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, February 24, 2020

Basic planning building blocks for urban commercial district revitalization programs that most cities haven't packaged: Part 1 | The first six

1.  Mandate a consultation and review process for all projects within designated "revitalization zones."
2.  Design and development guidelines.
3.  Thumbnail build out analysis plan.
4.  A city-wide program for the development of independent businesses coordinated with individual commercial districts across the city.
5.  Transportation Management Districts, especially for shared parking
6.  Regularized funding.
7.  A set of neighborhood identification and marketing tools.

Because the post is long as it is, the seventh item is in a second entry.  And while writing the second entry, I realized the need for a third.

-- "Basic planning building blocks for urban commercial district revitalization programs that most cities haven't packaged: Part 1 | The first six"
--  "Basic planning building blocks for urban commercial district revitalization programs that most cities haven't packaged: Part 2 |  A neighborhood identity and marketing toolkit (kit of parts)"
--  "Basic planning building blocks for urban commercial district revitalization programs that most cities haven't packaged: Part 3 | The overarching approach, destination development/branding and identity, layering and daypart planning"
-- "Basic planning building blocks for "community" revitalization programs that most cities haven't packaged: Part 4 | Place evaluation tools"


NextDoor is a community "bulletin board" system that qualifies participants by actual residence.  I had joined the one for DC's Manor Park at the behest of a neighbor many years ago, but some computer glitch kicked me off, at least 5 years ago.  But in the last month or so, I've been getting emails again.

There is a discussion in the Lamond-Riggs area, a neighborhood next to Manor Park but on the east side of the Red Line Metrorail tracks, and served by the Fort Totten Metrorail Station, about the coming of a Chick Fil-A drive through to a key intersection corner at 3rd Street and Riggs Road NE, across from the Walmart and in the place of a Taco Bell-KFC combo that has decided not to renew its lease.

It's a matter of right project, and the discussion reminds me of all the gaps in how DC does commercial district revitalization planning, gaps I've pointed out starting back in 2002, and none have been addressed or taken up by the powers that be.

There are seven basic elements that should be integrated into a commercial district revitalization program at the outset, when a program gets created.

Otherwise, you are mostly reactive and focused on events planning, rather than being able to address fundamental urban design and development questions.

Note that there are "two types" of commercial district revitalization programs, addressing different things, depending on whether they:  (1) are mostly built out, so activities are focused on marketing and business recruitment and business improvement; or (2) have many opportunities for redevelopment of sites and serious need for urban design interventions, predicated on the desire to have a mixed use, walkable commercial district.

1.  Mandate a consultation and review process for all projects within designated "revitalization zones."

When I went to the national historic preservation annual meeting in 2002, one of the best practices I learned about was Cleveland's "Business Revitalization District Overlay" zoning, which mandates extra-normal design review in districts targeted for improvement.

The point of the design review is to ensure the coordination of projects and to reduce the risk of bad design negatively impacting the value of adjoining properties and limiting the positive impact of public investment in those communities. From the webpage:
Certain proposals for construction, exterior alterations, building demolitions or signs in the City of Cleveland must undergo a process known as "design review." The City established this process as a policy to ensure that any visual changes to buildings or open spaces will enhance the architectural character of Neighborhood Commercial Districts.
Forcing developers to take a seat at the table is a necessary requirement to accelerate commercial district improvement.  At the same time, we must recognize that this is about coordination and setting high standards and preferred outcomes, not about mandating particular design.

2.  Design and development guidelines.

Zoning regulations in general are pretty gross-grained.  And because they are project/lot focused, zoning regulations aren't designed to spur maximum value and spillover benefit from each project as a contribution to a greater whole, let alone coordination between projects.

When I first got involved in Main Street commercial district revitalization work back in 2002, one of the programs I looked to for best practice guidance was the North Park Main Street program in San Diego, because it was in a large center city and they had some similar issues.  They also had Design and Development guidelines.
North Park
These documents are now out of date and were retrieved via, but I found them quite trenchant back in 2002. 

They might seem out of date now, but think about the time and context in which they were created--back when urban places were still undervalued as a place to live, work, visit, or conduct business, and where too often, stakeholders were so desperate for development that they would accept just about anything.

-- North Park Development Guidelines, adopted September 1997
-- North Park Main Street Design Guidelines

Most historic districts create these kinds of guidelines as a way to manage change and to provide guidance and predictability wrt decision-making.

Historic district design guidelines are based on the period of architectural significance of the area and the architectural styles that were then prevalent and the type of building and how it was designed to perform its use--commercial buildings were designed differently from houses.

Given the discussion of the Chick Fil A, and the difference between the 300 and 1400 blocks of H Street/Maryland Avenue NE, which is very much similar (see the past blog entry "360 Apartment building + Giant Supermarket vs. a BP gas station, which would you choose?"), one of the elements of this should be a careful review of zoning regulations to ensure that desired outcomes are baked into the zoning.

