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
The 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
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
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
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
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