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. 

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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.
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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

Innovation Through Competition: Grants Available to Enhance Local Commercial Districts

Commercial District Advisor would like to share some exciting news!

The NYC Department of Small Business Services, in partnership with the New York City Economic Development Corporation  and the New York City Business Assistance Corporation, has again launched Neighborhood Challenge after a successful year in 2013. "This is a competitive grant initiative designed to encourage Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) and Community-based Development Organizations (CBDOs) throughout the five boroughs to execute innovative and forward-thinking ideas that address challenges faced in many business corridors."

Last year's initiatives included storefront improvements, district marketing campaigns, and public art installations. The winning programs and initiatives are currently being implemented in business corridors across the Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens.

This year grant awards of $30,000, $60,000, and $100,000 will be given to the boldest ideas in four categories:
  • Business Attraction, Retention, and Growth,
  • District Planning, Streetscape Improvements, and Public Space Activation, 
  • District-wide Marketing and Events,  and
  • Property Activation and Development.
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CDA supports this initiative because the projects help solve small business challenges, generate, community and economic impact, and receive local recognition.

For all the guidelines, eligibility, and to apply visit: 

Applications must be submitted by Wednesday, November 5th, 2014, at 5:00 p.m.

An example of a project by 2013 Neighborhood Challenge winner:

Winners of 2013 Neighborhood Challenge:

Best Practices in City-led “Parklet” Efforts

Parklets are a growing strategy that commercial district managers are using to drive traffic to their local business districts, and with good reason.  According to the 2011 San Francisco Great Streets “Parklet Impact Study,” foot traffic increased 44% in a studied area, those stopping to engage in stationary activity tripled at another, and business owners denied any decrease in business while some reported an increase.

The term “parklet” was first used in San Francisco to describe a parking spot turned mini-park and originated from the 2009 San Francisco Park(ing) Day.  A typical parklet includes a platform on pavement adjacent to a sidewalk. Many parklets include additional seating, landscape, and tables.  Parklets have now spread to many other cities, including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Oakland, Philadelphia, and Long Beach. (Source: Grand Rapids Parklet Manual)

Many other cities have caught on to the appeal of parklets and have begun parklet pilot programs.  Cities on the list include Seattle, Minneapolis, Miami, and Grand Rapids.

Parklets are a creative solution to the desire for wider sidewalks especially in areas with narrow sidewalks or a lack of open space.  Although parklets are not permitted to engage in direct commerce like sidewalk cafes or table-side service, a 2010 Divisidero Trial Parklet Impact Report noted they do increase foot traffic (13-37% according to the study), economic activity, bike parking, and public relaxation and socialization.

Pilot programs vary from city to city, but there has been an uptick of activity. A few programs that we like here at the Commercial District Advisor include the following:
With many benefits and few disadvantages, withstanding the loss of one or two parking spots, parklets demonstrate the growing impetus to leave the car and gather with your community to laugh, love, relax, and to have a shared experience. 

Photo by: San Francisco Planning Department
Lessons Learned
It appears that parklets have common themes.  They generally take up one to two parking spots, have seating and landscaping, and the overall responsibility lies on the “host” to maintain.  What other lessons are there to be learned moving forward with parklets:
  • Are there some places that shouldn’t do parklets? Raleigh completed a Parklet Feasability Study and noted specific locations within their city that parklets shouldn’t be.  One could induce from their results that parklets should not occur in areas with low pedestrian destination traffic, in places with sufficient plaza or open space already, high parking demand, busy or dangerous streets or streets that need reconfiguring, and streets entering residential neighborhoods. (, 2013)
  • Do we need to ensure that someone manages them? It is important for parklets to keep up appearances, after all the purpose is to ensure a little bit of green space for public enjoyment.  The common rule is to hold “hosts” responsible for maintenance and appearance.  Most parklet programs have parameters and specific guidelines in place for hosts to maintain their parklets.
  • Are they best when connected to a local business?  More studies are needed to gauge specific metrics of whether positive effects come from parklets adjacent to businesses.  All parklet programs prohibit direct service to businesses such as table-side service or cafĂ© service.  Nearly every city requires parklets to be open to public use, but Long Beach, CA allows discretion on the owner whether they require patrons to make purchases (, 2013).
  • What about the homeless?  Like most urban public plazas and parks, parklets will also have the issue of how to regulate or manage the homeless if their use of the parklet is outside of the intended purpose.   San Francisco has shut down at least one parklet because it had become a prime destination for drinking and carousing (, 2013).
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Additional Resources

Sunday, October 19, 2014

As Baby Boomers age, are commercial districts poised to make a comeback?

