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

What Works

 

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Campus Martius, Detroit

Over the last fifty years a range of economic development agencies, departments and entities have been created around the country. Their goals have primarily something to do with retaining and attracting businesses to a particular place in order to have more jobs in that place. While ideally those would be new jobs, created out of new ventures and entrepreneurship, for the most part they are about moving existing jobs from one jurisdiction to another. The most powerful tool most economic developers have are government subsidies – reduced taxes, government-owned property offered at a discount, cash grants and tax-exempt borrowing rates. But seldom to never is it possible to pinpoint what actually creates new businesses and jobs – actual economic expansion. Even in the best cases, economic development is usually a zero/sum game. Where a business in one place expands it is because it is, at best, taking customers from another firm in another city, another state or another country. We don’t have a firm understanding of where entirely new jobs and economic value come from.

Government also attempts to improve a local economy by moving a government function, and therefore government employees, to a particular place. On the biggest scale this could be a military base. In an urban setting it could be a large government office. In Jamaica, I was able to observe the impact on the community of the results effective lobbying efforts to attract a college, a one million square foot government office building, a court and a laboratory and office space to the community. One thing that I noticed was that government office workers rarely left their offices to eat or shop. Most employees came from outside the community. With electronic record keeping, the largest governmental office employer halved its workforce leaving a massive structure mostly filled with file cabinets. The multiplier effect from such a tremendously expensive project didn’t seem very powerful. When the jobs left, there was a vacuum. There was no real expansion to local economic activity. Only the college seemed economically connected to the community. Continue reading

Building Blank Walls

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Social Security Administration, Jamaica, Queens

The issues around architecture and placemaking are among the most interesting and controversial in the field. I have argued here that in the creation of public spaces programming and maintenance are more important than design. Recently, I have been saying that just about any public space, no matter how “badly” designed (and evaluating the quality of any design involves not that many hard principles and a good deal of personal preferences). With respect to buildings though, there are design features that in my experience can create a context for placemaking that ranges from difficult to impossible.

Here I am drawing on my work in Jamaica, Queens where, in order to stimulate economic activity, government built major new structures in the Downtown – including York College, a million square foot building for the Social Security Administration (SSA), a home for the Family Court and a lab and office development for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) over the last thirty years. All of these structures drew on a similar design vocabulary that influenced large urban buildings of the 60’s and 70’s. The York campus in particular has a fortress-like presence on the street that speaks generally of cement and is surrounded by a high fence. The campus was designed with a fairly large number of entrances that were set in severe hardscaped plazas. But, today, most of those entrances are kept locked – leaving only two doors to for security staff to police. Continue reading

Engaging the “Deplorables”

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George Caleb Bingham, The Verdict of the People (1854–55). Courtesy of Saint Louis Art Museum, Gift of Bank of America.

In the current political climate, placemaking practice could become even more important in rural and suburban committees then it is to urban public spaces and downtowns. Over the last thirty years the focus of community revitalization efforts has been almost exclusively urban. We have found that making great downtowns and public spaces is the key to improving the quality of life for city residents – and the evidence for this is everywhere. Focusing on urban centers only made sense in light of the significant economic and social decline of American cities beginning in the 1960’s. Cities were out. They were abandoned. Many downtowns were empty.

Today, the most important force in American political life seems to be a feeling of being left behind by those not on the coasts. There is much talk about “coastal elites” versus “flyover country.” J.D. Vance, in his best-selling book, “Hillbilly Elegy,” opens a striking window on the sociocultural world of the Scotch-Irish of southwestern Ohio. Vance is a former Marine and Ohio State and Yale Law School graduate who now works for venture capitalist Peter Thiel. He is clear-eyed about the folks among whom he grew-up. While Vance lovingly describes the tight bonds that hold Appalachian families together and their devotion to a shared, if often self-destructive, southern rural culture, he also describes a suspicion and disengagement from community institutions, even religious ones. Vance writes about a deep cynicism about politics and a profound alienation from cities, education and national cultural trends among his family and former neighbors. As described by Vance, these folks have little shared social experience outside of their families. They are deeply suspicious of outsiders. Continue reading

Bass Ackwards

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The proposed Pershing Square Renew/Agence Ter design with the shade structure at the rear.

At about the same time I went to work for Bryant Park Restoration Corporation (BPRC) in 1991 a similar project was underway on the West Coast. Pershing Square, the oldest public space in Los Angeles, was also the subject of a major downtown revitalization effort. In 1992, Pershing Square was closed for a $14.5 million re-design and renovation by Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta and Philadelphia-based Hanna Olin Design. Hanna Olin was also the landscape design firm engaged for Bryant Park. The “new” Pershing Square opened in 1994. Shortly after it was completed, I visited Pershing Square and found it to be hot, dusty and deserted – essentially the roof of the parking garage located under the park. Over the past two decades, while Bryant Park had become New York’s “town square” and the stimulus to billions of dollars in redevelopment, mostly inert Pershing Square has been a drag on efforts to revitalize Downtown LA. The square sits between the glass and steel office center of modern LA and the rapidly changing original LA downtown of loft buildings of brick, limestone and terracotta. It’s fascinating to see how much positive activity is happening one or two blocks away from the square – without it as anchor. Continue reading

When the Signs Suck

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Perhaps the most egregious awnings on 34th Street. Maybe the bottom one has some utility — but the other two?

