Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Join LOA Principal Larisa Ortiz for a Discussion with Alan Mallach, Author of "The Divided City: Poverty and Prosperity in Urban America"

Discussions about poverty are never far from the work that we do at LOA, especially when working in distressed urban communities where jobs are few and far between and where business owners struggle to make ends meet. Despite these challenges, we are always inspired by the communities where we work, and in particular the residents and community leaders who continue to take action and find ways to make their neighborhoods better places. So what are the challenges and solutions to persistent poverty at the neighborhood level? And is "gentrification" a red herring that keeps us from recognizing the mounting problems of communities that may never see the arrival of higher income residents? These are questions with which we grapple on a daily basis. 

This is why I am particularly excited to join author, advocate and Professor Alan Mallach to discuss his new book, The Divided City, Poverty and Prosperity in Urban America on June 25th at the Century Foundation in Lower Manhattan. Other speakers include Professor Laura Wolf-Powers of Hunter College's Department of Urban Policy and Planning and Joseph Della Fave, Executive Director of Ironbound Community Corporation in Newark, NJ. 

As I dig into this book I found it to be a great read, offering historical context and deep insight into the urban challenges currently facing many post-industrial cities. For those looking for solutions to the challenges facing "magnet" cities like New York, Washington DC or San Francisco, cities that often dominate the headlines with concerns about the rapid influx of high income residents displacing those with lesser means, look elsewhere. This book is about "legacy" cities like Youngstown, OH, Trenton, NJ and Buffalo, NY, where job growth and economic development continue to lag - and where persistent and concentrated poverty continues to relegate generations of poor (often black and brown) people to cycles of poverty from which escape is increasingly unlikely. These places also happen to be places where we have worked and partnered with Community Development Corporations, Community Development Intermediaries, and local government to identify asset-based solutions to neighborhoods that struggle to retain jobs and businesses for local residents. It promises to be a lively discussion so I hope you will join us!

For tickets please click here. This event is sponsored by the Regional Plan Association and  The Century Foundation. The event will be held at 1 Whitehall Street, 15th Floor, New York, NY 10004 on June 25th from 5:30 - 7:30 pm. 

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Is Your Post Office Being a Good Neighbor?

In many communities, the local Post Office remains a critical Main Street anchor. Often located in the heart of a community, it drives visitation and pedestrian traffic throughout the day. As a result, the condition of the local post office can play a significant role in how a district is perceived. Post Office assets are often imposing civic institutions. Maintaining these key assets and ensuring they have a positive impact on local business districts is often a key component of successful community and commercial revitalization efforts.

About a year ago we completed an assessment and corridor plan for Mermaid Avenue, in Coney Island, Brooklyn, funded by the New York State Governor's Office of Storm Recovery (GOSR) . Mermaid Avenue, the business district that serves this vibrant community, had been severely impacted by Hurricane Sandy and even years after the storm the repercussions were still being felt. A relatively low-income community, Mermaid Avenue had a few clear nodes of business activity that needed some TLC. Our plan, developed with architecture firm WXY, laid out a clear plan of action for the Alliance for Coney Island, the non-profit entity formed to manage, maintain and advocate for the area.

The Post Office along Mermaid Avenue, Brooklyn, NY
Photo Credit: LOA
One key opportunity was the local Post Office, located immediately adjacent to one of the primary and most robust commercial nodes. The Post Office was clearly a destination driver in a community with very few options for secure package delivery. Yet the conditions of the building left much to be desired. Frankly, it was hard to even tell whether the Post Office was even open. Rusted gates over windows, graffiti, dead trees, litter, and weedy tree pits all contributed to a prevalent sense of insecurity for residents and visitors alike. While it is highly likely that some of these conditions were due to the storm, the opportunity for small scale improvements here was clearly evident. 

