EATING ON THE PAVEMENT

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The Plaza Mayor in Madrid. Tables and chairs everywhere!

In the cities of southern Spain it seemed like some restaurant or other kind of eating and drinking establishment was using every square inch of paved space available for tables and chairs. They were even in narrow alleys and traffic triangles. They weren’t even directly in front of the bars and restaurants – some were across the street or around the corner. The logistics of serving tables that weren’t directly adjacent to the storefront didn’t seem to be a problem. Most places had three sets of prices, the lowest one for the bar, a second for tables, and third and highest for the “terrace;” tables outside.

The impact that this has on public spaces is enormous. It makes the urban centers incredibly lively: and not just centers – out of the way corners are animated by outdoor dining. It does make a difference that for most of the year southern Spain has daylight late into the evening – but these outdoor spaces are at their busiest from 10 P.M. to midnight, the Spanish dinner hour. While there is outdoor dining in North America, its informality and ubiquity amplifies its impact on Córdoba, Seville and Granada – even in Madrid (or maybe especially in Madrid). And, in observing outdoor tables when we returned to New York – most of which are behind barriers and lined up in rows – it struck me that the informality of the tables in Spain was essential. They are scattered about on the pavement – in just the way movable chairs are scattered – with a similar effect. People move the tables and chairs around – they control their own experience – which is so important to drawing people into public spaces. Continue reading

The Fountains of Andalusia

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The Alhambra and the Generalife, Granada, Spain

One principle that I’ve tried to communicate with this blog is that the temptation to begin the revitalization of public spaces and downtowns through major capital expenditures is one that is well avoided. I’ve also tried to stress at the same time that there are no hard and fast rules to successful placemaking; and that flexibility and balance are at the center of creating and maintaining great public places. The interplay of these ideas was brought home to me during a recent ten-day trip to Andalusia, Toledo and Madrid where I experienced a number of public space practices that impressed me with their effectiveness.

The presence of water and fountains in parks and on streets has a delightful positive impact on making places more inviting. People love running water. You can put a water feature in the most barren and under-programmed plaza, and it can make that place draw people – despite all the space’s other limitations. Kids like to play in them. Even adults like to throw off their shoes and socks and put their feet in them. In hot places like southern Spain, fountains provide cool. Fountains have a similar effect to plants – they are a visual and aural cue that a place is under social control. In order for the water feature to work someone must be taking care of it: keeping it clean, keeping the pumps running. Continue reading

Putting Out in Public Space

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Thomas Hart Benton, Instruments of Power from America Today, 1930–31 / The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Providing a great experience to visitors to public spaces is something we know that Disney gets for its parks. It’s also essential to the hotel business. Even museums and other cultural institutions are focused today on being responsive to visitor needs – to providing great customer service. They do this because the visitor experience is essential to generating repeat visits and building brand loyalty. At not-for-profit institutions treating visitors well is also part of their development strategy – happy visitors are more likely to become future donors.

In the world of public space management we don’t talk much about the visitor experience – but we should. Most public spaces are operated by government agencies, and the incentive systems of government bureaucracies are oriented towards different goals – minimizing costs, preventing graft and corruption, minimizing risk and avoiding political problems (analogous in some ways to good consumer relations, but not exactly the same thing). Those goals can often be in conflict with providing park visitors with a positive time. Perhaps those of us in downtown revitalization and public space management ought to think a little more about how the individual visitor is treated in our spaces. Continue reading

Real Community Leadership

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Bill Briggs

Bill Briggs founded and ran a program in southeast Queens called Youth and Tennis. For decades the program has taught young people in the public schools to play tennis and provided lessons to community kids for low or no fee. Bill was quiet and hardworking – dedicated to his kids and his sport. He didn’t draw a lot of attention to himself. He ran the program with very minimal resources – but had a tremendous impact on the lives of the community’s young people. Bill and I became very close friends over the years. Last year, when I found myself with plenty of time on my hands, I drove out to Roy Wilkins Park in St. Albans, Queens every few weeks to hit with Bill. He worked me HARD. We’d hit for a couple of hours and then go for drink or a meal. I called him after our last workout last spring and didn’t get a return call. I emailed him. I texted him. I didn’t hear anything back. I reached out to some mutual friends over the summer to try to find out what was up – and was told that Bill wasn’t well, and didn’t want to see anybody. I asked after him every couple of months and the situation didn’t change. I learned over the weekend from another wonderful community leader, my good friend Archie Spigner, that Bill passed away on last Sunday. Continue reading

He Happens to Like New York*

 

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Georgia O’Keeffe, Radiator Building, Night, New York 1927

The Magnetic City, By: Justin Davidson, Spiegel and Grau, 2017

 Justin Davidson’s, “The Magnetic City,” purports to be a walking guide – like the wonderful “Paris Walks” book of the 80’s that got you poking around inside gates and down narrow alleys to discover fabulous hidden architectural and historical treasures. But it is much more than that. It is a beautifully written elegy to one citizen’s city and culture (perhaps the mirror image of J.D. Vance’s hillbilly one), a sophisticated series of essays of architectural criticism and an overview of contemporary ideas about city planning and development. It’s most important quality is its quiet, serious thoughtfulness about many issues where partisans can be highly polarized, the rhetoric is often hot and hyperbolic and there is mostly heat generated without much light. Davidson holds these questions up in his scrupulously careful hand, turning them slowly and examining them from a range of angles – all informed by a deep, deep knowledge of New York City history, literature, buildings and neighborhoods.

