Over the years, I have encountered many of the challenges surrounding the rising urbanization of some major US cities. This experience has provided me with the understanding that a few common factors are essential in the evolution of these increasingly dense city centers. In my view, the best strategy for success in these areas is based upon 1) identifying the place, 2) establishing an independent financial base, 3) using these funds to promote the place through an entrepreneurial channel – a district management corporation in the form of a public benefit non-profit organization (501(c)(3)).
The recent rediscovery and re-invention of our towns and city centers is truly an extraordinary transformation of the physical landscape of the growth of American cities. While the trend and emphasis in the post-World War II era was on the decentralization of housing and office development away from our city centers, we have come to experience rapid and new market-rate residential density and what I refer to as the “Europeanization” of our center cities and commercial-core areas.
Areas that were once high-density, low-disposable income have evolved in the last generation to high-density, high-disposable income districts with fundamental changes in how the public rights-of-way have been altered with new demands for goods and services within walking distances.
Center-city sidewalks used to be frequented Mondays through Fridays during working hours, and would, in essence, shut down during the weekends and on holidays. That is no longer the case. The first step in turning around this change in land use was to institute special-benefit assessment districts, called Business Improvement Districts (BIDs), which would focus on “clean-and-safe” programs funded by these special assessments. The approach to special benefit districts has now moved well beyond “clean-and-safe,” the logical counter-notion which was “dirty-and-dangerous.” The issue is no longer one of dirty and dangerous center-city areas, but one of capturing the value of the places we are trying to re-invent.
I and my company, New City America, have learned much from the trial and error of hundreds of successful city-center areas in transition throughout the US today. NCA has successfully formed almost 80 BIDs, Community Benefit Districts and other financing tools that have given stakeholders the ability to implement the improvements desired for their specific districts. The creation of these new financing districts represents, in a certain sense, participatory democracies with a budget.
As Bruce Katz, an expert in city-financing at the Brookings Institute has stated in books and in his many speeches throughout the country, the only way to make the change that we need at the local level, is at the local level. Katz has lost faith in the ability of state and the federal government to provide the funding and planning for infrastructure and initiate the “innovation district catalysts” that we need to drive new jobs, employment clusters and creating high value districts based upon where the economy is heading. Based upon the federal government funding priorities and revenue streams, he has stated that the federal government is evolving into “a health plan with an army.” Well stated.
Chris Leinberger, another great leader in metropolitan policy, has written about how the true values of real estate and land development and housing in the next 30 to 50 years will be found in our “walk-up neighborhoods,” or those areas which are based in dense urban areas, with easy access to transit and vibrant district-management systems. Leinberger states that “transportation leads development” and the walk-able areas in our emerging city centers will require financing of transportation infrastructure based upon walk-able mobility and increasingly dynamic district management.
Finally, Fred Kent from the Project for Public Spaces (PPS) has led the effort worldwide to not just talk about public spaces, but rather to promote placemaking as the new way to capitalize on what both Katz and Leinberger have put forward. PPS, as a leading organization dedicated to humanizing our city centers, has grown rapidly worldwide using models of success and sharing those lessons and experiences with a growing set of new leaders who seek to rapidly create better city life.
Alas, local governments in all states of the nation, are increasingly challenged with the demise of the 20th century progressive form of government as well as declining tax revenues and growing pension obligations which will stress local and state budgets for years to come. Though the new development and growth around city centers will inevitably generate more local revenue, the local government will not have the ability to respond to increased densification and increased social needs in these growing areas.
These contemporary lessons can all be synthesized into a three-point program that provides a road map for city district self-revitalization, which is the strategy we employ at NCA. One of the best examples of the self-reliance of a growing residential urban neighborhood, in one of the oldest sections of a city, is to be found in the Little Italy neighborhood in Downtown San Diego, California. It is here that we have been able to test and experiment with dynamic strategies for activating public spaces and using place-making techniques as a magnet for Little Italy’s thousands of new residents and businesses.
The three-point program is based upon the following principles:
- One must have a clearly identified place to be re-invented or re-created. The place must have set boundaries, a set name, and ideally a rich history – even though much of it might have been lost over the last generation.
- Stakeholders must have financial independence and stability. Attempting to revitalize or re-invent a place without control over an independent sustainable budget will ultimately result in missed opportunities or failure. The financial independence normally is reliant upon a sustainable assessment district revenue generated from benefiting property owners in the district.
- The place and financial mechanism must be managed by an entrepreneurial district management corporation in the form of a nonprofit public benefit organization. Too many BIDs or Community Benefit Districts are operating on property assessments alone. The truly successful district management corporation is one that uses its assessments to leverage other public and private grants and matches its sustainable revenues with donations, contributions and underwrites. The district management corporation must be governed by a combination of strong board/strong staff that is results, not process, oriented. It must not necessarily be guided by a long-term plan, but rather, it must be able to take advantage of spontaneous opportunities that emerge from the dynamics of that new developing place.
I also believe that the concept of Business Improvement Districts is outdated as today’s evolving city and town centers are being altered by new market-rate housing, new museums and public spaces – not businesses. The businesses that will serve the new evolving neighborhood will not be those historically considered to be traditional retail, but will be more oriented to neighborhood-serving establishments that serve populations within a one-mile radius or are in a walk-able range.
Our model at NCA, which was adapted originally from legislation in Maryland, is based upon the Community Benefit District concept. Under Community Benefit Districts, all benefiting property owners pay into the district through mandatory assessments and all have the option to work on the District Management Board of Directors. These new and growing, dense walk-able areas, will require well-designed and activated public spaces, reasonable transportation access, well-maintained rights-of-way, a growth of mixed-use development, an orientation toward attracting and incubating new entrepreneurial enterprises, a distinctly branded name, and dynamic social settings that demonstrate well-managed and well-marketed districts. Community Benefit Districts are based upon the three points listed above and the most productive districts are those that have comprehended the value of each principle.
Jane Jacobs, author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, set us on the path of understanding the daily intricacies and complicated relationships that make a street or neighborhood work. The content of those relationships must ignite the form of our older and emerging walk-able neighborhoods, business districts and town centers. But today, content and form is not enough; management of those intricate relationships and management of the public rights-of-way and public spaces, in all forms, is what sets one district apart from another.
The path to reinventing city centers is by using creative thought and results-oriented approaches – which will produce a new “place” that capitalizes on an area’s assets, inspiration, and potential, with the intention of creating public spaces that promote people’s health, happiness, and well-being.