Reviewing 2007’s “Great Neighborhood Book”

Bookpic As a “forum for discussing financial issues around placemaking,” the Cents of Place blog cannot fail to remark on this year’s publication of “The Great Neighborhood Book” by Minnesota author Jay Walljasper.  The book covers a range of issues with an approach that is whimsical and populist, and at times reads like a love letter to places that allow for spontaneous and informal interaction.  In the process, Walljasper ignores the economic and financial issues that are in some cases at the core of his evaluation of what makes for great urban neighborhoods.  Perhaps a sequel is in order.

In the introduction, the author mentions the eleven principles of placemaking that have been developed by the book’s publisher, the Project for Public Spaces, and which serve as a framework for the book.  Principle number ten reads:

Money is not the issue.  If you have a spirited community working with you, you’ll find creative ways around financial obstacles.

I admit a bias here:  I believe that whether and how we finance placemaking is a critical issue, not one to be casually dismissed.  Moreover, the suggestion in principle number ten is that neighborhoods stymied by financial obstacles are dispirited, weak or lacking in creativity.  Instead, I suggest rephrasing the principle to read:

Money is not the only issue.  A spirited community and/or local booster can surmount a broad range of financial obstacles through creative problem solving.  Initiatives described in this book have succeeded not only because they offer aesthetic values and are homegrown, but because they enhance community differentiation via unique spaces and hence “pay off” in terms of dollars and quality of life for residents and visitors.  It’s human nature that we like to live in and visit places that are distinct, and we respond by investing our time, money and effort in those places.  If these various forms of investment do not take place, even much-adored places can be jeopardized.

In an October lecture at the national conference of the Trust for Historic Preservation, Ed McMahon of the Urban Land Institute offered a sound point about community differentiation.  “Why,” he asked, “would anyone be interested in coming to invest themselves in a community that is failing to invest in itself?”  Just as it would be incomplete to ignore the social capital and relationships that support great neighborhoods, the financial component – unsavory as it can be – needs to be addressed.

I enjoyed this book and am hoping for a second edition with a chapter on placemaking finance!

Incentivizing the Establishment of New Business Improvement Districts (“BIDs”)

Editor’s Note:  I am pleased to present guest writer Max Musicant.  Mr. Musicant hails from Minneapolis and is currently serving as Project Manager for the Greater Jamaica Development Corporation in Queens.  The commentary that follows reveals some of Musicant’s perspective on Greater Jamaica’s successful use of BIDs for local development.  Contact Max at mmusicant (at) 

Business and property owners love business improvement districts – once they are in place and the benefits manifest themselves.  Still, with the benefits of business improvement districts being touted by municipalities across the country as well as in publications like The Economist, very little is being said about the often difficult task of establishing them in the first place. Despite numerous studies citing their benefit (including this recent one by the NYU’s Furman Center), it can be a difficult task initially to convince a property owner or merchant that they will see increased profits as a result of their higher property tax assessments. The positive impact of cleaner streets, more pedestrian amenities, and better marketing for the district can be more difficult to quantify than an increase in property taxes.


So how do you convince skeptical merchants and property owners that the trade off between a new assessment and increased business related services is a good one? The establishment of three BIDs over the past 35 years in Jamaica, Queens, New York City illustrate that linking the establishment of a BID to a targeted public investment can be a highly effective tool to bring merchants and property owners on board.

165th Street BID
From 1900 to 1960 Downtown Jamaica was the historic shopping center of Southern and Eastern Queens, with 165th Street as a one block stretch bustling with destination shopping anchored by the first non-Manhattan Macy’s department store. Starting in the 1960s revenues began to decline due to the opening of large suburban shopping malls with free parking on Long Island, as well as the perceived declining state of New York City as a whole. The merchants wanted to fight back and regain their premier position by creating a pedestrian mall along 165th Street based on the highly successful Nicollet Mall in Minneapolis. Before constructing the pedestrian mall, City officials required the property owners and their tenants to form a special assessment district. The substantial public infrastructure investment created a large enough incentive for the merchants and property owners to establish the special assessment district. The new special assessment district also insured that the retailers would be able extract the maximum benefit from the new pedestrian mall through dedicated and on-going funds for its maintenance.

