Monday, November 23, 2015

LISC Chicago's Business District Leadership Program wins first place award

I could not be more thrilled to announce that the LISC Chicago Business District Leadership program just took home top honors at this years Chicago Business Development Center Awards! The awards are a recognition of LISC's efforts to train business district practitioners in the leadership skills and strategies necessary to make tremendous impact in their communities.

Larisa Ortiz Associates is proud to have played a supporting role, along with Coro New York Leadership Program, in developing the framework for the program. The Chicago program is based on the Coro Neighborhood Leadership program, now going on its fifth year. To date, over 100 New York based practitioners have participated in the program and it is still going strong. Both programs are funded in part by their respective cities.

The 2014 BDL cohort, including Dionne Baux (LISC),
Kristen Illes (Coro) and myself to the far left. 
I must say, being involved with this program has been one of the most fulfilling experiences of my career. It is truly an honor to see so many practitioners - now over 120 an counting! - gain tremendous insight into their lives, and then turn those insights into tools that make them so much more effective in their work. Being a leader in the field of commercial revitalization and community development is often about working with those over whom one has limited to no authority, about pushing those in positions of power, and about connecting with stakeholders and community partners to advance mutual interests and leverage shared resources. These are the skills that ultimately lead to real and sustainable neighborhood change over time.

For more information on the Chicago LISC BDL program, click here. The deadline to apply for next year's program is Dec. 11! There is still time!

For more information on Coro Neighborhood Leadership, click here
The opening retreat sets the stage for deep friendships and trust between
peers, who later serve as critical springboards for advice and feedback. 
The opening retreat quote board...things that
resonated with participants made it to this board. 

The Abandoned Bike Dilemma

Are those pesky abandoned bikes causing an eyesore to your district and taking up valuable space?

We've all seen them. These abandoned bikes obviously have not seen their owner in a very long time and each time you see one its sad bike carcass has become more derelict. Lately, CDA came across the issue with a recent project so we thought we'd look into it.

We discovered that, especially in NYC, it is very difficult to get a bike removed and that both the process and the requirements are rigorous and inflexible.

In New York City for example, the bike must be affixed to public property and must meet 3 out of 5 of the following criteria:
  • The appearance is crushed or not usable;
  • Have parts missing from bicycle other than seat and front wheel;
  • Have flat tires or missing both tires;
  • Handlebars and pedals are damaged, or the fork, frame or rims are bent;
  • 75 percent of bicycle is rusted.
But as WNYC noted the process to report abandoned bikes is solely by phone so there is no official online or digital submissions process and calling in a complaint "takes about 14 minutes and involves speaking with two operators." LA, on the other hand, has an online submission and appears to make the process more user friendly.

Most college campuses are very liberal with mass removals of abandoned bikes each summer. Bicycles are first tagged as abandoned and given two weeks to be moved before being impounded and then finally given away or salvaged 90 days later. The policy is similar in Toronto where even bikes that look operable but reported are tagged with a two week notice and removed if not relocated. According to Chicago's city code, an abandoned bike can be removed after being tagged for just a week.

Questioning how your city handles abandoned bikes?  It can be as simple as Google'ing "city of ____" + "bike removal." A little investigation, either by internet or 311, can get you on the way to clearing your commercial district of a long overdue abandoned bike.

Sometimes in the end you have to look at the problem and see it from a different angle. Adel Souto of New York has made this topic into an art form, check out his blog.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The Return of Small Business Saturday

In between Black Friday and Cyber Monday sits Small Business Saturday (SBS), which makes its annual return Nov 28. The special shopping Saturday continues to grow and this year will mark its fifth year. It is an initiative to encourage and remind shoppers to shop small and to shop local. One very large business, American Express, helped create and launch Small Business Saturday along with then NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2010.

Participating in SBS
The organizers suggest three ways for small businesses to "make the most" of the day: host special events, offer small business Saturday-only promotion, and band together with other businesses.  A district could use these tips to make this year the most successful SBS or encourage small businesses themselves to submit their stories online. 

