Wednesday, November 19, 2014

LISC Announces the Chicago Business District Leadership Program

Chicago now has its own leadership program for Business District Leaders! The LISC Chicago Business District Leadership Program is now accepting applications. Click here for more information and how to apply.
The brochure for LISC Chicago's
Business District Leadership Program

Led by LISC Chicago, and developed in collaboration with Coro New York Leadership Center and Larisa Ortiz Associates (LOA), the Chicago program is based on the award-winning Coro New York Neighborhood  Leadership (Coro NL) Program. The LISC Chicago Business District Leaders program is  a 6-month experiential learning program that combines leadership and skills development for mid-career professionals who manage commercial districts.

Over the past year, LOA has worked closely with LISC Chicago to build the case for this program. We realized early on that the need for a Chicago-based professional development program for business district leaders was particularly acute. The City of Chicago collects over $22 million in public funds on behalf of the City’s 44 Special Service Areas (SSAs are the equivalent of BIDs). The City of Chicago also provides funding to 154 non-profit “Economic Development Delegate” Agencies, many who provide services similar to SSA's. Yet many of these practitioners lack the formal training or soft skill sets necessary to ensure that the public funds they manage are producing tangible impact on the business districts they serve.

The problem is not limited to Chicago. Nationwide, there very few places where practitioners can go to gain or maintain the hard and soft skills demanded of their positions. Nor are there many opportunities to build the strong peer-to-peer networks that are so vital to the success of local economic development efforts. The need for training is particularly important for practitioners who work in weak markets, many of whom are charged with leading change in neighborhoods with limited resources, while balancing high expectations from the community and agencies that fund them.

For Chicago-based practitioners, this is an exciting opportunity. At the end of the day, the most effective practitioners are those that are able to influence the stakeholders over whom they have limited authority. Think of the local politician who holds the purse-strings for local capital improvements, or the property owner who can do what he likes with the ground floor of his property. Building relationships with and engaging those partners, and successfully getting them on board with the commercial district vision, is perhaps the single most significant challenge that practitioners face. 

As the Director of the Coro NL Program during its inaugural two years, I was truly inspired and thrilled to see the impact on the group of 40 practitioners who made up the first two classes. The Coro leadership philosophy had a powerful impact on each and every participant - including myself as director. Even though I was only an observer, it was impossible not to come away from each session inspired. Each and every month I would leave a Leadership Day excited by the insights I had gained into my own leadership challenges and the growing recognition that at each and every stage in our professional lives we could use some tweaking and improving. By now, over 80 New York practitioners have gone through the program and I can safely say that they are changing the face of New York and the communities they serve for the better. I am encouraged to see Chicago follow suit!

Monday, November 17, 2014

Can you quantify the economic impact of your corridor?

Atlanta's historic Peachtree Corridor
Advocating for resources on behalf of your commercial district can sometimes feel like an uphill battle. The challenge is often made more difficult by the fact that political will is often predicated on voter interest in an issue - and when most voters don't live in the district their interests may or may not align with corridor revitalization efforts. Yet as many of us know, our commercial districts are the economic engines that keep our local regional economies humming.

To counteract this problem, some communities are commissioning research that can demonstrate the value of the corridor to local and regional economic development. A study commissioned by three Community Improvement Districts (Atlanta Downtown ID, Midtown ID and Buckhead Community ID) three independent organizations that all service portions of Atlanta's 8.5 mile "Peachtree Corridor" is a good example of simple fiscal analysis that proves significant impact.

What they found should give leaders pause the next time investments in economic development are concerned. With only 3.7% of Atlanta's land, the corridor services 58% of all jobs (70% in the professional, science and technology sectors) and 37% of the City's total real estate values. Ensuring that the corridor remains strong and healthy is critical to ensuring that the City can continue to provide all of its residents with the vital services they need, from police to education to trash pickup. Making this connection crystal clear to community decision makers is a critical component of successful advocacy. With the report recently issued, local newspapers have picked up the story ("City Boosters to State: Peachtree is a vital artery", Atlanta Business Chronicle, Nov. 17, 2014). Here is another hint, it's not enough to write the report, you need to make sure the people know about - so don't skimp on the PR!

