Thursday, November 23, 2017

The Secret to the LISC #CorridorChallenge. A Deep Dive around PR & Communications.

For nearly two years and counting LOA has been working closely with the New York office of the Local Initiative Support Corporation (LISC) to develop and execute an innovative program aimed at commercial corridor improvements in some of the city of New York's most under served and rapidly changing communities. The Commercial #CorridorChallenge is a collaboration between LISC, Citi Community Development, and the New York City Department of Small Business Services (SBS). Together these organizations are working in three communities to support very targeted and strategic commercial corridor interventions.

The program offers three competitively selected communities $50,000+ in funds for the implementation of "early action" activities meant to catalyze revitalization efforts and build the capacity of each community development partner. Direct funding for capital improvements is perhaps a bit standard - but what makes the program unique is the wrap around technical assistance in the form of data-driven strategies, PR and communications support (to help build awareness of the effort and build the credibility of participating groups), and follow up performance metrics (in the form of surveys and pedestrian counts) that will be used to help measure the impact of the initiative.

Today I want to take you behind the curtain of the PR and communications support that each group receives and that is intended to amplify their efforts. This program is not just about the small scale investments funded through the direct capital monies (though those are clearly central to the program), it is also about training the groups to use media coverage on a regular basis as a tool to build buzz around their work and its impact. This buzz is a critical element of the program accomplishes a number of things. First, it helps to attract both new customers and new businesses to the area and second it helps establish the bona fides of the participating organizations as leaders in commercial revitalization activities and partners to the local business community. The idea is to offer the groups success in immediate term activities over which they can demonstrate control, so that they build the confidence and credibility necessary to tackle more advanced activities over the medium to long-term. Some of you may recognize this theory from Steven Covey's "Circle of Influence" - and it under-girds the methodology of this program.

The elements of the PR support included and resulted in the following:
  • "Scribe" articles written by a professional writer that offer narrative summaries of the work and are posted on LISCs website, as well as blasted via email by both LISC, project partners and the community organizations. The first project summary was written by consultant Mark Foggin and can be found here
  • An experienced PR firm was engaged to supports a few key milestones, notably a press event announcing the program (in this case the selection of local businesses that will receive storefront improvement grants); the placement of editorial content in key news outlets; and the individual unveiling events (that are still to come) at the end of the project. PR firm Anat Gerstein Inc. supported these efforts and got us great coverage, including this piece in Crain’s New York Business, authored by Sam Marks, Executive Director of LISC NYC and Eileen Auld, New York tri-state director for Citi Community Development. We were also thrilled with the TV coverage and local media coverage that they got for us. Both NY1 and the Staten Island Advance covered the event. Unexpectedly, the local Councilwoman who participated in the unveiling created her own video as well. Yet another way in which the communications effort that was baked into the program leveraged even additional - and unexpected - media coverage. See below.  

The truth is, community organizations frequently fail to toot their own horn - yet the ability to ensure that even small improvements make a big impact is deeply rooted in our belief that celebrations serve a purpose. They need to know that there is steward for the corridor and that yes, change is in fact happening. Economic development is by far one of the more challenging community change efforts - it is notoriously difficult to find funding for work that ultimately benefits individual business owners. This is why building awareness of the effort and getting media coverage is such an integral part of the strategy for corridor work in these communities - and why it is a central tenet of this innovative program.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Planning for Boomers: Here is why it matters and what to do about it

This post is the first a series that will attempt to illuminate how major demographic shifts will drive downtown retail and urban planning design decisions for decades to come.

    Sidewalk benches provide respite for older shoppers. Photo Credit: LOA
Today we talk about the Baby Boomers – those who at the time of this writing are 53 or older. While Millennials grab most of the attention these days, the truth is that when it comes to disposable income, Boomers still have more purchasing clout. Younger Boomers are also still in their peak earning years and continue to lead active lifestyles. But change is coming. In ten years, these younger Boomers will be 63. While still active, many will begin to seek environments that accommodate their changing lifestyles – kids out of the house, retirement looming and more leisure time.

The good news is that Boomers, unlike Millennials, still prefer in-store shopping. According to Chain Store Age, a 2016 study found that 84% of Boomers still prefer to shop in-store. While we know on-line shopping habits are changing quickly, this demographic still retains loyalty to brick and mortar experiences. So ensuring downtown remains a viable and attractive location for Boomers to shop and spend their leisure time should be a no-brainer.

Simple things like awnings help shelter
older customers from the elements. Photo Credit: LOA

Yet as retail futurist and author of The Retail Revival, Doug Stephens states so plainly, “physical constraints are an inevitable part of aging.” He also makes clear that the old ways of doing business will need to adapt to the changing needs of this powerful demographic group. Unfortunately, many communities are willfully ignoring this trend. In one community we recently surveyed, a business owner dismissed the “busloads of older visitors to town” who “do nothing to help the local economy.” According to the business owner, these visitors walk around without spending money. His comment was in response to a suggestion that the town explore accommodating and transporting the more than 3,000 annual river cruise passengers up from the waterfront to downtown - an uphill walk unlikely to appeal to many passengers. Yet these are passengers who pay on average $400 - $500 per person, per night for their cruise experience. Downtown retailers can ill afford to so readily dismiss a group of individuals with significant discretionary resources.

