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.

Saturday, December 11, 2021

Thinking about the opportunities for success with neighborhood commercial districts: comparing Manor Park in DC to 15th and 15th in Salt Lake

It happens that where we live in Salt Lake City is the highest income zip code in the city--although we are definitely economic laggards compared to our neighbors!  

Our neighborhood is in the flat part of the Foothills in the Wasatch Mountain range with super expensive houses further up in the Foothills but is surrounded by plenty of popular neighborhoods marked by historic building stock (sadly some of which is being lost to new modern houses that are bigger).

And perhaps the biggest surprise in comparing Salt Lake to DC, recognizing that DC has more than 3x the population, is the richness and breadth of the retail environment here.  

Granted we live on the high income southeast edge of the city, bordering Salt Lake County--not unlike how the top of Northwest DC borders high income Montgomery County, Maryland--but even so, within a 5 mile radius there are at least 20 full line supermarkets, a number of large commercial districts, some neighborhood commercial districts, movie theaters, etc.  I don't even think that Montgomery County has many places with 20+ full line grocery stores in a five mile radius.

One plus is the Harmon's Supermarket chain, which has stores of varying sizes including a small store that's less than one half mile away, focusing on quality and specialty items.  

Emigration Market was acquired by Harmon's, and is located at 1700 East and 1300 East.

It isn't cheap, but it far surpasses any "independent" grocery in the DC area.  (Although Streets Market does some innovative stuff, and like Harmon's has stores of significantly varying sizes.)

And Harmon's has guts--the company was a leader in  the successful campaign to prevent the state from raising sales taxes on food ("Two interesting examples of supermarket firms bucking traditional political forces").

Salt Lake County has 1.16 million residents total and it's the epitome of sprawl (807 square miles), so it just doesn't make sense to me how so much retail, especially independent retail, can thrive compared to the much more compact DC+Montgomery County combination (1.7 million residents; about 460 square miles, including almost 120 square miles with development limitations).

The 15th and 15th district has a gallery, independent bookstore, a gallery, the city's premier Middle Eastern restaurant, a gelato-coffee shop, an independent bakery, Einstein's Bagels, a high end Italian steakhouse, a tapas restaurant, and a forthcoming wine bar.

15th and 15th neighborhood commercial district in Salt Lake versus the 6200 block of 3rd Street NW in DC.  This morning Suzanne stopped at Caputo's, an area Italian deli with three stores, for some items in preparation for an art market she's holding today.  

I sat in the car, and it struck me that I hadn't thought about comparing this district versus the 6200 block of 3rd Street NW in Manor Park/Takoma, which is about two blocks from our house in DC.  Both are one block in length, embedded within neighborhoods, featuring independent firms, with one exception.

But the commercial district in Salt Lake thrives while Manor Park in DC languishes.  And 15th and 15th isn't even Salt Lake City's most successful neighborhood retail district ("In Salt Lake City, a dynamic neighborhood with small businesses and room to stroll in," Washington Post).

Will, one of my correspondents and a lifetime resident of DC, always argues in favor of corner stores and other neighborhood retail, thinking back to the time when there was a wide range of neighborhood-based retail in the city.  

I always counter that DC's neighborhoods have limited populations and the way people shop today militates against small neighborhood stores.  

E.g., Capitol Hill and Dupont Circle are some of the only areas in DC where "corner stores" succeed, although perhaps the best example is Broad Branch Market in Chevy Chase ("Across D.C., a resurgence of the small neighborhood grocery store," Washington Post), one of the city's most upscale neighborhoods.  Another is how the 400 block of East Capitol Street in Capitol has two successful corner markets--although neither compares to Broad Branch.

The apparel shops on the 6200 block spend a lot of time on creating great window displays, which I always lament as "a waste" since most area residents drive.

The 6200 3rd Street district has two boutiques, one a consignment store, a hat shop, two day cares, a dance school with limited hours, a small African-American focused food counter and "co-op," Peaches Kitchen--which has decent food but is slow, relying mostly on take out although it has a dine-in area, an Ethiopian religious community center, and a special events space.  

