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.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Ground up commercial revitalization and the Skyland Town Center project

In the post on Skyland/Walmart, I suggested that rather than demolishing the buildings and businesses that existed in the Skyland Town Center, a different approach should have been taken--investing in the businesses and buildings that were already there, rather than hoping for improvement through the attraction of new businesses.

The Vision Theater in Leimert Park Village will be a cultural anchor and will bring new customer segments to the commercial district throughout the day and into the evening,  Photo from Horizon and Skyline blog.  Also see "Leimert Theater: Envisioning a Neighborhood Landmark," KCET.

Such an approach would have included construction of new buildings and intensifying the development at the site, as well as the incorporation of civic and cultural facilities as part of the overall mix of stores and other functions.

This type of approach would have worked a lot better with the economic realities present in the "retail trade area" served by that retail district.  Especially because for the most part, "name brand" retailers aren't interested in running stores in economically challenged markets.

The reality is that despite the assertions of groups like Good Jobs First in the value of markets serving the impoverished, stores are less profitable, it's harder to attract good employees, theft of goods including by employees can be high, etc.
Skyland Town Center
Skyland Town Center, Google Street View image.

So rather than hope to be saved by a company like Walmart or Target, why not work with the retailers that are already experienced dealing with such markets, especially those businesses already operating there?

While the article is about a city with different underlying conditions, there is an interesting piece, "How to Save Downtown," in Crain's Chicago Business about the revitalization of Griffith, Indiana (photo, right, from CCB), a traditional town about 35 miles from Downtown Chicago .

While the town is small and automobile dependent with about 17,000 residents, it functions comparably to a subdistrict of a larger city   Their Downtown is walkable once you get there.

IMGP4146As part of an agreement approving a railroad merger, the city received $2 million.  Most of the money was put towards physical improvements, and $300,000 went towards business improvement.

From the article:
Jerome and Ryfa already had promised—and paid for with bond money—a plan to make Broad Street more pedestrian-friendly through downtown. The Canadian National money enabled them to add bike racks and benches. Then they set about erasing some of the worst evidence of the recession, buying and demolishing five irreparable buildings and repaving decrepit parking lots. They also made improvements to the empty elementary school so it could attract a new YMCA and other tenants.

With $300,000 remaining, Jerome, Ryfa and the council pulled in the business community, turning the money over to the town's Redevelopment Commission to start a facade program. In 2010, Griffith started reimbursing 50 percent of costs up to $10,000 per storefront for businesses willing to improve the outside of their buildings. 
It caught on, and by 2012 the funds distributed doubled to $110,000 per year. By 2013, the council was running a similar program for interior improvements, tapping into tax-increment financing money from a well-funded district full of national chains on the north side of town.
Griffith put about $600,000 total into the program, which has been quite successful with only one business failure, and the number of vacant properties has dropped significantly--the occupancy rate went from 40% to 93%.  Many new businesses have opened and have provided a great deal of new employment.

Outdoor patio at the New Oberfalz craft brewery.  The Downtown has a mix of specialty stores like a guitar shop and restaurants.  CCB photo.

Ironically, Griffiths' program is comparable to DC's existing Great Streets Retail Small Business Reimbursement Grants, which provides retail businesses up to $50,000 for approved improvements.

But DC's program provides a lot more money to businesses and has been criticized for providing support to areas that are already succeeding ("D.C.'s Great Streets Grant Program Helps Fund Restaurants," Washington City Paper).  Note that I think that is a facile reading of the program.  New businesses of all kinds need support to thrive.  However, to realize business opportunities in distressed commercial districts much more support needs to be provided..

New types of business organization are required to seed retail in emerging commercial districts.  In addition to supporting businesses willing to operate in such places, to widen the array of what's available, and in addition to the types of regional and national chain retailers focused on serving this demographic, to create more opportunities for the development of locally owned and operated businesses, it's necessary to foster different kinds of business organization--business co-operatives, market incubators, and social entrepreneurship retail ventures by nonprofit organizations, in addition to pre-existing businesses.

Examples from elsewhere include farmers markets and public markets more generally, the Mercado in Portland, Oregon and the Thai Town Marketplace in Los Angeles, the various food incubators that have popped up in DC, the 4th Street Marketplace in Santa Ana, the Housing Works store and care in NYC, among others,

The laundromat in the no longer extant Nehemiah shopping center on 14th Street NW in Columbia Heights was originally organized as a business cooperative.  The Glut Food Co-op in Mount Rainer, and the Red Emma Bookstore Coffeehouse in Baltimore, Maryland are business co-ops, and Silver Spring Books, a used bookstore, is organized as a kind of unofficial business co-op ("Nurturing independent businesses through creatively reducing capital requirements").