To see the report, click here.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Murals: Resurgence and Placemaking in Commercial Districts

Beautiful. Inspiring. Informative. Vibrant.  These are just a few words that describe outdoor murals and streetscape art which are now seeing resurgence in popularity and importance.

Advertisement murals were the original streetscape murals.  Starting in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s they advertised and promoted brands from horse saddles to biscuits and typically painted on brick.  Frank Jump, a NYC based photographer, chronicles these ad murals (

Photo credit Sarah Goodyear via
Taking the lead of Chicago’s muralists, whose work received national publicity at the end of the 1960’s, cities across US saw the potential of powerful public imagery as murals were an important devise for perhaps even novice painters to express themselves and have a voice in their community. 

Here at the Commercial District Advisor we are on board with encouraging BIDs, business corridors, and communities to add murals, whether for advertisement or public art, to their streetscapes in order to add soul, personality, and life to their areas.  A study of Philadelphia commercial corridors (Econsult, 2006) found the Mural Arts Program (MAP) had demonstrated and positive effects on retail sales along the corridors where they were placed. The murals addressed and rectified visible signs of physical degradation and also decrease the perception of crime, both critical factors in commercial revitalization.

The good news is that we are seeing a growing trend of variable forms of murals and streetscape artwork, including:
Image by Commercial District Advisor
The research further supports the impact of murals on local conditions. Murals help to avoid “dead zones” of nothingness on the walls, this in turn reminds pedestrians where they are and gives them a safe and inviting feeling (, 2008). Also, evidence points out that graffiti murals are a cost effective way to keep surfaces free from vandalism and create visual cues to residents that the place they call home is desirable (Verel, 2013). 

Seeing suggestions turned into action...

Image from, Michael Craig-Martin, Art Production Fund
In some communities, murals are a wonderful way to beautify the physical environment, keep surfaces graffiti free, which in turn decreases the perception of crime. A few years ago, our firm, together with LISC MetroEdge, completed a retail strategy analysis for La Casa de Don Pedro.  Since then, our mural recommendation has driven a host of initiatives on the street, and this week La Casa is celebrating “The Gates Project”, which resulted in vibrant advertising murals on storefront gates.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The Secret to Macy's Success?

Whether you shop at Macy’s or eschew national chains in favor of local flavor, the work that this massive department store is doing to renovate and reposition their flagship store in Herald Square offers a number of lessons for commercial district practitioners. A $400 million dollar renovation coincides with some changing on the ground dynamics, including more tourism from Brazil and Asia and high end competitors like Nordstrom entering the market and grabbing those high end dollars. 

With that said, I really enjoyed this recent piece in the NY Times ("For Macy's, A Makeover on 34th Street", 10/1) which covered a number of basic concepts that we frequently use in our work. The most important concept they discussed was the need to dig deep and really understand your customer, and then tailor your merchandise and price points to fit those preferences. In fact, market research is the framework upon which much of this $400 million reinvestment is being made. At Macy’s, knowing their customer means stocking a wider variety of black leather tote bags in recognition of the larger number of office workers who work in midtown. Or offering Asian tourists more options in smaller sizes. Or finding ways to offer foreign tourists looking for prestige “American” brands the things that they want. In practice that means carrying more Ralph Lauren Polo, Tommy Hilfiger and Michael Kors, all classic American clothing brands. And while they are going upscale to meet these customer's expectations, they haven’t given up on price conscious customers. Macy's continues to offer coupons in weekend circulars. 

With 2.2 million square feet Macy’s is a shopping district onto itself, in fact, if it were a shopping center it would be classified not simply as a mall, but a “Super-Regional Mall” (which average 1.2 million square feet – so this Macy’s beats that average by nearly double!). This means that there are many stores within the store – and each seeks to meet the needs of customer with very specific expectations around price points and merchandise mix. This is why you can go to the shoe section (larger than a football field!) and find black boots differentiated by price and brand, ranging from $69 dollars to $229 to $1,160. Truly a store that offers a little bit of something for the customers that it already has and wants more of.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

What is the Secret of Suburban Downtown Success?

