A Wall, No Matter How Pretty, Is Still…a Wall

by Michele Reeves on March 11, 2014

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During the summer of 2013, my husband and I took a very uncharacteristic vacation to a spa in Scottsdale, Arizona. I say “uncharacteristic” because a spa in the desert at the height of summer would not normally be at the top of our list of vacation destinations.

But, long story short, we were quite happy to find ourselves, sans children, in this suburban Arizona town in June. (And, may I say, it was a lovely location from which to watch the super moon!)

So, one of the things that jumped out at me about The West’s Most Western Town (yes, that is Scottsdale’s somewhat official nickname), is that the built environment of this relatively new, arterial-focused city is dominated by walls.

Undulating walls…walls made of different materials…short walls, long walls, tall walls, grand walls, pony walls. There are walls with embedded art. There are elaborate walls along freeways. One special wall, my personal favorite, had fish sculptures on it that glowed a deep, blood red in the night.

And I realized something by the end of my stay there: no matter how much you spruce ‘em up, a wall will always tell a story of division, of separation, of disconnection, of hinderance, and of restriction. They certainly lent an air of desolation while driving about the city, and made me rather desperate to penetrate the walls, so I could feel as if I had arrived somewhere.

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I Bet You Can’t Guess What this Is!

by Michele Reeves on June 4, 2013

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From the annals of Did an intern design this building?

Can you tell what it is?

I was speaking at a Society for College and University Planning conference in Denver this spring, and walking back from my talk, a few blocks from my hotel, I stood on this corner and looked at this building and thought, What the hell is this monstrosity?

I didn’t understand the huge wall of beige on the side of the building. I didn’t understand why there was absolutely nothing that interacted with the street. I didn’t relate to the dark reflective surfaces on the structure’s outward face, reminiscent of something built for the Land of Mordor.

People thought me a bit batty, standing on the street corner, staring.

I was trying to guess the use. I came up with nothing…office maybe? Finally, I grew tired of my guessing game and walked closer to peruse the sign. It turns out this beauty of a buliding is a Four Seasons — hotel and residences.

To say I was stunned is an understatement. On their website, the Four Seasons states, “Taste is More than a Flavour.” Indeed. There is little that reflects the Four Seasons brand in this building; there is no opulence, no luxury, no taste, no elegance, no style, no presence. There is nothing to set the tone as you reach the corner of their property (pictured above left). It’s just a bad building, with bad site design dominated by parking access, and no discernable entry or street presence. (The main entry is pictured below right — lovely, isn’t it? So inviting.)

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After I took these photos, I was sitting about a block away at a coffeeshop, outdoors on the sidewalk since it was a lovely spring day in Denver. You know the sort, where all the Denverites run around in shorts because it’s sunny, even though it’s still freaking cold outside. So I was sitting there sipping a chai latte and a woman came into view, sprinting up the sidewalk, past the Four Seasons, and stopped in front of us latte sipping sun worshipers. Out of breath, she began scanning the surroundings, swiveling her head to the left and right frantically, obviously late and searching for her destination.

“Where is the Four Seasons?” she finally relented, asking us cafe goers.

“You just ran past it,” we responded, pointing back in the direction she had come.

QED

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It’s Official, I’m a Parking Groupie!

by Michele Reeves on May 9, 2013

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Yes, this is my autographed copy of the High Cost of Free Parking!

I had the pleasure of serving on a panel with one of my professional crushes, Donald Shoup, at Railvolution in LA late last year. Oh yes, it gets better. He actually sat next to me, too! I brought my book to the conference in the hopes that I would overcome my fear of being overwhelmingly dorky, and would work up the nerve to ask him to sign it. Which I did, and he so graciously assented.

Of course, as I handed it to him, a fierce internal debate was raging: should I explain why my copy looked so pristine and unread!?! You see, I pored over, and took copious notes from a library copy, and loved it so much, was impelled to buy my own. The book I handed over to the good doctor was so clearly recently purchased, I was very concerned that it didn’t look as worn as I thought it should for such a loved tome! Thankfully, I resisted the urge to blurt all this out in one long, run-on sentence.

What I did manage to say to Dr. Shoup, and it is absolutely true, is that this is one of the most well written books I have ever read. It was such a treat to be able to tell an author directly how much I appreciated his writing style, and the care he took to make it amazingly entertaining as well as amazingly informative!

The book is well known in the planning world, but I think many treat it like Jacques Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence — something that everyone wants to have read, but they are daunted by the size!

Well don’t be…daunted by its size, that is. The whole read is charming (I know, that sounds like a strange description for a 734 page book about parking), his chosen metaphors offer wonderful insights into the parking ecosystem, and the research is meticulous. It’s one of those volumes that, as you read it, you constantly quote it to hapless bystanders. Which, sad to say, was totally me during the entire duration of my first pass through this parking opus, snagging anyone nearby and asking,

“Hey, did you know…”

“…In 2002, the total subsidy for off-street parking was somewhere between $127 billion and $374 billion a year. If we also count the subsidy for free and underpriced curb parking, the total subsidy for parking would be far higher. In the same year, the federal government only spent $231 billion for Medicare and $349 billion for national defense.”

“…Every day, cruisers [looking for parking] within [the] 15-block [Westwood Village neighborhood] drove farther than the distance across the US. Over a year, their cruising creating 945,000 excess vehicle miles traveled — equivalent to 38 trips around the earth or two round trips to the moon.”