Davidson has done an astonishing amount of both walking and reading in and around New York City. The book is full of wonderful nuggets of information. It makes a grand walking companion in some of the city’s most economically and architecturally interesting neighborhoods – with a particular focus on downtown Manhattan. But it is also a fine companion for the armchair tourist. Davidson colorfully conjures up the places about which he writes – and his deeper goal is to talk about preservation, development, architectural quality, gentrification and the changing city. Continue reading

People Like/Love Grass

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Childe Hassam; Nurses in the Park; Harvard

Early on I learned that when people said to me that Bryant Park looked great, what they actually meant was “Wow, the lawn is really green.” I even got a letter once from the managing editor of the New York Times complimenting us on how good the lawn looked, and asking if I would come out to Long Island to give him a hand with his yard. There is no getting around that nothing communicates to folks that a public space is well-managed and under social control better than a verdant, well-kept lawn. It may be high maintenance and not ecologically correct, but it is what is. People want to look at, sit on, play on and LIE on a beautiful carpet of grass. And getting to a great lawn isn’t easy. At the same time, keeping people off the grass sends exactly the wrong message – you want the lawn to be open to use as often as possible. This signals that the space is somewhere that people are invited in and welcome to use. Continue reading

Buying the Dogs

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The Borough Office Building, formerly occupied by a title company, and now owned by Greater Jamaica Development Corporation.

An important, but underutilized, tool in the economic development kit is being the buyer of last resort for distressed property. This strategy isn’t frequently used because it requires equity capital (which many/most NGO’s don’t have) and carries the risks inherent in carrying debt and managing property. But it can be incredibly powerful. By purchasing (or long-term leasing), improving and repositioning an abandoned or derelict real asset, not only are the negative externalities associated with that parcel removed from the neighborhood and the market, but the purchaser now has an ownership stake in the community it is working to improve and will have the potential to reap some economic benefit from the success of its efforts. In addition, ownership of key sites gives the local development entity the power to influence what gets developed on the site. In my experience, this is one of the more potent forms of “nudge” to the local market that a not-for-profit can exercise in advocating for neighborhood improvement.

Community development organizations tend to shy away from the risks associated with property ownership. I’m not aware of any business improvement districts, for example, that actually own any property. But I would argue that this is a form of downtown revitalization that ought to be seriously be considered by more of the professionals who are working on downtown improvement. Continue reading

Jamaica Update – Not According to Plan

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Jamaica Transit Center Master Plan Rendering: Fox & Fowle — what’s not going to happen

In the last week, I’ve had a couple of occasions to visit Jamaica and was delighted to see progress on a number of fronts. What was most interesting to me was while there is not much happening on the sites we at Greater Jamaica Development Corporation (GJDC) assembled over fifteen years and sold in 2015, there is significant activity on other projects. The conclusion that I draw from this is that what we did to improve the perception of the Downtown through placemaking had more of an impact on its revitalization than our site development projects.

Also, I recently became aware of twenty-minute film about the changes in Jamaica over the last fifty years which can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FJP0BzmG90I&feature=youtu.be. The film is a nostalgic look at the businesses that were lost from the Downtown from the 60’s through the ‘80’s and the deteriorated conditions Downtown. A good deal of effort was put into this video and I enjoyed watching it. It contains lots of material that was new to me. The film was apparently made by a community member.  In the end it raises concerns about possible gentrification brought on by the more recent changes in Jamaica.   Continue reading

Improving Suburban Downtowns

IMG_0596The Village of Larchmont has two downtowns. One is focused around the commuter train station and the other along a six lane state road. Last week, working with my colleague, David Milder of DANTH (http://www.ndavidmilder.com/), I was asked to make a presentation about improving the downtowns to a group of local residents. The group was engaged and thoughtful. The talk was as much about improving the experience of living in this highly regarded commuter suburb (where the quality-of-life is already quite high). The catalyst for our being asked to present the talk was the number of empty storefronts along the main shopping streets. The link to our presentation is here: Larchmont Power Point

The commercial center at the transportation hub has excellent “bones.” It was interesting to think about and attempt to analyze why it has the number of empty stores that it does. What struck us in walking around was how many cars and how few people we saw on a Saturday. The downtown has a number of municipal lots and quite a bit of curbside parking. Both are unmetered and have a two-hour limit. While most of the spaces were full, there were enough empty ones to be able to say that anyone coming to the downtown could reasonably find a space. But where were the people? Continue reading

WHEN I WAS YOUR AGE…

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The American Planning Association (APA) New York City Chapter recently hosted an event entitled “Small, Medium and Large: How Main Street Management by BID’s Affect Different Size Neighborhoods!” The event was organized in response to the Crain’s article about BIDs that was published last fall – about which I wrote at the time (http://www.theplacemaster.com/2016/09/26/in-defense-of-bids/). On the panel were a city representative and four BID managers – three of them from smaller BIDs.

I attended and felt old (and was the oldest person in the room!). The BID world has changed a lot in the last twenty-five years. When I started working for the midtown Manhattan BIDs, there were a grand total of around ten BIDs. Today there are over seventy. While the first few BIDs were of relatively modest capacity, the trend at the time was to take the concept of downtown management organizations onto a larger scale. New organizations of with substantial resources were being established in the most-dense commercial areas. Now the trend is for the proliferation of small organizations with limited staffs and funds of under $500,000 – which, according to the presentation at the event is about the current mean BID size. In the mid-90’s, since there were fewer than a dozen BIDs and half of those were the of BIDs with budgets over $5 million (which remain the same group), the BID world in New York was all about those larger organizations: Grand Central (GCP), 34th Street, Bryant Park, Times Square and the Downtown Alliance. Continue reading