These kinds of partnerships with the local Post Office are not uncommon. In Jackson Heights, Queens, a local volunteer-led non-profit, The Jackson Heights Beautification Group, led an effort to improve the weedy, overgrown landscaping in front of the Post Office. Led by Len Maniaci, a long-time community advocate, environmentalist,  and former JHBG President, the group used volunteers to develop a design, and paid for both landscaping and a new irrigation system of the "curbside garden" that would ensure the survival of the perennials that are sure to have a big impact on the corridor. All for less than $10k.
The Post Office along 37th Avenue,
Jackson Heights, NY
Photo Credit: Len Maniaci 

The differences between these two Post Office assets could not be more stark. Clearly, community advocacy plays a role in advancing corridor improvement efforts. Along Mermaid Avenue, the Alliance for Coney Island is an excellent position to be that advocate and now they have a blueprint for action and a set of starting points from which to work. We are thrilled by their efforts and look forward to chronicling the implementation of the corridor plan over time, especially in partners with the Post Office.

Friday, June 8, 2018

Neighborhood Change and Why Public Participation Matters

We have a problem in this country. While some urban communities are facing unprecedented growth, the benefits of this economic development success are not necessarily being spread evenly around. More to the point, as cities like New York continue to grow and attract residents and investors, those who have weathered the ups and downs - both residents and small business owners - are increasingly finding themselves at risk of displacement. Frankly, this should come as no surprise. The market pressures to find higher paying tenants (both residential and commercial) and the rewards for finding loopholes in the rules that protect residential tenants in particular have never been greater. (See this fantastic series in the NYTimes that discusses the many challenges tenants face).

We are a victim of our own success. The problem is that none of this is in the long term best interest of our urban places. A city where those who provide critical services are unable to get to work without a long commute, or crippling transportation expenses that rob them of time and ability to manage their homes or finances, all while incurring child care costs that they can already ill afford, is a city that squanders the resources of its citizens. Not only that, but the situation deeply undermines their ability to participate in the very decision making process that affects the urban investments that potentially impact and improve their daily lives.

Our client, Livingston County, NY gathered hundreds of residents to discuss downtown recommendations in November 2017. Great staff, long-standing community relationships, and strategic outreach were key to ensuring that a broad section of residents were in attendance. For those unable to attend, the County issued an electronic survey to get additional feedback.

Why does this matter to our work? 
In our analysis of place we lean heavily on both qualitative and quantitative data to inform our assessments and recommendations. But what happens when only a small segment of a community participates in that process? People who are barely making ends meet don't have time to participate in most community planning efforts. Too frequently, the plans that inform resource allocation and public policy are not necessarily reflective of the community as a whole, but rather a small subsection of those who have the time, resources and inclination to participate. For those of us engaged in community planning efforts, we must do better and we must explore innovative ways to engage communities on their terms, not ours. It is hard work and sometimes the budget to engage communities and residents is simply not there.

Another challenge, particularly for the work we do along commercial corridors, is that the success of a business is inextricably rooted in market realities that are hard for us to change. With higher income residents come opportunities for both existing and new businesses. Generally this is good news for businesses who now have more customers with more discretionary spending. But in some markets, "improvements" come at the expense of those living there. As rents and property values increase, neighborhoods inevitably change. In New York City where I serve as one of thirteen City Planning Commissioners, I witness firsthand the skepticism that many community members bring to their public testimony - concerns that improvements that accompany rezoning efforts are precursors to displacement. The question that is often posed is "why didn't we get park improvements or streetscape improvements or really any kinds of improvements BEFORE?" As a result, residents often find themselves in the strange position of rejecting improvements that they themselves acknowledge would make their communities and lives better. But what good are those improvements if they are no longer able to afford to live there? That is the rub.

As we think about rapid changes in technology we have new opportunities to challenge our methods of engagement and explore ways to ensure that community planning is more effectively than ever before. Some great best practices can be found in the annual awards given by the American Planning Association. Making sure these great examples are not simply the exception to the rule will take time and resources - but most off all it will take a commitment to participatory planning that to date has been in limited supply.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

For Upstate NY Practitioners: Small Scale Real Estate Development Workshop

If you plan to be in the Syracuse area on June 27th, this looks like a great day-long session designed to introduce the principles behind neighborhood based real estate development projects. Small scale development is a an important community development strategy - but it requires small developers!