Overall, more than half the space is services, not retail.  (There is a small set of offices on the second floor of the largest building.)

Earlier there had been a micro grocery, but it closed just before we moved to the area in 2008, and later the consignment store replaced a dry cleaner that had been there for more than 50 years.

I've always thought that the special events space could be a neighborhood-embedded neighborhood gastropub ("Richard's Rules for Restaurant-Based Revitalization," 2005).

Both districts are one block in length, with building stock dating to the 1930s, but one is thriving with multiple distinctive high quality businesses and the other lags--the Salt Lake district does have the benefit of a number of larger buildings and less disinvestment, along with additional parking behind the buildings--even though Manor Park is in a city with more than three times the population ("D.C.’s Manor Park defined by a long-standing spirit of togetherness," Post).

Alessandro Maurici, server team leader from Palermo, Sicily, Italy shows off some of the steak offerings at the new La Trattoria di Francesco, the newest Italian concept from the Sicilia Mia chain of restaurants.  Photo: Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune.

In Salt Lake, it seems that at the neighborhood scale, a greater proportion of higher income households compensates for a smaller population, plus there is a more limited number of neighborhood commercial districts to compete with.  

As a result, 15th and 15th is able to support both a wider range of retail and higher quality businesses, including an Italian Steakhouse offering a 32 oz. steak for $165 ("This restaurant sells the most expensive — and extravagant — steak in Utah," Salt Lake Tribune; note this article predates the onset of the pandemic, and their business model changed in response).

But it's not that Manor Park is poor, it has decent income demographics (see pages 25, 26, 42 and 50 of the DC Neighborhood Profiles publication, for demographic information of area neighborhoods), but a much smaller proportion of higher income households, especially with incomes greater than $75,000.

Manor Park DC also has a large number of close by, competing shopping districts, including in Maryland.   Too much intra-city competition is a problem across DC.  There are many shopping districts in close proximity.  For example, Eastern Market in Capitol Hill competes with H Street NE, the Union Market district, the Navy Yard, the Wharf, and Downtown, all within a 2 mile radius.    

The micro Manor Park district competes with Georgia Avenue, Columbia Heights, North Columbia Heights, Takoma Park, Silver Spring, etc. all within a couple miles.

Another factor is the quality of ownership of the businesses and access to capital.  In the Salt Lake commercial district, six of the locally owned businesses are part of larger store groups (although one firm seriously retrenched in response to covid).   The businesses in the Manor Park district are all small one-off businesses.

Conclusion.  Key factors for the success of neighborhood commercial districts are:

  • household income 
  • nearby population
  • location/neighborhood embeddedness
  • competing districts
  • size of buildings
  • quality of ownership/management capacity
  • access to capital.
And clearly, higher income households can compensate for a smaller population, especially when there are fewer nearby commercial districts competing for the same customers.

Note that while both neighborhood districts are walkable (Manor Park--81 WalkScore; 15th and 15th--61 WalkScore), that isn't a significant factor for commercial success in either district, as both communities are car-centric.

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At 10:00 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

Great post and compassions.

Rather strange to think of you in a car, though. ;-)

But it sounds like your surfing a general wave of "higher quality of life" which is a very typical thing for ex-DC people to say.

I'm seeing two macro trends which you don't really focus on too much.

1) income, yes but probably doubly worth highlighting. Average incomes don't show the disparities. Again why large chunks of the county flinches when urbanists want low income housing.

2) cost of living, in particular housing. One of my standard lines in there is no housing "crisis" in the DC area. We have an income problem (see #1 above). For people making close to the median income you can afford housing. But its going to be expensive, it cuts into your lifestyle, and slows/reduces family formation.

Waving a magic wand and cutting the price of housing in half in DC area would, however, not be a very popular choice with 75% of the population.

(and of course, if you really want 50% off move to Baltimore).