E.g., the zoning on Riggs Road allows drive thrus and fast food places, whereas most of H Street's zoning doesn't allow that.  But there was an exception of one particular block, and we didn't correct the zoning on that block, because we were focused on the height, which was taller but ok, not the allowable uses, which were out of character with the goal of achieving a walkable commercial district.

We should have adjusted the allowable uses just for that block, within the separate "commercial overlay zoning district" that was created.

A careful analysis of urban design preferences and how to bring them about in new projects going forward is a required step in the creation of development and design guidelines for a commercial district.

3.  Thumbnail build out analysis plan.

DC doesn't do comprehensive neighborhood planning.  Instead it does what are called "Small Area Plans," which I joke are more "build out identification, analysis, and management plans."

They still "fail" because they tend to not be integrated and comprehensive, even if the need to identify opportunities and suggest how they best be realized is important.

There are plenty of examples of why this is needed.  Mostly because sites end up being "under-developed" in terms of their opportunity and ability to contribute to a commercial district that is stronger than the sum of its parts.

That's because zoning regulations don't specify the ideal, but the minimum.  Instead, we should be incentivizing the ideal, and disincentivizing the minimum ("New years post #6 -- the crazy thing about U.S. zoning is that it's not designed to maximize overall land value," 2011).

Related to this, people need to see great examples of what is possible, to shape the discourse and the opportunities.

Some examples:

(1) when I was a board member of H Street Main Street, I argued that our interest area in terms of housing and residential development extended beyond our immediate district, and that we should develop a housing development opportunity program as part of our purview.  Also that we should come up with a redevelopment program for Hechinger Mall (something that H Street Main Street did about 14 years later).

This was the type of gas station BP wanted to build on the 300 block of H Street NE.

(2) BP wanted to build a big gas station at the foot of H Street.  It took more than a decade, but instead a 200+ unit apartment building with a ground floor supermarket was developed in its place.

Next door to a redeveloped condominium building and a few hundred apartments, which may not have been developed had the gas station project gone through ("360 Apartment building + Giant Supermarket vs. a BP gas station, which would you choose?").

New 360 Apartment building with Giant Supermarket on the ground floor, looking east from H Street NE
This is the building that was constructed instead.

(3) OTOH, a few years later at the other end of the corridor, but on a block that had different zoning, a similar site was developed, with a gas station, with the happy support of the city government over resident preferences.  Which do you think was a better outcome?

(4) Scads of examples of housing developments by Metrorail stations that aren't built to maximize the number of units.

(5) disjoint development of condominiums around the Upshur Street subdistrict of the Petworth Commercial district, on a lot by lot basis by various small developers, rather than the coordination of development and appropriate intensification across the district.

Having a development preference plan, combined with coordination and review through a Business Revitalization Overlay District and design and development guidelines makes the achievement of better projects more possible and more quickly.

For example, the first new retail business on H Street after the creation of the H Street Main Street program was a Family Dollar--a dollar store.  We had one of the city's first revitalization plans, created soon after our program started.  But there was no coordination process between property owners, potential tenants, and the commercial district revitalization program.

(Plus, property owners just want a reliable tenant who will pay the rent.  They don't care so much about how the business will contribute to overall development goals.)

4.  A city-wide program for the development of independent businesses coordinated with individual commercial districts across the city.

Early on, I read an article, I think in the Stanford Social Innovation Review or the McKinsey Journal about successful business plan contests.  A major point was that you needed scale in terms of participation to be successful.
For Lease sign, seeking neighborhood serving business (14th St. NW)
So I came up with the idea of doing such a program for the city as a whole, with the participation of various commercial districts, as a way to develop and create independent retailers, and to fill property vacancies.

Later I figured out this needed to be paired with strong relationships with property owners, knowledge of vacancies and lease rates, and financing, in order to be successful and sustainable.

-- "Why ask why? Because," 2007
Discusses how to build robust systems for independent retailers
-- "Independent retailers can succeed and thrive," 2008
-- "Retail and Restaurant Check Up Surveys," 2009

I proposed this to the Main Street program in DC, but they didn't get it.  They said "try it out on H Street."  But the whole point was scale and adequate resources, which an individual program in the midst of many other revitalization programs and commercial districts can't pull off.

Later I proposed to do this in Pittsburgh, but the consultant I was working with was flaky and the initiative broke apart.

You need a program like this to identify potential entrepreneurs and to seed businesses.  Otherwise, you don't have a solid list of potential businesses, because by their very nature, independent business people are independent.  You need to know who they are if you want to systematically grow an independent business district.

While no longer operative, c. 2000, Los Angeles had the Historic Downtown Retail Project designed to attract and develop independent retail in the city's core.  And in the development project of Second Street in Austin, Texas, the city specified the creation of a retail program predominated by independent retailers, so the developer hired a consultant tasked with doing just that ("To get independent businesses you need to rebuild the supporting infrastructure").

