Tag Archives: downtown

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

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

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

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

Pissing On Sidewalks

 

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Pink Granite

If your organization has unlimited resources and wants to spend tens of millions of dollars on surface treatments, go ahead and make my (and your contractor’s) day! But in my experience just about the least effective, most expensive thing you can spend your public space improvement/downtown revitalization money on is distinctive sidewalks, signature corners, curb cuts, crosswalks and inset plaques. Nobody notices them. Nobody looks down. And this was true even before people’s’ eyeballs became glued to their phones. These fancy capital improvements create unnecessary maintenance issues. For some reason a lot of groups think they haven’t done anything unless they’ve spent tons of money on hardscape. But that’s not what makes space users perceive public places as great. Here’s another example of where programming and maintenance are more important than design and construction. That money is better spent on a fully blown-out horticulture program – which people WILL notice and which DOES improve the perception of public space. Continue reading