“…For a downtown concert hall, Los Angeles requires, as the minimum, 50 times more parking spaces than San Francisco allows at a maximum. These different priorities help explain the very different parking arrangements for Louise Davies Hall (home of the San Francisco Symphony) and Disney Hall (home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic). San Francisco built Louise Davies Hall with no parking garage, while Los Angeles completed Disney Hall’s 2,188-space $110 million parking garage three years before it had raised the $274 million needed to start building the 2,265-seat Disney Hall itself.”

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…With the installation of the first parking meters in Oklahoma City, “cars pulled into metered spaces and moved out when their owners had finished their business, while in the unmetered zones, the old congestion remained. Magee’s idea of a coin-operated meter for the regulation of parking on city streets was proving itself, although at the time of installation most everyone had been skeptical of what the meters would accomplish. Within a few days other businesses were asking for meters on their streets, and within several months far more than the original 150 units had been installed.” (From Oklahoma Historian LeRoy Fischer)

Somehow, Dr. Shoup has managed to compose a book that is equally powerful to the geekiest of transportation engineers, and to the most enthusiastic of community volunteers.

I am going to leave you with a final passage…which are the opening few sentences to the book:

“Children first learn about free parking when they play Monopoly. The chance of landing on free parking is low, about the same as the chance of going to jail. Monopoly misleads its players on this score, however, because parking is free for 99 percent of all automobile trips in the US.”

Vintage Shoup! Now go out and get a copy and read it. Seriously.

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Portlandia: Milquetoast Bureau of Planning Edition

by Michele Reeves on September 10, 2012

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Since the 1990s, Portland has not had parking minimums in much of the city, from the downtown core to more traditional neighborhoods with single family housing. Portland has been very proud of their no parking minimum. Portland has trumpeted this zoning policy as a shining example of why Portland is the City That Works!

The irony?

Up until recently, it was very rare for a residential developer to build anything without off-street parking. Finally though, that is changing. “Of 40 apartment building projects to be filed [with the city] in the last year and a half, 25 offer no parking,” according to a story from Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB).

As you can imagine, “Not in My Backyard” reactions to these projects are common, particularly in many of the eastside single-family home neighborhoods that are adjacent to the corridors where these projects are proposed.

To understand how entitled Portlanders feel to the street spaces in front of their homes, I want to share a personal anecdote I experienced right after moving to Portland and buying a house in 2001. We found a great house in the SE quadrant of the city, a few blocks from the Hawthorne District, which is a hopping mixed-use corridor and east/west arterial in the city. The neighborhood we chose was was comprised mostly of single-family houses built between 1910 and 1930, and it featured a designated bike corridor as well as abundant on-street parking. In fact, I don’t believe we ever had to park more than half a block away from our house in the over six years we lived there. Also, most homes in the neighborhood shared a driveway and a garage with their neighbor, giving most dwellings at least one off-street parking space.

As we were moving in, our neighbors came up to chat and introduce themselves. They were a lovely couple — a nurse and a school principal who had lived in the area for decades. They immediately informed us that we didn’t want to ever park, or allow any of our guests to park, across the street in front Bob’s (pseudonym) house. We thought they were joking and had a good laugh, because how could they be serious? Bob didn’t own the curb-side spaces in front of his home. Unfortunately, our neighbors did not join in our joviality. “No really,” they insisted, “He has been known to burst in on other people’s dinner parties and yell at guests to move their cars…of course, he has gone to anger management classes, which seem to really be helping.”

Yikes. They were serious. And as we met more and more of our neighbors, they all said the same thing after introductions were out of the way: “Don’t park in front of Bob’s house.”

Parking is always a hot-button issue in areas that are trying to increase density. So, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise to the city of Portland, and its planning bureau, that there would be some neighborhood resistance to developers finally bringing product online with no off-street parking.

But apparently, it did come as a surprise, because the bureau’s response to this inevitable backlash has been purely passive. Pretty shocking considering they could have spent the last year and half planning for, and proactively addressing, these issues on the neighborhood level as applications for these kinds of projects began coming in over the permit counter.

What has been their response? As reported in the Daily Journal of Commerce:

The BPS is starting to take notice of these complaints. As part of the effort to update the Portland Comprehensive Plan, the bureau is weighing whether to make changes to the zoning code, according to Dabbs [communications officer for the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability]. These changes could involve design and compatibility of new residential and mixed-use development on the east side.

The BPS also is re-examining its theory that tenants in apartment complexes with little or no on-site parking do not own cars. Earlier this summer, the bureau hired an outside consulting firm to conduct a survey of six apartment buildings without parking to find out if their tenants own cars.

“We’re hearing from the community; this is something we’re concerned about,” Dabbs said.

What? Are you kidding me?

It already sounds like the city is caving, just when the zoning is actually working and attracting the type of development they have dreamed of seeing since the 90s. Indeed, in the DJC article, one neighborhood leader said, “I think there is some momentum toward (zoning changes).”

Is that really the message the city wants to be sending?

There are myriad reasons why it would be a horrible idea to change the zoning. Below, I am going to focus on two of them.

COST OF HOUSING. As Portland’s in-city neighborhoods have gentrified over the last 10 to 15 years, lower-income and middle-income residents have been driven out. This has happened throughout the nation’s coastal cities.