The workshop is conducted by the Incremental Development Alliance, a national non-profit that works to build local wealth in neighborhoods through ground-up real estate development.


Small Scale Real Estate Development Workshop

WHEN: Wednesday, June 27, 2018 8a-5p
WHERE: Hotel Syracuse, 100 East Onondaga Street Syracuse, NY, 13202
  • Early Bird Registration Rate ($170) open until Friday, June 8 
  • Regular Registration Rate ($200) open until Monday, June 25 
  • Last Minute Registration Rate is ($230) 
Register today at http://www.incrementaldevelopment.org/events/syracuseworkshop

Apply for a scholarship here

The workshop offers specialized training about how to create small projects, like 1-3 story buildings with less than 20 units, which are residential, commercial or mixed in use and 1,000-12,000 sf in size. The course assumes you know a lot about where you live, but not necessarily much about the real estate process or building development.

Through presentations on finance, design and site selection, a hands-on practice exercise, and networking with local like-minded people, this workshop is the first step to becoming a small developer yourself or creating a supportive ecosystem for small development in your city.

Who Should Attend?
  • Individuals in construction, design, planning or real estate looking to either enhance their current practice or make career transition 
  • Volunteers or professionals in business associations, main streets associations, historic preservation groups and neighborhood improvement groups looking to champion incremental development in their communities 
  • Public sector professionals in city management, economic development, planning, and related agencies who are looking to make it easier for small development projects to occur in their town 
  • Professionals in non-profit development organizations, churches, and community development or housing development organizations who need new strategies for small lot development 
  • Private banking professionals specializing in mortgages, commercial real estate loans or SBA loans and professionals as at Community Development Financial Institutions and Community Foundations who want to become more effective investors 

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Round up: State of the Cities 2018, classic American main street, free legal services, gender-free retail, steakhouse local

Scott Landfried is Operations Manager at Larisa Ortiz Associates

Based on content analysis of 160 mayoral speeches between January and April 2018, this report breaks down the top ten major topics and discusses five subtopics of each major topic.

The concept: restaurants, and the like, built into mixed use residential environments become an extension of the resident's house and guarantees a reliable customer base. It is just another demonstrated point in the walkable/human-scale oriented versus auto-oriented debate.

Main street is struggling under the pressure of chain stores and shifting economic forces. Among helpful tips to counterbalance this trend, the story discusses eight core characteristics of the classic main street.

Giving mom-and-pop stores some much needed help against the many forces against them with much deeper pockets, NYC Department of Small Business Services is offering up to 40 hours free legal services to small businesses with issues regarding their leases.

Possibly a first - a retailer offers gender non-binary shopping experience. The retail space also includes a juice/coffee bar and community space - an experiential space of sorts.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Asset Driven Revitalization Strategies at Play in Newark's South Ward

Beth Israel Medical Center is centrally located in Newark's South Ward
and is seeking strategies to support improved corridor conditions. 
Economic development, particularly in lower-income communities, is frequently fraught with challenges that quickly connect to a complex set of social issues. Such was the case during a recent site visit to the South Ward of Newark, where LOA is developing an economic development strategy for the Bergen-Lyons-Clinton (BLC) Partnership, so named for the three principle streets where our efforts will be focused. It should come as no surprise that during focus groups with residents, as well as conversations with city officials, merchants and anchor institutions, the conversation quickly turned to public safety concerns, high rates of unemployment, drugs, homelessness and prostitution. One might assume these issues are beyond the scope of an economic development and small business strategy, but they clearly relate to the quality of the business environment and the ability of local businesses to survive and thrive under challenging conditions. While physical improvements to public realm, a mainstay of many corridor strategies, are important, they are wholly insufficient in this context.
A former bank located at a prominent intersection was recently purchased by investors who are interested in rehabbing the building. Will the BLC Partnership be able to influence the owners decisions regarding who leases the space? What carrots can be used to encourage the investor to turn this eyesore into a point of pride for the community?
The work is being funded in part by RWJ Barnabus, a regional health care service provider and operator of Beth Israel Hospital, located in the South Ward. The hospital is an anchor with a deep interest in addressing the holistic needs of the local community. We were thrilled to use this planning opportunity to explore how RWJ, together with LISC Newark, can marshal resources and advance advocacy for improvements that go beyond the look and feel of the corridor.

