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, March 03, 2024

Crain's Chicago Business: Crain's Forum on Rebranding Chicago

Not as scintillating as the Boston Globe series ("Blueprints for a downtown Boston | Boston Globe"), but at least the business community is concerned about reputation and brand and identity management.  

One of my earliest pieces "Town-City branding or "We are all destination managers now"" (2005) was later expanded into the concept of a city's elected officials and stakeholders are its brand managers in commercial district revitalization framework plans I wrote in 2008 for Cambridge, Maryland, and Brunswick, Georgia.  

From destination managers to city brand managers to community asset managers.  What I wrote about "destination managers" and "brand managers" can be rewritten to encompass the civic asset network:
Just as the study team believes that “we are all destination managers now,” elected and appointed officials in particular and in association with other community stakeholders serve not only as a community’s “brand managers,” they also function, either by commission or omission, as a community's "asset managers"—whether or not they choose to think of their roles in this manner. 
That means that decision-making on land use and zoning, business issues, infrastructure development (roads, sewers, water, utilities, transit), technology (broadband Internet, etc.), the natural environment (open space, rivers, tree cover, watershed, etc.), and quality of place factors (arts, culture, historic preservation and heritage, education, public schools and libraries, urban design, etc.) must be consistent and focused on making the right decisions, the decisions that collectively achieve and support the realization of the community’s desired vision and positioning in terms of quality of life/placemaking, economic health, and the stewardship of physical assets and the built and natural environment.

Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle, Portland and DC are taking big reputational hits because of crime, homelessness, general disorder and other issues--abetted by the constant playing of these issues in conservative media.  

OTOH, having lived in DC in the 1980s and 1990s when things hit bottom, I am anti-disorder to the nth degree.  

I don't understand when elected officials don't appreciate how important getting public safety under control was to inward investment and population growth in the 2000s.  My lesson from the bad times is that it's very easy for disorder to get out of control.  

In DC, the social justice push to ease treatment of criminals has been counter productive.  Elected officials saw their actions as a way to address structural racism and other issues.  While perpetrators looked at these measures as a cue to commit more crime.  (DC has other issues in addressing crime too.

An extremely lenient approach to crime committed by juveniles--which these days ends up with rampant car jacking, weapon-assisted robberies and assaults, and murders--and prosecution by a special unit of the Department of Justice, which can be somewhat disconnected from responding to the need for crime suppression.

DC Crime Facts is a great e-letter on these issues.
With the Democratic National Convention coming to town this summer, Chicago has a rare opportunity to regain its swagger and reposition itself as a global city at the top of its game, a city second to none as a place to live and work. 

Chicago did it before, nearly 30 years ago, by giving itself a makeover for the 1996 Democratic National Convention that continued with the creation of Millennium Park. 

But this time, the city is approaching its moment in the spotlight without a CEO at the helm of World Business Chicago or its convention and tourism promoter, Choose Chicago. 

Chicago can counter the narrative that its best days are behind it by focusing on the strategic advantages that it’s always had as an affordable big city that attracts a deep pool of educated talent. 

 “The Chicago brand remains strong for fundamental reasons,” says Mike Grella, founder of site-selection consultant Grella Partnership Strategies in Atlanta. “It’s the third-largest metro area and a top 20 global economy. It has tremendous talent and some top colleges and universities. Those fundamentals aren’t going to change. 

”Chicago getting a bad rap, and are we making ourselves too easy a target by not putting our best foot forward to change the narrative? The nation’s third-largest city is still a city that works, but it also has a growing list of very real challenges, topped by crime, that must be addressed. 

“We are fighting perception, and you have to be aggressive, or it takes on a life of its own,” says Andrea Zopp, who was CEO of World Business Chicago, the city’s public-private partnership for corporate recruiting, from 2017 to 2020. 

... “It would be a serious mistake to move major entertainment venues to the suburbs,” Florida says. “The downtown of the future has to be an entertainment center, and sports are part of that.” He points to Detroit as an example. “Before, I would have said Detroit went too far with the casino, the stadia, the arena. . . .What we’ve learned post-COVID is that stuff is necessary. In a reduced office environment, attractions and visitation are so key. This is what Miami and Las Vegas figured out.”