In my mind, San Francisco is a great example of rampant gentrification. A few years ago, I heard Fred Blackwell, from the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency, tell an audience contemplating neighborhood economic development that you couldn’t fill Candlestick park with the number of African Americans left living in that city. To say I was shocked was an understatement. On a more personal note, many of my cousins, who grew up there, cannot come close to affording something in the city where they were raised.

In one of my favorite books on parking, “The High Cost of Free Parking, Donald Shoup wrote:

Reducing, or removing, off-street parking requirements, however, can increase the supply and reduce the price of all housing, without any subsidy. Planners everywhere are concerned about housing costs and urban sprawl, but they have not attempted to evaluate how parking requirements affect either housing costs or urban density. …Parking requirements substantially increase development cost and reduce density. Scarce land and capital are shifted from housing for people to housing for cars. Zoning requires a home for every car, but ignores homeless people.

Diversity of income and culture brings creativity, innovation, and life to a city. But, this diversity will be difficult to maintain in the decades to come, because Gen Y and the Baby Boomers all want to live in walkable neighborhoods. Fantastic pedestrian places are going to see a tremendous increase in demand for housing, office, and retail space, and, unfortunately, gentrification’s negative side effects will prevail, unless we find ways to offer an array of housing options suitable for both lower-income residents and the middle class.

The bottom line: eliminating parking minimums results in a larger inventory of housing accessible to a wider variety of people.

CORRIDOR DEVELOPMENT. The OPB article has a good map of the proposed projects, and as you can see, nearly every one of them is either on a major mixed-use arterial, or adjacent to a mixed-use arterial (the Eastside), or in the densest portion of the city grid (the Pearl/NW Portland). The Eastside of Portland is where there is the most pushback to not having parking minimums, and also where there are the most single-family homes, some of which are less than 15 blocks from downtown (it doesn’t get much more in-city than that).

To be clear, Portland zoning protects single-family home districts with R5 zoning, which allows only 1 house per 5000 SF lot, the average sized lot in the city. There are certain transition areas that step down to a row house ratio, such as 1 house per 1000SF lot. So, Portland’s in-city, single-family housing districts are protected from dense apartment dwellings springing up, disrupting their bucolic, in-city life. Where these projects are presently being built are along the commercial and mixed-use corridors that have flexible zoning that allows for a variety of uses and sizes, and requires no off-street parking. In fact, these neighborhoods should be excited about zero lot-line buildings, built next to one another, with a variety of uses creating a 24-hour district along arterials. Why? Because Portland’s most economically successful and vibrant mixed-use environments all have historic infrastructure with exactly those characteristics: one hundred percent lot coverage, no off-street parking, and single-story/multi-story structures built right next to each other. They knew how to build great places for people back in the streetcar days!

A neighborhood spine that offers activity and density will build district-wide identity and increase long-term property values for the surrounding single-family homes. Not to mention the fact that these mixed-use corridors provide walkable amenities for all to enjoy.

So I say, “Let ‘em build without parking!”

All images in this post are from mixed-use infill and redevelopment projects from Portland’s eastside that increased intensity of use, but offered no off-street parking.

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When Improving Places, It Always Comes Down to People

by Michele Reeves on August 23, 2012

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What is one of the first things I consider when I’m working in a mixed-use district, whether I’m helping private sector developers strategize acquisitions, or diagnosing and suggesting improvements to an economically underperforming city?

RELATIONSHIPS!

In fact, I can often tell a lot about the connections between stakeholders in a small downtown or mixed-use district just by walking through it, because the nature of relationships, past and present, are always reflected in its buildings, streets, and businesses. If property owners don’t know one another, if the public sector does not have strong ties to the community, if there are not close associations between businesses, then I will not likely find an environment that includes sidewalk tables filled with residents chatting and little red wagons overflowing with bright fresh flowers when I visit your district.

It can’t be overstated: to catalyze change and bring revitalization to underperforming districts, relationships between businesses, property owners, residents, and the public sector must be established and strengthened. Below are a handful of ways to begin looking at district-wide relationships, some ideas for improving connections, and a few examples from various cities.

WHAT IS THE STATE OF RELATIONSHIPS BETWEEN THE PUBLIC AND PRIVATE SECTOR?

A mixed-use district typically has a patchwork of property owners that must work in concert toward shared goals in order to create success and vitality for everyone. Owners have to invest in their buildings and they have to tenant with active ground floor businesses, or revitalization will never get started. It is generally easiest to achieve this collaboration through public sector led activities, such as providing technical assistance, facade improvement matching grant dollars, and goal-setting exercises.

The bottom line: it’s harder to be the jerk with the really ugly building if you have cordial relationships with the property owners and businesses that are located next door.

Example: In Hillsboro, Oregon, Jon Gimre, of Gimre’s shoes was awarded one of their downtown urban renewal area’s first facade improvement grants. (He was not one of the aforementioned “jerks” with an ugly building, by the way!) To ensure that this initial project was successful, city staff worked closely with Mr. Gimre through every step of his building’s dynamic transformation. By providing the necessary technical assistance and support, Gimre’s was remade through the introduction of a warm three-color paint scheme; the addition of a bright sign from one of its 50’s era logos; the removal of a large, overpowering awning; and, the incorporation of exterior building lighting. Sales have risen for the shoe store, and a model for simple, yet effective, renovation has been created for others to emulate in the district. In fact, there are now multiple applicants for the next wave of facade improvement funds, all of whom wish to implement a similar quality of project in the downtown. And to think, it all began with a building and good relationships between its owner/user and city staff.