Peekskill, NY - a quintessential suburban downtown
New research in the field of commercial revitalization can be hard to come by. So I love coming across reports that help practitioners in their daily decision making about what to do - and what not to do - when it comes to advancing the cause of downtown economic development. To that end, the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission recently released a report ("Revitalizing Suburban Downtown Retail Districts: Strategies and Best Practices") on Suburban Downtown Retail Districts that I found quite interesting. The study considered 71 suburban downtown districts in the Greater Philadelphia region and sought to determine what strategies had the most impact on efforts to revive the districts and to further their economic development goals. 

What Doesn't Work
Before we get to that part, I particularly enjoyed reading the sidebar on what things DON'T work...they called this piece "Polices that Impede Downtown Retail Revitalization". Here are the things you DON'T want to do if you seek a successful downtown district. 
  • Constructing ring roads/bypasses 
  • Creating pedestrian only zones and parking in remote lots 
  • Relocating municipal functions away from downtown 
  • Removing on-street parking 
  • Creating one-way streets 
  • Losing a key retailer 
  • Opening of new shopping center 
  • Not addressing petty crime 
  • Failing to maintain the public realm 
  • Refusing national retailers/discount department stores
Source: Streetsense, 2012 via "Revitalizing Suburban Downtown Retail Districts"

What Does Work
So then...what are the elements of suburban retail district success? The study found that seven key elements were most critical to downtown retail success. These included the following:
  • The presence of a BID or Merchants Association - although notably only 12.5% included a professional, paid manager
  • Ample sidewalk width - i.e. wider sidewalks that accommodate more people - the average sidewalk was 8.5 feet, but went as wide as 15 to 20 feet in some markets (e.g. Princeton and Haddonfield)
  • A high "Walk Score" - a walkscore over 80 using
  • A low vacancy rate - less than 20% vacancy rates (with non-retail uses taking up less than 10% of space)
  • Available parking options
  • High traffic counts - successful districts see an average of 10,000 - 16,000 vehicles per day. 
The Main Takeaway
If we whittle this down to a few key takeaways, what I appreciate about these categories is that they reflect what other studies have shown, that there are four key areas where business district MUST focus to maintain a competitive advantage. These include ACCESS, AMENITIES, DENSITY OF RETAIL OFFERINGS and DISTRICT MANAGEMENT, which over and over again emerge as the most critical elements necessary for a successful downtown environment. 
  • ACCESS measured by traffic counts and available parking. 
  • AMENITIES measured by "Walk Score" which tell you how comfortable people are walking in the district. This includes the physical environment, which I define as anything "outside of the store", as well as how clean and safe the environment feels to the pedestrian. 
  • DENSITY OF RETAIL OFFERINGS measured in part by "Walk Score" AND by a low vacancy rate. I would argue that a town with a great Walk Score is a place with few missing teeth or gaps in the downtown environment. And finally...
  • DISTRICT MANAGEMENT. Whether you are a BID or a Main Street Program of a Merchants Association, a downtown steward is critical to manage, market and maintain a successful commercial district. 

So...are your commercial district revitalization efforts focused on addressed these four key issues? 

Friday, October 24, 2014

Detroit, MI: Reflecting on how far things have come

By Dave Feehan

Dave is Principal of Civitas Advisors and a frequent contributor to the Commercial District Advisor. In this piece, originally published in Crain's Detroit Business ("Afternoon riverfront walk reveals 'new' downtown, opportunity, Crain's Detroit, 10/20/14), he talks about his early years working in Detroit, and the astounding changes the downtown as seen since then. Enjoy!