Jamaica Center BID
By the 1970s, Jamaica’s other commercial corridor, Jamaica Avenue, was a shell of its past self; all three of its major department stores had left, along with a bank headquarters, two newspapers, countless legal offices, and many quality shops. A major reason for the decline of Jamaica Avenue was that it had an old and run down elevated train running over the length of the roughly twenty-block shopping district. The elevated train tracks created a dark and dirty atmosphere that gave the impression that the area was unsafe. As the effort began to lobby City and State officials to replace the elevated with a new subway, the promise of an improved shopping experience along with the need for a unified voice and organizational capacity created the strong incentive to establish a BID. The eventual organization of a BID along Jamaica Avenue was crucial in the lobbying effort that successfully got the elevated replaced by a subway line in 1980. With the elevated train gone Jamaica Avenue was able to come back, and today it is thriving.

Sutphin Boulevard BID
In the mid-1990s the Port Authority of New York/New Jersey was searching the region for a location to build a terminal for its new AirTrain light rail link to JFK Airport.  The terminal would serve thousands of domestic and international travelers each day and give whatever neighborhood it was located in a customer boost as well as positioning it well as a potential “Airport Village”. The local development corporation, Greater Jamaica Development Corporation, lobbied hard to have the terminal built in Downtown Jamaica arguing that it was only a few miles from the airport, was served by four subway lines, 49 bus lines, eleven of twelve Long Island Railroad (LIRR) lines, and was only twenty minutes from Midtown Manhattan via LIRR commuter rail. Despite the locational advantages of Downtown Jamaica, the establishment of a BID was deemed essential; so as to ensure the area’s continued maintenance and upkeep. By using the possible construction of a direct mass-transit link to JFK Airport as a motivator, skeptical merchants and property owners were convinced of the merits of establishing a BID. The AirTrain was completed in Jamaica in 2004 and today the Sutphin Boulevard corridor is poised and prepared to become JFK Airport’s first “Airport Village”, in part because of the Sutphin BID.

As these three examples exhibit, substantial focused public investment can be a highly effective tool to establish a BID. Local stakeholders and public officials can encourage BIDs by making them a required precursor to an investment, or local merchants and property owners can organize a BID to lobby the powers that be for public action that would significantly improve their business interests.  The important lesson is that the ability to link the establishment or enlargement BIDs to other previously unrelated issues is a highly effective strategy to bridge organizational hurdles.

“Lots of Energy in the Street” – Dutch Firm Produces Solar and Geothermal System Underneath

Ever run your car over the heating system of an office
building? If you’ve been to Scharwoude
in the Netherlands, you may have – but you would not have known it. As reported in this week’s Economist magazine, Dutch company Ooms Avenhorn
Group has developed a heating and cooling system that relies on asphalt roadways
and underlying aquifers. The company’s
offices in Scharwoude are heated and cooled using this method. An excerpt of the article:

"The heat-collector itself is a circuit of connected water pipes. Most of
them run from one side of the street to the other, just under the asphalt
layer. Some, however, dive deep into the ground. In summer, when the surface of
the street gets hot, water pumped through the pipes picks up this heat and
takes it underground through one of the diving pipes. About 100 metres down
lies a natural aquifer into which a series of heat exchangers have been built.
The hot water from the street runs through them, warming the groundwater,
before returning to the surface via another pipe. The aquifer is thus used as a
heat store.

In winter, the circuit is changed slightly. Water is pumped through the heat
exchangers to pick up the heat that was stored during summer. This water goes
into the Ooms building and is used to warm it up. The water is then pumped
under the asphalt, and the residual heat it carries helps to keep the road free
of snow and ice. By now the water has been cooled to near freezing point, and
it is once again sent underground—this time through a different pipe, to a
second aquifer. Here, another set of heat exchangers is used to cool the
groundwater. This store of cold water is then used in summer to keep the Ooms
building cool.