Interesting point comparing to Detroit, and the city as an entertainment machine--something criticized for years by suburban partisan Joel Kotkin ("The Renaissance of Cities," Government Technology, "Joel Kotkin: The man urbanists love to hate," Grist, "PERSPECTIVE ON CHICAGO: FROM CITY OF BIG SHOULDERS TO ENTERTAINMENT MACHINE?" New Geography).  From the last article:
It is this more gilded, elegant Chicago – home of arguably the nation’s and even the world’s greatest collection of 20th Century high-rise structures – that foreshadows the current city. The success of Millennium Park, the powerful if now fading condo boom, the city’s newfound celebratory culture (think Oprah Winfrey and Barack Obama), its growth in fine restaurants, nightclubs and other entertainments has persuaded some observers like the University of Chicago’s Terry Nichols Clark to declare that Chicago is indeed the model city of the future. 
Clark’s new urban vision sees a city that marries upper crust with proto-bohemian elements, providing a spectacle for the well-to-do and distracted. Such cities may no longer serve as a vehicle for class mobility, but as an “entertainment machine” for the privileged. For these elite residents, the lures are not economic opportunity, but rather “bicycle paths, beaches and softball fields,” and “up-to-the-date consumption opportunities in the hip restaurants, bars, shops, and boutiques abundant in restructured urban neighborhoods.”
And I have to temper my thinking about this too.  

One of the most important books I read in the late 1980s, pre-Internet, was Maximarketing.  Its basic point was that you have to focus on all channels, not just some, selectively. 

Another good book was the Marketing Imagination.

That's where cities are.  Needing to maximize all opportunities.  

And the legacy cities still have advantages in terms of cultural institutions, professional sports teams, colleges and universities, parks and other civic assets, public space investment.  Transit.

When such institutions are created in the suburbs, the reality is that they are suburban, less cosmopolitan, often less diverse, less likely to challenge the status quo ("Creative hubs in suburban communities," "Suburbs take their place in the cultural sun," Chicago Tribune, 1990, "Vancouver's suburbs fertile ground for cultural infrastructure," Toronto Globe & Mail).
Suburban – or so-called "edge" cities – are developing cultural infrastructure that, if not necessarily on par with what is downtown, is bound to impress. As they grow to view themselves less as bedroom communities and more as cities with cultural identities, these municipalities are focusing on the arts as a way to help them grow, and to demonstrate their maturity. 

... Dr. Baeker points to Vaughan, Ont., north of Toronto. He developed Vaughan's cultural plan guided by two questions: "One was how do we stop being a suburb? And how do we use cultural facilities and amenities and opportunities to create a sense of this being an urban centre, not a suburban area?" 

... "I think the suburbs are changing. I think there's a much more urban audience in and around Metro Vancouver than has historically been the case," says Mr. Shier , who points out urban epicentres are developing in cities such as North Van, Burnaby, Surrey and Richmond . " That demographic is shifting expectations. The expectation is that people can have this type of amenity in those urban cores, rather than having to travel to Vancouver to get it."

Union Square in SF, like shopping in Manhattan, and some time ago on the Magnificent Mile in Chicago, was special.  

Still maintained its relevance despite the move of retail to the suburbs in various forms.  No more.

And cities suffer disproportionately from homelessness and drug issues and disorder problems.  And cities have limited budgets and many priorities.

But there are plenty of us who still prefer to live in such an environment.

The challenge will be to get disorder under control.  Schools--an issue in cities like Chicago and DC.  Revive retail.  And make downtowns more balanced, more like neighborhoods.  

While fixing transit ("Ensuring the intertwined post-pandemic recoveries of downtowns and transit systems," Brookings) and a myriad of other issues.

-- Transit is the answer plan, Chicago

Advocacy Agenda Detail 
  1. Secure increased funding for transit operations
  2. Develop a funding structure that is less reliant on rider fares, but instead focused on expanding access to opportunity
  3. Build a coalition around the value transit brings to the Chicago region
  4. Support communities’ efforts to improve the area around their transit stations and stops and pursue equitable transit-oriented development
  5. Engage with communities in an inclusive and transparent way about how transit dollars are spent in the Chicago region
  6. Secure increased funding for transit infrastructure
  7. Partner with roadway agencies to build more transit-friendly streets and advance bus rapid transi
It comes down to the asset investment approach, be it social urbanism, revitalization, or a wide range of investment in key infrastructure projects like Oklahoma City:

-- "Defining place-keeping: The long-term management of public spaces," Urban Forestry and Urban Greening (2011)
-- "Now, a push to bring more culture — and connection — to Kendall Square," Boston Globe, 2022, (public space, access improvements, culture additions)

