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!


First Create the Parking Problem, then Solve It!

by Michele Reeves on September 28, 2011

Post image for First Create the Parking Problem, then Solve It!

Recently, the blog Reinventing Parking was pondering the fact that many cities are getting excited about Shoup’s call for parking meter dynamic pricing (like the program in San Francisco), but are virtually ignoring the case he makes for abolishing parking minimums.

Who is Donald Shoup, you ask? Before launching into a discussion on parking minimums, let me explain. Donald Shoup wrote a book called, “The High Cost of Free Parking.” Suffice to say, I believe this is one of the most well written tomes (and it is a tome), on any subject, that I have ever read. (Adding my two cents to the montón of raves that he has received over the years.)

Surprisingly, the book manages to be as in-depth and numbers-focused as a transportation and parking geek would require; but it is equally accessible to the lay person, as well.

Two Key Shoup Findings:

  • In places where on-street parking spaces are in high demand, they should be regulated via meters with pricing that fluctuates so that there are always a few spaces available on the street. In other words, prices are higher when demand is higher, and pricing is lower, when demand is lower. Additionally, parking revenue generated by these meters should be returned, in whole or in part, to the surrounding community.

  • Cities should not be in the business of determining how much parking various types of building uses require. They invariably overestimate, creating great places for cars and not so great places for people. (I am heavily paraphrasing here!)

Favorite Shoup Fun Facts:

  • “For a downtown concert hall, Los Angeles requires, as the minimum, 50 times more parking spaces than San Francisco allows as the maximum.” Louise Davies Hall in San Francisco has no parking garage, while Disney Hall in Los Angeles has a $110 million parking garage that nearly bankrupted the entire development. “Disney Hall’s garage almost never fills, even when Disney Hall is sold out, and it is almost empty for the rest of the year.”

  • In Oakland, where they require one parking space per living unit, the cost to build rental housing “per apartment increased by 18 percent and the number of apartments built on a typical lot fell by 30 percent.” The parking requirements also triggered another effect. Because the required parking increased development costs and reduced feasible density, land values fell by 33 percent.” Later in the book, he has great quote: “Zoning requires a home for every car, but ignores homeless people.”

  • In Westwood, a Los Angeles neighborhood, a study of cars cruising for an open onstreet parking space yielded these results: “In a day, cruising for parking created 3,600 excess Vehicle Miles Traveled, which is greater than the distance across the United States.” Just one neighborhood in California. They also found that the amount of cruising increased when curb parking was free.

  • In Westwood, a Los Angeles neighborhood, a study of cars cruising for an open onstreet parking space yielded these results: “In a day, cruising for parking created 3,600 excess Vehicle Miles Traveled, which is greater than the distance across the United States.” Just one neighborhood in California. They also found that the amount of cruising increased when curb parking was free.

  • The Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE) parking generation report is the typical reference for planners selecting minimum parking ratios. As Shoup notes, “Half of the 101 parking generation rates [in the ITE report] are based on four or fewer studies, and 22 percent are based on a single study. [ITE] parking generation rates measure the peak parking demand observed at a few suburban sites with ample free parking and no public transit. As a result, urban planners who use these parking generates rates to set minimum parking requirements” are shaping the form of a city so that everyone will have to drive wherever they want to go.

Okay, so what about parking minimums? Why aren’t they being abolished en masse around the country?

I come at the question of parking from the perspective of revitalizing downtowns and Main Street commercial districts. Not surprisingly, one of the first things I hear from stakeholders when I arrive in an underperforming downtown is “We have to solve the parking problem.” The irony being that they believe their troubled commercial district has a shortage of parking; when, in fact, they usually have difficulties due to a surplus of parking.

This drive to increase parking supply to mirror arterial style development parking ratios is a deeply ingrained response from communities and business owners that have been watching their downtown or Main Street environment degrade over a period of decades, as all of the businesses in town left for the mall.

A commercial community’s desire for more parking is a formidable obstacle for planners to overcome because they often lack the real world development and retail experience to explain to property owners and business owners why adding parking will further depress commerce.

Downtowns and neighborhood commercial environments do not function like arterial style development. They are successful when they are fabulous walking districts. If they try and compete with auto-centric parking ratios, then a sort of in-between place is created — something that is not quite a downtown and not quite a strip mall, but is one hundred percent unsuccessful.

Another thing I often hear from planners is this: “We are a suburban community and we cannot have the same kind of parking ratios and development in our downtown that you have in bigger cities.” To this I usually reply with a Shoupesque observation, “Eliminating parking minimums does not mean developers stop creating product with parking, but it does mean that they won’t create any EXTRA parking.”

There is no universal, one-size fits all formula that accurately reflects how much parking various businesses and uses actually need, as if these things are independent of context. A fast food restaurant, such as Little Big Burger, in the middle of the Pearl District in Portland on the streetcar line easily gets away without needing parking, while the same restaurant located on a lonely stretch of road only accessible by car would obviously require some place for vehicle storage while people are eating.