Recently, I gave a tour of downtown Jamaica to a major retail developer. It was his initial close look at the downtown while walking. We met in a restaurant, and when we walked out on the sidewalk, the first words out of his mouth were, “The streets looks awful. The signs are terrible.” Nothing is more of an obstacle to downtown revitalization then poor storefront presentation – and nothing is more difficult to fix. Nope, not even street vending is as hard as trying to improve as retail signs, storefronts and the merchandising visible from the street.

Malls are able to have high quality signs and retail presentation because of their unitary ownership. Leases give mall owners review rights for retail presentation and have a long list of rules regarding their signs, storefronts and displays – and mall owners tend to enforce those rules. Downtowns have multiple owners, and even more individual retail tenants. There is little incentive for any landlord to enforce the sign provisions in their lease, since the woman next door isn’t enforcing hers and all you really want is your monthly rent check. Why alienate a high rent-paying tenant, who pays every month, over a trivial issue like how his store looks? Continue reading

The Impossible Takes a Little While — Billie Holiday*

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In the 90’s metal and plastic containers distributing newspapers, magazines and ads were scattered all over New York contributing to the sense of chaos and social disorder in public spaces. While newsracks are no longer the issue they once were in most downtowns, the process by which we organized and informally regulated them might be instructive as to how apparently impossible problems can be addressed. It takes a deep knowledge of the regulatory and legal environment, creativity, flexibility and persistence – the last being the most important.

In response to my last post about street vending, the thoughtful and wise downtown observer and consultant, David Milder, sent me a note concluding that improving the street vending problems in New York City is impossible. My response to that was that while improving the vending situation was complex and difficult it was by no means hopeless. If someone were to take on the task, had the capacity to keep at it over a period of years, and some resources to contribute to whatever solution might be worked out – eventually they were likely to be successful. Folks can say no a million times, I wrote David, but you only need them to say yes once. This was certainly the case with all of the streetscape issues we faced at the midtown Manhattan business improvement districts in the 90s. Continue reading

Vending: The Platonic Form

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What’s Possible

Despite the doom and gloom of my last post, the possibility of improving the regulation of vending does exist. In the most recent session of the City Council, Intro. 1301-2016 was proposed (http://legistar.council.nyc.gov/LegislationDetail.aspx?ID=2858236&GUID=EFEAD05C-4A4E-47E3-ACDA-ADEAA0FB3F2A&Options=ID%7cText%7c&Search=vending), a report was issued and a hearing was held. The Council’s press release summarized the bill’s provisions and the Council’s objectives in proposing it (http://labs.council.nyc/press/2016/10/11/124/). The upshot of the legislation is to double the number of food vendor permits. No action has yet been taken by the Council on the bill. The precatory language of the bill, and the language of the press release reflect the substantial interest on the part of Council members in promoting vending and the limited recognition of or interest in the negative impact vending has on downtown revitalization efforts. Continue reading

Selling on the Sidewalk

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When I went to work for Grand Central Partnership among my first assignments from Dan Biederman was to figure out how to deal with sidewalk issues: vending, newsracks, newsstands, payphones and making public toilets more available. In dense urban centers sidewalks, while public space, are highly contested territory, and the regulation of activity on them in New York City is arcane and labyrinthine. Not only pedestrians care about sidewalks. Adjacent property owners not only have responsibility for cleaning and maintaining their sidewalks, but they care about what happens in front of their multi-million dollar investments; particularly with its impact on ground floor retail. In midtown Manhattan, many buildings have vaults under the sidewalks that expand their basement space – and so are concerned about how much weight is put on them and whether anyone is punching holes in them.

A range of people have traditionally engaged in commercial activity on the New York City sidewalks – and these uses are heavily, if often ineffectually, regulated. There are separate governing schemes for four kinds of sidewalk venders: general merchandise, food, veterans and first amendment vendors. The Department of Parks and Recreation has its own scheme for concessioning venders within city parks as well as on adjacent sidewalks, and even sidewalks across the street from a park! The City permits individuals to erect newsstands at any sidewalk location that meets certain siting criteria – with no discretion by the City with respect to the location. If the proposed structure fits – the applicant is entitled to a permit. The Department of Transportation manages the enforcement of some (but not all) of these rules and is ultimately responsible for the physical condition of the sidewalks and with seeing to it that sidewalk uses don’t interfere with transportation (bus stops) or public safety (fire hydrants). Continue reading

The Solstice, Christmas, York and Place

 

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York and the Minster

In the last couple of years, the time and place that have had the most profound impact on me have been York, England at 5:15 P.M. At that time each day at York Minster, the cathedral in that small, northern English city, Choral Evensong is sung – as it has been for hundreds of years. Sitting in the choir (the location near the center of the church where the service takes place) during Evensong brings a deep sense of well-being: in a spot where the same transcendent thing happens every day, as it has from at least the time of Henry VIII. Continue reading