Tuesday, April 5, 2016

What comes after streetscape improvements? One Caribbean island tries to figure out what's next for its centuries old historic district.

Last week I had the opportunity to tour the Ciudad Colonial, or the "colonial city" of Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic. The tour was led by the Inter American Development Bank (IDB), one of the leading funders of downtown revitalization throughout Latin America. I was thrilled to be back in my element. Almost twenty years ago I spent a year traveling around the world as a Watson Fellow (quite honestly the best gig I have ever had!). I puddle jumped my way through thirteen countries to study downtown revitalization as it was being practiced in Spain and former Spanish colonies. Yet despite all of my travels, this was my first visit to Santo Domingo.

The downtown is of modest size - 9,000 residents - and is about 5 km square. As one of the first Spanish colonial outposts in the New World, the city follows the Law of the Indies. These were the planning ordinances that the Spanish Crown set for its colonies. These laws were themselves modeled on Roman planning practices that were developed during the expansion of the Roman Empire in Europe.

I was thrilled to see the effort to revitalize the City Center taking shape. The effort has received significant support from the IDB and according to my guides, almost $30 million dollars has been invested in streetscape improvements intended to both beautify and make the very narrow colonial streets safer for pedestrians. The improvements were quite impressive and certainly have made an impact on the street.

But challenges remain. As the IDB team and local stakeholders look to graduate their efforts from capital and physical improvements, the road ahead can be rocky. Capital funding is generally easier to secure than the resources - both human and financial - that are often critical to keeping up the momentum.  Now that the streets are in great shape, the work of getting people there, and ensuring that the offerings of housing, hospitality, culture, retail and entertainment keep them there as either visitors, businesses or residents, is the next step. 

In thinking this through, I am reminded of the "Retail Ready" Hierarchy that we speak about at LOA quite frequently. 

"Retail Ready" Hierarchy

The first step involves "who" is going to get things done. The individuals, organizations and institutions who lead and execute the effort. The second phase involves focusing on the fundamentals, making sure the physical environment is comfortable, clean, accessible and safe. While you never really move on from Phase II - maintaining improvements over time is as important as getting them constructed int he first place - you need some of the basics in place before moving on to the advanced stages of revitalization. Phase III is about building the customer base through a variety of methods. For some communities, it can mean increasing the number of residents who form the basis of stable market demand. In a district like the Ciudad Colonial, with a 70% upper vacancy rate, repopulating the downtown is one potential strategy. These residents subsequently become a stable source of demand that support local businesses through the ups and downs of tourism. In communities whose economies are driven by tourism, there is the additional need to ensure that visitors have enough to see and do, from retail offerings, to events and activities, to make a stay worthwhile. These offerings need to be simultaneously marketed through thoughtful promotion and innovative partnerships that help attract visitors to the district - and ensure they stay as long as possible.   

Nearly 18 years ago I wrote about this strategy in Habitat Debate, a United Nations publication, in a piece entitled "Rehabilitating Historic Districts through Public-Private Partnerships" (which amazing can still be found on-line!). The premise of those findings still hold. In both Santiago, Chile and Quito, Ecuador, non-profit or public-private partnerships were first formed to improve the physical environment, attract investment and development new housing - i.e. grow the customer base - for downtown goods and services. Both efforts have had great success and have been lauded as models for other Latin American countries. These lessons have clearly made it to Santo Domingo and it will be exciting to see what happens next!

Here are a few pics from my visit...enjoy!

Thank you to my wonderful hosts! And to my son for being rather patient as him mom takes him on urban planning tours. 
A quaint residential block in the historic district
Tourists can rent bicycles for an easy ride around town. 
Paseo Conde is the main pedestrian corridor. 
Directional Signage/Maps for tourists dot the Paseo El Conde

The IDB is funding some development projects that promise to bring more people to the district.
The building clad in black scaffolding is one such project. 

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