Essentially, in getting rid of parking minimums, we are asking planners to let the market decide. To allow developers and businesses, with a lot of cash on the line, to figure out what minimum amount of parking they will need to be successful, within a given environment. The institutions that finance renovation and new construction projects also look very closely at parking to make sure it is adequate so that a development can be resold in the future.

I typically recommend downtown and Main Street districts think of cars this way: YOU WANT TO CREATE A PARKING PROBLEM! It is an indicator of success, not failure.

A lagging district must first focus all of its efforts on making itself thrive. Then, from a position of strength, figure out how to best solve the parking problem, when and if one develops. It’s much easier to tackle the issue of car storage when rents are high and business is booming, because you can pay for solutions that don’t damage the pedestrian environment, such as structured parking that is entirely surrounded by office/retail/residential uses, or by burying parking.


Call of the Mall, a Review

by Michele Reeves on May 20, 2011

Post image for Call of the Mall, a Review

I should preface this review by saying that I have a total and unabashed professional crush on Paco Underhill. There. I said it. It’s out there. Objectivity compromised.

In the breezy Call of the Mall, published in 2004, Paco takes the reader on a personal tour of the mall…top to bottom. At various points, different shoppers and experts join you on the tour, but Paco is the master of ceremonies and the reader is along for the ride to observe and learn.

The book flows quickly and easily, so much so that one could make the mistake of thinking it too frothy, but, as usual with Mr. Underhill, there is much to digest about the strengths and weaknesses of the enclosed mall: the horrible exterior architecture, the lack of activation in the sea of parking, the store mix and how it has changed over time, how the mall is laid out and the subsequent challenges to merchandising, the rise of entertainment in the mall, the demographic draw of the mall, how other countries put their cultural stamp on the enclosed mall…it’s all there.

Although this edition was published some time ago, it is still very topical, with the exception perhaps on trends regarding mall relevancy. For instance, the recent recession has hit strip malls more heavily than enclosed malls, on average, which is a bit counter to the conclusions of this book. I also found myself wanting to dig more…wanting more in depth analysis on the future of the mall, and a clearer idea of where exactly the enclosed mall still thrives, where it does not, and why. These are important questions because we’ve had a roughly ten-fold increase in the amount of retail space in the US since 1960, and as a result, I don’t believe it likely that we’re going to be absorbing a lot of new shop square footage without cannibalizing existing malls. Where is this abandonment likely to happen, how do we prevent it, in what ways can we mitigate the effects?

In fairness to Mr. Underhill, a lot of my aformentioned questions were not really within the scope of Call of the Mall to answer.

Highlights for me included:

  1. His observation that enclosed malls are built by real estate people, not by merchants, and that this is evidenced by their design: walled fortresses ringed by a sea of unattractive parking that no retailer in his right mind would create as an enticing entrance to a shopping experience.

  2. The dramatic shift in how we demonstrate our wealth, a casualty of which is the jewelry store. In the past, successful men descended into the guarded inner sanctum of a jewelry store to discreetly purchase baubles for their women — wives and mistresses — who proudly wore these very public symbols of their man’s success. In this day and age, it’s hard to picture someone like Mark Zuckerberg dipping into high-end jewelry stores with regularity to buy outrageously expensive items for his girlfriend, a la Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. In fact, the idea just seems silly. The other change impacting the jewelry biz is that women actually buy their own pretty bangles now, and they have vastly different expectations about store environment, product selection, and pricing than the model that has worked for generations.

  3. The way other countries put their own cultural stamp on the enclosed mall, particularly with the incorporation of fine dining, healthy dining, and/or high-end grocery stores. I remember when I lived in Taiwan, I would shop at the Japanese Sogo department store, which occupied a huge multi-story building. The basement was a wonderful supermarket and the ground floor had fresh bakeries, amazing prepared food and small restaurants. It put an American food court to shame! (I am swooning at the memory.)

  4. I learned that fragrance being located near the front door of department stores is a holdover from the days when the main entrance would open to a street filled with horse manure. Fascinating!

  5. His insights about how teenagers use the mall, particularly girls, were riveting.

    Teenage girls love malls best, I think — and here, according to a survey, is what they say they want in malls: a hangout-type Internet café-coffee shop (the kind of slacker paradise you find in cities, usually peopled with unemployed dot-commers); movies theaters; big seating/socializing areas; places that boys might like; amusements, such as Ferris wheels and so on; and sports, including bowling alleys, batting cages, miniature golf, tennis. It’s a long list.

    One teenage girl tried to describe what would be in her perfect mall.

    “I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Washington Square in New York,” she began, “but it’s this park, and they have these tables with like built-in checkerboards on top?”

