Wal-Mart v. Downtown

An interesting piece appeared in Better! Cities & Towns today, designed to get everyone thinking about how highly dense, mixed use developments common to downtowns help support the tax base:

An analysis by Joseph Minicozzi of Urban3 in Asheville, North Carolina, shows that on a per-acre basis, dense, mixed-use development far outstrips the value of lower density, single-use development — even profitable big box stores.

The article explains:

In the dozen communities (surveyed), a Wal-Mart on a large outlying site generated $7 per acre in property taxes, while a shopping mall or strip center produced slightly more: $7.80 per acre. By contrast, denser, more urban kinds of development provided much greater financial returns for their communities. Two-story, mixed-use development generated $53.70 in property taxes per acre. Three-story mixed-use generated $105.80 in taxes per acre. Six-story mixed-use was best of all: $415 per acre.

Minicozzi chose property taxes to compare because they are collected in both counties and cities and are more consistent across cities than school taxes. However, a vast majority of cities are also funded through sales taxes, making big box stores (and retailers in general) easy bets for cities looking to increase revenues. Unfortunately, these retailers are not the best for providing full time jobs with good salaries and benefits. It’s a constant struggle for cities. How do you increase city revenues while still attracting good jobs?

Why do we insist on Bradford Pears?

Spring’s come early to our city and the Bradford pears are in full bloom. As I was walking to work the other day, I couldn’t help but think how lovely they were to look at. But the smell was something else entirely.

Bradford pear trees on Coffee Street in downtown Greenville 

Bradfords were first developed in the early 1960’s and for the next few decades were promoted heavily in downtowns and other urban areas as landscape trees, largely due to their resistance to disease and their ability to withstand pollution.

Clearly, this was an era where cities were designed for cars, rather than cyclists or pedestrians. How else could a city planner, in all good conscience, plant such stinky trees along all our city sidewalks? As for me, I’m now detouring around the Bradfords and walking to work past the community garden instead.

Naturally Occurring Arts Districts

Oftentimes, when people are busy making the big plans, everyone else is working on the little plan.

Over the decades, a number of brainstorming sessions were held by our city’s Convention and Visitors Bureau to see if a cultural district could be created somewhere in the downtown area. Overall, a great discussion to have, and one that sparked a lot of thought in the community about the importance of supporting local artists.

Initial discussion revolved around a large cultural arts center that would serve as an anchor to the area. Later discussions focused on how to create an area akin to Granville Island in Vancouver. Of course, Granville Island was a former industrial site into which the federal government poured nearly $20 million in development funds.

Granville Island

Although Granville is a wonderful destination for tourists and locals alike, not every city has the resources to create something on this scale. In fact, it could be argued that large, complex developments such as this are extremely risky to the developers or the municipality investing in the project.

We were all thinking big but it as it turns out, thinking small may have been the key to the success of our new arts area downtown–the North Village Arts District.

Lately, a lot of talk in the arts community has centered around Naturally Occurring Cultural Districts. Urbanonmibus.net interviewed two people highly involved in helping these types of arts districts develop organically.

According to Tamara Greenfield, Executive Director of Fourth Arts Block in NYC:

A Naturally Occurring Cultural (or Arts) District is distinguished by both its origins and organization. A NOCD (for lack of better term) supports existing neighborhood cultural assets rather than imposing arts institutions somewhere new. Traditional cultural districts are often used as a promotional tool to import visitors to a downtown shopping or commercial district and are generally centered on large institutions. The difference is important because each idea represents a distinct set of public values about what’s important to cities and what’s worth supporting. Understanding NOCDs can provide a framework to recognize and support a more inclusive, equitable vision of a neighborhood’s culture.

Caron Atlas, organizer with the Arts + Community Change Initiative, points out that:

If a cultural district has emerged ‘naturally,’ then it grows from, builds on and validates existing community assets rather than importing assets from outside a community.

Instead of developing a master plan for the creation of an arts district centered around a large-scale cultural institution, ours got off the ground through a combination of market forces and dedicated individuals. About the time Mark Timberlake purchased an abandoned roofing warehouse on the north edge of The District, I had been fielding calls from local artists looking for affordable studio space. He listened to this crazy idea and immediately set out to research it more–talking to artists and other groups to determine if it was actually feasible. Turns out, it was.

Orr Street Studios

Mark’s efforts spurred the arts community to action as well as inspired other property owners in the area, namely John Ott, to develop arts-related spaces and to recruit artists and creative professionals to the area. These folks have become the core influencers of the arts district and are largely responsible for its current success.

