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.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Obsolete and underperforming buildings: is it the building or the micro-economy of the retail trade area?

A couple weeks ago, we tried to go to dinner at Mezcalero, a restaurant on the 14th Street strip in "North Columbia Heights"--centered around the Spring Street intersection.  It had been recommended to us, but we hadn't managed to get over there.  More recently, it has been getting a fair number of press mentions ("Mezcalero Cocina Mexicana: You can't go wrong with the tacos here," Washington Post).

Google Street View image.

The district is mostly small footprint "historic" buildings dating to the 1930s and before.

The blocks include a mix of residential properties, so it isn't always one contiguous commercial district.  But increasingly, the buildings have been fixed up and are used as restaurants.

When we were there the weather was amazing, and so all the restaurants were hopping, the patios were full, etc.  It's a shame I didn't get any photos but we were focused on finding a place to eat.

We ended up at Airedale, a cool space, but the food could have been better.

But while we were out there I couldn't help but think back to the development of the DC "Retail Action Strategy" planning process back in 2007,

This one was of many strips of commercial buildings referred to by the economic development consultants running the planning process as "obsolete and underperforming."  Then the businesses catered to Latinos, and the properties experienced disinvestment.

-- DC Retail Action Strategy, DC Office of Planning
-- Central 14th Street NW Commercial District Analysis, DC Office of Planning

The difference from 2007 to 2017 was electric.  But the size and location of the buildings hadn't changed.

What changed was the micro-economy of the neighborhood and the economic vitality of the "retail trade area" served by the North Columbia Heights commercial district.

Restaurant patio at Little Coco's, 3907 14th Street NW.

As a result of new households, more households, greater household income, and greater willingness to spend money and eat out, the commercial district became much more economically viable.

It's very easy to fall into the trap of what I call "blaming the building," when the real issue is the state of the economy of the retail trade area.

Similarly, the words "dilapidated" and "blighted" are over- and mis-used.  Instead, I prefer the term "disinvestment."  The solution to disinvestment is not demolition but "investment."

No one would call the North Columbia Heights retail district obsolete or underperforming now.

Instead they would point to it as an urban success, and that the building size fosters innovation and the development and nurturing of independent businesses.  And a classic example of what Jane Jacobs was writing about when she said that to be vital, cities need to "maintain a large stock of old buildings."

The same block in 2007.  Google Street View image.

And they would call attention to how as the buildings turn over, they are renovated and experience significant new investment and improvement.

Note that this is the lesson of the Main Street commercial district revitalization approach. If you want to save "historic buildings," what you have to do is fix the micro-economy of the area that is expected to patronize the commercial district.

The challenge that remains is extending the investments in the buildings to the commercial district as a whole in terms of marketing support and public realm improvements.  The city doesn't have a good system for doing that.

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At 8:44 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

proof that small retail and mom & pop stores can thrive and survive in DC despite density considerations

At 9:50 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

a little harder for retail. it depends on the category. I intend to write about/have been writing about it for years.

some independent retail can succeed, but to do so, it has to be thought of as being able to make a living, not a killing.

Plus, it will still concentrate towards "regionally serving districts." Not every "neighborhood" commercial district can support retail categories outside of "convenience retail."

At 12:08 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

a pal of mine turned me on to a great website that documents all of the places where retail and businesses used to be located on Capitol Hill , up into NE, and towards the navy Yard- the sheer number of mixed use buildings is mind boggling and shows just how much of an accessible and varied retail climate this city once had- the site maintains that a zoning law passed in DC in the 1950's spelled the doom of small businesses in the city especially those that had residential or apartments above the stores as many of these structures had.

At 2:21 PM, Anonymous charlie said...

I think -- don't want to speak for her -- that this is point Mari was making a few weeks ago -- that is the people, not the buildings.

She was talking residential, not commercial.

Your point that it is a investment issue -- not a gentrification issue -- is too true.


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