    These kids crave cities — they want to be a part of the human spectacle that exists whenever people come together. Sadly, what we’ve given them instead is malls.

Photo by Flickr user Christopher Woo used under a Creative Commons license.

{ 1 comment }

So, You Wanna Open a Restaurant in Portland…

by Michele Reeves on April 13, 2011

Post image for So, You Wanna Open a Restaurant in Portland…

Portland, Oregon is a foodie mecca these days, luring chefs and inspiring restaurateurs with our unbeatable access to an incredible array of locally grown produce and meat. (And when I say “local,” I mean practically a stone’s throw from the city.)

If you count yourself among the intrepid souls who want to make their culinary mark in Stumptown, then read on because this is what you need to know…

We keep senior hours. Portland is a tough town if you plan on completing two full turns a night for a sit-down restaurant, because everyone in this city wants to eat between 6:30 pm and 7:00 pm. That’s it. Not before. Not after. And we don’t do late night en masse. 8:45 pm is late night here. Really late. (Tony Ten01 closes January 2011.)

There are five people with money to burn in Bridge City. We just don’t have the wage base to support a lot of high-end restaurants…so we don’t. They come, and, unfortunately, they go. If your entree items are all consistently over $25, you are going to have a tough time making it. Successful restaurants that do well in good times and bad usually are perceived to be a good value (large portions, for instance) or carry a perception of value (tapas, for instance, something you could order a few wee bites of and leave with a small check. You never do, but you could…). (Lucier lasted approximately seven months).

We’re a one horse city. I mean that affectionately, and love everything that it implies. Unfortunately, for restaurateurs, that means our people to restaurant ratio is low. So, unless you sell massive amounts of really cheap food along with a low-margin item that you produce yourself (beer, for instance), don’t even think about opening a restaurant much bigger than about 1,500 SF. If you do, I can guarantee (okay, almost guarantee) that you won’t fill it and you won’t make it. (12,000 SF Todai closes in January 2011).

Don’t recreate the Taj Mahal. Many a great restaurant has been felled by ambitious buildouts in this town. For all of the previously-mentioned reasons, you have to keep your establishment nimble. Tenant improvements should be simple and cheap and square footage (and therefore requisite staffing) minimized as much as possible so that you have manageable overhead expenses. If you don’t, you will be treading water and losing money until you close. The smartest operators are very savvy about finding spots with landlords willing to do a lot of tenant improvement work, taking over existing restaurant space, or buying a failing restaurant that they can rebrand. (Fenouil Falls in April 2011).

The food press/blogs have their favorites! They adore their native sons here — not necessarily homegrown talent, but people who have worked their way up through the ranks in well regarded local establishments. Like all cities, there are incredibly mediocre restaurants that get great press, and there are gems that get no lovin’. Just remember, if you are a hotshot chef from another city, don’t expect to ride into Portland and be greeted with fanfare. (Kin Restaurant Review).

Location, location, location. Portland has a ton of retail options, which is great…and not so great. We have neighborhood commercial, downtown, and dense mid-rise and high-rise districts. And, within these, are a million micro markets with very powerful and distinct identities. On top of all of that, we are loathe to leave the little quadrant of the city we call home (N/NE, SE, SW, and NW). You can be a great eatery, but if you are mismatched with your neighborhood, you are going to have to work harder, much harder, to lure people in your doors. (Belly says Bon Voyage in April 2011).

UPDATE: Kin has closed its doors. The Portland Mercury said it better than I could:

In a perfect world, the culinary community would have been proud enough of chef Kevin Shikami’s assertive yet delicate flavors and superior technique to support his admittedly shitty location and relatively high price points. The restaurant is beautiful, cozy, and serves great food. It’s a damn shame when that’s not enough.


On Switch, Sandpaper Letters, and How We Learn

by Michele Reeves on March 20, 2011

Post image for On Switch, Sandpaper Letters, and How We Learn

What do elephants, riders, and paths have to do with change?

Emotion = elephant, intellect = rider, and path = environment, route, or context. These are the metaphors Chip and Dan Heath use in their book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard. Their basic premise is this: you cannot get your elephant to go anywhere if rider and beast do not have aligned motivations.

The case studies on change cited in Switch were besprinkled with examples of written reports and spreadsheets that contained vital information, but were totally ignored by organizations and companies. The conclusion the Heath brothers draw in their book is that dry facts presented in writing do not engage people’s emotions, therefore, they usually fail to influence behavior all by themselves.

While the importance of engaging both heart and mind rings absolutely true, I think the authors missed an important point about how people absorb information effectively. Namely, if you use only a single channel, such as writing a report, to engage your audience about complicated issues, then the intended beneficiaries of your knowledge may be digesting very little of your message, regardless of emotional involvement. I see this in my consulting practice with cities of all sizes. Municipalities that want to revitalize a downtown or commercial corridor usually have an impressive array of reports on the subject already filed away somewhere gathering dust. And therein lies the problem, ALL of this information is contained in a report!