The Berry Building

The result is that our downtown has an arts district that occurred naturally, and in a way that truly reflects our community. We have artist studios and galleries but the area is also home to a number of creative professionals as well as a grocery specializing in local foods and several live music venues. It’s unclear if a larger master plan could have predicted what the community needed as well as the community itself did. And most importantly, the fact that it’s grown organically over time bodes well for its long term success.

Enhanced Enterprise Zone FAQ

The Columbia City Council will soon be reviewing a new program designed to bring jobs into Columbia called the Enhanced Enterprise Zone program. Below are some commonly asked questions regarding the program. Work on this program is being done by the city’s economic development office, or REDI, and questions can also be directed to their offices at [email protected].

What is an Enhanced Enterprise Zone?
An Enhanced Enterprise Zone (EEZ) is a state program designed to create jobs, particularly in areas with high unemployment and low income. The program offers a combination of state tax credits and a partial abatement of local property taxes to new or expanding businesses that create good jobs in targeted industries.

Currently, 118 other communities in Missouri have EEZs. That means that every time we try to bring a new company into Columbia, we’re competing against neighboring cities that can offer this state incentive as an added inducement.

What types of businesses qualify?
Columbia decides what types of businesses it would like to encourage (state law prohibits some businesses from applying such as retail shops, restaurants, educational facilities and gambling establishments.)

Manufacturing is a clear choice. We can work to attract the next Quaker Oats and we can also help local manufacturers expand. We’ve got folks manufacturing everything from frozen pizza to microbrews to chocolate and we’d love to help them grow their companies.

Creative and professional businesses are also an option. Information services, software companies, computer programming services, Internet publishers, telecommunications firms, motion picture and video industries, engineering and life sciences development, media buyers, advertising agencies, consulting firms and more would all be eligible. These are knowledge-based jobs with good salaries that will help us retain our recent college graduates.

Arts, entertainment and recreation could also be included. Theater and dance companies, hotels and conference centers, museums, and historic sites will all help spur the economy—especially in the downtown area—and will also help attract tourists to Columbia.

What do companies have to do to qualify?
Generally, a company has to make a significant financial investment (minimum $100,000 in a new or expanded facility), create 2 new jobs at a certain salary level, and pay for at least 50% of the employees’ health insurance costs.  A company that makes an investment in only personal property (ie, computers, technology upgrades, vehicles, etc.) would be eligible for just the state tax credits while a company making an investment in real property, such as building or expanding a facility, would also be eligible for a limited property tax abatement.

How does the property tax abatement work?
The abatement is 50% on new investment for a period of 10 years, so it doesn’t impact the amount currently collected by the taxing authorities. Obviously, the taxing authorities would also receive the other 50% of  the new investment.

In addition, Columbia can decide to increase the percentage abated in order to encourage certain types of business practices. For instance, a company that builds and operates “green” could receive an increase in abatements and in return, the city would have less of a drain on its energy resources.

Which areas of the city will be eligible? 
The goal is to bring companies into current priority areas such as Discovery Ridge, Route B, the Business Loop, and downtown.  These areas are already zoned for manufacturing or commercial and have sites that are available now.

How is the zone created?
Because the goal is to bring jobs into areas with high unemployment and low income, the zone is based on information collected on federal census blocks (from 2000; census blocks based on the 2010 census won’t be finalized until 2013).  The entire zone has to meet state guidelines for high unemployment and low income so it’s possible that some development areas are excluded because they bring the overall income of the zone over the state limit.

The zone also has to be contiguous. That means that in order to create a zone that includes all the city’s development priorities, a good portion of Columbia must be included. There’s just no easy way to draw a circle around just Route B, the Business Loop and Discovery Ridge—and also include downtown, which is right in the middle of the city.

Finally, federal census blocks don’t mirror local zoning designations or individual parcels; you have to include everything in the census blocks within the zone. So in order to include downtown, for instance, some adjacent residential must be included as well because they’re all in the same census block.

Does that mean someone could put a factory in my backyard?
An EEZ does nothing to change city zoning, the role of the Planning and Zoning Commission, or the City Council’s role in guiding how development happens in Columbia.

In order to construct a commercial building or manufacturing plant in a residential area, the developer would have to ignore the many shovel ready sites currently available in town, buy up a tract of homes, tear them down, battle the neighbors, convince City Council to change the zoning laws….well, you get the picture. The EEZ is designed to make the current industrial and commercial sites more attractive to new and expanding businesses.

What’s all this about blight?
Because so many state programs are designed to help out areas that are struggling in some way, a designation of “distress” or “blight” is common. The goal of an EEZ is to bring jobs into areas that have high unemployment and low income, thus the state requires this designation.

