Friday, November 16, 2012

Visitor's Centers - A Relic of the Past?

The New Years Ball at the
Times Square Visitors Center 
The other night at an event I had the opportunity to speak with Gretchen Dykstra, the founding president and CEO of the Times Square Business Improvement District (now the Times Square Alliance) here in New York and we got to talking about the Times Square Visitors Center. For those unfamiliar with the Center, it's truly an amazing space where visitors can get up close to the famed New Year's ball and learn a bit about Times Square history in a rehabilitated former theatre located right off Times Square. When the Center was developed under Gretchen's leadership, it provided a much needed respite...a small post office, a souvenir shop, a coffee kiosk, bus tour ticket booth, etc. She mentioned that her vision was to provide a place with visitor offerings that at the time were lacking. When it opened, the visitors center was a one of a kind place that saw millions of visitors a year.

When I mentioned that the visitors center has recently seen a decline in visitation - something that the Times Square Alliance is seeking to address - I noted that the Visitors Center is an anachronism. These days, who buys stamps and sends postcards when email will do? And why would someone go inside to get a cup of coffee at a Starbucks kiosk when right outside the Broadway pedestrian malls there are high end food trucks, not to mention Starbucks nearly everywhere. And the closed street and the red steps offer seating that put you right in the center of the action? Isn't that why people go to Times Square to begin with? And let's not forget the fact that visitors can now access nearly all of the information they need from smart phones - and increasingly they do.

Our conversation reminded me of a recent visit to a rest stop along the New Jersey Turnpike. The downstairs was PACKED. There were literally hundreds of people milling around and waiting in line to get food. When I walked upstairs to the Visitors Center, I couldn't believe what I saw. You could hear a pin drop. No one was up there.

NJ Turnpike rest stop. Lots of people below.
Upstairs is the Visitors Center.
Upstairs you could practically hear the crickets.

It got me to thinking about the resources that so many BIDs and other organizations put into what increasingly seems like a dying breed of services. Information is digital - but the ways that many organizations supply information is stuck in a time warp. I'm curious about who is tackling these issues in more innovative ways.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Help businesses in the Far Rockaways get back on their feet!

This short video vividly illustrates the devastation felt by small businesses along the commercial corridors of the Far Rockaways in the aftermath of hurricane Sandy. Yesterday's Noreaster has only made the situation worse. Please donate today!

For those interested in the backstory...Nate Echeverria, co-founder of Lucky Ant, a small business crowd-source financing site, reached out to me immediately after the hurricane to see if I could help connect them with communities in need. As Director of the Coro Neighborhood Leadership program, a leadership training program for BID and CDC Executive and Senior staff, I was more than happy to put them in contact with members of our alumni community, a number of whom were significantly impacted by the storm impacts. The first call I made was to Kevin Alexander, Executive Director of The Rockaway Development and Revitalization Corporation. Kevin described a scene of chaos and destruction that left his local business community reeling. Within three days of that conversation, this site was launched. It is amazing what networks and relationships can do in times of need!

For those of you working on NYC-based commercial district revitalization efforts, Coro Neighborhood Leadership is currently recruiting for the 2013 class.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Landlords, retailers recovering from Sandy...but it depends on where

The impacts of the hurricane are mixed for many local commercial districts. For local merchants in communities less affected by the storm, many reported higher sales this week on the days they were open, particularly as a number of national chains kept their doors shut during the hurricane. However, the impacts of the hurricane are still being severely felt along commercial corridors throughout the City. In Staten Island and in other places where electricity has not yet returned, corridor managers are concerned about looting. For those businesses that are open, sales have been extremely brisk - particularly for retailers selling post-hurricane related goods such as home goods and groceries. General merchandise stores will also continue to see sales increases. 

Overall, the industry anticipates significant impact from the storm. Citigroup, Inc has predicted that the "hurricane may cut retail sales by up to 3 percent nationally, with traffic falling 40 percent in the storm affected regions during the first week of November, which traditionally accounts for 22 percent of the month's sales." [Storm Latest: Landlords, retailers recovering, Shopping Centers Today News]. Some shopping destinations are turning need into opportunity. In New Jersey, Garden State Plaza is setting up tents to hand out water and dry ice to residents without power. And with transportation options still limited in so many New York neighborhoods, local commercial corridors that still have power are poised to benefit from the captive demand. 

An outline for Commercial District Disaster Recovery

By Jeff Eichenfeld

Jeff is Vice President of Retail & Commercial Assets at New York City Economic Development Corporation. A Bay Area transplant, he is well versed in helping commercial districts with disaster planning and recovery efforts. This outline is a helpful primer for communities dealing with the challenges associated with post-hurricane clean up and recovery. 

I.             Access and Entry Procedures
a.    For damaged buildings—emergency personnel will be able to get inside damaged buildings, but communities need written processes and procedures in place to allow business owners access to their inventory and records, and property owners need access to inspect damage for themselves, while at the same time making sure their safety is ensured.
b.    For a district as a whole—again, emergency personnel will be able to get into damaged areas, but other local and state officials and business and property owners, media, etc. will also need safe access.

II.           Building Damage and Repair
a.    Damage assessment procedures—FEMA and local building officials will do this, but make sure historic preservation experts who understand historic building systems/issues are included on these teams; also develop a communications plan so that the public understands what FEMA “red tag, yellow tag, green tag” designations mean.  The goal is to avoid unnecessary “red tag” designations that might lead to premature demolition.
b.    Demolition controls
                                 i.      Historic preservation—discuss how local and state historic preservation and environmental review laws will be applied in an emergency.
                               ii.      Shoring and Stabilization—discuss and develop shoring and stabilization procedures so that building owners and local officials will have adequate time to determine the fate of severely damaged buildings that have significant economic or historic significance to the community.
c.    Repair standards and procedures—determine to what design standards buildings will be required to be repaired to, and if “as-was-before the disaster” repairs can be made via a more streamlined process than would be used for demolitions, new constructions or major additions or modifications.

III.          Economic Recovery
a.    Business relocation plans—identify alternate locations for displaced businesses, as well as parking lots where temporary tents (large hard shell tents) and trailers can be erected; identify who will be in charge of facilitating and promoting the relocations.
b.    Promotions and public relations—develop potential strategies and who will be responsible for organizing local “back-to-business” news and tourism recovery programs.
c.    Financial assistance—discuss loan, grant and private fundraising options.
d.    Attracting new anchor uses—anticipate the need to attract new anchors to replace displaced businesses---i.e. temporary pop-up businesses, street vendors, farmers markets and crafts markets.

IV.         Business District Management
a.    Staffing—anticipate the need for additional BID or city staff and the possibility that existing staff may be injured or displaced or otherwise unable to come to work.
b.    Rumor squashing/communications—hold frequent community meetings and publish flyers/newsletters; anticipate that electricity and internet access may be limited.
c.    Organizational recovery—anticipate the need to boost the organizational capacity of existing local non-profits, BIDS and government units that will have to take on disaster recovery duties.
d.    Organizational preparedness—conduct annual disaster drills at the local level that include local business organizations, historic preservation and cultural arts allies, as well as local building and emergency response officials.

e.    Buildings—develop long-term plans, ordinances and financial programs to retrofit buildings to withstand damage.
f.       Infrastructure—develop long-term plans and financial mechanisms to upgrade utilities, roads, and other community infrastructure to withstand damage.

V.           Vision Planning
a.    Desired land uses—update zoning, land use and design plans to reflect the way in which a community or district would want to re-build after a disaster.
b.    Recovery plans—develop disaster preparedness and recovery plans that include economic as well as physical recovery.