Over the years, I have learned that there are very few people who truly process written information efficiently. And this is particularly true of busy property owners and business owners, who don’t have time to read consultants’ tomes. Since a downtown tells its story through its infrastructure (how it looks), and its ground floor uses (they need to be active), cities must meaningfully captivate and motivate property owners and business owners to initiate renewal, or it will be stopped before it ever starts.

To effect change, cities must engage their constituents, face to face, with voices…with hands-on experiences…with images, in order for people to really learn and connect with information. As in the case of my work, I try to take the rather dry subject of land-use and bring it alive. And, if I do my job well, then a lot of excitement is generated just by bringing focus to people’s intuitions about their downtown environments and how they function optimally.

This idea of engaging all of the senses for learning reminds me of one of the methods that Montessori preschools use for teaching the alphabet: sandpaper letters. The name for the work really does represent exactly what you would think: each letter is cut from fine grain sandpaper and is individually mounted on a hard square backing. Children watch the teacher trace the letter using her index finger (mirroring the same motion you would use to write the letter), while they hear the teacher says the sound the letter makes (not its name). Then, the student copies the teacher’s actions.

This work stimulates a preschooler’s hearing (the sound of the letter), sense of touch (feeling the sandpaper under the finger), and vision (seeing the letter and watching the teacher model the movement of writing it). It is very effective. Montessori preschool students learn to read before kindergarten not because their emotions are engaged, but because all of their senses are engaged.

So, while I am in agreement with the Switch authors that motivating change is much easier when our feelings and thoughts are united behind a goal, I also believe that there are many ways to captivate our thinking selves. And sometimes, as in the case with the sandpaper letters, enthusiasm and animation–our emotions–can be triggered just by neurons connecting and blazing new trails. Thinking begets feeling.

Hear…see…touch…experience…not just read.


A Tale of Two Hospitals: The Institutional Effect

by Michele Reeves on January 19, 2011

Post image for A Tale of Two Hospitals: The Institutional Effect

If an event center, or hospital, or college plunks down in your neighborhood, does it inevitably create a crater of blight and low property values? Or, is it possible to weave large institutions into the fabric of an urban community? Right here in Portland, two major in-city hospitals provide a stark contrast in success at integrating into their surroundings, giving us a great window into what works and what doesn’t.

Legacy Good Samaritan was founded in 1875 in Northwest Portland. Its roots were firmly planted in a pre-automobile era of urban planning when streetcars were king and pedestrianism was recognized as a viable form of transportation. And, luckily for the neighborhood, that history still shines through to this day.

In the modern era, the hospital has continued to adapt to its environment in two important ways. First, they have mirrored the character of the neighborhood with the choice of brick as a facade for their buildings. Second, as they have expanded into other buildings and parts of the neighborhood, the street grid structure has been maintained, with employees and patients using sky-bridges and city sidewalks to travel from place to place rather than vacating streets to build super block sites that would create a walled-off medical campus. The preservation of the grid has allowed the neighborhood to flow through the hospital structures instead of around them, which has led to this vast medical complex successfully being absorbed into the community instead of becoming a single-use crater in the center of it.

It is no accident that the successful absorption of Good Samaritan is directly linked to the fact that it is located in one of Portland’s most dense districts, which has been able to support its presence and still maintain a diversity of interests in the immediate surrounding neighborhood, including multifamily residential, retail, office, public school, religious, and medical uses.

This variety of uses coupled with the open grid also encourages this large medical institution to open up to the neighborhood. When a walled-off campus is created, the people within the campus are less likely to leave it and mingle with, and become a part of, the social fabric immediately outside their door.

However, to say that Good Samaritan has no negative impact on its surroundings would be an overstatement. Although NW 23d Ave, along which the hospital is located, is one of Portland’s strongest neighborhood commercial retail districts, it has developed more completely in the areas to the north and south of the hospital’s only super block site, shown in the photo to the left. As you can plainly see, this particular medical building was designed in such a way that it a) does not interact with the streetscape in the least, and b) it creates a two-block blank, which can be a death blow to a retail district, disturbing shopping continuity and becoming a border, beyond which visitors prefer not to venture.

Ideally, along this NW 23rd Ave frontage, Good Samaritan would have integrated active retail storefronts that could have contributed to a more intense street level experience, in character with the surrounding commercial buildings. It is no surprise that the buildings near the super block (pictured left) have been slow to renovate.

As a counterpoint to fairly successful integration, I offer you the Legacy Emanuel campus, pictured to the right, which is a prime example of an institution that has walled itself off after razing the surrounding neighborhood so that no trace of its original character remains. Founded in 1912, this medical center underwent major expansion in the 70s that dovetailed with other disastrous postwar urban renewal projects—specifically Memorial Coliseum and Interstate 5—that decimated the minority mixed-use commercial districts in the Albina neighborhood.