SBS by the Numbers:
Here's a look at Small Business Saturday 2014 by the numbers:
  • 88 million consumers “shopped small,” up 14.9 percent from 2013
  • $14.3 billion spent – an increase of 2.1 percent
  • 446 official support companies
  • 386 advocacy organizations
  • 126,000 tweets were sent, many using the hashtags #SmallBizSat and #ShopSmall
  • 3.3 million Facebook users “liked” the Small Business Saturday “Shop Small” official page
  • nearly 3,000 Neighborhood Champions – groups, organizations and communities – rallied local businesses, creating events and activities to celebrate
  • $5.9 billion was spent on Small Business Saturday
Broad Based Political Support (with some local detractors mixed in)
Political support continues to grow as well. In 2013, 41 governors gave proclamations supporting Small Business Saturday and 43 U.S. Senators pledged their support. Even President Obama participated, taking his daughters to a local bookstore on Small Business Saturday a few years ago. 

While some businesses have used SBS to drive sales during the busy holiday season, other communities have taken the idea and turned it back into something local. Cindy Baxter, a retail consultant and a prominent voice among independent business owners, was initially tapped to help launch Small Business Saturday in her community but instead defected to develop her own local retail initiative, the 3/50 Project, which "promotes stronger local economies through support of independent retailers" (Markowitz,, 2012).

Regardless of whether your district participates in the Am Ex program or develops its own "Shop Local" effort, the success of the initiative demonstrates the value in coordinated public relations and marketing as a valuable tool for local business districts. 

Check out these interesting links:

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Can libraries drive neighborhood improvement efforts?

The idea that libraries can serve as anchors for neighborhood commercial corridors and downtown districts is not a new one. In our work, we often come across examples of libraries that are a critical piece of overall tenant mix. They serve as corridor destination drivers, spurring revitalization through activities and offerings that bring people to an area. 

A recently released study by the Local Initiative Support Corporation (LISC), in partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library Services, explores this concept further. The report considers library (and museum) efforts that have become catalysts for neighborhood revitalization, particularly in poor communities. Entitled "Museums, Libraries and Comprehensive Initiatives: A First Look at Emerging Experiences", the report identifies 50 examples of library and museum efforts aimed at improving the overall conditions of distressed communities. 

Although not a low-income community, one such example we have come across in our work is the New Rochelle Public Library in Westchester County, NY. Located in the heart of the traditional downtown district, the library is an anchor for the business district, as well as the large public park that abuts it to the rear (not unlike Bryant Park in New York which abuts the New York Public Library. A self described "community resource", the library is well loved, and well patronized by the City's 72,000 residents. One five-star review on Yelp sums up the library perfectly: "What a great community center! I teach there, I research there, go to great music and cultural events at Ossie Davis theatre. It's so much more than a place to get books and videos. I observe it as a vital resource for people of all ages. And it is well run. Altogether a great neighborhood venue."

The economic impact of anchors like libraries should not be underestimated. In New Rochelle, the popular children's storytime has become a place where parents and day care providers can gather with their children, which in turn spurs demand for lunch at the local coffee shop. It is a virtuous cycle that reinforces downtown as something much more than just a shopping destination. It reinforces the traditional role of downtown as a civic and cultural destination, which in turn drives patronage to local businesses. 
The New Rochelle Public Library, which can be seen in the
background on the right side of the street, is a major cultural
anchor in downtown New Rochelle, NY. 
In low-income communities, the library becomes even more important. It becomes a place to do more than borrow books. It is a place to overcome the digital divide, provide job training and workforce placement services, and to close the gap between information and resources that is so prevalent in lower income communities. In 2014, the Aspen Institute produced a report entitled "Rising to the Challenge: Re-Envisioning Public Libraries" that looked at the new role that libraries are playing in providing a social safety net for people in search of educational opportunities, jobs, health and government resources. And as people increasingly gather their information from the internet, providing internet access in communities where that access is limited is even more crucial to ensuring an even and equitable playing field for people of all incomes and backgrounds.

Can your local libraries become an anchor for commercial revitalization efforts?
Yes, but as the LISC reports notes, library efforts need to be tied explicitly tied to community revitalization efforts. Library leadership needs to be at the table participating in community planning efforts. In New Rochelle, the library is an active participant in the activities and programs sponsored by the Business Improvement District. "BID Family Days" take place on the Library Green from September to June and feature music, crafts, performances, films, entertainments and educational activities. 

