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, October 07, 2022

REVISED: The unintended consequences of converting office buildings to housing: the need for public safety; schools; amenities

More stuff to be concerned about listed in the elements and issues sections.


I haven't written about this being discussed in a number of places like DC ("D.C. mayor unveils plans to incentivize office-to-residential conversions as downtown struggles to recover," Washington Post) because there is nothing really special about the phenomenon.  

 Screenshot, Downtown Pittsburgh Partnership marketing campaign, 2009.

It had been happening for decades ("Having a Longer View on Downtown Living," Eugenie Birch, University of Pennsylvania, 2002; Get Urban!: The Complete Guide to City Living, 2004, Retire Downtown: The Lifestyle Destination for Active Retirees and Empty Nesters, 2006, both by Kyle Ezell), but mostly in weak market cities where the office districts were depopulated by business.

Now, as even successful central business districts are being hollowed out by the pandemic infused "work from home," it's taking on a renewed velocity.

In " Municipal finances face a shaky future " charlie makes some points about this, that the kinds of things people are looking for in housing aren't available for a reasonable price:

... given that the biggest drivers of urban RE right now are 1) private access, 2) outdoor space and 3) yard for pet/children I don't see converted office space as being that popular. You could do a tradeoff in space (like Tribeca in the 1970s); I'd think about downtown if you can get me around 3000 SF in space.

Key elements.  To riff off this, there are eleven elements at a minimum that matter a lot, that cities aren't budgeting or planning for, for their central business districts to become meccas for housing:

  • demographics.  The items below in part presume that all household segments will be interested in urban living, including families.  That may not be the case.  And that shapes what the necessary responses are.
  • public safety in general.  While there's no question that Republicans are hyping crime beyond reality ("The real story about crime Republicans won’t tell you," Washington Post), it is a problem--it rose during the pandemic and is still higher than pre-pandemic levels in many major cities, which is why I've been writing about the rise in disorder rather frequently over the past 18 months.  People don't want to live in fear.
  • homelessness and camping in specific.  It's not a good look and definitely a concern for parents.  And it can be dangerous especially in its randomness ("University of Maryland graduate student is fatally stabbed in Chicago," Washington Post). 

 Flickr photo by Rex Block.  Homeless tents on the overpass of Connecticut Avenue at Dupont Circle.

  • cleanliness/public space management.  Unkempt areas aren't places where people want to live ("Updating the post The "soft side" of commercial district revitalization," 2006/2016).  Center cities can be pretty dirty.  This puts further pressure on business improvement districts.
  • schools (and daycare).  Outside of New York City and Vancouver ("In the City" Vancouver Courier, 2006), apartment living with families are uncommon.  People do travel far for school choice, but schools may need to be added.  In general, people don't want schools to be bad.  WRT "daycare" one rise in PreK education for 3 to 5 year olds in cities like DC and NYC is to address the dearth of quality daycare and the expense.
  • sustainable mobility.  Transit, walking, biking, car share need to be viable options.
  • quality and breadth of available retail.  You need way more people than will live Downtown to support the breadth of retail that people want.  People will have to travel out of their home area for most specialty shopping. Grocery stores are always an issue ("Urban Grocery Shopping," 2006) although some companies like Giant Heirloom Market in Philadelphia and the independent Streets group in the DC area are now focusing on center city locations.  
  • civic assets need to be available.  Parks, recreation centers, libraries.  Usually cities have parks and libraries in the core.  Not usually recreation and community centers.
  • programming.  It's not enough to have civic assets to go to, there need to be things to do.  This puts pressure on libraries (which can be quite good at programming) and parks and recreation centers (which vary in their capacity) to respond.
  • communications/neighborhood organizations.  Business improvement districts generally represent business.  There are "community improvement district" variants ("NoMA revisited: business planning to develop community," 2011) but they aren't resident as citizens oriented.  Developing neighborhood residential organizations will need some assistance.  Plus media, how do people get informed?
  • equity/social housing/diversity of housing types.  Will central business district living be limited to the well off?  What arrangements will be made for social inclusion?

In a more micro sense, it's about refocusing on business districts as places for residence, and the factors that matter to that, as opposed to the previous focus on outlying neighborhoods as places for families.

-- "Keeping families in cities: safety; schools; space + money ," 2015

Or true mixed use.  Not mixed commercial use.  Or some housing on top of retail.