Detroit Riverwalk, a downtown amenity that
attracts visitors from around the world

In early 1994, after directing Kalamazoo's downtown organization for five years, I was offered the opportunity to return to my hometown of Minneapolis, where I was expecting to lead the city's community development agency. However, newly elected Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer called with a pitch I found too enticing to pass up. 

He said, "You can go back to Minneapolis and make a nice town even nicer, or you can come to Detroit and help me rebuild a great American city." 

I was soon working for Detroit Renaissance as executive director of downtown and community development, and wondering exactly where to start. 

Downtown Detroit was on life support. More than a quarter of the commercial buildings were totally vacant, another quarter was less than 50 percent occupied. That left half the commercial real estate economically nonfunctional. Some retail stores (and there were few) were heated with kerosene space heaters. Even the better restaurants were not that good, and one, located near Harmonie Park, refused to put a sign on the exterior and kept the door locked. You had to knock to get in. 

Woodward Avenue was 10 lanes of potholes with little traffic. Pedestrian traffic was virtually nil, even at lunchtime. The Hudson's building loomed like a foreboding castle, stripped by scrappers and open to anyone who might have the courage to wander into its abyss. Islands of activity existed — City Hall, the Renaissance Center and Greektown — but they were exceptions. 

Detroit's neighborhoods were also facing massive challenges. Some community organizations, especially the Warren-Conner Development Coalition and the Southwest Detroit Business Association, struggled to overcome a tsunami of negative media coverage and failing city services, but most neighborhoods had simply lost the struggle and returned to prairie grass. 

Working with the CEO of Detroit Renaissance and city officials, I was assigned three priorities: Figure out a plan for the Hudson's building, create a new "greater downtown" organization, and provide support to community development corporations in the neighborhoods. 

Working closely with Bob Larson, CEO of the Taubman Cos., and Jim Tervo, Mayor Archer's top development adviser, we hatched a plan to acquire the Hudson's building and much of the surrounding real estate, eventually totaling about 16 acres. With commitments of $2 million from local corporations and help from the Honigman law firm and Vigliotti Realty, we secured options and purchase agreements on about 80 percent of the buildings within our target area in less than a year. Those options were transferred to the city of Detroit once the project became public, and today Compuware, Quicken Loans and many other companies occupy the site. 

Rather than attempt a merger of the four downtown organizations that existed at that time, we elected to create the Downtown Detroit Partnership with a focus on the central business district but allied with and supporting the other groups along the riverfront and up into Midtown and New Center. 

I left Detroit in 1996 to become president of the newly created Downtown Partnership in Des Moines, Iowa, a move precipitated by the death of my father in Minneapolis and the failing health of my mother. My return trips to Detroit were infrequent, most recently a few years ago to visit with Dave Blaskiewicz, who was then president of the DDP and pointed out some of the noticeable public space improvements. 

Still, nothing quite prepared me for the change I experienced when I returned for the Detroit Homecoming event. It was, in a word, stunning. 

A quick drive from Jefferson up Washington Boulevard, around the theater district and the ballparks, then to the New Center on Woodward revealed all kinds of new projects. I thought, "This is what transit-oriented development, Detroit-style, looks like." 

Once I checked in at the Westin Book Cadillac — an unbelievable transformation, and one I thought I would never see — I strolled down through Hart Plaza to see the riverfront walkway. There I met a middle-aged couple, tourists from Frankfurt. German tourists? 

Further along the "international riverfront," as it's called, I encountered another group of tourists, this time from Sweden. I walked around the Renaissance Center, where my office used to be, and into Greektown; I paused for a brief conversation with a young couple from Spain. Diversity was taking on a whole new meaning in Detroit. 

My afternoon walk lasted about three hours. Sidewalks were clean. Planters were filled with colorful flowers and decorative plants. Bikes were nearly everywhere. Despite what appeared to be a slew of apartment and condo conversions, I was told that the vacancy rate for downtown units was approaching 1 percent, and waiting lists were as long as 18 months for good apartments. Coffeehouses and appealing restaurants seemed to beckon the much-increased pedestrian traffic. 
Lunch in Eastern Market with Dan Carmody confirmed what I had been reading: Eastern Market is arguably the premier market of its kind in the country. Carmody has gained a reputation as a visionary when it comes to connecting food, public health and community development. 

