Source article by Richard Burgess for the Advocate: http://theadvocate.com/home/
Source article by Richard Burgess for the Advocate: http://theadvocate.com/home/
The first Better Block project in Denton, Texas wrapped up last weekend and introduced several ideas to revitalize a vacant property including development of human-scaled spaces, enhanced pedestrian infrastructure, local business incubation, and public space amenities.
One of the challenges facing cities around the country are an abundance of large scale buildings with over-built car-centric infrastructure that makes redevelopment cost prohibitive and limits re-use to a handful of businesses due to scale. The Denton Better Block sought to demonstrate how you could convert a large, vacant grocery store into a classic Main Street. Where one large business existed previously, the goal for this project was to change the building to allow for multiple small local businesses, and to use the space from the over-scaled parking lot to create a 25 foot wide pedestrian street with a second edge lined with parklets which would create the semblance of a new edge of buildings.
Other elements discussed were related to making the place a neighborhood destination that made it comfortable for residents to linger outdoors and bring their families. The Better Block designed a concept that would bring shade structures and water features onto the new street that would help cool the area. Finally, the effort needed to link the existing neighborhood, which was situated across a large road, and help create accommodations and invitations for people to walk and bicycle.
Building the Better Block
Work began quickly after the initial community walk through of the space and teams assembled to tackle individual elements of the project. Working with local materials and identifying organizations and resources in the area that could assist, groups set out to build 5 major components: Temporary facades for small business store fronts, a series of shaded parklets that food trucks could line up beside to offer an outdoor cafe seating experience, a hay bale “splash pool” that children could cool off in, a large round water fountain automated by an arduino device, a pallet stage, and pallet furniture.
By the end of the afternoon, merchants had sold out of goods, children splashed in the hay bale pool, and locals walked and ate under shade awnings sometimes lingering for hours in the space. The concept of reducing the scale of the area and highlighting how spaces under 200 feet could be redeveloped into permanent, locally-focused destinations was proven. For more on the project and the day itself, check out the Denton Chronicle story here.
Thanks to everyone who helped with the Better Block Denton. It was definitely a team effort–Team Better Block–Jason Roberts and Andrew Howard, Zac Lytle; Green Leaf Environmental Planning Vicki Oppenheim and Kati Trice of the Denton Community Market. Thank you to the Denton Community Market vendors for moving their businesses to the site. We appreciate the vendor efforts in being flexible for locating to a new space. We wanted to also thank Katharine Wilcox of Painted Flower Farm for plants, Meadors Nursery for plants, Oak Street Draft House for some plants, Shirlene Sitton with the City of Denton, Devin Taylor, Amber Briggle of Denton Splash Park, Jeff Amano for his graphics, Lauren Barker of Keep Denton Beautiful, Julie Buchanan, Amanda Davenport, Alan Cudd, Camille Green, Ashley Bender, Harrison Wicks, Glen Farris Squibb, Larry Beck, Heather Gregory of SCRAP Denton, Glen Haas, Michael Leza, Denton.Radio.com, City of Denton Planning Department, and the many other diligent volunteers (a very long list), neighborhood groups, the Pallet Furniture Team, the Splash Park Team, the Pop-Up Facade Team, the Stage Team, and helpers. Thank you to the City Council as well for its support. Thank you to La Azteca Meat Market for letting us hold the event on their property!
This weekend, we held the 4th anniversary of the original Better Block on the site of the first ever project. One of the major issues we’ve faced since that original effort was that funds were directed by the city to convert an unnecessary and dangerous strip of roadway to a quality public plaza. $600,000 were set aside to the street, but local property owners who originally were on board with the effort, decided later that it wouldn’t be sustainable, and that the space should fall into private hands. For our birthday event, we wanted to show how a plaza would actually work in the area and outlined the needs and hurdles that would be required to understand and negotiate in order to have a great plaza like we’ve seen in places around the world. So here’s the quick list:
8 Elements for creating great public plazas
- Affordable food businesses facing plaza, and something for each major meal time of the day. For Texas, think breakfast tacos in the morning, sandwiches for lunch, and pizza by the slice for dinner. Nothing too fancy, but accessible and easy to grab and go.