This reminds me that when Toronto did an urban grayfield development project in the 1970s, creating the St. Lawrence neighborhood, schools and other public assets (children's theater space, medical clinic, health club) were incorporated into the apartment buildings ("Directions for New Urban Neighbourhoods: Learning from St. Lawrence," case study).

Rec-reating Downtown.  Interestingly, years ago I wrote about the DC Zoning Commission allowing developers to opt out of providing recreation space.  

But I said what should happen is that they have to pay into a fund to create civic park and recreation amenities in the central business district, developed by the city.

David Barth, Carlos Perez.

For example, in my writings on Silver Spring, I mention that having a playground or two downtown still makes sense, even if most of the area is dedicated to business. And creating a rec center-arena with a rooftop field.

And that DC should have intervened when the Downtown YWCA--which had an Olympic sized pool--and the Dupont Circle YMCA were allowed to be sold off and converted to other uses ("When BTMFBA isn't enough: keeping civic assets public through cy pres review, " 2016).

Rooftop gardens, cinema, tennis courts, basketball courts, football fields, cultural trails, bikeways, etc. are topics I've blogged about over the years.  (And high grade amenities in upscale apartment buildings.)

Indianapolis Cultural Trail.

This also gets at my point about "parks and recreation planning" incorporating non jurisdictionally controlled assets, like private gym facilities, yoga ("Breathing New Rhythm Into Tired Streets Yoga Studios Signal D.C. Gentrification,"  Post, 2006), YM and YW-CAs, school recreation facilities (Baltimore County over-invests in "school" recreation facilities so that they can also serve the broader community), public assets controlled by other agencies, etc.

And activation more generally.

-- "The layering effect: how the building blocks of an integrated public realm set the stage for community building and Silver Spring, Maryland as an example," 2012
-- "Better practices in parks planning: Montgomery County Energized Places initiative," 2017 
-- "From more space to socially distance to a systematic program for pedestrian districts (Park City (Utah) Main Street Car Free on Sundays) ," 2020

Reiterating the point that neighborhoods need urban design plans and that planning should focus on great places more than "walking" or "biking."

-- "Planning for place/urban design/neighborhoods versus planning for transportation modes: new 17th Street NW bike lanes | Walkable community planning versus "pedestrian" planning," 2021


Schools.  The University of Pennsylvania funded a school in the Center City, in order to stabilize the neighborhoods around the campus, to attract as new residents people with choice.  More recently, they have agreed to fund a second school ("Building off years of success, Penn and Lea School formalize partnership").  

But these kinds of efforts are often criticized as inequitable (Marketing Schools, Marketing Cities: Who Wins and Who Loses When Schools Become Urban Amenities, Maia Bloomfield Cucchiara, 2013).

Toronto is building a school as part of a condominium project ("In a first for Ontario, a school in a condo is coming to Toronto’s waterfront," Toronto Star).  From the article:

In a first for the province — and believed to be unique in Canada — a “vertical school” will be built into the third floor of the project on Lake Shore Blvd. E., just east of Yonge St., the Star has learned.

The Ontario government is set to announce its $44 million contribution for the new school on Friday morning, a partnership between the province, Toronto District School Board (TDSB) and Menkes Developments.

Unlike its other schools, the board will not own the land, but rather the space it occupies in the building.

A child-care centre is in the works for the second floor, beneath the school, and both will have vestibule space on the main floor to help get the kids upstairs.

Women and public safety: The presence of women as an indicator of safety in the public space. For years I have been strongly influenced by points made in writings about safety in public spaces and how the number of women out and about can be seen as an indicator of success or failure. 

John King, urban design writer for the San Francisco Chronicle wrote about this ("Great architecture, clean streets, culture -- it must be Minneapolis") in discussing Minneapolis as an example of his ten principles about how to make cities great:

Women know best. The first night in Minneapolis, I dined at Cafe Brenda on walleye and wild rice, which, with blueberry muffins, constitute the trifecta of local cuisine. A stroll past sleepy blocks of warehouses evolving from red-light district to residential neighborhood led me to the banks of the Mississippi. Walking along grassy parkland toward the Falls of St. Anthony, I had the place to myself -- except for one woman jogging casually past me toward the horizon.

When a city feels safe enough that a woman jogs along, alone, at dusk ... somebody is doing something right."

The presence of women as an indicator of what works and what doesn't in managing public spaces ha been discussed over the years in various writings on New York City's Bryant Park. 

