I have just contracted with Rutgers University Press for the publication of What Works: Placemaking in Bryant Park. Revitalizing Cities, Towns and Public Spaces in the Spring of 2019. I am so fortunate to be working with the experienced publishing professionals Peter Mikulas and Micah Kleit on this project.
It is hugely satisfying for me that Professor Patrick Sharkey’s important new book, “Uneasy Peace” concludes something that I have long suspected: in big cities across the country, violence has fallen as a result of the revitalization of public spaces by non-governmental organizations. Professor Sharkey, the Chair of the Sociology Department at NYU, argues that it has not been aggressive policing alone that produced the urban revolution of 1990’s, but rather the reestablishment of order in public spaces made a major contribution to the perception of public safety downtown.
My sense has long been that our work in the revitalization of Bryant Park (with its sister BIDs, Grand Central Partnership and 34th Street Partnership), along with that of the Central Park Conservancy in Central Park, was at the forefront of changing perceptions about urban public space. What the implementation of the “Broken Windows” philosophy as articulated by George Kelling and William Bratton is really about is high quality maintenance and programming in public space (fixing the broken windows) along with the presence of private, unarmed security personnel, rather than the kind of aggressive policing that produced the deeply intrusive and out of proportion “stop and frisk” policy that came to an end with the return of Bratton as police commissioner under Mayor Bill De Blasio. In my view, that kind of aggressive police engagement with the community is both dysfunctional and a distortion of what “broken windows” is really about. Continue reading →
A rendering of the proposed redesigned Pier 55. Heatherwick Studios
The decades-long saga of Hudson River Park recently took another twist when prominent philanthropists withdrew their promised gift of as much as $250 million to the park for a new facility citing prolonged litigation as making the project no longer viable (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/13/nyregion/diller-hudson-river-pier.html). The Park’s story began with a proposed sub-surface Westside highway topped by commercial development and a park. The plan was opposed by a historic lawsuit challenging the environmental impacts of the project (https://openjurist.org/732/f2d/253/sierra-club-v-united-states-army-corps-of-engineers-c). The most recent episode ended, at least in part as a result of litigation (involving some of the same individuals, half a century later) citing the process by which a proposed replacement for the decaying Pier 55 was approved.
Like many recent disputes about the development of public space, the issues arose in large part out of attempts to generate income to support the operation of a new park. Considering itself stretched for resources to manage its portfolio of existing properties, the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) is loath to take on continuing responsibility for new public space without a dedicated income stream for maintenance and operations. Most of the largest recent park development projects have called for economic activity generated on parkland to pay for their operations (i.e., Brooklyn Bridge Park). The City’s inability/unwillingness to dedicate sufficient resources to maintain operate and program its parks is essentially a political problem of prioritization, and to some degree of imagination of what the benefit of a fully funded parks program might be like. The DPR budget is almost $500 million out of an $82 billion total city expense budget. Given the political forces involved, most people concerned with New York City’s public spaces take the existing level of funding more or less as a given. In the twenty-five years I have been involved in public space management in New York City I have never heard a serious discussion of a material increase in DPR operating funds. This leaves new facilities like the High Line, Governor’s Island and Hudson River Park (HRP) scraping around to find sufficient money to maintain their physical plant as well as for operations and programming. Continue reading →
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 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 →
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 →
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 →
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 →
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 →