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.

Sunday, July 05, 2015

Visions of Annapolis series in the Annapolis Capital-Gazette

The Annapolis City Dock Master Plan rendering. Chris Jakubiak, a consultant who worked on the City Dock Master Plan, couldn't name another city with parking on its prime waterfront. 

Jakubiak along with other Master Plan proponents say a revitalized and inviting City Dock that includes green space would bring more people downtown to live and shop.  Caption:  Annapolis Capital-Gazette.

I just came across a June series of eight articles about the future of the Annapolis Downtown and waterfront, in part sparked by the 50th anniversary of the creation of a National Historic District there, but also in response to the creation of a new City Dock Master Plan in 2013, which triggered a great deal of angst within the electorate, leading to the loss of the then Mayor, Josh Cohen, who pushed the effort forward.

Annapolis is Maryland's state capital and home to the US Naval Academy and is the major point of access to leisure boating on the Chesapeake Bay, especially from the Washington area, although the city and Anne Arundel County are part of the Baltimore Metropolitan area.  The city is equidistant, roughly, from DC and Baltimore, about 25 miles away from either place.

-- "Visions of Annapolis: The future of downtown starts at the waterfront"

From the article:
"A parked car has the best (Ego Alley) view right now," said Heather Hurtt, founder of the residents advocacy group ConnectAnnapolis. "We have an opportunity to create a more pedestrian-friendly waterfront."

Annapolis is investing $7.5 million starting in October to fend off downtown flooding by replacing the bulkhead around Ego Alley. Scientists predict the frequent nuisance flooding on City Dock — which can close the waterfront to vehicles and disrupt business — will occur more than 300 times a year by 2045.

Two years after the City Council passed a bold plan to remake the city's signature waterfront property, and contributed to the defeat of an incumbent mayor, a vision for City Dock is the central question in setting the course for downtown's future.

Rising sea levels driven by global climate change also are a threat to the city's historic properties and economic livelihood. The time is right, advocates say, to invest in a drastic transformation of City Dock that would not only protect Annapolis from flood tides but boost its appeal for residents, tourists and businesses.

Mayor Mike Pantelides disagrees. His plan is to keep downtown Annapolis aesthetically the same, adding structural improvements to address flooding.

City Dock Parking. By Paul W. Gillespie / Capital Gazette. Caption: Protecting parking spaces is paramount for many business owners who say parking is inadaquate -- people aren't coming downtown anymore and they're losing customers to Westfield Annapolis Mall and the Annapolis Towne Centre in Parole. 

Mayor Mike Pantelides says he won't remove any parking spaces and doesn't support changing the maritime zoning or allocating a single dollar of city money to create a pedestrian walkway.

The series (some of the articles also ran in the Baltimore Sun, as both newspapers are owned by the same company) has a great deal of discussion in how the Annapolis waterfront is not "improved" in the same way that waterfronts are in Charleston or Baltimore or Providence, and how much of the space in and around the Annapolis waterfront is devoted to parking.

There is tension over changing the maritime zoning requirements for business as well as removing parking, adding open space and a more walking oriented promenade.

The now no longer new Mayor, Republican Mike Pantelides, who was swept into office in part likely as a reaction to the plan proposal, doesn't favor moving forward on changes, other than dealing with necessary infrastructure improvements to the waterfront's water bulkhead which is in need of replacement (pictured at left).

Interestingly, the shift in political control vis-a-vis Annapolis and proposed changes to the waterfront are very similar to recent shifts in Alexandria ("Longtime Alexandria Mayor Bill Euille ousted in primary race," Washington Post), over the same exact issue of dealing with proposed changes to the waterfront, which would allow greater development and taller buildings. I was surprised that the article series didn't mention this.

One of the articles in the Capital-Gazette series is about the decline of the Downtown business district ("Visions of Annapolis: Business community worried about the future").  I think they miss two very big points in the discussion.

Too much retail space relative to population. First, there isn't enough consumer retail demand in Anne Arundel County to support thriving retail districts at shopping malls and lifestyle centers, as well as in Downtown Annapolis.

As a result, major retailers, even stores like The Gap (which now has its own problems) no longer have Downtown locations.

That results in a shift in the retail offer from the sale of items people "need" to more discretionary purchases, of items that people may want or desire but don't "need."

There likely is too much retail space per capita for the population, although residents from other places also shop in the county, such as at Arundel Mills, a lifestyle center which abuts the Maryland Live! Casino.

The city has about 40,000 residents, and the county's population is about 540,000, but much of the county's population lies closer to Baltimore City, which it borders on the southeast of the city (the northwest section of the county), more than 20 miles from the Annapolis Downtown.

Touristification.  Second, the articles didn't fully discuss the impacts of "touristification" on the nature of the Downtown, although they sort of mention it.  From the article:
Cathy Durkan and her sister thought their business, Re:Source, would get a boost when it moved from Randall to Main Street in 2010. Instead, they got more browsers than buyers. Often, customers were more interested in finding cheaper items online, she said. The shop closed this year.

