Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Urban river restoration and downtown revitalization

More and more urban communities are coming to see their long covered and forgotten underground rivers and streams as potential environmental and economic development assets. Visionary planners are increasingly connecting the dots between environmental and economic objectives and the results are nothing short of miraculous. These urban river parks improve quality of life for local residents, drive significant investment and real estate value, attract visitors and stimulate economic growth. Alternatively known as "day lighting", the efforts to uncover urban rivers are having an incredible impact on downtown revitalization efforts. But as you can imagine, these projects are not for the faint of heart. They  require significant vision, dogged perseverance, complicated and sometimes messy coordination of multiple property owners and perhaps most significant, funding. That said, here are a few of my favorites.

Providence, RI (1994)
Perhaps the most well known, the daylighting of the rivers in downtown Providence is credited with spurring an investment renaissance in the nation's smallest state.

"A Waterfront Redevelopment Study for Providence was completed in 1983, followed by an Environmental Impact Statement that, in August 1984, found the most revolutionary of the design option would be the most successful. Three months later, the city, state, and Federal Highway Administration committed to funding the river relocation project. It took 10 years to implement the plan, which required rerouting the rivers, diverting the rail yards, and extending Memorial Boulevard." American Planning Association, Great Places in America: Waterplace Park, Providence, RI

Yonkers, NY (2012)
"The Saw Mill, which meanders through Westchester County before emptying into the Hudson in Yonkers, had its final few hundred yards paved over by engineers in the days when rivers were industrial sewers. It became a culvert. By uncovering, or daylighting, the Saw Mill as a four-acre park, Yonkers is following cities like Providence, R.I., that have built better downtowns around rediscovered public waterways." New York Times, August 21, 2011

Cheonggyecheon Stream restoration, Seoul, South Korea (2005) 
"Cheong Gye Cheon is a dramatic transformation of a site with more than a 5 mile long concrete roadway with an elevated highway into a vibrant public recreation open space running that serves the old central business district area of Seoul." re:Streets, Cheong Gye Cheon Stream Restoration

Want to know more about how you plan for and finance these projects? The best starting point is the Urban Waters Federal Partnership, a collaborative effort among about a dozen federal entities including the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to revitalize urban river corridors. The Partnership aims to reconnect urban communities, particularly those that are overburdened or economically distressed, with their waterways by improving coordination among federal agencies and collaborating with community-led revitalization efforts to improve our Nation's water systems and promote their economic, environmental and social benefits.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Don't underestimate the impact of an annual report

We are half way through the year and I'm sure annual reports are the last thing on your mind. But summer is actually a good time to start thinking about the framework and metrics that you want to include in your annual report. It's also a good time to get report writing on your radar so that you aren't scrambling at the last second to pull together a nice looking report. Remember, these reports are valuable communication pieces that can help you demonstrate, and therefore grow, your impact over time.

For BIDs large and small, reporting back on progress made is not only an important piece of the transparency required of non-profit entities, reports are powerful tool to accomplish a number of other objectives, from fundraising to business attraction. Here are just a few reasons why Annual Reports can help you in more ways than you think...

  • They help you make a pitch to funders - Success breeds success. Measuring impact and sharing it back will help you gain traction with funders, both public and private, who will want to make sure that the recipients of their largess have a track record of success. 
  • They help potential new businesses see the opportunities in your district - An annual report can help communicate trends, pinpoint bright spots in the business environment, and highlight opportunities for new businesses based on the success of existing businesses. They also help communicate the value of the support services that your BID provides to small businesses, making your district an even more attractive place to be an entrepreneur. 
  • They give you a chance to publicly acknowledge your partners - Annual reports are great ways to acknowledge your board, volunteers, and any funders who have helped you along the way. Your supporters will appreciate the recognition - which is an important way to maintain their support over the long haul. 
  • They help support grant writing efforts - The exercise of pulling together data for your district and measuring impact through both quantitative and qualitative metrics will ensure that you have the right information when it comes time to pull together grant and funding applications. 
So if you don't usually pull together annual reports for distribution, you might want to reconsider. 

Here are a few BID annual reports that I like from both big and small organizations. I do tend to like nicely designed reports that include information graphics. These are communication and marketing pieces after all, and often well worth the extra investment. 

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The top 5 things that urban planners and designers usually get wrong about retail

The other day I got into a heated argument with an architect/urban designer over what it would take to get people to shop in a district we were studying. The architect argued that giving people a place to sit - in this case a small pocket park - would attract people to the district. I argued what I know from customer research, business mix plays a more significant role than amenities in driving customer visitation, by a factor of 3 to 1. Moreover, a poorly maintained public space with no steward (and therefore more likely to attract trash and quite possibly vagrants) might actually backfire and hurt local businesses. 