The Shoppes of Avondale, Jacksonville, FL -
are walkable mixed use communities like these poised
to see an influx of Baby Boomer residents?
Is your downtown ready to take advantage of the downsizing Baby Boomer? Downtown Seattle, specifically the area surrounding Pike Place Market is one community seeing a growth in residential development fueled by aging Baby Boomers. In August of last year, the Wall Street Journal reported ("Hip, Urban, Middle Aged", WSJ, Aug. 2013) that a 34-unit condo with prices hovering over $1 million mostly went to Baby Boomers, many of whom were leaving their larger homes in suburban areas and heading to older, more walk-able urban neighborhoods. A recent study that LOA completed in Seattle found a similar trend - the projected Median HH Income growth rate in the downtown area over the next five years is 6.6% - significantly higher than that of Seattle as a whole, which is 4.39%. These "moneyed buyers [have] created a gold rush" according to Seattle realtor Dean Jones. In Denver, one resident quoted specifically mentioned the desire to "stop driving so much". The Washington Post went so far as to announce, "The kids gone, aging Baby Boomers opt for city life"(The Washington Post, July 2013)

This specific issue - what to do as Baby Boomers age and cannot drive - is increasingly fueling planning that must, by necessity, include downtown and mixed use districts. This week, the New York Times wrote about just this kind of retirement planning, "When Planning for Retirement, Consider Transportation", NYTimes, Oct. 2014. The couple profiled live in a San Diego neighborhood where "If you don't have a car, you're stranded". They are now exploring public transportation options that are weak at best, and are considered moving, but aren't quite ready to make the leap just yet. 

Another issue is the fact that transportation - specifically personal ownership of an automobile - eats up a huge percentage of income (25% according to the Federal Dept. of Transportation). As people age and move to fixed incomes, the need to reduce these costs become necessary, and the ability to live close to work, shopping, eating can reduce transportation costs to 9% of income.  

Moving to a more walk-able neighborhood seems like a great option as people age, but how do we reconcile the fact that, according to an AARP survey, 87% of people age 65 and older want to remain in their current communities? The good news is that the study found that this preference decreased with income.  ("Home and Community Preferences of the 45+ Population, AARP, Nov. 2010). 

Developers are also taking note. Toll Brothers, a home builder known more for their suburban tract housing than for their urban projects, has increasingly started developing in the urban core. Initially, they thought their projects would be filled with young people, but they sold a much larger than expected percentage to Baby Boomers. 

So it seems that yes, Boomers are creating a dynamic shift towards urban communities. Is your community seeing a similar demographic trend?

Friday, October 17, 2014

Murals on Pitkin Avenue

I had an opportunity to tour Pitkin Avenue yesterday with Daniel Murphy, the ED of the Pitkin Avenue BID. In addition to some great pizza, we enjoyed a beautiful day on the strip during our diagnostic site visit. Having completed a market study on Pitkin over three years ago before Dan's tenure, it was great to see the impact he has had in relatively short period of time. One thing caught my eye...the stunning new murals that Dan made happen (and that have remained graffiti free!), courtesy of funding from the NEA Our Town program and in partnership with Groundswell and the NYC Department of Probation. This community has seen its fair share of challenges, but these murals speak the potential and future of this incredibly diverse community.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Economics of Fear is Not Limited to Ebola

“Economic consequences also result when fear and concern change behavior…If consumers and businesses retrench…G.D.P. growth rates will fall farther.” 

- David R. Kotok, Cumberland Advisors on the economic impact of Ebola on the African economy.

This quote was in yesterday’s New York Times about Ebola, but the truth is, it could have been written about many low-income urban communities where crime is a concern. In one east coast city where LOA recently conducted a city-wide market study, developers and business owners alike cited “crime” as the number one challenge to overcome in attracting investment. Stakeholders said it again and again, loud and clear, until both real and perceived crime diminished, investors would look the other way. The effect of this fear is one that can quickly spiral out of control, feeding on itself and creating a deeper and deeper economic hole from which it can be difficult to emerge. Consider this, if few developers invest, there are no projects to use as comps for other investors. Without comps, banks don’t have much to look at when underwriting projects, and therefore shy away from what they see as risky loans. Without private financing, the public sector often tries to kick in to make up the difference – but even that is often not enough, particularly in times of increasing fiscal austerity.

The problem has been well documented over the years. In 2004, the International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC) together with the Business for Social Responsibility asked retailers point blank, “What factors are obstacles to entry into underserved markets?” The number one factor regarded as significant to 80% of respondents was “Crime/Perceived Crime”.

Getting crime issues under control is perhaps the most significant intervention that you can make in setting the stage for successful commercial revitalization. And turning a community around often requires changing entrenched public opinion that has hardened over time – not an easy task – but one that must be addressed if communities are to see improvements and new businesses meeting the needs of local customers.

Karl Seidman, a professor of mine from my MIT days, outlines what “Clean-and-Safe” oriented districts need to do in Revitalizing Commerce for America's Cities (one of my favorite reads). The key approaches he outlines are as follows: 
  • Build relationships between the business community and the police department
  • Educate businesses about public safety and crime prevention techniques (and fund them to implement these techniques when necessary)
  • Apply crime prevention design principles (also known as Crime Prevention through Environment Design - CPTED) to the public realm - streets, sidewalks, public spaces, etc. 
  • Establish supplemental security services (which can be funded by self-taxation mechanisms such as Business Improvement Districts - BIDS)
In his book, he describes how a few communities with significant public safety concerns addressed those issues over time. 

Another great resource for ideas about crime prevention are the Metlife Foundation and LISC CSI "Community-Policy Partnership Awards". Every year they recognize community groups that are addressing crime in creative and impactful ways. You can go back to 2002 to see information about past award winners. These winners offer practitioners a treasure trove of options for crime prevention.