When someone says their junky neighbor’s property is “blighted’ because an old car is sitting on blocks in the driveway, that carries a very different meaning than when the state designates something as blighted. Again, the state is looking at employment, income, out-dated infrastructure and so forth. To put this in perspective, the Country Club Plaza in Kansas City was designated as blighted so they could receive incentives to build a new parking garage.

(Note: TIFs can have a designation of “blight” or “conservation.” A conservation area is not yet a blighted area but is detrimental to the public health, safety, morals, or welfare and may become a blighted area because of dilapidation; obsolescence; deterioration illegal use of individual structures; presence of structures below minimum code standards; abandonment; excessive vacancies;overcrowding of structures and community facilities; lack of ventilation, light or sanitary facilities; inadequate utilities; excessive land coverage; deleterious land use or layout; depreciation of physical maintenance; and lack of community planning.)

Does a blight designation affect my property values?
No, this has not proven to be the case. For instance, Rolla has had an EEZ since 1981 with no decrease in property values.

Over the years, large portions of Columbia—including downtown—have already been designated by the state as “historically underutilized,” “distressed,” “severely distressed,” and “blighted.” Despite this, investment in downtown has steadily increased and property values have risen. What we’ve found is that people looking to invest in an area react positively to the state incentive, not to whatever designation the state has placed on the area. The State Historic Tax Credit program is a great example of this. Developers were drawn to downtown to fix up old buildings because this incentive existed, leading to an increase in the value of everyone’s property.

Does an EEZ lead to eminent domain?
No. An EEZ and eminent domain are not connected. In fact, the city can condemn property right now for public use. An EEZ will make that neither more nor less likely.

Also, Missouri passed a law a while back in response to Kelo v. City of New London that prohibits condemnation for solely economic development purposes (ie, the shopping mall in Kelo) and also requires a parcel by parcel designation of blight rather than an area designation of blight for any condemnation.

What’s the process for approving the EEZ?
Preliminary work on the EEZ was done by a REDI subcommittee. The goal was to determine if an EEZ was indeed a feasible option for Columbia, develop a draft map of the zone to establish if Columbia was eligible, and make a recommendation to Council to move forward on the planning process.

The City Council has appointed a committee to finalize the list of targeted businesses and the map for the EEZ.  This committee is holding a series of public meetings on March 9 and March 16 at 10 a.m. in City Hall.  REDI will also host a public information session on the issue on Tuesday, March 6 at 5:00 p.m. in the Council Chambers of City Hall. The Downtown Community Improvement District Board will address the EEZ on March 13. The EEZ proposal is due to Council for final approval in April.

Planning for the People

John Cleese, who played the inept hotel manager in the English television show Fawlty Towers, once described his character as someone who “could run this hotel just fine, if it weren’t for the guests.”

It raises a chuckle in the context of sitcoms but when it comes to urban planning, this sentiment can be all too common. I was taken aback recently by someone who pointed out that his organization could create a good downtown plan–provided they did not have to answer to downtown property owners, business owners, or residents. As if a few well-drawn maps collected in a binder could be considered a plan.

This attitude is more common that one would think–a single individual contacting my office, hoping to bypass the messy process of dealing with the public, asking me to simply “make something happen.” They’re forgetting that if the public isn’t on board–and I mean ready to act and invest–there is no plan. What you have is a collection of maps in a binder.

Planning is about much more than ideas–it’s about implementation. And implementation requires you actually work with property owners, business owners, and residents. Planning is about encouraging property owners to take a leap of faith on a development project. It’s about helping promote someone else’s great idea for a business. And it’s about pushing obstacles out of the way of someone who’s moving in the right direction.

Like Cleese’s hapless hotel manager, a “downtown planner” may find it much simpler to get his work done without the public getting in his way. But, like Fawlty Towers, will anyone want to visit in the end?

Restoring the Downtown Street Grid

Sometime in the next year, Austin will be adding nine new streets to their downtown, restoring the street grid and fixing what is called a “transportation dead zone.” According to the Austin American Statesman:

(Director of the Downtown Austin Alliance Charlie) Betts noted that adding streets reverses what has been a sporadic trend of the downtown grid losing pieces of streets over the past several decades, including Colorado Street in front of the Governor’s Mansion, East Ninth Street between Trinity Street and San Jacinto Boulevard at a federal office complex, and San Antonio Street at the Travis County Courthouse and just east of what will be the new federal courthouse. 

“The expansion of the grid has high value to the community,” Betts said. “It gives some additional options for people to come into and exit from the central business district.”