The result is cheap heating in winter and cheap cooling in summer. And there
is a bonus. Summer heating softens asphalt, making it easier for heavy traffic
to damage the road surface. Dr de Bondt’s system not only saves electricity,
but also saves the road. Expect to see more examples of it, in other countries,

Janet Attarian (project manager of Chicago’s new
to use alleys more productively) asked in a recent New York Times
, “can you make alleys do more for you?” Converting streets into energy collection and
storage facilities may just qualify.

Why is this important? It could serve several significant ends:

 • Generating and storing energy through this combined
solar/geothermal method provides a financial hedge against significant price
fluctuations of conventional alternatives such as natural gas.

• Moving some infrastructure for heating and cooling under
the street may increase the square footage available for the primary building
purpose, be it housing, manufacturing, office or retail.

• Making streets and alleys “work for you” as energy
infrastructure increases the intensity of use of urban land and bolsters tax
base, providing support for the private
and public efforts required for regions to differentiate

Photo:  Courtesy of Flickr.

Parking: More Expensive Than We Thought

A dramatic reuse of an aging church for the new Stepping Stone Theatre required
a variance of 10420071129_lobby_2
spaces, or 92% of the requirement stipulated under the zoning code in St. Paul, Minnesota, meaning only 8% of the requirement is directly provided by the theatre’s property. Do the City’s parking requirements create a
structural oversupply of parking in the city? It’s likely. I will revisit
parking requirements in coming months, during which city planners and
stakeholders will engage the future of local parking policy. The focus of this post is to consider the
public cost associated with requiring developers to meet the parking
requirements currently in place.

Stepping Stone Theatre is a success story, providing
children with training and experience in acting and stagecraft. Shows in the new theatre on Victoria Street
sure to be well attended, leading the reader to ask:  How will the neighborhood accommodate the
parking needs during performances? The
theatre has arranged for patrons to park in existing surface lots at William
Mitchell College of Law, located across the street, and at the House of Hope
Church parking lot at Holly and Avon Streets one block away. A few scattered observations about the area
we can use for housing or other uses, due to the shared parking arrangement in
place for Stepping Stone:

• Each parking space requires 200-300 square feet of
space. If the theatre had been required
to purchase and renovate a site allowing them exclusive control and use of 113
spaces, surface parking would represent between 0.52 acres and .78 acres of
land committed to a conspicuously low level of land use and productivity. This area is equivalent to between five and
nine residential lots for single-family or duplex homes.

• A mixed-use development recently built in St. Paul, with structured
parking underneath, is valued at $157/square foot of the lot; at this level,
the area equivalent to 113 parking spaces would represent between $3.5 million
and $5.3 million of market value. In the
theatre’s new location, a site this size might accommodate 20-40 units of
housing or mixed use development, leading to enhanced property and perhaps
sales tax base.

The car is here to stay, so devising intelligent ways of
storing cars during their many hours of non-use is essential for cities serious
about their future
vitality and financial wherewithal
. Ideas worth exploration on this issue abound, but one in particular deserves
note: Adoption of a
payment-in-lieu-of-parking program. A
sample of potential benefits:

• Allow building owners unable to satisfy a parking
requirement to make payments to the City, parking authority or business
improvement district, in return for parking credits

• Proceeds would be devoted to capital financing for
structured and/or shared parking, and pay a parking liaison charged with
connecting parties for shared parking arrangements

• The City could be separated into a number of “parkingshed”
zones, so that payments would fund parking infrastructure and agreements in
relative proximity to property owners paying the fees

• Potentially, a local market for parking credits could be
established, further enhancing the efficiency of the program.

Parking policy is a confluence of real estate development,
public finance, transportation and land use, and hence advocates in each of
these realms get involved in parking discussions. In the theatre’s shared parking arrangements lies
one critical tool for cities, the leadership of which must be absolutely
focused on concentrating tax base with redevelopment and forward-thinking
approaches to land use.

Photo: Courtesy of
Stepping Stone Theatre.