When driving south along N Vancouver Ave, as you near the hospital the entire feel on the one way couplet changes. You almost feel as if you could be in a suburban office park. Incredibly, the city’s largest trauma hospital is not even visible from the street. Only a sign informs you that you are in the vicinity of a medical facility. Instead of being lined with the streetcar-era mixed-use buildings and warehouses that are more typical of this area, near Legacy Emanuel, N Vancouver Ave is lined with parking structures that continue for blocks and blocks. True, they are nicely landscaped, but they act as a wall nonetheless. Pictured below are these barriers.

Behind the greened parking edifices sits the hospital. The physical impression that Legacy Emanuel is “other” is made loud and clear. It is a citadel of medicine that does not articulate or interact with the vestiges of the commercial and residential uses that still exist in the area. (Unfortunately, the stock of buildings that dotted this formerly vibrant district are long gone.)

Other problems in this area include a disconnected grid with one-way streets as well as the deep canyon that Interstate 5 creates to the west of the hospital, further reducing connectivity to other parts of the city. Additionally, Legacy Emanuel controls much of the undeveloped land surrounding the hospital, creating an even larger dead zone of surface parking and empty lots.

Essentially, they have successfully designed a single-use medical district that is, as a result, unsafe and unsightly. The hospital’s very presence impedes revitalization on its back doorstep, even though renewal is happening nearby on N Williams Ave, N Mississippi Ave and NE Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.

The impact of this lack of diversity of use and functioning grid is keenly felt in Dawson City Park located across from the hospital, shown here. It is a public gathering place whose biggest constituents, on a per square foot basis, are a two-story low-rise office building with mirrored windows and a series of parking garages. It’s no wonder that its success as a public amenity is now mixed, at best.

This tale of two hospitals is an oft-told story that emerged from many city centers during the early days of urban renewal. The dense district with political clout staved off construction projects that would have destroyed the tight knit network of blocks, and in so doing, ultimately saved the neighborhood. The vibrant minority district, without the political clout, absorbed the full impact of nearly every large new public works project post World War II — Memorial Coliseum, Interstate 5, and the expansion of Legacy Emanuel Hospital.

{ 1 comment }

You Know the Real McCoy When You Hear It

by Michele Reeves on December 27, 2010

Post image for You Know the Real McCoy When You Hear It

Branding for a city or a district gains the most traction when it has a strong ring of authenticity across a wide group of stakeholders.

A great example of this kind of traction was the incredibly effective “Don’t Mess with Texas” anti-litter campaign. This slogan, which was designed to motivate young males to stop throwing trash out of their cars on highways, became so much more (literally, a state motto) because it resonated with one commonality found in the heart of nearly every Texan, and that is a fanatically strong sense of pride in their state.

When a city and its marketing efforts veer from the authentic, then it no longer resonates with stakeholders. A muddled, mixed-message identity is an all too common characteristic of a struggling place.

An example of this struggle is well illustrated by Las Vegas’ twists and turns over the last few decades. This was a city founded by the Mafia to provide illicit entertainment for adults—gambling, the lounge scene, and vice. It thrived for quite some time. But, by the late 1980s, the entire gaming/hospitality industry was suffering, with one hotel/casino performing above all others, Circus Circus. Because of its success, the Strip began implementing a kid-centric business model and, however improbable it may seem now, looked to families as the growth market for the future. Roller coasters, arcades, and elaborate pools abounded, but Las Vegas foundered even more through a large part of the 90s.

The next reinvention of Sin City was really a return to its roots: adult entertainment. This time though, they expanded options for visitors beyond the illicit, adding classy, big name singing acts, Broadway shows, Cirque de Soleil, and actual nightclubs (after the death of the lounge scene) for younger and hipper tourists. After returning to its beginnings, a brilliant tag line was developed: “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.” This resonates because it is edgy, authentic and true to both the past and present of the city.

Notice too, there is tension with both of these tag lines. It’s important to remember that all good stories contain some conflict. “Don’t Mess with Texas” implies you might get a beat down if you throw that beer can out the window! And, “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” has boatloads of tension…there is a strong implication that not all that happens may be good, which is what makes it interesting and compelling.

As a city, or a commercial corridor, or a main street spending money on creative services for marketing, you want to remember that generally, no matter who you are targeting for your collateral, the health of your district is dependent upon support from the people who live there. So all branding has to be real, feel real, and ultimately resonate with citizens across very diverse groups of stakeholders to be effective.

(Photo by Anneaholaward at en.wikipedia)


The Pinnacle of Artificial Places…in the US

by Michele Reeves on December 9, 2010

Post image for The Pinnacle of Artificial Places…in the US

You guessed it, I’m talking about Vegas baby, where I lived for a few years in the mid-nineties. (And let me tell you, once it gets over about 95 degrees, it doesn’t matter that it’s a dry heat, it’s still freaking hot!)

