Thursday, April 16, 2015

Poverty and the Pedal

Three times in the past year alone our firm has completed work in low-income communities and asked questions about alternative transportation options - one of them being - do people bike? In one bike-friendly west coast city, the response, from an African-American community organizer was "most of our folks consider that a hipster thing". And while there were lots of people biking through the historically African-American community, I had to admit that it was true, nearly every cyclist that past us by was Caucasian.

CityLab did some research on this issue last year and found that "while wealthier people increasingly reduce their car dependency, poor people still aspire to car ownership." Or as our West coast community organizer said, "people have the attitude that only losers ride bikes." Fortunately, this mindset is changing, and we should encourage a paradigm shift among minority communities through education, bike infrastructure (i.e. safe places to park your bike so it won't get stolen) and support (free bikes and helmets anyone?)

Would you walk this street with a bag of groceries?
More recently, we have been working in another low-income urban neighborhood on the outskirts of a major downtown in Connecticut. The neighborhood had been labeled a "food dessert" and our original scope was to help them attract a grocery store. But here was the problem. While there wasn't a grocery store within the specific boundaries of that neighborhood, there were multiple food stores within a five to eight minute drive - the trade area that most grocery stores consider when considering site selection.

The good news was that the area was poised to get a grocery store at a new development immediately adjacent to the neighborhood at a major highway interchange. So problem solved, right? Wrong. The street connections to the future grocery-anchored community shopping center could not have been less hospitable to residents coming by alternative transportation means. No sidewalks or bike lanes and desolate streetscapes all made what was only a few minute long walk both unpleasant and in some places dangerous. Yet in a community where 48% of households do not own a car (compared to the state average of 85%) and meager public transportation at best, improving access to the shopping center for residents without cars should be a driving priority. Hey, if you can't bring the supermarket to people you can at least do everything in your power to bring the people to the supermarket. This means bike infrastructure, dedicated bike lanes and safe places to park your bike once you get there. In this community, it also means slowing cars down on a one-way street that should be made two-way. And finally, it means education in the local public schools (bikes are cool, right!) and yes, maybe free bikes and helmets for kids and their parents.

Biking is not a panacea, but it should be a viable option for those who don't have other options. And right now, there is tons of room for improvement on that front.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

What's the Formula for Staying in Character?

Jersey City, New Jersey's second most populous city, has downtown character that current mayor, Steve Fulop, is trying to protect.

Jersey City now joins a select group of cities, most notably San Francisco, that aim to limit the number of chains in their communities. In Jersey City, the  proposed city regulation would set a limit of 30 percent of commercial space in downtown rented to businesses with 10 or more locations within 300 miles of the city. This kind of regulation is also known as "Formula Business Restrictions", and in general seek to limit chain stores with "multiple locations within the region that exhibit standardized characteristics such as logos, menus, store decor" and more.  In Jersey City, grocery stores will be exempt. Typically, the goal of these restrictions is to support a vibrant retail sector by limiting the number of chain stores competing for space and thereby reducing commercial rents - or at least the rising pressure of rents over time. Whether the facts on the ground bear this result out over time are yet to be seen. To my knowledge, there is no longitudinal study that would allow us to definitively determine whether these restrictive ordinances do what they intend to do - keep rents down in a way that results in a vibrant independent business environment.

What I do know is that San Francisco's Office of Economic Analysis recently completed a study of the impact of the 2008 Formula Restrictions and found that on balance, a significant impact of the regulation has been the higher prices that local residents are forced to pay for goods and services on the whole. They also conclude that formula restrictions "increase vacancy rates". According to the OEA, the conclusion of the study was as follows: "expanding the definition of formula retail in the city will not expand the local economy". Strong words from the very City that has led these efforts nationwide. It should be noted that the study's findings have been criticized by the Institute for Local Self Reliance, a think tank that has long supported such restrictions, for overestimating the price differential between chains and non-chains and not accounting for the higher percentage of expenses that small businesses spend on wages. However, OEA looked at this assumption and found that larger retail establishments employed 4.3 workers per million dollars in sales than smaller retailers, who employed 3.2.  So it seems the verdict is still out on this one.

But back to New Jersey. Not surprisingly, business and real estate groups are opposed. New Jersey Retail Merchant Association  president, John Holub, noted "We totally are obviously supportive of a vibrant, independent retail sector in the city, but to artificially try to control market forces is troubling."

Mayor Fulop wants to see Jersey City as a destination that pulls in visitors from all over and noted that chain stores such as TGI Fridays, Starbucks, Applebees, and Gap don't have that magnetism that draws destination seekers to them. That may be true - and laudable goal overall - but it is not without costs and impact felt by all.

Article link.

Authored by Larisa Ortiz, Principal of Larisa Ortiz Associates
and Scott Landfried, LOA staff

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

“Edge Cities” Grow Up

The new Tysons Corner skyline gets an update with a residential tower.
In 1991, journalist Joel Garreau published his seminal book, Edge Cities, which described places like Tysons Corner, a former country cross roads that grew into the quintessential automobile-oriented suburban shopping center and office park surrounded by traditional suburban single family homes. Today, Tysons is one of many former riding the wave back towards mixed-use downtown's, according to Shopping Centers Today (“Living Above the Store”, SCT April 2015). This trend is being led by millennials and baby boomers who want urban places to live, work and shop. According to a 2014 Nielson Report , “Millennials are fueling an urban revolution looking for the vibrant, creative energy cities offering a mix of housing, shopping and offices right outside their doorstep.” In fact, 62% of millennials “prefer to live in mixed-use communities found in urban centers.”

Shopping mall developers are increasingly responding to this growing demand by growing the commensurate supply of mixed-use projects that include a residential component. Both Macerich and Simon Properties, two of the largest mall developers in the nation, are adding housing to projects in their portfolios. Macerich recently added a 430-unit residential tower to Tysons Corner mall and Simon is adding a 319-unit mid-rise luxury building at its Phipps Plaza Property in Atlanta. Simon has also added 232-units to its Southdale Center mall in Edina, Minnesota. Downtown's and urban places are clearly the inspiration for these former Edge cities.
Skyview Center and Skyview Parc in downtown
Flushing, Queens, a combined mall/apartment building 
But if you think this is just a suburban trend, think again. Downtown Flushing, Queens, NY is home to the Shops at Skyview Center a $1 billion dollar project that is home to an 800k mixed-use, multi-level shopping center with stores like BJ’s, Nike Clearance Store, Forever 21, Target and Nordstrom Rack. Above Skyview Center is Skyview Parc – a luxury apartment building that is luring an international crowd of buyers (many Chinese) to some of the area’s most pricey apartments (the average apartment sells for over $700k). The project also offers a four acre landscaped park on the roof of the mall with walking trails, playgrounds, a dog run and picnic tables. Nice place to live if you can afford it…

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Urban Priorities Survey

Attention downtown and district practitioners and advocates! 

There is an opportunity to inform the industry's agenda. The International Downtown Association (IDA) invites you to communicate your top priorities to the IDA Board by completing a short survey (less than 10 mins). 

What matters to your urban area? 
What are your personal perspectives on the future of your downtown? 
What are the priorities in your own work? 

IDA is trying to understand the key issues affecting urban revitalization in the years ahead and wants to hear from urban practitioners at all levels. The results will help IDA as it shifts priorities toward research, advocacy and cultivating downtown leadership. 

It is encouraged to share the survey anyone who shares a passion for downtowns whether it be downtown management organizations, developers, local government, consultants, economic development, etc. 

The survey deadline is April 15th and can be found here.