Vocational education programs as a way to seed community retail.  Vocational education programs could be tapped to provide simultaneously training and community businesses.  For example the Worchester Technical High School in Massachusetts operates a restaurant on their campus.  (DC's Central Kitchen, which gets lots of plaudits for their food service training program and their for profit catering operation could take their program to the next level by adding a restaurant to a place like Skyland and other locations.)

Why couldn't a culinary training program be set up in a distressed commercial district and operate a restaurant as part of the program?

See the past blog entries:

-- "In lower income neighborhoods, are businesses supposed to be "community organizations" first?
-- "Building a local economy vs. "economic development" in planning: Wizards practice facility"
-- "Community owned retail: resources from the UK.")

Targeting more resources to businesses in distressed commercial districts.  Distressed communities need better targeted programs and sometimes more resources than what is otherwise made available to the "average" commercial district in a community.  For example Boston's Neighborhood Restaurant Initiative provides more money than the DC program--up to $100,000--but is targeted to less well off commercial districts compared to DC's program.

That's the kind of messy, difficult work that city agencies tend to not like very much.

Hisam's African Urban Wear.  Photo from Leimert Park Beat.

Leimert Park  Village African Marketplace.  The Leimert Park Village commercial district in Los Angeles gets a lot of publicity as being an Afro-centric commercial district.  For example, this Post article from 2006, "Los Angeles's Black Pride: Taking In the Retro Vibe of Leimert Park").

I will say though that I visited the district in 2007/2008? and I wasn't particularly bowled over.  It didn't show very well.

But the district is well organized, and successfully campaigned for a more directly accessible transit station as part of a new line being developed to serve their area.  Also see "Leimert Park plays to its own beat," USC, and "Leimert Park: where does it go from here?," KCET--the latter article discusses how since the approval of the transit station, an unknown buyer has purchased many properties in the district.

Key to the revitalization program has been the incorporation of arts and culture anchors (Leimert Park's World Stage hopes to keep the music playing" and "Play festival heralds impending revival of L.A.'s Vision Theatre," Los Angeles Times) into the mix, along with park refurbishments  and streetscape improvements.

Capital formation assistance for local business owners.  Businesses operating in low income areas tend to make less money and the owners tend to have less household wealth and are less able to get loans.

LA Times photo.

Therefore, their businesses are more susceptible to failure in the face of changed circumstances--theft, public disturbances, recession, new competition, etc.  Assistance in addressing this should be part of business development programs in distressed communities.  Also see the discussion in Civility in the City: Blacks, Jews, and Koreans in Urban America, by Jennifer Lee, a professor at UC Irvine.

Without a plan, failure may be preordained, especially in economically distressed areas. Skyland needed a creative comprehensive commercial district revitalization framework plan (like the ones I wrote for Brunswick, Georgia and Cambridge, Maryland).

Come to think of it, the recommendations I suggested for approaching systematic improvements in New Carrollton are a pretty good start for the kind of plan outline that should have been created for Skyland.  This presupposes the creation of a master database of the properties and businesses in the district, with information on rental rates, sales, revenues, lease terms, etc.

(The original list had 12 items--#5 exists already, #7 and #12 weren't relevant and have been omitted and the list renumbered.  Items have been edited.)

Basic recommendations for a revitalization program

1.  Create a commercial district revitalization organization (it could be a Main Street program or a business improvement district--the advantage of a Main Street approach is that it adds residents and other interested stakeholders to the mix--this has been a key element of the success of the revitalization program in Griffith).

2.  Provide adequate funding for the program, depending on what will work best (in New Carrollton it would be a tax increment financing district).  (A typical problem for non-tax funded commercial district revitalization programs in DC is severe underfunding and unrealistic expectations about how quickly improvement can be fomented.)

3.  Create a comprehensive development, urban design, and branding-identity plan for the district. Liverpool (Liverpool Vision) and the Georgetown DC Business Improvement District's recent planning initiative (Georgetown 2028: 15 Year Action Plan) are good examples of such plans.

4.  And implement it*.  ... after all, a plan is a beginning point, not an end point.

5.  Develop marketing materials including a business district demographic and opportunity profile comparable to the series that DC has produced on its commercial districts.  (DC Neighborhood Profiles, Washington DC Economic Partnership).

6.  Like the Buckhead Collection program [in Atlanta], make sure that the plan includes a program to create an integrated network of civic facilities (like libraries and cultural facilities) and public spaces, to help anchor a redefined community and its identity.  [Also see "Public buildings as vehicles for community improvement."]

Imagine if Skyland had a community theater.  Examples of a couple facilities in Prince George's County that are models, but unfortunately, like the Anacostia Public Library, disconnected from commercial districts, are the Publick Playhouse and the Brentwood Arts Center.