5.  Transportation Management Districts, especially for shared parking

Since 2005, I've suggested that DC create TMDs to coordinate and manage mobility in subdistricts of the city.

A key element of such programs would be to share parking ("Onsite Parking: The Scourge of America's Commercial Districts," Planetizen) across a district, rather than to require multiple separate parking lots and structures (see item #5 within this post on a proposed program for Silver Spring Maryland in association with the Purple Line for an outline shared parking can be supported; also "Parking districts vs. transportation/urban management districts: Part two, Takoma DC/Takoma Park Maryland").

Many districts have "enough parking," surprisingly enough, but it's poorly utilized because there is no framework for coordination.

Main Street districts should have a requirement that parking be shared across properties.

-- "Shared Parking: Effective and Simple," ITE Journal, April 2018

Speaking of North Park Main Street, for a time they coordinated a district-wide valet parking program, where people could drop their car off at one location and pick it up at another, encouraging them to patronize multiple locations instead of to stay put or drive from place to place.

But of course a TMD should equally promote transit, walking, bicycling, and other sustainable mobility initiatives in systematic ways, using transportation demand management approaches of various types, "Bicycle Friendly Business District" concepts, etc.

6.  Regularized funding.

Another thing I learned from how San Diego does commercial district revitalization planning is about funding.  There, they have one funding mechanism, an add-on tax to commercial property, and it is used to fund a commercial district revitalization program for the district.

It's up to the stakeholders in the district to choose if they want to be a "Business Improvement District" which tends to be controlled by property owners and focused on clean and safe functions (and usually marketing) or a "Main Street" program, which tends to involve not just property owners but merchants and residents, and can have a more grassroots focus on retail business development and events and marketing.

In DC, only BIDs can be funded by an add on property tax, and Main Street programs have a tough time maintaining funding outside of city appropriations, especially in areas with small amounts of commercial property.

All places should adopt the San Diego funding approach, which is agnostic in terms of the type of organization it will fund.

Note too that Baltimore (Community Benefits Districts) and San Francisco (Neighborhood Benefits Districts, Green Benefits Districts) have variants that can include residential properties in the add on tax district.



At 1:02 PM, Anonymous Alex B. said...

Re: the H Street Chik-fil-A, one thing to note is that it wasn't a standalone development. The building was a renovation of an existing drive-thru location. I believe they actually removed a curb cut from the overall site.

Re: Shared Parking - that ITE article is all about zoning parking requirements, which is the easy part.

Actually managing the parking is completely different, and getting an active management for a TMD for a large number of privately owned and operated facilities is a completely different problem.

At 2:24 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

1. I thought I acknowledged that the CFA was just a redo of a previous existing business and is MOR.

The point I was making was about not addressing the zoning incongruence at that end of the corridor in the ur planning process in 2002-2003.

We talked about it, I remember. We agreed that that end of the corridor should be more intensely developed given the existence of Delta Towers and Hechinger Mall.

But we weren't clued into the difference in matter of right uses between C2A and C3.

In the H Street zoning overlay, we could/should have tweaked allowable uses in C3 without questioning the difference in density.

At the very least, making gas stations and fast food special exceptions.

And either forbidding drive thrus or making them a special exception too. A special exception process wouldn't outright forbid, and over time as the corridor changed, it would allow for a reduction in those kinds of uses, depending on market demand and interest.

But it would trigger review, which doesn't exist in C3 now for those use types.

2. WRT TMD coordination, absolutely. I really know of only two good examples, College Park Maryland (the city) and the Chestnut Hill district of Philadelphia (a nonprofit technically separate but managed by the business improvement district).

Doing a study for Eastern Market, all the inventory it needs for parking exists in an underground parking structure a block away. But how to get them to run it on weekends and at night?

BUT, if you create TMDs, at least you have a structure to bring people to the table.

At 4:10 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Detroit News: How partnerships revitalized Detroit's McNichols corridor.

This is more about commercial districts than neighborhoods, but it does both.

It's part nostalgia that I list it, because when I was a child in Detroit when my father was still alive, we lived a couple blocks from 6 Mile (McNichols Avenue). But the area mentioned in the article is a few miles away.

One of the interesting elements mentioned is the "Marygrove Conservancy." It's a nonprofit with foundation support that has taken over the deaccessioned Marygrove College campus -- the school shut down (I don't know why they didn't try to merge with the University of Detroit Mercy, where earlier the UD merged with Mercy College, all three are Catholic related schools of higher education).

This is definitely neighborhood stabilization focused.

The Conservancy is focused on a variety of community focused initiatives including housing a charter school.

"Conservancy builds a place for community, learning on site of former Marygrove College"

"PNC Bank and Kresge Foundation Fund $57.3M for Marygrove Conservancy Renovation"


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