Tag Archives: place

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

Selling on the Sidewalk

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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

Advent, Le Chemin de St. Jacques, Ste. Foy, Conques and the Essentialness of Place

 

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The Way — from Le Puy to Santiago

For more than a thousand years people have been walking from all over Europe to Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain. What it is about this place that has drawn people to it for centuries? Clearly the idea of “place” must have an incredible hold on the human imagination to draw so many people to a small city featuring an architecturally undistinguished cathedral over such an extended period of time. Not only has the city of Santiago called to millions of pilgrims over the centuries, but the Way itself, the route and the many cities and villages along it, exert their own powerful force on people.

Santiago de Compostela means Saint James of the Field of Stars. The legend goes that in the 9th Century a Spanish hermit, following the guidance of a field of stars, discovered the relics of the Apostle James in a cave near the Spanish coast. The veneration of those relics in the church where they came to rest is the goal of the pilgrims of the Way. Saint James became a particular object of veneration because he was believed to have intervened on behalf of Christian crusaders fighting to evict the Muslims (Santiago Matamoras – St. James the slayer of Moors), who had created a great culture of their own during the Middle Ages from the Iberian Peninsula. Continue reading