Libraries as "leading" investments
The idea here is that libraries can serve as "leading" investments when private sector investment is not yet forthcoming. Improvements in physical infrastructure by public entities can help catalyze investment and change perceptions in a way that has a two fold impact. First, the community benefits tangibly from the availability of new resources, and second, the perception of the community can begin to shift in a way that signals opportunities for much needed investment. Eliminating blight, driving pedestrian traffic, supporting small business opportunities - these are all fundamental to corridor improvement efforts and are a tangible demonstration of the impact of community facilities on local business districts. 

Friday, November 13, 2015

ULI, HUD, ICSC Publication on Retail in Underserved Communities

In 2014, the Urban Land Institute, in partnership with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC) published "Retail in Underserved Communities". The publication was the result of a convening of over 30 national urban markets experts (including our own Principal Larisa Ortiz) over the course of two days. Participants offered insight into the challenges facing underserved communities and the opportunities to advance both practical and policy solutions at the local, regional and national levels.   

The basic challenges facing underserved markets are outlined nicely in the report. In addition to the lack of grocery options, underserved markets also often lack retail for convenient health care, dry cleaners, beauty salons, banking, and other neighborhood conveniences. This publication points out what we know first hand, the challenges are not simply "economic market conditions", they often reflect site specific factors such as:
  • Site availability and assembly
  • Local approval processes
  • Matching the retailer to the market
  • Inaccurate or insufficient market information
We particularly like the case studies that provide detail on the examples shared over the course of the retreat. With that, enjoy!

Thursday, November 12, 2015

It's not about the retail, stupid

In my work I often talk about the need for communities to "get retail ready", but the truth is, it's all a ruse. What I'm often really saying is "please don't use your limited resources for retail attraction  just yet, because frankly you've got lots of other things to worry about!" The truth is, great retail streets are a manifestation of the communities that surround them, not the other way around. There is a maxim in retail that most can recite and that holds true here: "retail follows rooftops."

As a community development practitioner - which is truly what I am - I take this maxim very seriously. In urban communities where population decline has left pockets of poverty and what we have come to call "shrinking cities", the lack of rooftops is a major challenge. So often, the first step in building a great retail district begins with building rooftops - and the ensuing density and market demand that is ultimately required to support businesses.

In 2013, the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development asked our firm to lead an assessment of the economic development activities of community development corporations in New York City. The final report, entitled "Roadmap for Equitable Economic Development" laid out a framework for supporting the natural evolution of the community development industry. More and more, CDCs are building upon their success in housing construction (i.e. those all so important "rooftops") and expanding their role into a wider variety of community development activities, including small business support, commercial corridor improvement efforts, land use advocacy and workforce training, to name a few. This is truly a natural outgrowth that reflects the success they have had in community building efforts - success that has now positioned many of these groups to take on a new role - improving local commercial corridors and ensuring that residents have access to vital goods and services.
The hierarchy of community development, from ANHD's
"Roadmap for Equitable Development"

But let us not forget that getting there took decades - and the work is far from done. We must ensure that this work remains funded through financial tools that have played an instrumental role in helping to build much needed affordable housing.

I share all this because we recently started a project in a challenging urban community in New Jersey. At a forum discussion with local residents it quickly became clear that retail was a concern, but perhaps not a priority. What emerged was a portrait of a deeply troubled community where the complicated issues of poverty, lack of viable job opportunities and rampant crime were first and foremost on people's minds. One participant shared her experience holding a young boy in her arms after he had been shot and going through two towels to keep him from bleeding out. Her struggles are real. The challenges of her community are real. The fact that loitering at the local bodega might result in an assault, robbery or worse are real. In this kind of environment, local businesses struggle just like everybody else. They often cover window openings - or worse remove them entirely - to prevent being cased by thieves. Local business owners struggle to make ends meet, deferring investments and maintenance that might make them more attractive places to shop. It's a deadening cycle that can be difficult to break.

In the end, these efforts are really about improving the market dynamics of community, which may mean spending 15 years on housing development. So in the beginning, it may not really be about the retail, that might have to come later.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

'Micro' Leasing Equals Big Opportunity for Local Eateries in the Age of Nouveau Food Courts

By Scott Landfried

I recently came across a small article in the November 2015 issue of Shopping Centers Today, which discusses the trend of micro leasing space to independent food tenants by developers seeking to offer both variety to customers and opportunity to owners. Typically, local small businesses and new restaurants are too small and precarious for developers to court them and sign a lease agreement, but micro leasing allows spaces to be broken down to small (500-1,000 SF) spaces, allowing for lower start-up costs and making expansion less prohibitive.

