Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Waterfront Revitalization Driving Commercial Reinvestment: A Few Examples

An increasing number of waterfronts have undergone makeovers in recent years and helping to revitalize commercial corridors along the way. They’ve been usually touted as reclamation projects: These rivers run through the heart of their cities and their waterfronts have been blocked by the presence of major structures once dedicated to manufacturing and shipping. Big cities have been working the river angle to their advantage for some time. A few cities, like Providence and San Antonio have become destinations because of the opportunities created by their rivers.

But it’s not just big cities. A growing number of small to medium-size cities are embracing their once industrial waterfronts and transforming them into a destination for residents, businesses and visitors. Increasingly, local economic development officials and authorities are recognizing the potential of integrating these waterfronts into their cities’ urban fabric and in many cases using them as a complementing destination enriching downtowns with additional activities and amenities.

To be successful, however, waterfront revitalization schemes need to go beyond cleaning and activating these areas; they need to be able to integrate them with surrounding neighborhoods (residential and commercial alike) through walkable streetscape improvements, clear visual and physical connections and enhance their sense of place through meaningful public spaces. Furthermore, as the examples below reveal, they require committed leadership at multiple government levels as well as a strong organization with the capacity and drive to carry out these efforts.

Owensboro, KY

Smothers Park and Promenade, Owensboro, Kentucky

This city of fifty eight thousand residents, the 4th largest in Kentucky, has seen tremendous growth since its riverfront revitalization took place. Thanks to an initial public investment of $80 million, obtained through a doubling of the local tax on insurance premiums from 4 to 8 percent, Owenboro’s city administration spearheaded the process. Like any proposed tax increase, it was hotly debated and controversial but the commitment of tax dollars sent a powerful message that prompted the private sector to get on board. As key Owensboro leaders understood early on, the river, which gave the town its past, could also provide it a brighter future. And it did.

The first catalytic project was Smothers Park and Promenade: a nearly six-acre park that fronts the river and includes a sprawling playground, a veterans memorial, promenades, three fountains with water shows every 15 minutes, a cascading waterfall, and seating where residents and visitors can enjoy the Ohio River and its views.

After the completion of Smothers Park, RiverPark Center, a performing arts center, was built adjacent to it, followed by a 169,000SF convention center, two hotels and a number of businesses that were attracted to the area's increased visibility. The riverfront transformation was so catalytic (generating approximately $1 billion in combined public and private investments) that brought Owensboro feature article coverage in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and elsewhere.

Port Huron, MI

Port Huron Waterfront

Once a busy industrial hub, Port Huron’s tired waterfront languished as commercial tonnage through the port decayed since the 1970s. Like many Midwest communities that were once very dependent on heavy industry, Port Huron needed to change to survive.

In the last few years Port Huron positioned itself as a tourist destination by promoting its waterfront location and history. Proclaimed as the “Maritime Capital of the Great Lakes,” Port Huron now hosts community events including Coast Guard Days and the annual Port Huron to Mackinac yacht race. Maritime museums showcase historical lighthouses and turn of the century ships.

Port Huron’s waterfront renaissance is the result of a long-range waterfront redevelopment planning process. The “Southside Summit”, co-hosted by the city and a private developer, Acheson Ventures, provided a forum for community exchange of information, concerns, and visions for the most important piece of waterfront real estate in Port Huron.

One of the early catalytic projects was Desmond Landing, a mixed-use redevelopment at the confluence of Black River and St. Clair River that includes fishing access and a promenade. Desmond Landing has been carefully planned and developed in a configuration that re-establishes the linkage between the automobile and pedestrian environment of Main Street with the boating and pedestrian environment of the waterfront. Municipally-funded projects also complement the project and reinforce this linkage by extending the traditional street and sidewalk grid from Main Street toward the river.

