Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Do you know your 'district orientation'? If not, here's why it matters...

I am often called upon to help communities develop revitalization strategies for their downtowns - and the most common question I get asked is "how do we know what to do first?" What may have been the right set of first steps for one community, may not work in another, so it's sometimes hard to figure out how to prioritize your efforts and resources.

A professor from my days at MIT, Karl Seidman, is an author of a number of publications on urban commercial district revitalization strategies that offers a framework I find useful in my work. Karl starts by helping to unpack the question of “what kinds of intervention makes sense and when?” His field research on seven “urban” Main Street programs in three cities (Revitalizing Commerce for America's Cities) found that districts often fall into four ‘orientations’ depending on where each district is in its implementation efforts. If you can figure out your district orientation, you have a better chance of figuring out what kinds of activities you should take on first, second and third.

These orientations are useful because they help us avoid a far too common mistake made by practitioners: the tendency to apply known, familiar solutions to new challenges that require adaptive solutions. (For district managers in the Coro Neighborhood Leadership Program, this will sound very familiar!). What I mean is this - what typically happens is that a BID hires someone with a background in say, marketing, and all of a sudden all of the BID's activities are oriented towards marketing, whether or not these are right solutions to the problems at hand. Or the BID hires someone who really know real estate development, and lo and behold, all of the 'right' solutions for the district become about real estate. It is important to first take a step back and figure out what kind of district you are so that you can apply the right set of solutions to the challenges you face, rather than simply apply the only set of solutions you may be familiar with.

So with that, I offer Siedman’s framework below, with one exception - the addition of a ‘clean-and-safe-oriented district’. This additional category recognizes the critical contribution that neighborhood safety plays in neighborhood commercial district stabilization.

  • Development-oriented districts are areas in need of significant investment in physical improvements. There are often numerous vacant buildings and sites in need of development. Buildings and infrastructure have deteriorated overtime, and private investment is unlikely because few see opportunity for return without some form of public subsidy. Marketing and promotion cannot occur until the market is more stable and there is something of substance to market and promote.
  • Organization-oriented districts need help getting started. There is limited administrative capacity to take on any initiatives – and no established consensus around where to start or who will lead the initiative. These areas may have cultural or language barriers that make achieving consensus a challenge or they may suffer from ‘planning malaise’ or lack of leadership.
  • Promotion-oriented districts start from a position of relative strength. They may have clusters of strong existing businesses that are struggling to remain relevant in the face of neighborhood change. These districts need help growing the customer base, which may have changed or diminished over time. Retention-oriented districts often share many of the same attributes.
  • Retention-oriented districts typically have occupied buildings and few vacant sites. In these districts, the challenge is ensuring that the existing businesses benefit from development and escalating rents that often mark neighborhood change. These districts focus on providing resources and services to existing businesses. Promotion-oriented districts often share many of the same attributes.
  • Clean-and-safe-oriented districts struggle to manage the perception and/or reality of crime, which hurts local businesses in their efforts to attract customers. This challenge undermines nearly every effort to improve the district. Reducing crime and improving perceived safety is critical to neighborhood can often serves as the primary catalyst for change and engagement from residents and businesses alike.
So which district orientation are you??

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