In many ways, our mission was one of identifying assets – many yet untapped – that could be put towards the complex challenges at hand. Early discoveries included a local church with surplus land on the main corridor and a desire to put it to work in service of community youth; LISC, a community development intermediary with deep expertise in affordable housing development and finance; Beth Israel, a hospital with a keen interest in a deeper level of community engagement; property owners willing to engage the BLC Partnership in discussions about development plans; and a public administration with a desire to see economic development activity spread more evenly across the City. These were all signs of starting points, opportunities to develop a comprehensive asset driven community development strategy that leans heavily on a set of place-based interests and resources, all unique to this particular neighborhood at this particular point in time.
An abandoned building located along Bergen Street
and controlled by the local Baptist Church.
Is this a development site with potential? 
These conversations were merely a starting point. As our work progresses, we look forward to a deeper exploration of solutions that get at the root of the challenges facing small businesses and the communities they serve. 

Larisa Ortiz is Principal of LOA. 

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Pedestrian Malls - Getting it Right

Nur Asri is an Associate at Larisa Ortiz Associates

Main Mall, Charlottesville VA
It’s been almost sixty years since the first pedestrian mall in the US opened in downtown Kalamazoo, MI. Designed by Victor Gruen, the father of the suburban shopping malls of America, the Kalamazoo mall has since been opened to one lane of traffic after forty years of being completely pedestrianized. The fate of the Kalamazoo mall is unlike that of hundreds of other counterparts across the nation. In fact, according to one study, pedestrian malls in the United States have an 89% rate of failure.
Pedestrian malls are often characterized as being public streets designated for pedestrian-only use and closed to vehicular traffic. The predominantly downtown feature rose between the 1960s and 1980s as an attempt to attract shoppers back to downtown cores following the flight to suburbia. Since its heyday, over 170 pedestrian malls across the country have been completely removed, combined with transit, or continue to struggle.

The Problem with Pedestrian Malls
Since its inception, pedestrian malls have posed several issues for downtowns including crime and safety, low retail visibility, and lack of customer convenience. Collectively, these issues have resulted in a less attractive shopping environment, lowering foot traffic and customer dwell times. When these patterns emerge, the retail mix also starts to shift away from comparison and destination goods and services, and vacancies become a common sight.

In Poughkeepsie NY, for example, the Main Mall which was in existence from 1973 until 2001, failed to stop the decline of the downtown due to growth of immediate suburbs and shopping malls, and also  the rise of vagrancy problems on the mall. Following the opening of the Dutchess County Department of Social Services nearby and the lack of assistance and programming on the mall in the 1980s, Poughkeepsie began to attract loiterers and transients on the Main Mall and was no longer a preferred shopping destination amongst County residents.

Third Street Promenade, Santa Monica CA
Too often the design of pedestrian malls often neglects heightening visibility of stores to various types of customers. Since malls are closed off from the rest of downtown, enhanced store signage and increased wayfinding is needed to direct customers towards businesses on the mall. Blade signs, A-Frame signs, large fonts, and clear logos were often left out of consideration. Placement of signs at every entrance to the mall was often disregarded and ended up leaving those customers driving in cars around downtown out of the picture.

Finally, the lack of convenient parking spaces and well-maintained pedestrian pathways to parking structures or transit stops on the periphery of downtown drove customers away from pedestrian malls (no pun intended). Even business owners operating on the malls found their operations disrupted as they often no longer had a dedicated, convenient spot to load/ unload goods. Accessibility of the downtowns became disrupted as a result of pedestrian malls.

Getting the pedestrian mall right
Despite these potential problems, some pedestrian malls have managed to survive and continue to be attractive environments for shopping downtown. And as we’ve found, there are a myriad of factors that enable these malls to be successful.

