Delivering Compassion to the Homeless

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Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis

Hennepin Avenue in downtown Minneapolis has a lot going for it. Its anchor institution is the Hennepin Theatre Trust, which runs three of the historic theaters on the street. It also has a number of dining and hospitality options. There are some wonderful facades of early twentieth century structures. It is also a block from the Nicollet Mall, one of the first urban revitalization/pedestrianization projects of which I am aware. Construction on a rebuilding of the Mall is in the completion phase. The city’s Department of Public Works is now in the planning stages for a similar reconstruction of Hennepin.

On a recent visit to the Twin Cities at the invitation of the Trust I learned that the perception of safety in Downtown Minneapolis and specifically on Hennepin is poor. A good deal of this negative perception seems to be driven by a sense that the street is “overwhelmed” by homeless individuals, clients of local social service providers, occupying the public spaces of the street. In fact, an attendant at a parking lot in the neighborhood told me that working there was “bad” and that he was often required to break up fights that take place on the sidewalk adjacent to the lot. Continue reading

Housing Market Myths and Truths

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The Moda development on Parsons Blvd in Jamaica. A model of mixed-income housing — with a 50/30/20 affordable housing mix. 20% of the units are low-income and 30 % are market rate.

The New York Times recently reported that the Federal Low Income Housing Tax Credit Program (LIHTC) has promoted rather than reduced the racial and economic segregation of housing. (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/02/us/federal-housing-assistance-urban-racial-divides.html.) This should not come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the program’s requirements. There are programs and incentives that increase diversity– but the LIHTC does the opposite by design! It subsidizes only housing for very low-income people, and incentivizes the construction of housing in low-income areas. The LIHTC program by its structure produces economic and racial segregation.

The idea behind the program is to spur housing production for the most economically distressed by requiring that the income requirements for residents be set at a very low cap on family income. In order to provide a preference to low-income people, it also gives increased benefits for housing built in neighborhoods that already house low-income families. This produces the effect of segregating those with the lowest incomes both by building and by neighborhood. Continue reading

The Triumph of The Creative Class

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“On The Staten Island Ferry Looking Toward Manhattan (L’Embarquement Pour Cythere)” Richard Estes – Louis K. Meisel Gallery

The New Urban Crisis: How Our Cities Are Increasing Inequality, Deepening Segregation, and Failing the Middle Class—and What We Can Do About It

By: Richard Florida

Perhaps no writer has had a greater impact on the thinking and practice of downtown revitalization than Richard Florida. With “The Rise of the Creative Class” in 2002, Florida created a paradigm shift in how we talk about the changing nature of the urban core. At the time, a professor in Pittsburgh, Florida identified a movement of young artists and knowledge workers back to center cities and noted that those cities that were attracting creative people were experiencing an increased uptick in economic activity. As a result, there was a rush by cities of all sizes across the country to adopt strategies to attract highly educated young professionals to their downtowns – like the adaptive reuse of abandoned formerly industrial buildings as working and living spaces. Florida’s ideas became the common currency of real estate developers and mayors.

Now writing from his post at the University of Toronto, Florida’s new book argues that the rebirth of cities around the country and across the world has actually created a crisis of affordability and inequality. Cities have become theme parks for the rich and have failed to create upward mobility for the poor. Florida has a sophisticated view of “gentrification.” He looks at the data and does not see much displacement of lower-income families actually happening, but he reviews mountains of data and describes what he calls “winner-take-all” urbanism which benefits an elite group of the highly educated and makes life increasingly difficult for the less well off who face long commutes, a lack of essential services and a lower quality of life. Outside of the North America and Europe, Florida sees a massive movement of the poor to cities without even basic infrastructure. He describes the construction of massive favelas made up of poorly constructed, minimal housing where residents live in grinding poverty. Continue reading

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