While we resolved our differences, the conversation got me to thinking about the myths that urban designers - who may or may not know the science of shopper preference - sometime propagate. We have all seen "those" renderings - the ones that designers use to help people envision what improvements will look like. I love those renderings, I do! They help people get excited about ideas an concepts - and they are always filled with bustling retail and people. Always. That's the problem - because sometimes reality doesn't quite work out that way. So here is my list of personal pet peeves, with apologies to the architects, urban planners and urban designers in my life. (And full disclosure...I am an urban planner!)

The MYTH: Creating a great "sense of place"will get people to shop.
I hate to break it to you. But people don't shop because of cute lamps. Or brick sidewalks. They do appreciate those things, but they don't shop BECAUSE of those things.

And on the topic of brick sidewalks. For most communities, this is a huge "don't". The maintenance is taxing (pun intended), the bricks pop and sink and actually freeze more quickly than regular asphalt, which means you are setting yourself up for trip and fall lawsuits. Insurers have figured this out, so getting insurance can be a challenge. This is why the City of New York no longer endorses brick sidewalks (although with a change in administration...memories and lessons learned sometimes fade). 

My personal pet peeve. Brick sidewalks. 

The MYTH: If you build it, they will come

First of all, let's deconstruct who "they" is. This age old maxim does not hold for retailers. With no previous sales data for comparison, retailers can be gun shy about new projects, especially in untested markets with untested partners. As for customers, if you build something for customers who don't exist (or who are further away than your primary customer) you are flirting with disaster.

Atlas Park, a shopping center located in densely populated Queens, NY, has struggled mightily with vacancies after the first mix of tenants failed to reflect local consumer demand. After bankruptcy and sale, the new owners seek to gather intelligence directly from the community using creative signs like these. 


The MYTH:  The retail mix can be changed. 
A few years ago we did some work for a city economic development agency who asked us to deconstruct why their facade improvement program wasn't working. The goal of the city's facade program had been to offer retailers grants to upgrade facades, to make them look nice and quite frankly more upscale. But what happened surprised everyone. Once the new facades were in place, retailers would cover up the upscale news signs with their old vinyl signs that once again screamed "sale", "we buy jewelry", or "discount!". The city's planning director was going mad. Why was this happening? Why didn't businesses know that they could be attracting more upscale customers if they improved their looks? When we dug into the data, we found that although high-end residential development was happening (think Frank Ghery buildings), it was a drop in the bucket compared to the hundreds of thousands of middle-income civil and government office workers who were more interested in convenience and value-oriented shopping. The businesses in the area were concerned that a high-end look would scare off their bread-and-butter customer, and many were not willing to take a chance on the slowly emerging high-end customer who had other, higher end shopping options. Not to mention the fact that the product, merchandise mix and price point of many of these businesses was not appropriate to the high-income resident looking for luxury goods. At the end of the day, the district business mix was not going to change as long as the majority of the customer base remained the same. 

As much as city planning wanted to eradicate this kind of business from an increasingly affluent business district, these businesses are there showing their wares in the way that is most effective for their customers. 

The MYTH: The radial circle is the standard way to define trade area. 
In theory, the idea behind a radial is not a bad one (and to be honest, we sometimes do use this methodology depending on the community and the audience). Sometimes the area from which a community pulls the majority of its customers may approximate a radial circle, in which case pulling data in that way can make sense (and can help you see your community the way retailers see your community), but often times there are geographic, psychological barriers, or gravitation forces that distort a radial trade area. Presenting your community data this way isn't wrong - but it doesn't help YOU or your merchants understand who your real customers are.

That said, keep in mind that retailers use radial trade areas in order to make initial side by side, apples to apples comparisons when selecting sites. 

The MYTH: Parking is overrated. Reducing parking requirements won't hurt local businesses.

The answer really is "it depends". This is not to say that many retailers don't overestimate the amount of parking they need, particularly if they are not familiar or comfortable serving dense urban markets. But in many communities (excluding dense urban communities where public transportation is the norm) parking availability is unfortunately a simple requirement, particularly for convenience districts. Because many customers still depend on cars to reach their destination point, retailers concerns are justified. This is not to suggest that you can't and shouldn't beef up alternative forms of access to the district if parking is a challenge. Or that you shouldn't actively manage parking to make it more efficient.If you are a convenience-oriented district, convenient parking is even more important. 

A bus rapid transit lane along Webster Avenue in the Bronx resulted in the reduction of available short-term parking spacing in front of a number of local establishments (places with quick in-out service, Chinese take-out, convenience stores, etc), effectively hurting business.  
So, now that I've said that, let me contradict myself. Destination districts are a little more interesting, because when there is a unique offering people will often overlook the inconvenience and drive around looking for parking. Go figure.