Most recently, at the north end of the Desmond Landing project, the privately owned Black River Marina has been refurbished and named Desmond Marine. The marina adds a full-service boat dealership to several other riverfront marinas and businesses leading up the river through the Main Street district. Together with new public sidewalks, a mile-long promenade and a new 35,000 SF convention center these developments have brought new life and vibrancy to the area.

In addition to larger catalytic projects, smaller initiatives that complement these waterfront revitalization efforts are making a difference. For example, in order to prevent a “second downtown” in Port Huron and disperse economic activities, the Port Huron Main Street program has worked closely with private developers to remove visual and physical barriers between the historic Main Street and new waterfront developments and thus create a cohesive and accessible Main Street connected to the water.

Wheeling, West Virginia

Heritage Port, Wheeling, West Virginia

Like many American cities, the community of Wheeling was long disconnected from its river by a layer of flood protection infrastructure along with underutilized building structures. Recognizing the potential of its waterfront heritage, the city devised a long-term plan to redevelop the port and encourage activity along the waterfront. The Wheeling National Heritage Area Corporation (WNHAC) was thus established to lead the process. Its first step was the demolition of the Wharf Garage, an old parking structure blocking the city’s connection to the waterfront, and its replacement by a waterfront park with trails, events spaces and river access. Heritage Port opened in 2002 and since then has become a local and regional destination that attracts between 250,000 – 300,000 visitors annually to the festivals and events held there.

In addition to re-establishing Wheeling’s access to the waterfront, WNHAC brought to the area the Wheeling Artisan Center, an adaptive mixed use industrial structure, consisting of three buildings with a three-story atrium and skylight. Originally housing a grocery business and dating back to 1868, the building had several uses in the intervening years. WNHAC rehabilitated the building, which is currently functioning as office space, a large restaurant incorporating Wheeling’s heritage, an arts and craft floor, an art space, and a 7,500 square foot special events hall used for conferences, wedding receptions and banquets.

Buffalo, NY

After years of economic decline, Buffalo New York is in the midst of significant redevelopment activity along its long forgotten waterfront. Spearheading the process is the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation (ECHDC), a state-run agency created to manage the rehabilitation of Buffalo’s waterfront through projects funded through a combination of money from New York State and the New York Power Authority.

Canalside, Buffalo, NY

At the core of Buffalo’s revitalization process is Canalside, a nautical-themed public park that transformed Buffalo’s inner harbor. Open to the public since May 2008, Canalside features several restored components of the original Erie Canal Harbor, including the Commercial Slip, Boardwalk, and the Historic Replica Canals. A regional attraction, Canalside offers thousands of events, concerts, festivals, family activities, historical and cultural programming, art, food, and tours. In addition, the Historic Replica Canals are frozen in the winter months to become New York State’s largest outdoor ice skating rink.

Canalside, Buffalo, NY

With these infrastructure investments and a new organization tasked with development in place, developers began to see what had been blight as an opportunity. In 2014, an office building that had been empty for 20 years reopened as One Canalside, with a hotel and law firm as tenants. That same year, an ice hockey-themed mixed-use development called HarborCenter opened its doors on land that had been a surface parking lot.

A new attraction, Pearl Street Grill and Brewery was attracted by the abandoned grain elevator structures and waterfront improvements

According to local and state authorities, the public investments initially made to revitalize the waterfront were a necessary component in making the waterfront more attractive and more accessible to residents, but also to private sector investment. In fact, progress can already be seen and experienced. Last year Canalside received nearly 1.5 million visitors, and local planning officials report thousands of construction jobs and over a thousand permanent jobs created. Thanks to its revamped waterfront, Buffalo is becoming the go-to place for visitors of all ages to play, dine and relax.