In the heart of downtown, I used to see vacant lots and empty buildings and think, "What a tragedy!" I look at those same buildings and surface parking lots and I now think, "What an opportunity!" 
But what of the neighborhoods beyond downtown? While housing initiatives are to be applauded, and while urban gardens and green space will offer some respite from painfully empty blocks, a real opportunity may be present along Detroit's commercial corridors. Most cities have figured out how to revitalize downtown, but neighborhoods will not return to health until progress is also made in terms of bringing back commercial corridors such as Gratiot and Grand River. 

Cities such as Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C., are evolving new and creative strategies for bringing these business streets back to life, and Detroit might learn from them. No one wants to buy a home in a neighborhood where the local Main Street is abandoned and scary-looking. 

One piece of concrete advice for Detroit: Find neighborhoods where there is still some good housing stock and social fabric, then concentrate on just a couple blocks of commercial storefronts at first. Work to build an alliance between business and property owners and neighborhood residents. Try to find locally owned businesses, not Walgreens and Subways. The chain stores will come later, but build a unique set of shops if you can. And create a local organization that can do the three M's: manage, market and maintain. 

As I departed Detroit for a few days in the Upper Peninsula, I had to appreciate that with all of the actors, big and small, engaged in reviving Detroit, a corner had been turned. 

The clouds have broken, and once again, the sun is shining on Detroit.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Building Strong Leaders in Commercial Revitalization

Commercial District Advisors gladly supports Coro’s Neighborhood Leadership (NL) Program and encourages those New York City-based practitioners in the commercial revitalization field to apply for Coro’s 2015 six-month program beginning in January. 

Image via
Who is the NL program targeted for?
“For those leading commercial revitalization efforts in their communities-whether working in a Business Improvement District, Merchant Association, local development corporation, Chamber of Commerce or other nonprofit organization- Coro's Neighborhood Leadership (NL) program provides the city's top talent with the resources they need to understand how to influence meaningful change and address complex challenges within their neighborhoods.”  In Coro’s NL program participants “are given the opportunity to build leadership skills through intensive training and peer-to-peer learning. Participants leave the program equipped with the knowledge and skills to drive change in their own neighborhoods, and an unparalleled network of engaged civic leaders from which to continue to build and grow.”

What are the benefits of the program?
The Coro NL program notes key benefits to this program:

  • THE NETWORK: NL connects participants to an accomplished community of Coro NL alumni, City leaders and the broader Coro community, who are dedicated to supporting one another.
  • THE KNOWLEDGE: NL deeply immerses participants in building individual and collaborative capacity for practicing leadership and bringing about change in their communities.
  • THE SKILLS: NL uses the City of New York as a lab to explore, test and build effective commercial revitalization strategies to adapt and thrive in challenging environments. In particular, participants hone the skills needed to get things done in a multi-stakeholder environment.
Image via
What is the time commitment?
Neighborhood Leadership meets January through June  and requires a significant time commitment of attendance including: A three-day overnight Opening Retreat, Saturday Leadership Retreat days (4), Bimonthly Networking Evening Events ("Coronect" evenings), Tuesday Strategy Day Sessions (5), Closing Session & Graduation (1), and one Follow-Up Session in October.  Click here to view the NL 2015 program calendar.

Who are the participants?
Approximately 20 successful nonprofit management professionals whose work is focused on commercial revitalization are competitively selected to participate each year. Selected participants reflect the demographics of New York City with at least half serving low to moderate income neighborhoods.  Those selected have interest in joining the Coro community and NL alumni network.

What is the cost?
The kicker is that there is no tuition due to the generous support of the program’s partner and funders. 

Applications for NL 2015 can be found here. The application deadline is Saturday, November 15th.

Questions/comments, contact - Garrett Lucien, Program Director of Neighborhood Leadership, at 212 248-2935 ext. 308 or