Federal Hill in Providence, RI is a destination for outdoor dining in the region, attracting customers from as far away as Boston. Parking is a pain...but the businesses are still packing them in. 

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

What you need to know about "Aging Improvement Districts"

By 2030, there will be about 72.1 million older persons, more than twice their number in 2000. That is an increase from 12.4% to 19% of the population. So, what does this mean for our business districts? And how do we ensure that these aging shoppers are welcome and able to visit and spend their discretionary dollars in local businesses. 

To be sure, the internet will play in increasing role in servicing this population. Ordering on-line and having retail goods delivered to your doorstep is not only convenient, it will certainly help more seniors remain in their homes for longer. But the experience of shopping, grabbing a bit to eat, visiting the local coffee shop, etc. will remain intrinsic to many people's lives. In my neighborhood in Jackson Heights, the local coffee shop is taken over once a month by a local senior's group. They chat, catch up and invite local politicians to join them during election season. It's a way for them to connect and remain active - and the coffee shop is more than happy to serve them. 

As our population ages, retailers cannot afford to ignore the reality of an aging population, particularly if 1 in 5 individuals will fall in that demographic by 2030. 

Fortunately, there is more and more information on age friendly business districts - but the main theme of much of the information is to remove accessibility barriers. A toolkit prepared in 2012 by the Office of the Mayor and City Council in New York is a good resource to begin to understand how we can make our districts more accessible to all shoppers, regardless of age. Click Here: "Creating an Age-Friendly NYC One Neighborhood at a Time"]. The report highlights some simple assessment tools that can help you determine the degree to which your community is accessible and walkable. 

The research also highlights some simple ideas that can help your businesses and your district better meet the needs of an aging population, including?

Encouraging more businesses to offer delivery, particularly grocery stores. In my community, the local grocery store automatically asks you at checkout if you want delivery. Many seniors make use of this option. 

Timing traffic signals to allow seniors to safety get across the street. A few years ago I did some work in a community in Long Island hoping to improve connections between downtown and the waterfront. These two areas were separated by a six-lane road. When we tried to cross, the "walk" signal gave us 20 seconds, barely enough time for a few able bodied people...and certainly not enough time for a slower senior citizen!

Removing high curbs to allow for improved wheelchair access. It amazes me that "improvement" projects continue to be designed in ways that do not comply with ADA requirements.  

Putting benches in place that allow seniors to rest during walks. In some communities, people are concerned about benches because they become places where homeless congregate. In the process, they have alienated seniors who need those benches. One answer is to allow local businesses to put out benches. That way these benches are informally monitored by the business owner. 

Simple ideas are sometimes the easiest and most impactful...

Monday, June 9, 2014

Events in June for Commercial District Practitioners

Early June brings two events to keep on your radar!

Joint NYSEDC and NEDA Networking Reception
Thursday, June 12 join the New York State Economic Development Council and the Northeastern Economic Developers Association from 3:30pm-6pm at The Linda: WAMC's Perorming Arts Studio (339 Central Avenue, Albany, NY) for an evening of networking. The event will also showcase guest speakers Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan and Alan Chartock of Northeast Public Radio and an introduction by Brian Anderson, Lead Developer of National Grid and current NEDA President.

The event is free to attend. Food and non-alcoholic beverages will be provided, along with a cash bar. To register visit:  https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/28CKWTV

On Thursday, June 19 gather with elected officials, business owners, chambers of commerce, non-profit groups, local associations and community stakeholders from 8:30 am-1 pm, at Rockland Community College (145 College Rd., Suffern, NY), to network and discuss current industry development trends and strategies.This is Rockland's first ever conference dedicated to Main Street and Riverfront revitalization! Larisa Ortiz will be a featured speaker on the topic on planning for downtown retail revitalization. 

For more information contact: Calherbe Monel, Director of Rockland County Economic Development, phone: 845.638.5122; email: monelc@co.rockland.ny.us

Thursday, June 5, 2014

5 Easy Ways to Improve Your BID's Website

It goes without saying that a functional, attractive website is an important thing for any organization looking to attract investment or retail to their community.

We recently worked with the Myrtle Avenue BID in Ridgewood, Queens, NY on a market study and retail attraction program, and as part of this process, we identified what the BID could do (that fit within their budget and staff resources) to get on retailers' radar and highlight the corridor's strengths. One of our recommendations was an overhaul of their website and we're excited to announce that their new site went live last month.

With the help of Main Street Complete, the Myrtle Avenue BID's website is now bright, easy to navigate, and makes it simple for various constituent groups to find the kind of information they want to know.