3. the other issue which you don't really touch on -- to echo Larry Littlefield -- is aging. newer places can be a lot cheaper. Lots of little costs add up in older cities which drives the price of everything up. You're getting better public services in many places as well. Ties into housing as well because it's also expensive to keep an older house going -- if you're investing in the proper amount you need to see steady price appreciation.

At 2:42 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

The car does kinda suck. But we have two 84 year olds, a city of big distances (e.g., I didn't mention that the "neighborhood" 15th and 15th district is 1.2 miles away, close relatively speaking, while the Manor Park district is 2/10 of a mile), and not much of a "sustainable mobility platform" specifically car share, but also a car that's paid off...

When I am by myself, unless I am super duper trip chaining, I try to cycle to do the errands, instead of driving.

QoL tough. I miss DC. I am still shocked at the better set of retail amenities. I miss the Library of Congress a lot, but U Utah Library is close (but no way an equal). The civic amenities may be better here. (I need to experience the new main library in DC. The Salt Lake one is one of the best for a city of its size.)

Definitely for Suzanne's parents health needs, this area is superior. I don't think we could get the same level of seamless health system care in DC (definitely not in Orange County). The University health system is amazing, and we are close to the hospital--two miles.

But sprawl + lack of efficient transit + HILLS. And the elevation. I discount it but it takes me longer to cycle here per mile compared to DC. (I will have to get an e-bike sooner rather than later.)

2. Income. I don't know why I wasn't more direct about it, but while the RTA here has fewer residents, the income is much much higher. 74% of households with income greater than $75,000. In the Manor Park area it is 48%. But in East Bench 39% of the households have income greater than $150,000. DC doesn't even include that as a statistic.

3. WRT cost of living, you've said that for a long time "income problem not a housing problem." I agree with you and I don't. We're always going to have lower income jobs and households. With a constrained supply, low income households will lose out.

One way to compensate for that is to have a way to live that doesn't require car ownership, and comparatively cheap transit (not e-scooters, not ride hailing). Hell, that helped us own a house...

That means housing subsidies. But as long as everyone expects to live in SFH and not much density, it's unworkable. You can't fit it in, or it's poorly located, neighborhood residents fight it, it's not dense enough to make much difference, etc.

And yes, people can have good reasons for being against AH. I made a comment on an article about how DC is a good place to live if you live in a decent area, and a Ward 3 resident wrote a very intense comment about how DC is converting apartments on Connecticut Avenue to low income housing and how this is creating real problems.

He didn't reference this, but I thought about it:

I was thinking how that would have been a perfect Marion Barry strategy, except that he recognized that he needed high income residents to carry the city tax revenue weight.

-- continued --

At 2:42 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

4. I do discuss that from time to time in terms of the costs of government (new versus legacy), not so much at the individual household scale.

This is complicated. It depends on if you are ambulatory or not. Suzanne's mother is physically healthy and mentally sharp. While she wouldn't want to drive (taxi, aging services transit), she could get around by herself if she had to.

Not true for the father. Speaking of QoL, he has deteriorated significantly in our 2+ years here, especially in the last year. He needs lots of help. We all provide it (but his wife does the hardest tasks most regularly).

If it was done by for cost services, it would be very expensive, maybe as much as $10,000/month. And many aging facilities don't take dementia patients.

Anyway, absolutely true that people "aging in place" can have real issues in maintaining older, bigger houses. Even this house, which is 60 years old, we've replaced a bunch of systems in the time we've been here, and it still doesn't work great in some elements (the two upstairs bedrooms are extremely cold in winter).

In short, if you have to add paid for services to new housing, it's expensive.

5. So QoL, given that one of us has to be here pretty much, we're not able to go places very much, at least not together or for an extended time. We didn't anticipate this, we figured Jim would still be able to travel for awhile, at least to Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming (Wyoming and Nevada are only 80-90 miles away, east and west respectively), but it's not the case.

And Park City is only about 20 minutes away by car, and not that much longer by bus.