WHAT ARE A PLACE’S MOST BELOVED BUSINESSES AND EVENTS?

Upon commencing work in a district, I usually try to understand what people feel a sense of relationship to in a place. As one part of this, I seek to identify the most beloved businesses and events, because these are the very things that build district identity and value well into the future.

One of the benefits of quantifying an area’s beloved businesses is so that property owners truly understand the types of ground floor activators that create long-term value. Small, locally-owned restaurants, one-of-a-kind retailers, and funky coffee shops usually top these lists of favorites. These purveyors create identity because a majority of stakeholders in the community connect with them. Unfortunately, when a district has been in decline for some time, landlords forget the concept of highest and best use. It becomes tempting for owers to tenant with legal, medical, and professional service office users since these are stable businesses generating steady cash flow. But, these are not establishments that people engage with, and if you try to create a downtown that is comprised of inward facing office tenants at street level, you will have a very unsuccessful mixed-use district because it will be missing…well, a good mix!

No one says, “Hey, let’s go hang out and have lunch on that Main Street with all the dentists!”

The reality is that a spiraling decrease in property values and achievable rents will ensue if office use becomes the predominant ground floor presence in a district.

All landlords have to remember which tenants the community relates to best on the ground floor: outward facing and engaging businesses with personality at street level. Any business can build stronger bonds by offering excitement and exchange at the sidewalk. I have seen banks that proffer popcorn, public Internet access, and community events in their lobbies. Or a medical office with dramatic windows at the sidewalk through which pedestrians can see the waiting area and huge floor-to-ceiling murals depicting the history of the neighborhood. Or a used building supply store that built a new warehouse out of pieced-together windows and lumber taken from deconstructed buildings and houses, the very products they carry, creating a story on the exterior of their building for everyone to enjoy. Or a yoga studio with an eclectic retail shop offering new and gently-used lifestyle, homeware, and apparel products.

Figure out what people relate to in your district and give them more of it!

Another reason to take a gander at what people are relating to in a district, is to determine if they are leveraging these events and businesses for maximum economic impact. Sadly, it is often the case that they are not. It is not uncommon for a downtown to play host to an event and then garner almost no positive brand association from that event because they don’t participate in it in a meaningful or memorable way. This is one of the reasons I am not always a fan of gated outdoor programming; they typically do not create positive brand association for the area and eventgoers do not frequent area businesses.

Example: One of the leading complaints I hear in cities is, “On farmer’s market day, everyone comes downtown. But other than that, it’s empty…they won’t come back.” How do markets create all of this excitement with a few run down tents and battered banquet tables? With people. With sights. With smells. With lots of small, affordable purchasing options. With tastes. With close proximity. With atmosphere.

On a farmer’s market day, people want to experience street activity. Customers wish to rub shoulders with their neighbors and experience the fabric of their community. They do not want to go into stores. They do not want to dine in sit-down restaurants. So bring your store and your food businesses outside! Provide free samples. Put products on the sidewalk. Consider this quote from Richard Bloom, published in the Metro News Feed, about his small floral and homewares shop in downtown Lake Oswego:

Bloom moved his business in March to Lake Oswego’s main street, A Avenue, and incorporated several of Reeves’ suggestions at his new, highly visible storefront. “The change (in walk-in traffic) has been phenomenal,” says Bloom. “We were hidden off the main drag in a complex with low visibility and no storefront…By moving locations where our storefront is highly visible and adding sidewalk interest with an antique flower cart and spillover product, we’ve probably increased our walk-in business by 40 to 50 percent.”

On Saturdays, he converts several of the customer parking spots next to his building into an outdoor market to take advantage of Lake Oswego’s farmers market crowd. “Saturdays used to mean a skeleton crew and closing early,” says Bloom. “Now it’s one of our busiest days.”

DO THE BUSINESSES IN THE DISTRICT COLLABORATE?

Adjacencies are a key component to good merchandising when laying out products in a store. What are adjacencies? Inventory that sells well next to each another. In Main Street and downtown environments, you are looking for the same things: what are the physical and emotional adjacencies that can be wielded to build more economic success?

If businesses have strong relationships with each other, they can cooperate and discover where people eat after they get tutoring, or what shops they tend to frequent serially, and they can successfully cross promote offerings to those who live, work, and play nearby.

In economically underperforming areas, it is typical for individual stores and restaurants to feel like islands; isolated, trying to keep their borders above water. But this offers the antithesis of what a successful mixed-use district should: a place with community fabric. In a strip mall, no one expects the clerk from Ross Dress for Less to know, and interact with, a clerk from Best Buy. But, the opposite is true in a downtown or Main Street. People want shared passion and purpose. The community fabric people want to experience is woven primarily using a downtown’s ground floor stakeholders. So functioning business associations that receive technical assistance and monetary support from area institutions and the public sector are vitally important to create adjacencies and downtown fabric.