We have a similar problem here in Columbia where the traditional downtown street grid has been slowly deconstructed, usually for development projects that seem worthy at the time. Or, put differently, for projects that make sense only within the confines of the property line.

This is especially true on the northern side of downtown. A rail line running into downtown effectively shuts off the northeast quadrant from the surrounding neighborhoods. A large-scale federal housing project shut down more streets to the north under the mistaken belief that the residential neighborhood would be better off without people passing through to reach the city’s central core. A later development project closed an entire city block to create a public square. The few streets that are still open dead end at a college. Now, people exiting downtown to the north must travel down a narrow, one-way road through a residential block.

A narrow, one-way residential street serves as one of the few
northern exits from downtown.

And this is not the only example. People exiting to the east–many of them students from the university–must also take a narrow, one-way road out, this time one that passes by a busy elementary school.

Even with this logistical nightmare, two other plans to close off streets connecting to the north side of downtown were proposed by government officials–one to create another public square and another to build a large parking garage. Thankfully, plans for the first were abandoned and city officials were persuaded to build a parking garage that spanned the street in the case of the second.

Unfortunately, it’s easier to identify problems with the street grid than to fix them. Austin is building the new streets through land occupied by a newly decommissioned power plant and water treatment facility, solving the sticky problem of land acquisition. Still, the construction itself will hit nearly $25 million.

That said, I’m still fairly convinced that restoring our street grid starts with major downtown institutions gaining a larger understanding of the fabric of downtown, and an understanding of how people actually travel into and across our central city. All too often, large institutions–government, university and even private property owners–create plans that end at the property line, failing to understand that a single piece of property is a merely link in a much larger chain.

Urban Archaeology and Ghost Hotels

If you’ve ever remodeled your kitchen, you may have an inkling what it’s like to renovate an historic building. Rehabs often take longer than planned because you simply don’t know what you’re going to find once you remove the drywall.

But what if the thing you find is a historic hotel?

In Orange, California, just west of the Plaza, stands an unassuming stucco storefront with a sign announcing the offices of “Ex-Mormans for Jesus.” It’s definitely not a historic storefront. In fact, much of the block lacks the historic character of the others radiating out from the Circle. What makes this section of the block different, however, is that a 125-year-old hotel lies hidden, like a Russian nesting doll, within the more modern building.

Passersby don’t notice the hotel–I grew up in Orange and as many times as I walked through the Plaza, I certainly never did.  The folks at Haunted Orange, though, show that the rooftop is just visible from across the street.

Why has this hidden gem come to light now?  Wahoo’s Fish Tacos has purchased the space–and the hidden Vineland Hotel–and plans a full renovation. They’ll eventually use the building for corporate offices.
According to a report from their architect, Martin Eli Weil, the Vineland was originally built in 1886 as a private residence and was converted to a boarding house in 1888. It underwent numerous additions including, in 1917, the addition of the commercial storefronts in the original front lawn. (Okay, so it appears that these stucco storefronts have, at minimum, met the age requirements for a historic building. That said, it’s still not enough to save them from the wrecking ball.)
The new owners certainly have their work cut out for them (check out Haunted Orange’s website for some truly scary before photos.) No matter what they expect, those of us who’ve done remodels of our own know that there might be much more than a hotel hidden under all that siding and drywall. Regardless of what they may find, we wish them the best of luck with their project.


Tea Party v. Smart Growth

I just read an absolutely fascinating article by Anthony Flint in The Atlantic Cities about how Tea Party Activists, in the name of aggressively smaller government, are working to undermine long held smart growth principles.

Flint describes the scene:

Across the country, Tea Party activists have been storming planning meetings of all kinds, opposing various plans by local and regional government having anything to do with density, smart growth, sustainability or urbanism.

In California,Tea Partiers collected enough signatures to place a repeal of the state’s baseline environmental regulations on the ballot. Activists in Florida successfully upended the state’s growth management legislation. In Virginia, they’re are working against a much needed, 5-year comprehensive plan.

He continues:

What’s prompting the ire is anything from a proposed master plan to a new water treatment plant, rules governing septic tanks, or a bike-sharing program. What’s driving the rebellion is a view that government should have no role in planning or shaping the built environment that in any way interferes with private property rights.

According to the Gainesville Tea Party:

 Radical environmentalists, local business groups, and the ever-present Not in My Backyard crowd have been trying for decades to reshape American communities to conform to their preferred “smart growth” policies. These advocates work to impose land use regulations that would force Americans into denser living arrangements, curtail freedom of choice in housing, discriminate against lower-income Americans, and compel people to pay more for their houses and give up their cars in favor of subways, trolleys, buses, and bicycles.