- Tables and chairs
- Shade providing landscaping, and specifically, tall trees that can create a canopy feel that shed their leaves in the winter so sunlight comes through
- Edges that define the space with easy access for pedestrians and strong connections from the nearby neighborhoods
- Free amenities, whether it be a dog park, table games, bocce ball, or a stage for local musicians.
- Alcohol fixes most broken space. If you allow beer in your public space, you’ve just upped the usage and success rate by 100%.
- Lighting, and elements that make the area feel safe.
- Regular programmed activities. Let the surrounding merchants or community organizations schedule markets, art shows, concerts, plays, or anything that celebrates the neighborhood’s assets.
If any of these elements are skimped on, then expect low usage, and potential failure for the space. Now let’s address the potential problems:
-Sustainability – Who’s going to take care of all of the tables and chairs, trash, et cetera? Simple, the small businesses facing the plaza. If you are not able to help setup, clean up, and maintain, then you are no longer allowed to be a business in the area. As simple as that.
- Keeping programming happening – This is something that should be developed alongside the rollout of the public space. Develop a “Friends of” organization that can sit under an existing communities foundation, and have its sole purpose be to manage, administer, and improve the activities and amenities in the public space. Allow the merchants and property owners the first seats since they stand the most to gain from the enhanced space.
- Parking – Keep the space small, focus on locals, and recognize that the higher quality the public space, the further out people will be willing to park (read: Klyde Warren Park). We all have to recognize and be okay with the fact that it’s hard to find parking in great places, no matter where you are in the world.
There are multiple Better Blocks popping up around the world as we speak, but we wanted to highlight this great video for a project beginning in Texarkana, Texas. Great production guys!
Warren Buffet has some great insight regarding the natural progression of good ideas that he refers to as “the Three I’s,” which I feel applies directly to the classic gentrification curve. Here it is from the Harvard Business Review:
First come the innovators, who see opportunities that others don’t. Then come the imitators, who copy what the innovators have done. And then come the idiots, whose avarice undoes the very innovations they are trying to use to get rich.
So if we look at gentrification as a process where on one end of the spectrum you have high segregation by low economics (poverty) and race (specifically minority) and the other end of the spectrum also being segregation but by high economics (wealth) and race (specifically majority, read: “wealthy white”), the middle ground becomes an area where we find greater integration both economically and racially, but tends to be a fragile space in time to maintain due to a tendency of what Buffet calls “idiots” to over-capitalize on what is working, without realizing the balance of identity, economics, and integration is what makes the place sustainable (for jobs, affordability, improved health, character, et cetera). I’m also a partner at a small restaurant in our neighborhood, and our group gets asked on a weekly basis to take our concept and bring it to another city in hopes that the same energy can be rubber stamped elsewhere. While the idea of “cashing in” might seem appealing, what makes our place truly special is the local ownership and the connection with the people and identity of the neighborhood. As opposed to simply using the traditional developer backed economic gardening ideas, economic harvesting within existing neighborhoods is a much more powerful and lasting solution to help make a place vibrant and sustainable. Find the locals on the ground that always dreamed of owning their own businesses and partner them with others who can help them achieve their dreams. It’s harder work, but the results are much more powerful and honest. I’m sure this process has been talked about at length by others, but we find this regularly when discussing revitalization of areas that suffer from mass disinvestment.
In our community, we have a small block of historic, walkable buildings filled with 30+ local businesses called the Bishop Arts District that have an interesting mix of quality and services (from $1.5o tacos to a 5 star restaurant) that exist at a very small moment in time. Fortunately, this area has a handful of property owners who understand the value of maintaining a places legacy, and that this fragile balance is important. These businesses provide affordable options for locals, generate much needed economics that bring a regional draw, offer jobs, promote an identity, but is also dangerously close to being damaged by its own success. For example, once investors from outside of the area see that they can quickly create a bar that’s going to generate a healthy profit, they will rapidly jump in to build on the area’s increased economics. Others will see and do the same and potentially over-saturate the neighborhood with something it doesn’t want and can’t control. My business partner says “it’s like eating ice cream all the time”. It sounds like fun, but the reality is it’s extremely unhealthy and hard to control.