  • Co-locate the mall near large anchor institutions and attractions

16th St Mall, Denver CO
Having institutions and anchors such as universities, hospitals, museums, convention centers, and stadiums/arenas, ensures that there is a constantly high flow of pedestrian traffic year-round in the downtown that is likely to spill onto the pedestrian mall. The City of Denver’s 16th Street Mall, for example, sees large numbers of pedestrians annually thanks to its close proximity to the Pepsi Center (home to national hockey team Colorado Avalanche), University of Colorado, Denver Performing Arts Complex, Colorado Convention Center, and Coors Field, home of the major league baseball team Colorado Rockies. Last year alone, the Colorado Rockies saw close to 3 million attendees to their games for the season.

  • Build a captive downtown audience

Upper floor housing on 2nd St, Santa Monica CA
The visitors to attractions and destinations are still quite temporary – there are ebbs and flows in their movements. However, residents and workers have a more consistent daily pattern of movement and they’re likely to pass through the pedestrian mall at least once a month, if not a week. In a survey conducted in downtown Santa Monica, 82% of residents were found to visit the Third Street Promenade at least once a month.  Furthermore, making dense downtown housing available not only creates captive shoppers for businesses, it also ensures that residents have their eyes on the mall at night, creating a safer environment for shoppers.
In the 1950s, Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade mall failed because most stores closed by 5pm when no one lived in the immediate area and there were no late-night entertainment options and few restaurants. Today, there are mixed-use residential buildings on adjacent streets, numerous hotels and office buildings in the area, creating a strong day-to-night captive audience for the pedestrian mall.

  • Ensure active ground floor uses

AMC Theater Third St Promenade, Santa Monica CA
To ensure the pedestrian malls are active and safe 18 hours of the day, ground floor uses should be zoned for active uses that cater to a wide range of audience. Operating hours of retailers and services on the ground floor should be long and late-night hours should be maintained for a sizable portion of ground floor uses. This is easy to get at when there are restaurants, bars and entertainment venues along the pedestrian mall – just like Pearl Street Mall in Boulder CO. Santa Monica also successfully achieved this with a 21-screen cinema on Third Street (and zoning out cinemas from other nearby areas – an extreme solution).

  • Keep length of mall short

Of the 11% of pedestrian malls that have survived since the 1960s and continue to thrive, a hundred percent measure between one and four blocks in length – and no more. The short blocks allow ‘minimal disruption to traffic circulation and permit cross-traffic to pass through the mall’, solving for issues that may arise around convenience and accessibility for shoppers and businesses.

  • Mitigate traffic diversions and design the pedestrian experience from afar

If a mall is to be located on a street that already experiences high levels of vehicular traffic, some traffic diversion will inevitably occur and this may potentially result in the loss of customers who are driving to the area and who are seeking convenient parking.  Measures must be taken to mitigate such impacts and may include clear signage to guide drivers to the nearest available parking lots and to guide visitors between the mall and parking areas, well-lit and well-maintained pathways and alleys connecting the mall, distinctive entrances to the mall, and large and varying store signs.
In addition, two-way roads should encircle pedestrian malls (instead of one-way roads) to make adjacent roads safer for pedestrians and easier for driving customers to turn around on.

  • Maintain and program

Busking on Bourke St Mall, Melbourne (Australia)
Finally, pedestrian malls that have continued to thrive have been consistently clean and well-maintained. This ensures that visitors are welcomed by an inviting public realm. Programs and events such as busking and festivals have also been carried out throughout the year at successful pedestrian malls in order to build experiences for shoppers who are seeking more than just physical products.

Having a centralized, coordinated management group for the pedestrian mall enable smooth operations and program delivery and can really contribute to the overall success of a mall.

Just a Word of Caution
Although the above factors laid out here may help you implement a robust and integrated pedestrian mall, the mall does take a lot of stakeholder engagement, rallying support, and A LOT of capital before it can succeed. Remember – of the approximately 200 pedestrian malls built in the 60s and 80s, only 11% have been successful and even then many had to re-invest and re-strategize their malls over the years.

Pedestrian malls aren’t for the faint of heart.