Example: In a matter of months, downtown Tigard, went from having a defunct business association and little interaction between stakeholders, to creating a district-wide annual event. How did this happen? The city of Tigard provided technical assistance to engaged stakeholders in the downtown. Staff brought in Business Association Management to lend a helping hand with creating a downtown email list, fostering regular communication, developing event posters, postcards, and flyers, and hosting networking meetings. Through this collaboration, events and identity are being created, including the first ever Downtown Tigard Street Fair, which was held August 11th, and included a car show, brew fest, live music, and offerings for the kiddos. Pretty darn impressive in less than a year.

WHAT ARE YOUR STORIES?

Every place is teeming with stories. The collective tales that reside in a district are what make it unique, and bring it to life. I was reminded of this recently when working in downtown Lake Oswego.

Robert Foster, an incredibly talented landscape architect, artist, and resident of Lake Oswego, came up to me after a presentation in their downtown and gave me a copy of his self published book called: Art in the Coffee Shop. It was the 13th edition and it contained sketches of, and poems about, people he observes in coffee shops throughout the region, and it is the source for the images in this post.

About the woman at the top of this blog entry Robert wrote:

A delightful smile, haven’t seen in a while.
I’ll put it in the book and keep it in my file.
She delighted her friends, she was very attentive,
She gave them pause she gave them incentive.
People like this keep the world going round,
How do we keep them from flying off the ground.

Yes, people like this…and their individual stories, are what make the world go ’round, and they are the ones who ultimately provide the spark needed to bring renewal to a neighborhood, a city, or a town. It always begins with people.

All images are published with the permission of Robert H Foster. Thank you for sharing your talent so generously Robert!

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Retail, REITs and Cannibalization

by Michele Reeves on May 4, 2012

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When he got his start in the grocery business with Fred Meyer decades ago, Gary Slabaugh said he knew EVERY property owner that surrounded the store where he worked. He knew them, their families, their kids’ birthdays. Part of managing the store was participating in, and being a member of, the surrounding community. Smart business if you are a retailer and property owner.

Fast forward a few decades, and contrast that with some of Gary’s more recent experiences as VP of Real Estate for Safeway, where he said some of their leased mall locations have been sold 12 times over the last few years. Each sale of the mall, he said, exchanged hands for more money, selling to another out-of-town Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT).

How did these properties increase in value if rent wasn’t increasing as well? We puzzled over this question as I was moderating a panel at the Portland ICSC Alliance event this year on the subject of Retrofitting Suburbia. (Keynote presentations by Michael Freedman and Ellen Dunham-Jones are available on the right hand navigation bar, if you follow the previous ICSC link.)

The role of retail and restaurants in a city is vitally important. Stores and eateries act as activators. They are entertainers. They are draws. They provide identity. Yet, few cities actually manage this square footage like the precious resource that it is.

In fact, as Gary’s story so beautifully illustrates, the whole nature of retail, particularly along arterials and in suburban communities, has dramatically changed, shifting almost entirely into the hands of institutional investors, out-of-state owners, and large corporations. Accountants are not retailers, as my professional crush Paco Underhill notes in Call of the Mall. (One of the reasons he cites for malls being so ugly!)

This consolidation of properties and development into the hands of absentee number crunchers has not been good for America’s communities. It has led us to us being an utterly and completely over-retailed nation, diluting the positive impact that retail and restaurants can have on our cities and towns. And, it has left us with under invested or abandoned retail infrastructure that drives down property values, invites crime, and creates negative identity, like the arterial pictured above left.

Let’s compare America’s retail spaces to the rest of the world.

In a Costar report from 2010, the real estate database and analytics firm estimated there is at least 56 square feet of retail space per person in the United States. This equates to about 46.6 square feet of total retail space per capita in our country, according to ICSC estimates.

Juxtapose those numbers with retail space in a few other countries. Canada and the UK clock in at around half of the US glut, and places like Mexico and India are closer to 2 square feet of retail space per capita. A fraction of the real estate we have enshrined to consumption!

What do these statistics tell us? The United States has more retail space than it needs…more than it can possibly use.

Every time a city adds retail space, it is cannibalizing its own existing retail infrastructure. This trend gets exacerbated in areas with sales tax, as cities duke it out over who lures Wal-Mart from the next county over.

In a reality where we have a huge oversupply of retail space, why do we keep pretending there are unlimited dollars just waiting to be spent? Why do we think that all we need to do is build the next new mall and everything will be great in our towns, neighborhoods and corridors?

Let’s look at a local example of this from Gresham, Oregon. (Click on the map below for images and more information.)

There is a fabulous little downtown here, that had, and still has, a great street grid, charming buildings, and a nearby park with a Japanese garden that is being renovated. As this suburban downtown started to suffer the inevitable postwar decline that occurred everywhere, what happened?

A strip mall was conceived and built right along the edge of downtown. (Mall #1 on the map.)

Did this help downtown? Of course not.

Since the strip mall was a super block, it ruined grid connectivity, it visually eliminated any connection between downtown and nearby streets, and the mall was oriented so its back faced downtown, doing the strip mall equivalent of mooning this once thriving center in Gresham.

Eventually, this “new” mall became dated. Downtown continued to suffer. So what happened next?

Another mall!! Across the street from Mall #1. Literally. This shopping paradise was larger, newer and lifestyle center-y. (Let’s call it: Mall #2.)