Monday, December 12, 2016

The Double-Edged Sword of Crowd Sourced Reviews

This holiday season many of us are taking vacations on small remote islands or even upstate just for a weekend in a quaint and undiscovered town. Wherever you end up in the world this month, you are bound to run into a local business owner selling you beautiful handmade souvenirs, delicious cocktails, or an authentic meal and they’re all going to plead that you write them a review. Whether it’s TripAdvisor or Yelp, small business owners are increasingly relying on this new ‘word of mouth’ to earn a good reputation and build a following in this digital age. While we still occasionally rely on the acclaimed critic’s write-up of a restaurant or merchandise, crowd sourced reviews are fast becoming more and more relied upon as a source of information for various goods and services. They are often the first stop for recommendations on everything from restaurants and bars to drycleaners and pet sitters. Sure, crowd sourced reviews might just be an ad populum fallacy but hey, how bad can the fried chicken place be if 2,163 other people gave it a 4-star rating, right?

In 2009, Yelp.com took crowd-sourced reviews to the next level by covering far more restaurants in Seattle than any local publication, including Seattle Times. That year about 70% of all restaurants were listed on Yelp versus a mere 5% by Seattle Times. Unfortunately, this growth of crowd sourced reviews also means that some businesses’ reputations, whether deserving or not, can get easily tarnished with just a click of a button. So before you make vacation plans based on crowd sourced reviews of local bed and breakfasts or restaurants, or in turn write some reviews on your travels, here are some things you should keep in mind about the impacts these reviews have on small, local businesses:
Why Crowd Sourced Reviews May Be Good 

1. Fills information gaps for consumers
Crowd sourcing necessarily means more people providing input. Theoretically, this means gaps in information can more easily be filled by the hundreds and thousands of people who have entered a store, or purchased a product. This might be especially useful for small businesses that have less capability in attracting major media outlets to write thorough reviews of their products and services – so really, it’s free content marketing for them. Of course, the underlying assumption here is that the reviews businesses get are positive and, more importantly, truthful.

2. Good Yelp reviews bring in more business 

Thanks to the ad populum fallacy, positive crowd sourced reviews rake in business. In a recent study by Michael Luca of the Harvard Business School, reviews from the website Yelp.com was combined with public restaurant data to determine whether online consumer reviews really did influence the way that reputation was formed. Indeed the study found that each ratings star added on a Yelp review translated to anywhere between a 5% to 9% effect on revenues of an independent restaurant’s revenue. A report from the Boston Consulting Group also concluded that small businesses that use Yelp saw annual revenue increase by $8,000, based on a survey of 4,800 business owners.

Why Crowd Sourced Reviews may be bad

1. Complex algorithms 

A common criticism of crowd-sourced reviews is the sites’ automatic filtering systems. While arguably these filters hide suspicious reviews, there are also potentially good reviews that get buried as a result and this lowers a businesses’ rating given that hidden reviews do not count toward overall ratings.

2. Gaming or non representative reviews

More recently, business owners have been voicing concerns over other businesses ‘gaming’ the system by unfairly getting friends and family to leave perhaps slightly biased reviews. As a result of this, real customers doing research online may fall prey to the popularity contest and pick these ‘gaming’ businesses to patron over others.

Non representative reviews that are a result of vengeance, although less common, are also becoming a major concern among business owners. One simple yet bad review can negatively affect small businesses especially when it has overall few reviews to begin with. In fact, marketing firm Cone Communications found that 80 percent of customers changed their mind about purchasing a product after reading negative information online.

Worse still, in either scenarios, businesses are unable to remove these false reviews resulting in overall unreliable product information. The best thing that businesses can do when met with bad false reviews, is to flag or report it to Yelp using a simple form, or work harder at increasing the total number of reviews with at least decent ones. While Yelp has taken some steps in holding users accountable for their reviews, other crowd source review sites like TripAdvisor are still very easily abused by the public.

3. Leveling playing field for small businesses spells trouble for big boys

Unfortunately, bigger and national chain eateries with multiple locations and common menu items are not benefitting as much from crowd sourced review sites. Research suggests that smaller, local eateries are starting to get better shares of customers because these crowd sourced review sites are essentially leveling the playing field by allowing customers to learn as much about local restaurants as they know about the chains. The competitive edge that these large chain eateries had in being safe bets for diners in terms of quality, menu offerings, and price points no longer applies when local eateries also have this type of information available online on crowd sourced review sites.