Fort Worth based, Trademark Property is one of these developers poised to "offer smaller spaces, lower startup costs, shorter term leases, free outdoor seating and generous tenant-improvement packages" (SCT, Center's 'micro' leasing strategy targets local eateries, Nov 2015).

This concept seems similar to Berg'n, a beer hall and food court that I've visited a few times since its 2014 opening in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Crown Heights. Berg'n offers a common eating/drinking area, four small bays of local eateries, plus a full bar and a coffee shop within the same space. This makes for a stress-free one-stop shop.

This is not a one-size-fits all sort of recipe for shopping districts, but there continues to be greater community appreciation for and a desire to have more local small eateries in the mix. I don't see this form of nouveau food court going away any time soon.

The rising popularity of food carts, especially in cities like Portland and Austin as well as micro-restaurants - small, full-time operations with limited seating and a limited menu - raises an interesting question. Can this economic model might be replicated along other commercial districts?

Additional reads:

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Six basic principles for building thriving commercial districts in low-income communities

Our most recent projects have taken us to Bridgeport and Trenton, two former industrial powerhouses, both now struggling with the impact of industrial displacement, poverty and population decline. Yet there remain residents in these communities for whom improvements are critical to life outcomes. And in our opinion, we really don’t have much time to waste. As Nathaniel Hendren, Harvard Economist and founder of The Equality of Opportunity Project was quoted in a recent New York Times piece, “where you grow up matters.” So simply put - and so true. His research has shown that for “every extra year a child spends in a better environment – as measured by the outcomes of children already living in that area” improvements to childhood outcomes can be demonstrated.

In our work we have found that addressing the corridor challenges of the lowest income communities means thinking more creatively about how to address anemic market conditions. So for practitioners working in these challenging and complicated environments, we share a few principles that we have come to deploy in our work....

1. Support the creation of community retail nodes – rather than dispersed retail. Businesses thrive in clusters, and the convenience of being able to patronize a few businesses at once will enhance the appeal of the district as a whole - benefiting all businesses by driving more traffic than each might on their own. 

This existing node of retail may not look like much,
but it serves the local community and is located at a well trafficked intersection. A district like this is in a better position to benefit from improvements than an area that is less visible and off the beaten path. 

2. Visibility, accessibility and convenience. Retail needs a good location to work. You can’t fabricate these fundamental market conditions if they don’t exist, so don’t try to create a district somewhere where the fundamentals aren’t in place. In some places, whether we like it or not, this means a place that can be easily accessed by car (with adequate parking). In other places, this means access to public transit, or an easy, direct walk by foot or bike. If you ignore this principle you are just setting yourself up for failure. So make sure you are working on retail concentrated in places that are accessible and receive plenty of visibility. Think busy intersections rather than sleepy side streets (even if those side streets once contained vibrant retail in days of yore). 

And sometimes minor, seemingly inconsequential barriers to access will hurt sales. Making your customers walk any further than they have to can result in them hopping right into their cars to find a parking spot somewhere where they won't have to walk. Sad but true. 

Great parking on one side. A great jazz club restaurant on the other. In between? A canal.
So all those folks leaving work in the evening are ten times less likely to do anything but jump in their car and go elsewhere. 

3. Consider businesses that do not depend as heavily on discretionary income, because if you don’t have enough residents with discretionary income right now, it might be awhile before you have enough to support new businesses. So instead think about uses that can be sustained through public funding or other income streams, such as publicly funded day care centers, urgent care clinics, non-profit service providers, educational or workforce training programs, etc. These kinds of businesses not only fill space, but they also generate traffic can result in the added benefit of creating enough demand to support a small amount of auxiliary businesses, from food related businesses – a pizza shop or deli – to a pharmacy or convenience store.

Increasingly urgent care facilities are taking over ground floor retail space.
These facilities can provide an extra level of medical service in communities that desperately need them. 
4. Build density – sometimes there is no way around it. In some communities, population figures are so anemic that the only adequate response is to build housing. This is where Community Development Corporations have excelled over the past few decades, using important financing tools like the Low Income Housing Tax Credit or Section 202. While these resources are unfortunately increasingly limited, they have proved critical in turning neighobrhoods around and in creating the market demand over time that can support small businesses.  