Sadly, with this much retail space stacked on top of each other, this is now an environment that struggles with vacancy and turnover. And, this massive amount of mall space is dwarfing a great downtown, and hindering its revitalization as well.

There are several big lessons for cities in all of this:

  1. Large corporations with no connection to your municipality often don’t care about your city, they are making decisions for their bottom line first and foremost. I would venture to say that nearly every REIT and big box concept has built in places that were clearly bad for the city and the surrounding area. Remember, what may be good for an out-of-town company is not necessarily good for a city as a whole.

  2. Complete, and keep up to date, a retail capacity assessment in your city.

  3. Don’t over zone for retail.

  4. Don’t allow new large retail developments without considering how they impact all retail infrastructure in the city.

  5. Give preference to local developers who have a stake in the community and tend to hold their properties for long periods of time. Real estate is rarely developed optimally, and maintained at its highest and best use for the whole community, if it is owned, controlled, and managed by institutional employees as an accounting exercise in another state.

Map image is courtesy of OpenStreetMap, © OpenStreetMap contributors, CC BY-SA

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Hot Lake Springs…The Arkansas of Oregon?

by Michele Reeves on March 30, 2012

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Earlier this week, I paid a visit to an intriguing place called Hot Lake Springs, which is located in what felt like the middle of nowhere in eastern Oregon. Back in the day, Hot Lake Springs billed itself as the “Arkansas of the West” — after Hot Springs, Arkansas. (The site in its full glory is pictured to the left.)

Hot Lake Springs went from spa darling to decrepit building over the last century, facing the same challenges that are found in many rural historical sites around the nation:

What do you do with a huge building steeped in history that is in a very remote location? What if that building is falling apart? Riddled with lawsuits? Has bankrupted previous owners? What if the entire region has given up hope and assumed the building would decay until it could no longer be saved?

The story of this place is an improbable tale of renewal and adaptive reuse. A tale that requires some back story…

These hot springs had long been a neutral gathering place for various Native American tribes in the area, who came to partake of the spring’s healing qualities, according to the present owners, David and Lee Manuel.

In the early 1800s, it was discovered by what were to be Astorians, and by the middle part of the century (and in the midst of a nearby gold rush) Europeans had taken it over and had erected extensive wooden buildings on the site.

With the advent of the railroad in the early 1900s, passenger loads of visitors were shepherded to a station right in front of the hotel three times a day.

According to an article in USA Today,

The Mayo brothers, of Mayo Clinic fame, were frequent visitors.

Vacationers came to relax, patients to shed a variety of ills.

Hospital director Dr. W.T. Phy believed syphilis could not withstand the repeated hot sulfuric baths in the lake water (it survived just fine) and, in those pre-antibiotic days, dosed his patients accordingly. Arthritis patients were placed in a hot mud bog.

Under Dr. Phy’s stewardship, this became an unlikely major worldwide tourist attraction. It was most frequently reached by rail (nearly 300 miles east of Portland). It had a teaching hospital, a post office, a hotel, a spa, a dance hall…it was really like a self contained little town.

Dr. Phy died in 1931. Three years later, most of the wooden structures on the site burned to the ground in a massive fire, leaving just the large colonial-style brick building that remains today (designed by John V. Bennes).

After the fire, the long, slow, inevitable decline of this historic property began. It operated as a resort, then as a hospital. It also served as a flight school and nurses training center during World War II. Later incarnations included a nursing home, an asylum, a restaurant & nightclub, and a bathhouse.

Then, it languished for well over a decade. The place was looted, vandalized, lost most of its windows, rotted, and lost portions of its roof.

In fact, it was so bad, the hotel was featured on the television show The Scariest Places on Earth in 2001.

Enter Lee and David Manuel.

David is a successful bronze sculptor who specializes in Western art. He typically works for a year on his incredibly detailed pieces, and sells out limited edition runs before he ever finishes them. Lee, his wife, is a former restaurant owner who manages the business end of his art.

In 2003, on a trip with their blended family, they decided, on a whim, to purchase the building and bring it back to life. They disposed of their assets in Joseph, Oregon and put their hearts and souls into renovating this place.

Lee said it took 15 months of her coming every night and working a night crew just to get through clean up. She said they dry camped in the building for several years before all the utilities were functioning.

Now, 9 years later, David’s studios are here. They live here. There is a foundry on site. David’s collection of Native American art, war memorabilia, and historic vehicles has found a home here. They have a multitude of antique fire fighting equipment to view. In fact, antiques are placed throughout the hotel. There is a bronze art exhibit. Taxidermy abounds. And, of course you can partake of the 200 plus degree hot mineral water (cooled down, naturally). And now, most recently, they operate a rather rustic bed & breakfast.

The building is heated entirely with the original radiator system that uses water from the springs. Apparently, it is listed as the first building to use geothermal energy for heating in the country. The gentleman who tends to the radiators said he spends several hours a day just trying to keep the temperature at the correct levels throughout the building, something that is a particular challenge in spring, when the weather fluctuates dramatically.

The model the Manuels use for selling David’s art — only to direct buyers whom they meet face-to-face — dovetails perfectly with them being located in a building that is a living monument to the Wild West, filled with items from the Wild West, located in the Wild West.