Another planning theorist, Gil Penalosa has expressed this concern in a different way. His “8 to 80” concept offers up the idea that cities should be designed to accommodate people of all ages, from the ages of well, 8 to 80. In general the principles behind these design accommodations for older adults will ultimately make the downtown shopping experience more pleasurable for people of all ages. So this is not about designing something “special” for a small subset of the shopper base. As George Branyan at the District of Columbia’s Department of Transportation states, "If we can design for the most vulnerable street users and those with the most specific needs, then we’ve made streets safe for them and everything in between.”
This looks like a "do", but the small size,
hard to read font and high-placement
make it hard for drivers to see
. Photo credit: LOA 
    It comes down to this, downtown stands to grow its customer base if it addresses the needs of aging Boomers. One opportunity involves helping Boomers find environments that allow them to both downsize AND live in environments where they can be less car dependent without losing independence. Walkable downtown environments offer this opportunity – while also ensuring an ability to maintain an active lifestyle and take advantage of essential needs - even when things like driving at night become more and more of a challenge.

    Moving forward, downtown planners will have to address the basics – things like the size and visibility of signs and the fonts that are used, places to sit, and traffic lights timed for faster walkers. This will mean providing more time to cross wide streets and making sure curbs are not too steep between the sidewalk and street. A number of cities are pursuing what they call “Safe Senior” initiatives, including Portland and New York. These kinds of efforts will provide the foundation for the growing senior communities fueled by the Boomers.

    The co-location of businesses helps older
    customers who are unlikely to walk long distances. Photo Credit: LOA 
    Below are some practical strategies for simple, targeted safety improvements that downtowns should consider as they plan major capital improvements last will last the next 10-20 years.

    Ease of Access
    • Make downtown offerings more compact. Downtown stores should be co-located and allow for ease of shopping from one business to another.
    • Ease of navigation. Work to strengthen the proximity of offerings and reduce the “friction” between stores. This means making a street easier to cross (i.e. mid-block crossings). Older adults may be resistant to walking down a long street in order to cross safely at the corner – particularly when the weather is inclement.
    • Wayfinding signage that is easy to spot and read is critical to helping both visitors and older adults find their way around downtown. This is particularly true when downtown parking lots are located behind the stores. The only people who know the parking is back there are regulars.

    • More downtown housing. As fewer and fewer baby boomers drive, downtown housing is a natural fit. It offers a mix of smaller units and density that allows them to take care of shopping needs without driving – which will become another reality as they age.
    • This walkway to rear downtown
      parking receives star treatment
      through murals that enliven the space. Photo credit: LOA 
    • Support for ridesharing options to help them get to and/from downtown. This is particularly important as downtown becomes a place to eat and dine. Older adults often have limited visibility at night, so safe rides, particularly after drinking, are important safety concern for all.


    • Benches for respite. Preferably facing the sidenot, or placed against a storefront
    • Trees that provide relief from hotter temperatures
    • Awnings to protect slow walkers from the elements
    • Lighting that allows older people to see where they are going – especially at night. Many downtown streets lack appropriate pedestrian lightings. Moreover, windows are either covered with grates or the display lights for windows are shut off in the evening.
    • Signs with larger font sizes. Also, these signs should not be placed too high. Seniors (and children!) have lower gazes.
    • Pedestrian signs (blade/banner signs in particular) to allow customers to see stores from a distance (and make decisions about whether they should walk further).
      Trees help provide shade and cool down a sidewalk,
      making for more comfortable walking environment. Photo Credit: LOA

    Pedestrian Safety
    • This walkway is the only connection between a parking area and
      the Main Street. Pedestrians are forced to
      walk on the street in conflict with car entering the lot. Photo Credit: LOA 
      Walkways to parking areas.
      In many traditional and historic downtowns, parking can be found behind the buildings. The walkways to those parking areas need to be well maintained and feel safe for pedestrians. Older shoppers in particular will likely have concerns over uneven asphalt or lack of a sidewalk for safe walking to/from their cars. 
    • Respite islands in the middle of the street to account for slower walking pace. Even if walking signals are timed to allow for a slower gait, some seniors may not be able to cross in time.
    • Maintenance of flat sidewalks – no bricks – to prevent falls. Maintenance of cracks to prevent falls.
    • Improved shoveling and ice removal to prevent falls
    • Opportunities and activities that encourage socialization – it’s not always about shopping. In fact, a visit downtown will rarely ever meet the majority of a family’s shopping needs.

    Monday, November 13, 2017

    Round Up: Alphabet city, mom-and-pop life cycle, scaffolding makeover, geographic polarization

    Google's parent company to build futuristic neighborhood in Toronto

    Alphabet, Google's parent company, has now moved on to more urban planning endeavors and with it has ambitious plans to transform a waterside neighborhood, which will house its Canadian headquarters, into an ideal neighborhood that reduces pollution, commute times, and landfill.

    And similarly in the US.

    A longform Curbed NY article gives another viewpoint to the saga of small retail decline. Closures are hitting suburban malls and desirable shopping neighborhoods alike. High-rent blight continues despite the typically understood invisible hand of capitalism — old businesses closing and new ones quickly replacing them which is broken.

    Scaffolding is about to get a lot less ugly

    Through a design competition, a new style of scaffolding has emerged. You might start to see it in person but for now it is in the initial stages of rolling out. Features of the scaffolding include transparent overhead and more decorative umbrella-like uppers.

    Richard Florida Notes Unexpected Effects of the Creative Class’s Rise

    And you thought that just politics was becoming increasingly polarizing. Now, according to Richard Florida, author of The Rise of the Creative Class and his newest The New Urban Crisis, cities have become increasingly concentrated and prosperous at a faster rate than previously assumed, causing unexpected consequences and geographic polarization.