I find it fascinating that the things I think are pre-requisites for strong downtowns–high density housing, public transportation, and even bike lanes–are viewed, not just with derision, but as some sort of communist plot against suburbia.

How Public Spaces Succeed

Last week, I talked about the ways a public space can fail. The obvious question, then, is, “what can bring this space back to life?”

Here are a couple of suggestions, many of which are already being acted upon in regards to the public square here in my home town:

  1. Keep up with maintenance and repairs. A touch of urban decay shows that an area is actually being used but obvious neglect can create a downward spiral. I once lived in a neighborhood with a crumbling, inoperative fountain at its entrance and regardless of how well the houses were maintained, it sent a certain message to passersby. If no one is taking care of the space, why should individual members of the public work to do so? In the case of this square, crews are working on repairs the pavement and that should help the overall look of the area. At the very least, it should demonstrate that people still take pride in this space.
  2. Repurpose the space. Our community is justifiably proud of our private adaptive reuse projects. An old roofing company becomes art studios. An abandoned railway station is now a restaurant. Buildings gain new life with new uses. Reworking one of the fountains in this square to create a series of community gardens is a clever way to change the use and the feel of the area, but what else can be done? Can the amphitheater be used for outdoor movies? Can the open space be turned into an outdoor patio with tables and chairs? What about adapting the landscape into a botanical garden?
  3. Encourage informal gatherings. As I mentioned before, relying on programming to bring life to a space is not enough–a great public space needs activity even when nothing official is happening. All these adaptive reuse ideas are ways to bring people into the space on their own. For instance, both our city hall and our library have coffee bars in their lobby. Combine this with cafe tables, potted flowers, and a kiosk for public announcements and you have an instant, people-friendly space. These simple moves mean that more people are hanging out there–and in this case, “hanging out” is just what’s needed. 
  4. Listen to the people. I’ve often found that consultants become so enamored with the the structure of a space, they forget about the public. I’ve been to numerous meetings where a consultant says, “this is the perfect space for a festival or a farmer’s market” while neglecting the fact that these activities may already be established elsewhere. Spaces should be designed to be successful right out of the box. We need to ask–what makes other spaces in our city successful? What do people in our city like to do? How can we make that activity more pleasant for them? After all, isn’t that the ultimate goal of all public spaces?

How Public Spaces Fail

About 15 or so years ago, a massive community effort was launched in our city to close a section of a street running by the historic County Courthouse. The goal? A traditional public square. The idea was to have a gathering place in the downtown area, one that could be used for festivals, concerts and other community events.

Walking through the square on a mild September afternoon, I could see that the reality wasn’t quite matching the dream. The two fountains were non-operational, the sidewalk was cracking along the decorative pavers and worst of all, it was completely empty.

It’s about 5:30 on a weekday and this public space is empty.

The sidewalk is cracking and the fountain itself is not operational.
A second fountain is inoperative as well and filled with leaves and moss.
There are many reasons why a public space fails–here’s just a few:
  1. Relying on programming to add activity to a space. The worst thing a city can do is rely on a city employee or non-profit group to create a never-ending stream of events designed to draw people to the area. We’ve got streets in our downtown that are always full of activity–but naturally occurring activities like shopping, people-watching and just generally hanging out.
  2. Failing to create a maintenance fund. Fountains are notoriously touchy and often need maintenance. And in climates known for weather involving frosts, thaws and refreezing, pavers and other decorative sidewalk elements don’t always make it. (To their credit, they’ve got someone out there fixing the cracks in the sidewalk.)
  3. Ignoring the micro climate of the space. This is an open space designed for activities but the design makes it problematic in another way. There are trees off to the side but the bulk of the space is open concrete that’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It needs to be a perfect day for someone to truly enjoy sitting out on one of those benches. 
  4. Closing off the street to cars. One of the great downtown debates involves pedestrian malls. They work in some areas but in my home state of California, turning downtowns into pedestrian-only malls only served to kill some great downtowns. Cars add activity and driving past a business helps remind people it’s there. Turning a street into a pedestrian mall has to work with the community; you can’t force one on a community.
  5. Forgetting that people need something to do. It’s your lunch break, is this the place you choose to go? Of course not. Nothing is happening here. No sidewalk vendors, no pedestrians, and nothing to look at.

The good news here? There’s still some active programming so the space isn’t lost–festival and concerts still occur here. And this just in–the long fountain running the length of the walkway may be turned into a community garden. What a great, out-of-the-box idea and a good way to make over a downtown space that’s currently underutilized. I can’t wait for tomato season.