A vacant lot of Southern Boulevard in the South Bronx

The same vacant lot after local CDC WHEDCO developed the project into quality affordable housing.
5. Focus on the physical environment – focus on improvements to the physical environment that will address issues of safety. Think about graffiti clean up, street clean ups, vacant lot clean ups – these kinds of activities can help build neighborhood pride and in fact do have an impact on neighborhoods. Research funded by LISC, one of the nation's largest community development intermediaries, found that the impact of Philadelphia's vacant lot program had a positive impact on the sales of local businesses, real estate values in the district and shopper preference. A win-win all around. 

New Kensington CDC in Philadelphia was one of the early adopters of the vacant lot maintenance program, now called Philadelphia LandCare. At some point these lots may be developed, removing the "missing teeth" from the district. But for now the maintained lots have made a significant improvement along the corridor. 

6. Focus on helping small businesses address public safety and visibility issues. Sometimes small investments in physical improvements, such as lighting or signage, can help existing businesses capture more market share. Moreover, these small investments can make a big difference in the perception of public safety. A transparent window, or well positioned lighting, can make a store that most didn't think twice about visiting more appealing. 

This seafood restaurant in a lower income community in Queens is doing lots of things right.
Transparent windows, outdoor seating, blade signs. 

The main take away is that a commercial district in a lower income community must find ways to ensure that every potential dollar that can be captured is in fact captured. There is little room for error. That means removing all possible hurdles that prevents customers from easily and conveniently patronizing local businesses. And in some cases, that means building the market to create more demand for retail - read new development. While that process can sometimes take a long time, with a strong road map and an understanding of the kind of market conditions necessary for business to thrive, I have seen time and again that neighborhoods can in fact change and improve, benefiting the residents that live there. 

Monday, November 2, 2015

American Planning Association NY Recognizes LOA Principal with Ponte Award

We’re proud to announce that Larisa Ortiz, Principal of Larisa Ortiz Associates (LOA), has been selected by the American Planning Association - New York Metro Chapter to receive the Robert Ponte Award at this year's annual meeting.

The Ponte is awarded to an individual who, through economic planning and development, has made a significant contribution to the vitality of the New York area. It is presented annually in honor of urban planner Robert W. Ponte, who, among other things, helped prepare master plans for Battery Park City and the 42d Street Redevelopment Project.

Larisa brings over 20 years of experience to her practice, where she focuses on providing strategic guidance, technical assistance and market analysis to urban commercial districts both nationally and internationally. She is a Mayoral appointee to the New York City Planning Commission and author of “Improving Tenant Mix: A Guide for Commercial District Management Professionals” published by the International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC). She serves on the Board of the International Downtown Association and as Co-Chair of the ICSC Eastern Division Alliance Program. A former Fulbright Scholar and Watson Fellow, Larisa holds a B.A. with honors from Wesleyan University and a master’s degree in City Planning from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

A long-time New Yorker, Larisa has worked for and advised a variety of New York City agencies and non-profits. While at the New York Economic Development Corporation, she led an inter-agency team charged with developing a comprehensive rezoning and regulatory framework for 125th Street in Harlem. She served as Senior Director of Retail Attraction for the NYC Department of Small Business where she directed the development and execution of the award winning Neighborhood Leadership Program, now in its fifth year. The program is currently being replicated in Chicago as the LISC Business District Leadership Program, with Larisa’s guidance. Internationally, Larisa was a member of the consultant team that established Latin America’s first Business Improvement District in San Salvador, El Salvador.

Past awardees of the Robert Ponte Award include: Adam Friedman, Executive Director of the Pratt Center for Community Development; Josh Lerner, Ph.D.; Michael D’Angelo, Director of Research, Rockland County Planning Department; Dr. Pearl M. Kamer; Ira Hirschman, Ph.D.; Christopher Jones, Vice President For Research, Regional Plan Association; and Joseph J. Salvo.

This award was selected by the APA NY Metro 2015 Awards Committee and presented at the annual meeting on Friday, Oct 30 at Lerner Hall, Columbia University.