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, November 30, 2016

BTMFBA revisited: nonprofits and facilities planning and acquisition

Because of DC's height limit, the kinds of buildings that Jane Jacobs was thinking about when she wrote that healthy cities need "a large stock of old buildings" that have been paid off and have low running costs and therefore lower rents affordable to start ups, nonprofits, and other innovative uses looking for lower cost space, tend to get demolished and rebuilt to the maximum allowable size, and because the buildings are new, at the current highest rents.

A few weeks ago there was an op-ed in the Washington Post, "The rent is too darn high for nonprofits, too," about how DC nonprofits face a crisis because of the cost of space.  This isn't a phenomenon unique to DC, it's a particular problem in San Francisco ("SF takes action: perspectives on nonprofit displacement, NCG; "Skyrocketing Rents Challenge San Francisco Bay Area Nonprofits, Nonprofit Quarterly), New York City, and other high cost markets.

Like my frustration with the art community complaining about the same problem, but rarely availing themselves of the opportunity to buy buildings ("BTMFBA: the best way to ward off artist or retail displacement is to buy the building" and "When BTMFBA isn't enough: keeping civic assets public through cy pres review"), the nonprofit community needs to come together, develop a facilities/space plan, and create vehicles to assist them to buying and holding buildings.

Organized as the Center for Public Administration and Local Government, in the late 1980s, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments did this for themselves and a couple of related nonprofits, including the International City/County Management Association, constructing a building close to Union Station.

But there hasn't been much of a push to do something similar for groups of lesser means. I discuss some options in the BTMFBA article.

Photo: Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register.

Nonprofit shared spaces.  The Nonprofit Centers Network is an organization that assists facilities across the country that offer shared spaces for nonprofit groups.

The Village in Orange County is one example, with a focus is providing space to housing-related organizations ("This Village is Orange County's first building dedicated to housing nonprofits," Orange County Register).

More communities should work to develop spaces to support nonprofit groups as well as civil society initiatives (although neighborhood groups could be provided space/facilities access at community centers and branch libraries).

A way to "use up" a so-called "white elephant" buildings: multi-faceted arts centers.  With deindustrialization, many communities have large manufacturing buildings that have been abandoned.

In many instances, buildings and communities have been revived by redeveloping these buildings or complexes into multi-faceted arts centers.  Examples include the creation of the MassMOCA contemporary arts museum in North Adams, Massachusetts, which has huge spaces capable of displaying very large art pieces and installations, the GoggleWorks in Reading, Pennsylvania, the Cablefactory in Helsinki, or LaFriche in Marseille, France.

The Trans-Europe Halles organization is a collective of such arts facilities across Europe.

-- New times, new models: Investigating the internal governance models and external relations of independent cultural centres in times of change
-- CREATIVE BUSINESS MODELS: Insights into the Business Models of Cultural Centers in Trans Europe Halles
-- Managing Independent Cultural Centres

In my opinion, DC should have done this with the old Walter Reed Medical Center building on Georgia Avenue in Northwest DC.

The 2.1 million s.f. building could have seeded arts and cultural initiatives for a generation.

But white elephant buildings can be used more generally for nonprofits too.  Note that the best nonprofit arts centers also provide low cost office space to cultural organizations.

Central libraries have the potential to become multi-faceted cultural centers.  There are some examples of libraries sharing some of their space with related organizations.

In the DC area, Arlington County expanded the Shirlington Library to include theater facilities, the Signature Theatre Company. Some Montreal neighborhood libraries include cultural centers.  The provincial "state" library in Montreal has spaces on its back alley/court for small booksellers.  The Hollywood library branch in Portland has a cafe on the ground floor and affordable housing above.

The Drumbrae Library in England has a teen center, cafe, and day care.  Some libraries have space for used bookstores.

The best example is how the Salt Lake Central Library has space for related facilities such as the local NPR station and the Community Writing Center program of the local community college.

I've suggested that libraries could expand upon the SLC example in significant ways ("Civic assets and mixed use: Central Library edition") but thus far we don't see many examples of such co-locations.

Note that community center facilities could be similarly reconfigured to serve more and multiple uses along these lines.

Conclusion:  Um, how about some planning?  The point of urban planning is to manage community needs, land use, and other characteristics of a community.

Given the increasing importance of the nonprofit sector as an element of a community's social, cultural, and community health, as well as a source of economic activity, planning offices should step in and provide leadership for planning space needs for the nonprofit sector, and work with local governments to create ways of providing such space, perhaps through community development corporations comparable to the "Center for Public Administration and Local Government" or the SEMAEST organization in Paris.

In San Francisco, the Northern California Community Loan Fund has stepped in to provide such assistance through the San Francisco Nonprofit Displacement Mitigation Program, which is a model easily exported to cities like Washington.

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