Not everyone is enamored though. If you read online reviews, you will find many visitors who are less than impressed with the interior renovation work. Poor lighting fixtures…false ceilings…a horrible faux fireplace and mantle in the circular lobby…plastic spa tubs for a soak in the heated mineral water, and unfortunate carpeting choices are all examples cited. And while these comments are most certainly true, it also is fact that without the Manuels, this building would have decayed beyond repair. They employ many in a rural economy that definitely appreciates the jobs. And, the bronze studio provides a focal point for area artists.

As the Manuels have shown, small artisanal businesses, ones that have a wholesale or production component, are often the key to bringing back historic infrastructure. And in the case of Hot Lake Springs, it seems most important that they saved the building structure, brought life and activity back to the old sanitarium, and that the exterior is being preserved. All of this will allow the interior to live to fight another day!

Has the move been worth it for the Manuels?

According to Lee, her husband David, who is in his early 70s, is doing the best work of his life and is seeing an increase in sales, even during this recession.

His latest piece, which he talked with us about on our visit, will be a Native American couple on horseback, looking up at the moon. He said it is his first piece with a touch of romance and that he wants it to project love and peace.

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My Secret Garden…of Zen

by Michele Reeves on January 22, 2012

Post image for My Secret Garden…of Zen

In the summer of 2011, I found myself mystified as to why, after speaking at the Pacific Intermountain Parking and Transportation Association (PIPTA) conference, I had received a plastic bag of salt, a picture frame, some straws, a few pebbles, a tiny Buddha, and two small mock stone candles.

You see, fairly frequent speaking gigs at land-use conferences garner me a plethora of corporate gift trinkets. They are usually passed down to my daughters, who are still of an age to regard these totes, mugs, water bottles and miscellaneous doohickeys as little treasures. (As a matter of fact, today, my daughter used one of the shoulder bags I received to transport her homework to a coffeeshop so we could work together.)

Anyhow, as I was saying, when I received those strange items from PIPTA, I didn’t give them much thought. In fact, I nearly chucked them. But, with the help of my girls, who wanted to know what this “bag of rocks” was all about, we proceeded to take a closer look.

It turns out that the straws were cradling incense, the Buddha was an incense holder, the salt was white sand, and the rest of it comprised all the elements needed to create a small, desk-sized Zen garden.

My daughters loved the incense, having never experienced it before. They wanted to burn it 24/7, and I was honestly happy when we ran out. Also, it so happened, I adored the Zen Garden. Having worked at it for 6 months though, we have all run out of easy original ideas on what to do next.

We find that inspiration comes in many forms. Contemplatively raking the sand, waiting for genius to strike. (Okay, genius is a bit too strong a word!) Randomly dropping pebbles into the sand and raking around them, hoping something pleasing will emerge. One pattern came to me recently in a dream.

It is strangely compelling…soothing…and addictive.

Now, if we could just get my youngest to stop sloshing the sand over the side, we would be in a truly Zen state!

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There Is No Such Thing as a Rain-Free Downtown Experience

by Michele Reeves on January 1, 2012

Post image for There Is No Such Thing as a Rain-Free Downtown Experience

If I were supernatural, I might choose to be an awning fairy. My mission? Roaming the land, eradicating horrible awnings with the touch of my sparkly magic wand. (By roaming, I mean that I would be flying, of course.)

Sadly, I am coming around to the fact that I won’t be manifesting any special powers in the near future. But, I have not let the dream die entirely. No, I try to do the work of the awning fairy without extraordinary skills. In my war against underperforming mixed-use districts, I do battle with over-awninged places using just my voice, a whole lotta pictures, and field trips.

LEVERAGING HISTORIC DOWNTOWN ENVIRONMENTS

To maximize the economic return on historic infrastructure, it must be highlighted in every possible way, particularly for pedestrians. These renovated buildings in Tacoma, Washington, pictured to the left, are a good example. A visitor on the sidewalk should experience the grandeur and unique character of the building stock when looking down the same side of the street on which they stand, or when gazing across the road.

Interconnected and unique buildings are a huge part of what creates a great ambiance in a downtown or Main Street environment.

In a struggling mixed-use district, there are myriad examples of not leveraging historic infrastructure properly. But today, I want to focus on one particular culprit—the awning, something that is often invisible to stakeholders and which can be particularly difficult to eradicate. In a downtown that lacks vitality, it is very common to view a plethora of awnings that are inappropriate architecturally…a sea of moldy awnings…tons of tattered awnings…and awnings that are so large they take up one third to one half of the vertical face of the building.

In the photos below (please click to enlarge), you can see that instead of this district differentiating itself through its superior historic infrastructure, it has instead been turned into a sort of umbrella corridor, where the sidewalk experience is one highlighting unattractive awnings and the metal infrastructure used to hold them up. Or, the awnings block building and storefront visibility from across the street.

DOWNTOWN DISTRICTS WILL NEVER PROVIDE “RAIN FREE” SHOPPING EXPERIENCES

“But what about the rain, Michele?”

I hear this a lot. And okay, I grant you, many of the communities I work with are in the Pacific Northwest. But really, at the end of the day, no one is making a decision about where to shop based upon whether or not a building has an awning.

This desire to create a rain-free shopping environment is a vestige of the postwar abandonment of downtowns and mixed-use districts for the mall. And, it doesn’t work.