7.  To help the commercial district and community redefined, the proposed commercial district revitalization organization should be tasked with the development and delivery of a wide ranging program of events and other programming.  Mosaic District, Downtown Silver Spring, Union Market, and Crystal City are particularly good examples.  (In a very small way, so is the Old Takoma Main Street program, as is the array of community and business development initiatives in DC's Petworth neighborhood.)

8.  Try to identify at least one shopping center owner willing to take a chance on redefinition and work with them to redevelop the center as a "community heart" and center, and begin to integrate in mixed public and private functions, along the lines of the Mosaic District, Downtown Silver Spring, and Union Market.  (Note that DC's Congress Heights shopping center includes a branch of the DC Public Library.  The Anacostia branch of the public library is six-tenths of one mile from the Skyland site.

Repurposed "traditional shopping centers" in Phoenix and West Seattle taught me that buildings are merely envelopes, that even "dull" buildings can be transformed by the businesses inside and end up being very cool (in short, attractive "historic buildings" aren't the only types of buildings that can be successfully revived).

See "More thoughts on suburban hipness (it's really about commercial hipness generally, not urban vs. suburban)."

9.  On that note, in the to be redeveloped shopping center as "community heart," work to develop some key independent anchor independent "community-developing" businesses such as a coffee shop and restaurants, a bookstore (remember the old Sisterspace and Books or small Sankofa black-oriented bookstore chain that once operated in DC, Prince George's County and Baltimore Maryland?), etc.

10.  Create an independent retail development initiative along the lines of the Historic Downtown Los Angeles Retail Project or the Second Street initiative in Austin, Texas. Expand the program to include seed space, incubators, and support of alternative business forms including cooperatives, community owned retail, and social entrepreneurship ventures.

*  From "Economic restructuring success and failure: Detroit compared to Bilbao, Liverpool, and Pittsburgh":

The six components of a successful broad ranging revitalization program.  In writing about the various [revitalization] efforts [in European cities especially], I drew the conclusion that successful revitalization programs, especially in those cities that were working to overturn serious disadvantages, were comprised of these elements:
  • A commitment to the development and production of a broad, comprehensive, visionary, and detailed revitalization plan/s (Bilbao, Hamburg, Liverpool);
  • the creation of innovative and successful implementation organizations, with representatives from the public sector and private firms, to carry out the program.  Typically, the organizations have some distance from the local government so that the plan and program aren't subject to the vicissitudes of changing political administrations, parties and representatives (Bilbao, Hamburg, Liverpool, Helsinki);
  • strong accountability mechanisms that ensure that the critical distance provided by semi-independent implementation organizations isn't taken advantage of in terms of deleterious actions (for example Dublin's Temple Bar Cultural Trust was amazingly successful but over time became somewhat disconnected from local government and spent money somewhat injudiciously, even though they generated their own revenues--this came to a head during the economic downturn and the organization was widely criticized; in response the City Council decided to fold the TBCT and incorporate it into the city government structure, which may have negative ramifications for continued program effectiveness as its revenues get siphoned off and political priorities of elected officials shift elsewhere);
  • funding to realize the plan, usually a combination of local, regional, state, and national sources, and in Europe, "structural adjustment" and other programmatic funding from the European Regional Development Fund and related programs is also available (Hamburg, as a city-state, has extra-normal access to funds beyond what may normally be available to the average city);
  • integrated branding and marketing programs to support the realization of the plan (Hamburg, Vienna, Liverpool, Bilbao, Dublin);
  • flexibility and a willingness to take advantage of serendipitous events and opportunities and integrate new projects into the overall planning and implementation framework (examples include Bilbao's "acquisition" of a branch of the Guggenheim Museum and the creation of a light rail system to complement its new subway system, Liverpool City Council's agreement with a developer to create the Liverpool One mixed use retail, office, and residential development in parallel to the regeneration plan and the hosting of the Capital of Culture program in 2008, and how multifaceted arts centers were developed in otherwise vacated properties rented out cheaply by their owners in Dublin, Helsinki, and Marseille).

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At 8:26 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

That story is about a small grocery store in a changing community where the owner eventually realized that what he sold needed to reflect the demographics/market segments present in the community.

This story about the Walmart store closures mentions that only 3 of the locations that are being closed represent USDA defined food deserts.

At 1:40 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

It's taken seven years, but a community development corporation in a Memphis suburb is creating a shopping center for a poor neighborhood which includes a SavALot. What's distinctive about the center is that it's urban design is not car centric. Instead the stores will be at the street/sidewalk, with parking behind.

At 1:45 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Syracuse,, and PriceRite.

At 2:36 AM, Anonymous h st ll said...

This was an excellent post. Wish DC government was watching but the damage has been done in regards to Skyland. It seems blatantly obvious that they should've built upon improving the existing infrastructure and stores rather than the moon shot of tearing everything down and this pie in the sky shit. But whatever... dc government should hire you


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