The Economics of Uniqueness: Investing in Historic City Cores and Cultural Heritage Assets for Sustainable Development

DC ("Bowser, business leaders pitch $400M plan to fix D.C.’s ailing downtown," Washington Post) and other cities ("Chicago leaders announce committee to revitalize downtown area, including State Street," WLS-TV/ABC, "State Street downtown has highest vacancy rate ever, but experts say there is hope," CBS2, "Mayor Brandon Johnson outlines vision for downtown revitalization" Chicago Sun-Times, "Downtown's next act: Converting offices to residences is the best hope for the Golden Triangle" and "All hands on deck': 5 more Downtown properties get big assessment cuts as woes deepen for city," "As foreclosure risks rise, nearly half of Downtown Pittsburgh office space could be empty in 4 years, report shows," Pittsburgh Post-Gazette) have announced initiatives to refocus on improving Downtowns-their central business districts.  

I'm pretty down on the capacity of DC's planning function though. From the article: 
Among the plan’s wide-ranging proposals: recruiting more universities to fill up excess office space, simplifying regulations to attract new small and international businesses, and creating a “history triangle” between Farragut Square, Franklin Park and Lafayette Square that would draw visitors from the Mall. 

... Still, city officials say that a more extensive, detailed version of the Downtown Action Plan will not be ready until May. For now, it takes the form of a summary of recommendations and broad spending priorities that the report’s authors say, if fully funded and realized, will help mitigate the negative trends threatening the viability of downtown and the city’s overall financial health. 

Downtown brings $2.3 billion in revenue to the city’s coffers each year, which represents about one-fourth of the city’s total local revenue annually. The report says annual tax revenue generated from downtown has declined by $243 million since 2019, and if current conditions are left unabated, could decline by an additional $193 million over the next five to 10 years. 

Office vacancy rates downtown have crept up to a record high of at least 21 percent so far in the first quarter of fiscal 2024, according to data provided by the DowntownDC Business Improvement District (BID). 

... Other investment recommendations focus on transportation, increasing retail opportunities, enhancing downtown’s parks and open spaces, and providing $2.5 million for a “dedicated team and marketing efforts to facilitate the transformation of Downtown D.C. into a global learning hub.” 

... In the realm of public safety, the plan’s short-term recommendations include a lighting assessment and an increased budget for a newly launched program to create “Safe Commercial Corridor” hubs to keep neighborhoods safe and clean through a combination of efforts from public safety and human services agencies. The first hub opened in Chinatown two weeks ago. 

The plan also focuses on making downtown more friendly to small businesses by simplifying licensing and permitting regulations and in April, launching a soft-landing program to attract international companies and start-ups. 

And to accelerate the number of housing conversions downtown — the plan notes there are now fewer than five units of housing there for every 100 employees — it suggests streamlining construction and building permitting processes while offering a 10-year suspension of the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA), a law that gives tenants a first right of purchase, for new housing projects that are not replacing existing housing.
Plus DC's central business district improvement districts are a bit less capable than those of NYC or the Center City District in Philadelphia.

Plus, change takes time.  A decade is just a start.  And DC may take a further blow if the professional basketball and hockey teams do leave the city for suburban Virginia.

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At 12:37 PM, Anonymous charlie said...

So, this is more about the CRE to residential pipeline, but it isn't going to work.

It think I sent you the post from GS that CRE values really need to fall another 50% for projects to start to pencil out.

Then this:

"Remote Work Revolution: Employees Now Live Double Distance from Offices"

No maybe some of the residential need can be replaced by company dorms or long term stay hotels. Some. But in the end you're living in a city to be close to work and reduce your commute.

As you say, there are some lifestyle choice people in there but the majority are people trying to avoid commutes.

At 3:47 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

2,000sf museum. At least they are planning for activation. I can't imagine that's the kind of attraction that will make much difference.

At 8:58 AM, Anonymous Charlie said...

Not sure if you have done a take on the California forever “plan” for a new Bay Area “city”. I don’t doubt there is a decent sized population that wants urban life. Preferably without some of negatives (crime, trash, schools) that are found in legacy cities

And traditional cities have plenty of districts like that. Just not sure you can turn a downtown into one

Dan Markus had a piece on the ggw on the crystal city small area plan. Lots of money being put in, but mostly pre Covid and vacancy rates there are still very high (30%) and occupant rates lower as people are doing 3 day weeks

The dc plan is more fine grained. Next to to west end you can easily expand and put in residential. But you need massive investments in amenities to make it attractive

Went up to the new Walter reed district this weekend

At 11:38 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

How is the WR?