For decades, Las Vegas, Nevada was one of the few places left in the United States where a person with a high school education or GED could make a solid living wage (and, in some cases, a whole pile of dough) via any number of jobs at casinos, including dealing, valet and concierge. Because of the economic opportunities available in the city, it drew residents from a wide geographical swath.

From this diversity though, very little community has formed. There has never been much of a civic identity for residents, with all and sundry being overpowered by the gaming/hospitality industry. Everything revolves around gambling and entertainment. (If someone from Vegas tells you that people who live there never wager, they are lying. Just consider the vast number of casinos in the city targeted toward locals.) There are almost no public places created primarily for residents, particularly in the city’s core.

To summarize the layout of Las Vegas, I boil it down to three major rings (a little simplified, but it gives you the gist): There is the glitz and glamor of the Strip and downtown (Fremont Street experience), where visitors are encouraged to walk, but where locals rarely venture. I call that the first ring. Then there is the second ring that surrounds it, which is largely single-use, auto-centric sprawl that services the Strip and the casinos Downtown (pictured above circa 1952). And the third ring is comprised mostly of of gated communities and strip malls.

It was through this lens that I have been following two master planned developments in and around Las Vegas that have tried their hand at placemaking and have been less than successful.

The first is a project that began construction a few decades ago that is suburban in scale. It is a 3600 acre community called Lake Las Vegas, located in the working class suburb of Henderson, about a 45 minute drive from the Strip. Included in the development was the creation of whopping 320 acre lake, which is filled with water from nearby Lake Mead. The community, entirely constructed with a self described “old-world Mediterranean theme,” also features what they call a “European-style” shopping village, at least two resort hotels (one of which, the Ritz-Carlton, closed its doors), two marinas, three golf courses (all of which went into bankruptcy), and a private members-only social club.

Interestingly enough, I believe there was only one token casino in the project, an afterthought of sorts, which is now closed. Honestly, I found the lack of focus on gaming or glittery entertainment to be kind of refreshing while visiting (but this usually came after spending most of the day in the city proper). So, while it almost could feel like a relief, peace and tranquility is not really the reason that most people travel to Las Vegas. And, from a hospitality perspective, it is no surprise the Ritz Carlton always struggled in that location.

During a visit at the height of the real estate boom, I was surprised to see that their European-style village was devoid of customers. I asked the clerks in the stores about their business cycle and they relayed to me that they were heavily dependent upon large conferences at the hotels and the planned events and concerts held on the lake that drew people from the region at large. It was not a sustainable or authentic place that was supported by the neighborhood of Henderson. While there, I found the “faux” to be quite prevalent…it was like being in an upscale Mediterranean-themed area of Epcot, sans children. Acceptable as a pit stop before a show, or while wandering as a tourist, but it hardly felt like a place you would run into your neighbor while walking your dog or grabbing your morning cup of joe.

All of that is reflected in how hard this ritzy community has been hit during the economic downturn. It has no real gaming draw, either for locals or tourists. It has no mix of income types and certainly does not blend in with the surrounding neighborhoods in Henderson. There is little there to support existing businesses and create a sense of vibrancy or activity. And, its location on a lone arterial marks it as too distant from the core tourist draw of Las Vegas, making it difficult to lure tourists, especially in a recession.

The second project I’m going to look at was spearheaded by MGM Resorts and is called CityCenter, located in the heart of the action on a prime piece of real estate that has coveted frontage on Las Vegas Boulevard. As you will see, the idea of what makes a community, and how long it takes to develop its legs, has thrown them for a loop in this very urban “city within a city.”

CityCenter is the largest privately financed real estate development in the United States. Of the 76 acres they control, they have thus far built approximately 17 million square feet on roughly 67 acres of land. There are a mix of uses, including residential, hotel, casino, shopping, event and public spaces. It was designed by a slew of marquee architects, and the whole thing is uber green (my favorite sustainable feature is the fleet of compressed natural gas fueled limousines). But, despite these features, the project’s public community spaces are failing, and it’s having trouble attracting tourists as well. (Not to mention, one of its towers has serious structural flaws and may be a candidate for demolition.)

Yes, you read that right. With about 1300 feet of dirt directly on the Strip, they are having trouble enticing visitors into their project. That is shocking. But, as the Las Vegas Sun wrote recently, CityCenter’s designers mucked up the pedestrian entrance from the strip, leaving visitors on foot with an uneasy feeling about entering this conglomeration of dense towers with discreet parking lots.

“People crossing the street creates huge traffic problems and the county was adamant that these problems be solved,” said J.F. Finn, principal and managing director of Gensler in Las Vegas — the firm that led the design team crafting CityCenter. “You have to move people away from those vehicles.”