Keith Bedford for The New York Times. A man and a woman: Minding the gender gap in Bryant Park.

From the 2005 New York Times article "Splendor in the Grass""

It was lunchtime at Bryant Park, and thousands of office workers were gathered beneath the emerald veil of trees. Ever since the park was renovated 13 years ago, it has been a remarkable space, and one of its most remarkable aspects is that the number of men and women is about equal, a balance that is carefully monitored as a barometer of the park's health. In 1980, when the space was rife with drug dealers and other scurrilous sorts, the ratio of men to women was about 9 to 1, said Dan Biederman, president of the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation.

But when the park reopened in 1992, the comfort level of women was seen as key to its resurgence, which is why the park's designers paid special attention to accouterments that appeal to women, like bathrooms with full-length mirrors, kiosk food and flowerbeds.

These days, the male-to-female ratio is just about even. And with this balance comes the possibility of triangulation, which Mr. Biederman defines with scientific precision as the tendency of an external stimulus to prompt strangers to interact. "If there's enough triangulation from things in the park," he said, "then people who don't know each other will break down and talk to each other."

Aging out versus aging in place.  In Cleveland in 2002, I went on a tour of the Warehouse and Gateway districts.  The guide mentioned "aging out," how once people hit 35, lifestyle changes lead them to be less interested in nightlife, drinking, and urban living, and they move ("Daypart and age-group planning in mixed use (commercial) districts," 2009).  

Will downtowns be attractive to all housing segments, so that people will stay as the nature of their household changes?  Or will it be the young without children and the older without children?

Community organizing and community media needs.  The HafenCity development in Hamburg has supported the creation of a digital news operation serving the community's information needs.  

I suggested at least 15 years ago that the Downtown DC BID should set up a communications network for office buildings (lobbies, elevators, restrooms, concierges) to get the word out on events, opportunities etc., because for the most part, non residents aren't interested and don't seek out information about the area in which they work.  It's still necessary, and doubly so for residents.

In DC, there is the Downtowner community newspaper, but office workers don't go out of their way to pick it up and read it.  Residents might. 

BIDs turning into CIDs may need to develop organizations similar to those of HafenCity and resident affinity groups.

The city as an entertainment machine. And of course, this brings up the issue of the city shifting away from production, be it industrial or knowledge, and to consumption and leisure ("What is the competitive advantage for the post-covid city? Doubling down on place values," 2022).

Retail.  A couple noteworthy urban retail development initiatives were the Historic Downtown LA Retail Project, no longer in existence, and the Second Street development in Austin, which specifically was charged to attract independent retail (""To get independent businesses you need to rebuild the supporting infrastructure," 2005, "Austin Second St. district thriving," Austin Business Journal, 2010).

Lots of cities pay to recruit chain retail, but it's tough because, as said above, the population numbers aren't supportive--try telling that to your residents though.

Social housing, equity and diversity of housing types.  Inclusionary zoning where 10% to 20% of units are required to be affordable can be difficult because of the cost of conversion.  It may be reasonable to allow "buyouts" where developers pay into a fund.  It could pay for 100% social housing buildings in the central area.  It could be thought of as "horizontal" inclusion versus "vertical" inclusion.

In building, affordable housing shouldn't be allowed to be treated differentially ("‘Poor door’ tenants of luxury tower," NY Post,  "Poor doors: the segregation of London's inner-city flat dwellers," Guardian).

In terms of a diversity of housing types, build a bunch of small housing too, including single room occupancy buildings as social housing.

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At 11:36 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said... Will Bunch: Ron Johnson and the GOP are partying like it's 1988.

At 10:46 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Spiffing up and renaming an office park development in Downtown Brooklyn, adding amenities and programming.

MetroTech, the Office Park in Brooklyn, Gets a $50 Million Renovation.

At 12:37 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

One element that I neglected to discuss, at least for weaker market cities, is property taxes.

Weak market cities have comparatively high residential property taxes, relative to the value of the property, relative to strong markets.

A $200,000 property in a city like Baltimore or Detroit probably has an $8,000+ property tax bill, which is a burden generally, but especially to lower income households.

Cities have gotten around this by providing abatements for a set period for properties that have been rehabbed, especially apartment conversion projects.

But that ends up creating inequities as legacy residents pay more in property taxes than new residents, and often, even after the abatement ends, there are serious differentials in property taxes on renewed properties versus legacy properties.


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