Whether businesses like it or not, crowd sourced review sites are fast becoming substitutes for traditional ‘word-of-mouth’ and are also closing the information divide as go-to information platforms for customers doing research—from where to go on vacation and where to stay to who makes the best mojito in all of the city. So wherever you end up this holiday season, and whatever you end up doing, remember to leave a truthful review for the business owner and at the same time one that provides a potential customer with useful product and service information.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

When City Signs Become an Iconic Destination

If you were asked to think of the most recognizable street-level city sign, most people would probably say the "I amsterdam" sign comes to mind. And for good reason.

As David Hornstein of Eye for Travel puts it, "The I Amsterdam sculpture elegantly captures the information of place in a meaningful way. By being able to touch, climb and photograph the sculpture tourists can literally touch and feel the brand, something that usually is very abstract and intangible. This brings the brand to life and makes it fun to interact with." In fact, I Amsterdam is not only a sign but also an intereactive sculpture. I myself am guilty of climbing on and taking pictures in the sculpture. It was a tangible memory.

The I Amsterdam sculpture is one of the images most posted on social media including Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, etc. Because the world is globally integrated with social media, the city of Amsterdam is globally marketed for free. The I Amsterdam sculpture is a destination in itself that attracts people to the neighborhood and who end up visiting the shops, cafes, museums, and activities nearby.

Through the installation of one of these sculptural signs a city or commercial district can easily boost city pride, tourism, iconocism and promote activity and engagement- especially if the word(s) have integrated meaning to the city or word play. It can serve as an anchor to the surrounding district and become a meeting point easily identifiable and fun.

Lafayette, Louisiana for example, through their Creativity Everywhere project, produced a giant "LAFAYETTE". This one is interesting because it is interactive as well as iconic and pride inducing because it encourages people to create the "Y" in the middle.

Obviously not every city can adopt the same signage strategy as this could cause a lose of uniqueness, charm, and individuality of the city or district. However, as cities and districts continue to create strategic marketing plans, the addition of a city sign to the scene may become a an integral branding component that reflects each city's identity and reinforces its brand.

Here are some additional city signs from around the world:
"Only Lyon" sign found in Lyon, France
OY or YO sign, found in Brooklyn Bridge Park
"Mexico 68" Olympic sign
Central District, Mexico City

Support Your Local Artists This Holiday Season!

We're all gearing up for the holidays and of course buying gifts has become part and parcel of the season. Although looking for various types of gifts for all the different people in our lives has become less stressful and made easier with department stores and shopping malls offering a wide range of products, artisanal holiday markets have become the new hub to do this same type of cross shopping.

In New York, holiday markets are sprouting up all across the city - indoors and outdoors - and offering customers carefully-curated and unique shopping experiences filled with independent vendors selling an eclectic array of goods. A few weeks back, I stumbled upon Ridgewood Market Holiday Night Bazaar inside a German beer hall in the burgeoning neighborhood. Although the indoor market was discreetly located and inconspicuous, within 45 minutes I was armed with gifts for everyone on my list and not only did I spend much less than I would have at Bloomingdale's, I also got gifts that were handmade and one-of-a-kind.

This community-based artisan market, for example, features over 40 local artists who live or work within the neighborhood and that night all of them were out selling their products in person. There were ceramic pieces carved by hand in a nearby studio, metal jewelry mixed locally, and even honey harvested in local backyards. The truly engaging shopping experience that artists/vendors at such markets are able to offer is also special as many are able to speak eloquently to the process and inspiration of each product being sold.

As more research begins to point to the importance of maintaining physical retail presence and creating compelling shopping experiences to attract millennial shoppers, these holiday markets are certainly doing a great job offering millennials the stories they seek and the opportunities to touch, feel and test products.