So should we stop creating these great places for communities that provide jobs, promote identity, lowers crime, and improve an area’s health? Absolutely not, but what we face is a supply and demand issue. Since most cities, like ours, have so few of these places (less than 1% of Dallas is made up of places with well connected, walkable neighborhood destinations), but the desire is so high to have them, they quickly can become overrun by excessive capital. The answer to the problem is for us to try and replicate the form and function of these small places and have them throughout the city because everyone deserves great places to live and walk in their neighborhoods, regardless of race or economics. A large city should be made up of one hundred Better Blocks that are all well connected (pedestrian, bike, car, and public transit), but have small spaces that locals can create their own dream business which helps support the community. In fact, our “Think Small” mantra is key because an individual who has a dream of opening something like a bakery, has to have a small but affordable space to work from. And placing several of these small spaces together creates power in numbers that allows these small business to leverage their combined resources for marketing and placemaking. Once the scale of the building becomes too large, the local business person cannot afford the rent or overhead, which leaves a series of chains who will fill the void, but with empty calories that contribute little to the character and cohesiveness of the neighborhood. Obviously, more car-centric cities face an issue of low density (higher density is needed to maintain strong walkable commercial blocks), so this problem has to be addressed in the same way that we have to address changing the auto-dominated landscape…incrementally. The gut reaction to seeing a great place like the Bishop Arts District is to say, “It needs more parking!”…the reality is that this would make the place less walkable (the reason you love it in the first place), because historic structures surrounding the area would need to be leveled to accommodate cars which would ultimately hurt the area. So what’s the solution?
Incrementally reduce parking at a rate that is almost imperceptible per year (they reduce parking by 3% in Copenhagen), while incrementally increasing the density (use the same 3%). How do you handle the latter? Simple, return to the way we did it during our “streetcar suburb” period in the 1920′s. In our part of Dallas (Oak Cliff), homes were regularly outfitted with “granny flats” in the back, and we had a healthy mix of duplexes, triplexes, and quads sprinkled around single family homes. Sadly, we’ve outlawed many of these places, due to unfounded fears. Fortunately, with the advent of applications like AirBnB, several enterprising locals have figured out that they can generate a small revenue for themselves (which helps keep them in their homes…especially in case hard times hit…read: job loss), provides more eyes on the street (heightening safety), and greater economics (tourists spend money locally).
In the end, it’s a very fragile system, but as long as we understand the process that tends to take over, we’ll have a much better chance of mitigating the downside to helping revitalize a community.
Check out this great video produced by Elin Bandmann. Phil Stubbs, co-ordinator of Sydney’s first Better Block, met with Andrew Howard and Jason Roberts of Team Better Block on recent Better Block tours of Australia and has begun organizing his community to begin their own project. For more progress, be sure to check out their facebook page.
Team Better Block identified three site last year in Norfolk, VA that were ripe for Better Block. Norfolk’s first project was a great success and acted as a training session for other neighborhoods on how to use Better Block to advance revitalization. Inspired business owners and community members in the Park Place neighborhood took it upon themselves to set a date and make it happen for their emerging area. The Better Block will take place on the historic W. 35th Street and Newport on November 8th and 9th.
Team Better Block’s role is to provide consultation on best practices and give planning tools to the large group of volunteers that will take on this project. Andrew Howard began the first step of the Better Block process by leading a community walk through the block to identify opportunities and constraints. Community leaders and business owners told stories of how the block has evolved over the recent years. And young folks discovered new ways for the old buildings to be reused.
One of the first observations, was that the street has had great investment in streetscaping, but still has high vehicle speeds, many large trucks and is difficult to cross when walking or biking.
The group agreed that the Better Block should test ways to reduce vehicle speeds and increase safety for people walking and biking, while maintaining access to vehicles at all times. Try the new web tool www.streetmix.net to create your own cross section for the better block and add it to the comments section of this post.
The group identified a high vacancy rate in the small commercial buildings and minimal street life around the ones that are there. The newly formed Park Place Business Association is focused on changing the perception of the area and believes it starts with Better Block.
The community began to ask during the walk, “What invitations can we create to the block for bicyclists?”, “How can we make the block feel accommodating to 8 and 80 year olds?”, and “How can we make this place a neighborhood destination?”, ideas begin forming which will be tested and measured during the Better Block project.