An economically successful downtown has striking buildings and vibrant, engaging storefronts with well lit window displays. It should be an environment that entices visitors to stay, to shop, to grab a cup of coffee, to want to discover what is around the next corner. Any shopper that comes to one particular store, becomes a potential shopper for every other store. The pedestrian is king and they are what drive sales per square foot. These browsers have to go to and from their car. They have to cross the street. They cannot be protected from the rain every single moment they are in a downtown district. So don’t even try to provide this service.

The question I always ask property owners and business owners is this: “If a potential shopper is standing across the street from your building, will they make the journey through traffic to walk to your store?” I want to know if they see anything compelling, because a true test of a district’s health is a walker’s willingness to cross the street to sample wares on the other side of the road.

As these owners contemplate their buildings and businesses (I like to do this literally standing outside, gazing at their property), I follow up with these inquiries, “Do shoppers think, ‘Hey, there’s an awning over there, and it’s huge, so I’m going to go to that store!’ Or, is what really grabs their attention the quality of the building, the visibility and attractiveness of the storefront, and how well the products are merchandised?”

FORM SHOULD FOLLOW FUNCTION—AWNINGS THAT CONTRIBUTE TO ECONOMIC SUCCESS

In a district where all of the buildings have had awnings forever, it is very difficult to get people to change their approach to building and storefront design. They tend to assume the awning will be kept and that all decisions related to appearance will stem from there. This is designing from the awning inward. Instead, owners should be designing from the building/store outward. First, make the building as appealing as possible. Second, draw attention to the storefront and merchandise. Third, come up with an attractive sign and lighting scheme. Then and only then should you contemplate an awning. I can’t tell you how often I have to stress that an awning is an accessory, not the main attraction, and it should be considered last in the design process, not first.

My general rule of thumb is that awnings are useful when they:

  • Do not dominate the vertical facade of a building; and
  • Are defining an outdoor room that is an extension of the storefront, bringing the business out to the sidewalk, engaging pedestrians in street level dialog.

But remember, awnings are difficult to light appropriately, often detract from building appeal, invariably block transom windows, and create dark caves that decrease storefront visibility. So, unless a business is going to aggressively make the area under their awning part of their store or restaurant, then lose it. Just forget about it.

Good examples of awnings that create positive, engaging ground floor environments are shown in the photographs below (please click to enlarge).

A final note on the role of the public sector in regards to awnings: cities should not be in the business of requiring awnings, especially as they are often temporary finishes on existing buildings. Making structures host an awning unnecessarily constrains architectural design for new buildings and puts a huge burden on existing buildings, which must shoulder these appendages even when they literally have no use. Stipulating awnings also has the unintended consequence of ensuring that there will be a plethora of canopies in poor condition because those who don’t really want an awning will refuse to incur the expense of replacing it, so tired old awnings will become the norm.

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Post image for Second Largest Waterfall in the US is at Blue Heron Paper Mill

The second largest waterfall in the United States is located between West Linn and Oregon City, Oregon (pictured here circa 1918). The spectacular horseshoe-shaped cascade of water is called Willamette Falls, and it’s pretty inaccessible, hidden from public view by mills on both sides of the Willamette River.

In fact, the base of the falls has been cut off from the public for more than a century.

The owner of the site adjacent to the falls on the Oregon City side of the river, the Blue Heron Paper Company, has gone out of business and the valuable acreage is now in bankruptcy proceedings, to be auctioned off later this month.

This industrial parcel has the potential to be a game changer for the area, becoming a huge tourist destination as well as a park amenity for Oregon City residents. If it were successfully repurposed, it would further catalyze the rapid improvement that has been happening in the historic core of downtown Oregon City, one of the West’s oldest cities.

I recently had the pleasure of touring the site and was surprised to learn several things.

  1. Downtown used to extend 4 blocks into the existing mill acerage. As the core of Oregon City declined, the mill began taking over the downtown, block after block. I shudder to think of the amazing buildings that were lost in the mill expansion over the years.

  2. There are old basalt foundations that date back to the original uses on the site, perhaps from the mid to late 1800s. It has the feel of archeological ruins with the vestiges of these buildings besprinkled around the site. It is entrancing. These stone fragments are shown in the first row of photos at the bottom of this page. (Please click to enlarge.)

  3. Some of the site is on pilings. It will certainly make developing the old mill more complex, as no one specifically knows how healthy the pilings are. This is added to the more traditional waterfront redevelopment hurdles of multi-jurisdictional involvement from federal, state, and local government agencies. And the industrial hurdles, such as environmental abatement. Throw in the fact that you have PGE-owned electricity generation and, yowza, you’ve got a big mess that will require patience, capital, and a deft touch to sort through.

During our walkabout of the site, I was particularly enthralled with a huge paper machine that was built-in-place by a Wisconsin firm in the 1920s. It was used to produce extremely large rolls of low quality newsprint. It is gigantic and mesmerizing, with analog controls that practically itched to be twisted, flipped, and turned. The drums were gorgeous.

Metro, a regional governing entity, will be putting in a bid for the site, which delights me tremendously because I believe they would have the ability to balance private development goals with appropriate public stewardship of access to the falls. It is a rare gem of a site that abuts a natural water feature that should be a national treasure, open to everyone. It is fascinating to me that so few people in the region even know that we are sitting on such a rare and valuable natural resource.

This is definitely an auction to watch. Many are eagerly awaiting to see what unfolds, including me!

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