If your organization is planning to revamp its website here are some tips from the folks at Main Street Complete for making the right information stand out:

1) Take advantage of opportunities to promote your members without having to leave your office chair. Include a dynamic online business directory.  Having a good website with promotional features for BID members is a very easy way to show that the BID is working for them.  Rather than just display a list of members, include a dynamic business directory.  For our BID clients, we always build in an easy-to-update business directory system that allows users to search merchants by business type and location.  At the same time each listing includes options to show merchant websites and social media addresses thereby increasing opportunities to drive consumer web traffic to their members.

2) Make it easy for realtors to find you.  Include an available properties section.  Why not include a dynamic easily navigable real estate section that is easily maintained by your staff? The technology exists and is easily integrated into user-friendly content management systems.    

3) Keep it current.  Once you have this fantastic dynamic interactive website, make sure you have a strategy in place to keep content current on it.  If you do not have it in your budget to have an in-house or contracted content manager/ developer, be certain that your site is built on a user-friendly content management system that makes it easy for your staff to update it and be absolutely certain that you have back-end access from your developers before the initial web project concludes.

4) Integrate social media with your website.  Be certain that all of your social media accounts are integrated with your website and prominently displayed on your homepage.  More than 30% of all web traffic to websites on average is referred from social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Yelp.

5) Make it mobile and tablet friendly.  More than 25% of all web users are searching the web via mobile and tablet and that percentage rises every year.  Make sure your designer and developer are creating ‘responsive’ designs that optimally adapt to all screen sizes and devices.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Where Trains Don't Go: Bike Commuting from Brooklyn

As New York (especially Brooklyn) rents continue to rise, people are beginning to explore new neighborhoods with the help of their bikes. By utilizing cycles, people can live in parts of Brooklyn, Queens or even Manhattan that may not be adequately served by public transportation, and still have a convenient commute to work and easy access to local amenities. This past Sunday the NYT Real Estate section focused in on the topic of bike commuting and apartment hunting in NYC. Brooklyn neighborhoods such as Wallabout, Clinton Hill, Greenpoint, and Red Hook were mentioned as great, more affordable places to live that are relatively easy to access via a bicycle. In fact, as the article mentions, some real estate companies in the city have noticed biking’s increased popularity and have begun mentioning nearby Citi Bike stations as part of a properties amenities. Local commercial districts benefit from this trend as well - by increasing the area from which businesses draw customers. 
Manhattan Bridge bike path Image: transalt.org

Biking has a host of benefits – environmental to fiscal – and can even help lessen commute times for some people. For example, I live in Crown Heights, Brooklyn and used to work in the East Village. The commute door to door on the C and F trains was roughly 45 minutes assuming everything was running on schedule. However, the bike route along Flushing, over the Manhattan Bridge and up the Allen Street bike median was a quick 30 minutes and mostly in protected bike lanes. Last summer biking everyday to the East Village helped me save money, get in shape, and most importantly (for me) get outside. As a full time graduate student, with a full time job I wasn’t often able to enjoy summer’s warm weather, but the bike commute ensured I’d see the sun for at least an hour a day.

Allen Street Protected bike lane Image: steetblog.org
Biking opens different parts of the city to you and makes traveling much more enjoyable than sitting on a subway or in a car. You are able to explore parts of the city you wouldn’t otherwise visit and notice the little things that make each neighborhood unique, such as shops with unique window displays and signs, buildings painted unusual colors, and murals painted along the city’s small streets. And, as an avid biker, I will say that easy and plentiful bike parking is often enough to entice me into visiting a store or area. If parking is hard to find or far away from my destination (bar, restaurant, etc.), I am more likely to scrap my plans and keep looking for a new location. Bike corrals in business districts and well placed racks on busy streets can make all the difference in the world when I'm out running errands.

Franklin Street bike corral Image: brooklynspoke.com
Something that rings true for cyclists and that was mentioned in the NYT article is the ease at which you can move through the city. It is very easy for me to take a quick 30 minute or less bike ride from my home to Red Hook, Green Point, or even Chelsea; however, for those who rely on public transportation these trips can take upwards to an hour after walking to the stop, for connections, and traffic. These long trip times can be a deterrent to people and sometimes prevent them from visiting certain parts of the city.  

The NYT article included a map showing the change in percent of bike commuters in Brooklyn, Lower Manhattan and Southern Queens from 1990-2012.  The most significant changes happened from 2000-2012, with some areas going from 0%-14% in those 12 years. As cycling continues to grow in both popularity and convenience you can bet that various areas of the city will see new visitors and residents taking advantage of this mode of transportation. 

Melanie Truhn is a full time graduate student in Pratt Institute's City and Regional Master's Program. When she's not biking around Brooklyn she can found in Prospect Park with her pups.