Most importantly, this type of local and artisanal market is also fast becoming an outlet for artists, or aspiring small business owners, to test their products on the market and start building a customer base at a particularly crucial time of the year for retail. So for those of you who are still struggling to find the perfect gifts for all the special people in your lives, visit your neighborhood artisanal holiday market in your beer hall, church, or park, and support the local artists and aspiring business owners living amongst you!

Check out amNY and TimeOut New York for their lists of holiday markets in NYC!

Friday, December 2, 2016

Winter Light Festivals: Inspiring Examples

It is that time of the year when downtowns and commercial districts put up their holiday lights. Many districts, however, go beyond the typical Christmas lights. In an increasing number of cities across the world, large-scale light installations that blend art and technology are making their mark, lighting up the night of downtowns and neighborhood commercial districts. Many of these light festivals include interactive elements that turn spectators into participants, while others include live music, performances, street food and a variety of community events. Light festivals are also tourism magnets, attracting locals and out-of-towners alike to waterfronts, historic districts, and other neighborhoods on dark winter nights or during other periods when tourist activity may be low. Below are some inspiring examples.

Amsterdam Light Festival

From December until January Amsterdam lights up for the annual Amsterdam Light Festival. Over 35 artworks from international artists, designers and architects find their way alongside two different exhibition routes: ‘Water Colors’, the boat route and ‘Illuminate’, the walking route. Organized and managed by a public-private partnership between the municipality, the cultural sector and numerous businesses, its Board includes representatives from the cultural sector and various businesses in Amsterdam.

The festival offers a stage to light artists from all over the world to present their work in Amsterdam for two months and stimulates them to push their own boundaries and innovate. A jury selects the artworks that will become part of the festival.  In 2016 about 1800 artists from 93 different countries were interested in participating in the festival, of which 35 concepts were selected.

Luci d'Artista, Turin

Since 1998, the city of Turin, Italy, hosts the ‘Luci d’Artista’ a series of light installations that combine art and technology to illuminate the city’s streets and piazzas during the holidays. Since its first edition, the event became a point of reference for Italian contemporary artists to showcase their work and has attracted an increasing number of local and international visitors.

Nabana no Sato Winter Illuminations, Japan

From November to March, Nabana no Sato is one of the largest light festivals in Japan. There are various attractions including a huge field transformed into a sea of lights below an animated light show, light tunnels and an observation deck that lifts visitors high above the park where they can get a bird's eye view of the lights.

Pittsburgh Light Up Night

Light Up Night is a festival in Pittsburgh held during the winter holiday season. Many retailers in downtown Pittsburgh remain open late, and street vendors and other concessionaires sell food and give away hot beverages, treats and promotional items. The city is decorated with Christmas lights, trees and other holiday decorations. On Light Up Night, the skyscrapers and buildings in and around downtown keep their lights on throughout the night, lending to the name. According to local news, over 200,000 people attend the festivities.

San Antonio River Walk Holiday Lights
During the holidays the historic streets and famous River Walk of San Antonio, TX, are illuminated with millions of decorative lights, which are part of a number of lighting events including the Ford Holiday River Parade (the event that kicks off the holidays as thousands of lights illuminate the River Walk and decorated floats wind through the river in one of the country's only nighttime river parades), the Ford Fiesta de las Luminarias (visitors of all ages  stroll along the banks of the San Antonio River guided by more than 6,000 luminarias. These warmly glowing candles in sand-filled bags line the walkways to symbolically mark the "lighting of the way" for the Holy Family), among other events that together attract thousands of visitors to the city every holiday season.

Rochester, MI, Bright Light Show

For the past eleven holiday seasons the buildings of downtown Rochester, MI, have their entire facades covered with over one million points of LED lights to create The Big, Bright Light Show. The Big, Bright Light Show is typically held in conjunction with the Lagniappe festival. Created for downtown merchants to celebrate the holiday season, Lagniappe comes from the Creole word meaning "a little something extra" and retailers provide discounts and giveaways to their customers.