Team Better Block is in a support role on this project and is much more focused on documenting and measuring the success of the project. Part of their services are being funded by a grant from the Hampton Roads National Association of Realtors with this partnership they will be creating an open-source metrics gathering platform to help neighborhoods identify what is holding the area back from investment and set goals that can incrementally be accomplished during and after the Better Block effort. Such as, before the Better Block zero cafe seats, during 100 seats and now three months after 25 seats. We call the part digital part community interaction platform SANDBOX and Norfolk will be the first community in the country to try it. Think of it like a dashboard to the health and vitality of your neighborhood.
If you live in or near the area of the project and would like to volunteer, please contact Park Place Business Association President Vernon Fareed email@example.com. Also, for updates about the project, check out the group’s facebook page here.
The town of Marfa, Texas will be holding its first Better Block project on September 21st. Information has just been posted on the Design Marfa website here. Sign up today to volunteer and help bring more life to one of their small commercial strips.
Toole Design Group is leading the authoring of a new Street Design Manual for the City of Saint Paul, MN. After successfully partnering with Team Better Block in Wichita, KS and Dallas, TX on similar efforts, they asked us to work with a community in Saint Paul to test concepts in the draft manual and gauge business and resident responses to street changes.
We are only as good as our partners, so we look for blocks that have good buildings, streets that could be improved and people that are wanting to make it happen. We felt right at home in East Saint Paul in the Dayton’s Bluff Community Council Area. This group lead by Deanna Foster and Tabitha DeRango had already made plans for calming the adjacent State Highway, won a grant to improve fascades and done events aimed at connecting residents and business owners. Saint Paul is budding with groups that are anxious for complete streets and revitilization. Volunteers from the neighborhood of Dayton’s Bluff joined up with activist from, Saint Paul Bicycle Coalition, Smart Trips and Transit for Livable Communities to build the better block. Over fifty volunteers came together over three days to complete the project. Many thanks to Southview Design for the borrowing of landscaping and expertise.
This Better Block sought to address the following four areas to improve the already successful economics and quality of life in Dayton’s Bluff and how the Saint Paul Street Design Manual could be used to improve:
- Shared Access
- Stay Power
- 8-80 Amenities
Safety (Real and Perceived) – First and foremost, if an area feels unsafe then everything breaks down. Whether it be businesses, schools, or neighborhood revitalization, the key to changing a place is addressing its perceived safety. When approaching blocks, we ask the questions:
- Does it feel safe to cross the street?
- Does it feel safe to stand on the sidewalk?
- Does it feel safe to linger in the area?
- Does the area have hidden corners or large obstacles that reduce open sightlines?
Shared Access – The next goal we focus on is looking at ways to bring more people into the area by various modes of transportation. We ask the questions:
- Do pedestrians have easy and clear access to the area?
- Do bicycles feel welcome in the area?
- Is the area easily accessible from neighborhoods?
- Are there way finding signs that direct people into and out of the area?
- Are there amenities that allow people to linger in the space (seating, tables, etc.)?
Stay Power – How can we encourage people to visit the area and have them linger, and invite their friends?
- Are there food options on the block?
- Are there places to eat outdoors?
- Are there maps, bulletin boards, games, or other amenities that encourage people to linger?
- Is the identity of the area prominent (arts district, cultural district, historic area)?
8 – 80 - Lastly, we look at amenities that create invitations for children and seniors on a block. These groups tend to be indicators of a healthy environment that feels welcoming and attracts other people.
The Saint Paul Better Block sought to illustrate that complete streets combined with community revitalization can create positive economic, safety and quality of life gains. The following metrics demonstrate how a block can be transformed with complete streets. The major finding is that at 25 MPH all modes can mix safely, economics increase and community can grow.
Councilmember Lantry wrote about The Better Block today on the new city blog.
Bill Lindeke at Street MN covered the better block with this podcast.
After the last successful tour of Australia in February of this year, Team Better Block was overwhelmed by the response of attendees who were ready to end the planning process and begin rolling up their sleeves to rapidly transform their own communities. This June, TBB will be returning to review two different Better Block projects: the first in Geelong on June 15th, and the second in Coburg on June 16th.
On June 18th, Better Block founder, Jason Roberts, will be presenting at the Liveable Cities Conference in Melbourne sponsored by the Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency. On June 20th, Jason will be presenting at the Urban Conversations event in Sydney. This event is being organized by the New South Wales Planning and Infrastructure Department, and will include presentations by Henriette Vamberg of Gehl Architects, and by artist David Meslin from Toronto, Canada.