CityCenter may have created another problem in the process, architect and Las Vegas design critic Alan Hess said.

“The entrance has all the pleasantness of an airport terminal,” he said. “There’s a lot of concrete and ramps and other things that turn pedestrians off, and a sense of being channeled into an entryway.”

CityCenter is a theme park for urbanism…but somewhere along the line, they all seemed to forget that. Las Vegas Boulevard is not a real community, it is Disneyland for grownups. Its denizens are tourists. I find it incomprehensible that developers and architects thought they could create a functioning, authentic urban place within their inward-facing towers of concrete and steel wrapped in sexy green technology. It is an oasis that will never interconnect with its neighbors via a street grid that one might find in a real urban place. An oasis that purports to be green but is located in a desert city with a dwindling water supply. An oasis with few surrounding full time residents nearby.

The only way to make it succeed is to embrace its true nature. If they rework the entryway and are able to successfully populate it with tourists walking the strip, then they will come close to approximating a busy, thriving mixed-use district. It will be exactly like the “street scene” located on the interior in the New York, New York Hotel. Will it be active? Yes. Will it be a bona-fide community as well? Of course not.

I wanted to finish up with a quick story, the impetus actually, for me to write this blog post. You see, a month or so ago, I read a consultant’s blog about visiting this city within a city, reporting on their work to assist CityCenter with activating its public spaces and making it seem more “real.” One of their suggestions was a farmer’s market! Perfect. Because nothing says gen-u-ine Las Vegas to me like produce that comes from the rich fertile sand that extends far beyond the neon glow and irrigated wilted petunias.

(Photo of Lake Las Vegas by joevare, under this creative commons license. Photo of CityCenter by michaelcortina, under this creative commons license.)


Connection and Diversity Spur Economic Development

by Michele Reeves on November 27, 2010

Post image for Connection and Diversity Spur Economic Development

There is a traditional top down model, implemented the world over, in which cities build infrastructure in an attempt to cluster technical industries and spur job growth, which Vivek Wadhwa discussed recently in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

All of those are well-intentioned efforts to build Silicon Valley-style technology hubs, but they are based on the same flawed assumptions: that government planners can pick industries they want to develop and, by erecting buildings and providing money to entrepreneurs and university researchers, make innovation happen.

Regional planners and some academics get very defensive when asked to produce evidence of cluster theory’s success. They commonly tout Silicon Valley and North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park as examples of the success of government-supported clusters. Research Triangle Park is a 50-year-old project that achieved success decades ago but lost momentum in the Internet era. And the success of Silicon Valley was achieved without government involvement.

Economic development, whether it be on a neighborhood scale or from a city-wide perspective, can be fostered by focusing on connectivity and diversity, not unlike the interactions needed to encourage physical revitalization, as I laid out in my post on ants and revitalization.

There is an excellent article by Steven Johnson in the Financial Times about the thriving New York high tech scene. I was surprised to learn that the New York area is now second only to Silicon Valley in attracting venture funds to start-up internet firms. And, as Mr. Johnson argues in his piece, the route to reproducing the conditions that existed prior to the success of Silicon Valley, or the NY tech scene, need not require top down planning and large public expenditures.

Mr. Johnson believes that “one secret to New York’s technological success lies in the Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP), a two-year graduate course at New York University.” This course brings together students of varied backgrounds, from artists with no technical expertise to hard core coders, and out of that cauldron of diversity comes creativity and ingenious ideas. The graduates of this program go on to work in, or found, copius numbers of start-up ventures in the region.

The physical density of the city also encourages innovation. Many start-ups, both now and during the first, late-1990s internet boom, share offices. This creates informal networks of influence, where ideas can pass from one company to the other over casual conversation at the espresso machine or water cooler… .

Economists have a telling phrase for the kind of sharing that happens in these densely populated environments: “information spillover.” When you share a civic culture with millions of people, good ideas have a tendency to flow from mind to mind, even when their creators try to keep them secret.

All of these spaces – the graduate schools, the co-working offices, the media environments – exhibit the final trait that has been key to New York’s technological success: its diversity. A number of studies have established an essential connection between diversity and innovation. One such study, by the Stanford Business School professor Martin Ruef, interviewed 766 graduates of the school who had gone on to have entrepreneurial careers. Ruef was interested in the diversity of professions and disciplines, not of race or sexual orientation. He created an elaborate system for scoring innovation based on a combination of factors: the introduction of new products, say, or the filing of trademarks and patents. Then he tracked each graduate’s social network – not just the number of acquaintances but the kind of acquaintances they had. Some graduates had large social networks that were clustered within their organisation; others had small insular groups dominated by friends and family. Some had wide-ranging connections outside their inner circle of friends and colleagues.

