether the neighborhoods are strong, stable, or declining is still relevant, as is the point that government investment isn't intended to foster dependence but to stoke confidence so that private actors in neighborhood begins reinvesting on their own.

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