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
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
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
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
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
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
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
The number of Business Improvement Districts has expanded greatly over the last twenty years, both in New York City and nationally. There are now close to 1,000 BIDs in the US, with over 60 in New York, and more in the pipeline. The focus of most BIDs is what’s been labeled “Clean & Safe.” Following the model we set up at Grand Central Partnership, they provide staff to sweep the sidewalks and curbs and empty trash baskets. Larger BIDs also tend to provide unarmed private security services on sidewalks within the district, and often those staff members are trained to provide directions and other tourist information. While at GCP, as well as in Bryant Park and 34th Street Partnership we hired and trained our own staff to provide these services, many small BIDs, and even some larger ones contract out to third-party providers for this work.
Data from the Furman Center indicate that while larger BIDs have a significant effect on commercial property values, smaller BIDs in New York City lack sufficient resources to make much of an impact (http://furmancenter.org/files/publications/FurmanCenterBIDsBrief.pdf ). The Furman Report questions the efficacy of the creation of small organizations, much of whose budgets is necessarily spent on administration, and in recent years, it has been smaller BIDs that have been started in New York. This was certainly my experience in Downtown Jamaica, Queens, which has three BIDS, two of which are quite small. None of the three can afford to maintain a security program, and even the largest of them finds itself with very limited resources, given the magnitude of the challenges with which it has been tasked. Continue reading
Cutting edge thinking among urbanists and the progressive development community is that American consumers are tired of the covered shopping mall and are seeking a return to the walkable downtown retail experience – or that’s what one hears at the Urban Land Institute and the International Downtown Association (David Milder’s blog analyzing retail trends on medium and small-sized city downtowns is required reading towards this end: http://www.ndavidmilder.com/blog). But, what makes the experience of being on Main Street great? What would make it better? What do we enjoy about being there? What opportunities does this create for aging Downtowns across the country? Continue reading
A serious challenge facing public space managers is people living in and engaging in antisocial behavior in public spaces. This seems to be a particular issue for cities on the west coast, including Los Angeles, San Francisco and Eugene, Oregon. The situation is raising a raft of crosscutting concerns about individual rights, the causes of economic disadvantage in our country today, the sensitivities of upper-middle class urbanites and our society’s stubborn unwillingness to assist those suffering from serious mental health issues, including substance abuse. Conflicting interests and ideologies play out in policy discussions about how public spaces are governed and managed.
Successful restoration of social control to public spaces is not about enforcement. The apparent decline in the quality of the public space experience in the second half of the 20th century was driven almost entirely by how safe people felt they were on sidewalks and in parks. Many felt that the public realm of shared space was out of social control, and as a result, they feared for their physical safety. Some of this fear may have been exaggerated or even incorrect, driven by race- and class-bound assumptions and stereotypes. But even if the threat was not real, the perception of it kept people from visiting, working, shopping in or investing in public places perceived to be unsafe. Much of the success of improved public spaces over the last two decades has been based on improving those perceptions – making public spaces feel safer by employing “broken-windows” management (discouraging low-level disorder and providing high-quality, detail-oriented maintenance) and placemaking practice. Continue reading