"The downtown business environment is not economically sustainable in the truest sense of the word. The businesses there are not sustainably productive," Durkan said. "Once we got (downtown), we realized the expectations for what foot traffic is nowhere near what we've been told. ...There are cone-lickers and stroller pushers and not much else."
I wrote about this years ago, "Is there a link between historic designation and chaining up of retail in neighborhood commercial districts?," in terms of the Georgetown district of DC, in response to a student's paper on how creating a historic district in Georgetown changed the area immeasurably.  I thought that was too facile an explanation.

The real problem is that the business mix in Georgetown as the district has been reshaped as a regional entertainment district and tourist destination, along with the impact of national and regional property owners and their focus on attracting chain retail, plus Georgetown University and the taverns and such that appeal to college students.

In terms of tourism visitation, Georgetown, along with Alexandria, is the major non-museum/Monument destination that tourists visit when in the city, complementing their trips to the US Capitol, White House, Washington Monument, Museums on the National Mall, and Mount Vernon.  Because these tourists have specific interests and needs, retail districts that cater to them end up being reshaped towards food and entertainment, with a limited assortment of retail.

Georgetown is a bit different than Annapolis in that it has more retail because it is in a much larger city, with most "mall" shopping options located outside of the city, although plenty of DC residents shop outside the city.

But Annapolis too is a regionally significant tourist attraction in terms of its waterfront, marina and boat shows, and the presence of the US Naval Academy and to some extent St. John's College and the state capitol.  And the Naval Academy and nightlife associated with it also shapes some elements of Annapolis in a manner that doesn't appeal to more traditional residents and Georgetown has the same issues.

Note that while there is a trend among tourists for shopping while traveling, in part because while at home people feel pressed for time, certain cities (like New York, London, Paris, San Francisco) are much better positioned for this than others, including Annapolis.

For example, time will tell if CityCenter DC will actually be successful positioning as an upscale retail destination in the city--I have my doubts, because DC isn't a wealthy city and this shapes retail consumption habits ("Luxury shopping returns to downtown DC Is Washington ready," Washington Post).

Both issues--consumer demand and behavior and touristification--have also shaped the relative lack of success of the public market building on the waterfront, the Annapolis Market House (marketing plan; "New chapter for Annapolis' Market House," Baltimore Sun) which has gone through many failed attempts at improvement, which I have tracked somewhat given my involvement in DC's Eastern Market.  The difficulties resuscitating the Market House are another indicator of the long term nature of the issues facing Annapolis.

What are the opportunities in maritime-focused revitalization?  Another issue has to do with outdated beliefs about what might be possible in terms of maintaining a maritime-focused waterfront that isn't overly tourist focused.

From "Visions of Annapolis: Living in the Historic District:
"What I think the residents want is their self-sustaining seaport village back and not to turn into just a tourist destination," she said.

"It's a tough balance. I'm not sure we're hearing a strategy to prevent Annapolis from becoming just that, a tourist, bar destination."
Port functions in many inland, in-city locations (e.g., Bilbao, Hamburg) have shifted to locations closer to the city, while major ports get bigger.  

For a long time, the focus of the Annapolis waterfront and marina has been serving leisure boaters, not maritime-related industries, including commercial fishing.  It's not positioned to be particularly relevant today (it's not Rotterdam).

In the 21st century, self-sustaining seaports aren't villages, they are container ports, big industrial areas focused on global shipping of goods and chemicals.  (Also see, about Savannah, "Flurry of Freight Spurs New Commercial Building," from the New York Times.)  So most in-city waterfronts in major cities are shifting uses towards housing, culture, and other non-maritime uses.

-- "On the Revitalized Waterfront: Creative Milieu for Creative Tourism," Sustainability Journal

Restoring the historic maritime nature of the Annapolis waterfront isn't possible in the way that it was when commercial fishing was pre-eminent and steamboats were the primary form of longer distance transportation, except as a kind of museum (cf. "New Exhibition Hall for Seaport in Mystic Connecticut Has Nautical Inspiration," New York Times).  But that's problematic too (e.g., "Tracing 50 Years of the South Street Seaport's Struggles," Curbed).  Even in large cities like New York, maritime museums are having a tough time.

How Annapolis "fixes" its downtown and its waterfront in the context of the regional retail, commercial, and waterfront landscapes will be an interesting study.

The tensions in Annapolis aren't unique.  The same argument is going on in Toronto, according to the Star, "Practical back alley or cottage dock? Waterfront debate splits Toronto.  From the article:
Many proponents of a more pedestrian-friendly shoreline say that if city residents feel alienated from the lake, it’s not because of cost overruns or expensive building materials, but because of the Gardiner. It acts as a physical and psychological barrier to the waterfront, they argue — and failing to tear down its eastern appendage was a historic mistake. 
“Some people may have already abandoned hope of a recreational waterfront,” said Kristyn Wong-Tam, councillor for Toronto Centre-Rosedale. 
Maintaining the eastern Gardiner is like “going into a time capsule,” she added.  “This parochial backwards-thinking, where we’re still building a city where the car is king — that has to be abandoned.”

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