Haven't really looked at ggw for a long time but I looked at the Union Station piece and saw the CC mention. Fwiw I wrote about their effort many years ago. That being said I should probably get a ggw e letter to stay in touch.

At 9:44 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

So, the only two comps I really have are the Mosaic District and the Wharf. Union market is probably a good comp but haven't been there in a while.

I'd say they actually did a good job of blending in modern, suburban style 2500 SF townhomes in with some larger new buildings and the historic campus. That's the sweet spot still --- anyone with money is getting out of multifamily and wants faux SFH. I get why you can't build SFH in DC but the larger townhomes are a good compromise for families. Buy a condo or two for about 600K, sell, buy a townhome for 1.2 and by the kids god to HS you can buy a 2 million house in NW.

Still under construction, but pretty incongruous with the existing class C rentals to the south. I approached from the north and it blends in well with the SFH there.

Amenities seem scarce but all you really want is green outdoor space again for kids.

Metro access is suspect. But this is a car based area. I can't believe how much GA Avenue south of New Hampshire has changed.

As a childless adult, I am laughing my ass off on the millennial parents taking their precious little babies on electric cargo bikes. So much for safety! Car seats really were just birth control for Gen X.

At 7:46 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

People hate bus but Takoma Metrorail isn't that far. Years ago I had a proposal about prioritizing connections between Baltimore LR stations and the nearby community, which they do badly/don't do. Takoma to WR Georgia Avenue could be a model. (I also have a concept on sustainable mobility corridors which DC has never figured out).

We looked at a house by Fort Steven's but Georgia Avenue from like Crittenden to Silver Spring is so bus dependent we walked away (plus all the insanity of Georgia Avenue). But for hood, the Georgia Avenue bus is high frequency and reliable just gnarly.

At 7:53 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

At 11:49 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Opinion: A new downtown stadium offers Mayor Johnson a transformational opportunity


Mayor Brandon Johnson and all parties interested in the Loop, including the Bears and the White Sox, should pause and look for a collaborative solution on a stadium proposal that will be mutually beneficial and good for all of Chicago.

And while the horse may be out of the barn on the casino, if at all possible, I would throw that into the mix, too.
While Chicago is not ailing in the same way as other Rust Belt cities such as Cleveland and Detroit, we can take a page from their books with respect to urban planning.

Both cities, facing dying central business districts a couple of decades ago, worked with their professional sports teams to locate new stadiums in the heart of their respective cities. This resulted in spin-off entertainment venues such as restaurants, nightclubs and related retail.

Business and real estate organizations in Chicago are concerned about the slow post-pandemic recovery of the Loop. Only 56% of the people are returning to the office in Chicago post-pandemic, lagging some peer cities. The impact on commercial, retail and dining sectors is apparent, with vacant storefronts and foreclosed office buildings.

While well intended, the mayor’s recent infusion of more than $1.5 million in grants from the Small Business Improvement Fund to businesses in the LaSalle Street corridor is not the answer to revitalizing the Loop on a long-term basis.

What is needed is sustainability, and this can only happen with attractions that stand the test of time. It is fair to say that sports teams and stadiums that can double as entertainment venues can do this, as reflected in the success at venues such as the United Center and Wrigley Field.

While goods provided by retailers are a key component of the Loop's economy, the internet has clearly accelerated a decline in this sector. If people did not shop online before COVID, they certainly are now.

... It may turn out, after study and analysis, that the aforementioned ideas are not practicable.

However, not stepping back and looking holistically at the need for a revitalized Loop and a new stadium or stadiums may be passing up a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for our great city.

So go for it, Mayor Johnson. This very well could be your defining moment. Invite the parties of interest into a big tent. Along with your staff, include the teams, Loop property owners, the Illinois Sports Facility Authority, the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, the Commercial Club of Chicago, affordable housing advocates and current Loop residents, to name a few stakeholders. Have your staff use the resources of the Metropolitan Planning Council and the Civic Federation. This is a great opportunity for you to lead and transform the city in a way that will benefit current and future Chicagoans.

Michael D. Belsky is a former mayor of Highland Park and an expert in urban policy and public finance.


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