At 8:41 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Fwiw, a number of things needed to be fixed at Suzanne's parents house in OC. Jim used to do that stuff and they let it slide. They lucked out with a motivated buyer facing a deadline to execute a mortgage and a pocket listing, so it was mostly sold as is. (But we had let plenty of items slide, some from the beginning of our owning, although it all got fixed preparing to rent it out).

But certainly there are plenty of examples in DC. I've argued for more systematic identification of needs and a system for response.

At 11:29 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

BBB allegedly will include a giant wad of money on elder care. I haven't seen anything on what that means. Adding at-home services to medicare would be a large step. The issue right now is workers. Again elder care also depends on the "precarious" to a large degree and adding wages+benefits is going to make it a lot more expensive.*

10K seems like a lot. We're getting prices more in the 6-7K month for GF's mom. Less dementia but probably same issues (adult diaper changing which is constant). I can't speak on "seamless" in DC but my guess is you're correct they would be able to do it.

BBB still includes a 900 e bike tax credit.

But back on topic:

Income -- yeah was not able to download the neighborhood profile. But I suspect, as in may things with DC, the numbers conceal. Average white household income in DC is 120K and that includes a lot of college students, interns, nonprofits. Once you get to Manor park I'd guess the average white household is around 150. The big difference is doesn't skew higher. I mean law firm partners are making close to 800K a year but they aren't living there but in NW to the extent they live in DC.

RE: affordability. Yeah, I go around and really wonder how people afford cars. Looking at a new one and the price is a turn off, once you include insurance (over 3000), gas, parking (at least 150 a month), and taxes. Honestly the new insurance and taxes would be enough to pay for repairs (over 7000).

That said, your've got to match the prescription to the problem, and building a lot more 1 bedroom apartments in DC isn't going to drive the price down.

QoL is hard, DC never really had to worry about it before.

* maybe they are just talking a medicare part E for elder care. Again they are not saying anything except the dollar amount.

At 1:30 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

I know about diapers ... and wrt "seamless" I also left out one very important word, "geriatric." Having doctors who specialize in elder care is key. They didn't have that in OC, which ended up being catastrophic as they treated his decline as "that's just what happens when you get old." Even so, some of it is just managing decline, there aren't really possible interventions that make much difference. A lot of art to it. Medicine isn't as much science as I thought.

At 1:39 PM, Anonymous charlie said...

Wow -- you must be getting some very good medical care. Yeah, the arts vs. science thing is very big, and it doesn't help (long rant) on how we train doctors and select them. And the constant intrusion of technology isn't helping. Finding doctors who practice that is very hard and getting very rare.

I never understood growing up why patients would send my dad cookies or a gift basket but finding a doctor who will talk to you -- even in the 70s -- was not easy.

At 2:50 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

In 2015 or 2016, he had an incident in DC which led him to be hospitalized and they stayed with us for a few months, unplanned. I hate to admit that we hadn't planned for the possibility of needing emergency care when they visited.

I did a quick Google search and Holy Cross came up because they had a specialty in geriatric emergency care. (Months later it was determined he had gallstones and he had intermittent reactions. It's not like he can verbalize what's wrong.) So that's where we went. Fortunately it was reasonably close to us. Then post ICU there was required rehab. HC of course only recommends places in Maryland which wouldn't have worked. Using the CMMS database, we found a good place in Mount Pleasant. Anyway, we super lucked out in SLC. Although we specifically looked for geriatric specialty. Maybe Intermountain is as good, but their hospitals aren't nearly as convenient. Their main one is about 10 miles away. Google says the U hospital is a bit more than 3 miles but it seems closer than that. And their geriatric satellite clinics are even closer.

For us, the problem us we aren't part of the decision making process. MIL is very much in control. And she isn't great at inservation and definitely not about making iterative improvements. She comes around, eventually to what we recommend but it's not an easy process.

He's a good guy, sweet. So it's easy to be gentle with him.

At 2:52 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Inservation = observation


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