Ruef discovered that the most creative individuals consistently had broad social networks that extended outside their organisation and involved people from various fields of expertise. In groups united by shared values and long-term familiarity, conformity and convention tended to dampen any potential creative sparks. The limited reach of the network meant that concepts from the outside rarely entered the entrepreneur’s consciousness. But the entrepreneurs who built bridges outside their “islands,” as Ruef called them, were able to borrow or co-opt new ideas from these external environments.

Let sophisticated behavior trickle up. Get your citizens talking to one another. Encourage inter-disciplinary cooperation. Bring people together from varied and different backgrounds — both from a cultural and professional perspective. Strengthen the connections between the private sector and universities. And, as Vivek Wadhwa says, teach entrepreneurship to students and experienced workers alike, finding ways to eliminate the stigma associated with failure.

Then, get out of the way!!


On Emergence, Ants, and Bottom up Revitalization

by Michele Reeves on November 19, 2010

Post image for On Emergence, Ants, and Bottom up Revitalization

I was thinking about commercial districts yesterday as I finished Emergence, by Steven Johnson. I was particularly taken with his descriptions of ants, and how they build colonies with no central vision or control. A fully functioning ant mound is created strictly through a series of small local interactions between ants, largely using pheromones. Though the amount of information exchanged in each is tiny, from these local interactions, a higher functioning order emerges.

This is exactly the sort of behavior cities should be encouraging between stakeholders to foster organic revitalization.

Instead, from a city’s perspective, from a planning department’s perspective, and from a development agency perspective, it is often easier to focus on that one big new “catalyst” project that will single-handedly improve an area, rather than encourage many small-scale projects, fostering a bottom up approach. Unfortunately, this desire to renew from above takes a tremendous amount of public capital and doesn’t always work.

Is it possible to consider rejuvenation of a commercial corridor or a downtown from a different, more cost-effective perspective?

Yes, provided that you have decent building stock (and by decent, I mean a continuous run of structures from almost any era) and a functioning grid. From those simple building blocks, you can directly improve what you have, rather than trying to indirectly help it by completing a single large new building. From the seeds of your downtown or your commercial corridor, you can grow a place, which will then require significantly less, or perhaps no, public money to encourage new construction.

In Emergence, Steven Johnson writes about the five fundamental principles that a system designed to learn from the ground level must exhibit, as an ant colony exhibits:

  1. More is different. The statistical nature of ant interaction demands that there be a critical mass of ants for the colony to make intelligent assessments of its global state.

  2. Ignorance is useful. It is better to build a dense interconnected system with simple elements and let sophisticated behavior trickle up.

  3. Encourage random encounters. Encounters with individual ants are arbitrary, but because so many of them are in the system, those encounters allow individuals to gauge and alter the macrostate of the system.

  4. Look for patterns in the signs. The knack for pattern detection allows meta-information to circulate through the colony mind. (Smelling the pheromones of fifty foragers in the space of an hour imparts information about the global state of the colony.)

  5. Pay attention to your neighbors. Local information can lead to global wisdom.

Paraphrase: Get all of your stakeholders talking and doing — the more people the merrier. The more projects the merrier. The more activity the merrier.

Or, to put it more formally, if we create opportunities for and catalyze a sizable number of small local interactions, these can bring about positive changes in cities and neighborhoods with minimal monetary investment. And, these interactions and projects will take your city in directions you never imagined, and I mean that as a good thing. “Let sophisticated behavior trickle up.”

Now, meaningfully engaging stakeholders is not easy. It’s much simpler, and more attractive, to focus on big flashy projects with a lot of quantified knowns on sites controlled by the city. But, it doesn’t help create sustainable renewal.

So, how do you stir up the pot? Who do you get interacting? What the heck is Michele Reeves talking about?

  • Business Owners. Are they talking to each other? Do they have a functioning business association or downtown association? If not, help them. Provide funding, expertise and assistance.

  • Property Owners. Nothing happens in a downtown or commercial corridor without the property owners. Do they know each other? How do their buildings look? How do they interact with the public sector? Usually, in historic districts that are languishing, there is a complete and total disconnect between some of the long-time property owners and the public sector. In other words, they hate the planning and permit department. Cities need to repair this vital connection between property owners and government before renewal can occur. Get property owners engaged!

  • Retail Sophistication. What is the level of retailing in the downtown or commercial corridor? Can business owners and property owners benefit from merchandising training? Do property owners and shop owners understand the tie between good design, attractive buildings, and retail performance?

  • Permits. Does your planning and permit department do everything it can to help small business owners and property owners? Often, the public sector tailors their process toward large development, which makes the path to acquiring a permit nearly incomprehensible to local entrepreneurs and small building owners. Start building connections to these groups and understanding their needs. Create streamlined “cheat sheets” for simple building improvement permit procedures, or step-by-step instructions for restaurant tenants and food cart vendors.

  • Brand. Is there a unified story or identity for your district? Create your story. Manage your story. Leverage your story. Makes sure everyone is telling your story, the way you want it told.