Better Block a Workaround for all Cities

“A workaround is a bypass of a recognized problem in a system. A workaround is typically a temporary fix that implies that a genuine solution to the problem is needed.”

Andres Duany has just launched a project with the Knight Foundation, which seeks to accelerate city revitalization by helping citizens and entrepreneurs work around cumbersome regulations. The first question today on a webinar between Andres and Carol Colleta VP of Knight foundation was how can we apply Lean Urbanism across a broad spectrum of US cities?

Better Block uses the special event permit process that is found in every city to demonstrate changes to the street, seed entrepreneurs, and test zoning codes. Here is an example from a recent project in Norfolk, VA were Team Better Block identified limitations in the zoning code and then empowered young entrepreneurs to test the market with new business ideas. Better Block documented what worked and then city staff created a workaround to the zoning code that made the temporary changes permanent:

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Pop up Shop Alchamey NFK in Norfolk VA during Better Block April 2013
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Building was first an auto parts dealer, then a furniture store that was put out of business when the Ikea came on the bypass. Now what do you do with all this space?
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During Better Block the building was host to a Market, Maker Space, Coffee Shop, Beer Garden and Skate Park…where does that fit in the zoning code?
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The pop shop wanted to go permanent, but how do you make it legit? City staff found a workaround by calling it a beer serving flea market!

So we need both the agitators and the experts to work together to make our cities better. This process gets around the non-contributors, the people that say changes will not work, and gets to the folks that have ideas and the will to find a way to make it happen. Cities that get this will excel and attract the greatest talent to them.

 

 

Take Away a Zero, Now a Scientific Fact

“Do you want to change things quickly?”  he asks.  “Remove one zero from the budget.   Do you want to change things even more quickly?  Remove TWO ZERO’s from the budget.” Former Mayor of Curitiba Brazil Jamie Lerner

Over the past four years we have learned this lesson over and over. Our best Better blocks have always been in less affluent neighborhoods and our projects that have had the most resistance were in affluent ones.

Science now explains what we’ve been experiencing, but have been unable to quite understand: Why do some folks who have a lot more money than others seem to be less nice and more selfish to everyone around them? Read More: http://www.whydontyoutrythis.com/2013/07/take-two-normal-people-add-money-to-just-one-of-them-and-watch-what-happens-next.html

So does this mean we all need to get poor? No, money is not the problem or the answer. The issue is with wealth we get comfortable, depend less on each other and feel entitled. Wealthy people that get this, like Jack White remain creative.

“All the money in the world kills creativity… do things to make it hard on yourself…set short deadlines to make things happen,” Jack White says.

Better Blocks’ remind us that together we can do things that money alone can’t. Borrowing, giving, receiving, building together and crowdfunding are essential to the human spirit. Lets put these practice back into the way we build cities

tireswings

Team Better Block Intern Needed

Team Better Block has an immediate need for two design oriented interns who can work in a fast paced office environment that serves clients around the globe.

Learning Opportunities:

Hyper Local Social Media
City Planning and Design
Public Space Design
Create Press Packets
Video
Innovative Public Outreach
Complex Project Management
Creating Proposals
Creating Reports
Answering Request from Media,
Magazines and Research Outlets
Travel to project location in US

Qualification:

CS6 Photoshop
Illustrator
Indesign
Working knowledge of HTML and CSS
Wordpress
Great approach to designing print and web concepts
Video and photography a plus
Flexibility to travel on weekends is a plus

Please send resume and examples of past work to info@teambetterblock.com.

How many Permanent Better Blocks can fit in this closed grocery store?

As a follow-up to the Building a Permanent Better Block post, we now analyze a “suburban formed” grocery anchored commercial block (across the street from our office) in Dallas, Texas, only 4 miles from Downtown Dallas.

minyard

This was formerly a grocery store that recently closed leaving a large void in the area. Beside it is a strip of small chain businesses including a Little Caesar’s, O’Reilly’s Auto Parts Store, Bank of America branch office, Go Clips Salon, ACE Cash Express, and an Insurance office. All total, including the now vacant grocery store, 7 businesses. The lot itself, including parking lot is 120,000 square feet, half of which is parking (ie. unusable land that will generate no revenue, taking up potential product shelf space).

Minyards

Now let’s look at the Camden High Street commercial and residential block example again from the past post. Taking less than one quarter of the same land area at 18,700 square feet, you see far more productive use of the land with residents, businesses, and vibrant street life:

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And to break this down further, notice that we can comfortably fit 4 of these blocks into our semi-productive commercial block:

4Camdens

From 7 businesses to 96 in the same area. Also, 300+ people living in the same block. Far more productive, far more efficient for the utilities (that we all pay for) that run under the ground, and the potential for a lively, neighborhood destination. And if we can figure out the financing mechanism at a local scale, where each building (total of 96) is constructed by individuals as opposed to single master developers, then we’ve got a new model built on historic precedence, which spreads ownership to a broader group.

Next, we’ll break down the sheer metric tons of concrete poured surrounding the area for roadway and parking lots to show how this (comparatively) unproductive land use can’t generate enough tax revenue to even cover the maintenance costs of the road that fronts it, yet we still build it without questioning it’s long term viability.

Building a Permanent Better Block

camden

One of the major issues we’re faced with across the United States is zoning and ordinance laws that prevent the type of smart, dense development that was once created around the world before the advent of large “master development” centric planning (ie. 1 owner, 1 massive block). So the question is, how do we rapidly create places again, built by communities, for communities, using limited funds?  Our early goals with Better Block projects were to retrofit, educate and illustrate examples of great places that were prioritized for people (versus cars) and to show how those blocks create greater economics, vibrancy, improved health, and provide a neighborhood destination. Now that we’ve seen enough examples around the world that prove this works, the next step is to build them from the ground up.

For this example, let’s look at a classic “High Street” in London, which is similar to classic US Main Streets and begin breaking down the form:

HighStreetAnatomyFirst of all, notice that this block is only 220′…we have enough gaps in our “suburban” style development to wedge these type of structures throughout our cities. Also, notice that on this span, instead of being owned by one “master developer” there are 12 separate buildings, owned and constructed by 12 separate entities. The buildings themselves are simple 3 story structures with two floors of either office or live spaces on top, and small retail on bottom.

That small retail is of a size that is affordable to a local business owner, and since it’s clustered with multiple businesses around it, it creates an economy of scale along with a mix of retail that makes the place desirable for people to shop, linger, and return. The spaces are only 17′ wide and 28′ in depth…small and affordable enough for the local baker or deli to setup (promoting unique local business), and too small for international conglomerate chains to even bother with (which can destroy unique character in a place and make it less desirable in the long run).

sidewalksizeAlso, notice that the pedestrian space is equal or greater than the space set aside for cars. This is an important reality when making places that people like to visit, and enjoy. If you prioritize cars over people, the place will not be nearly as vibrant or desirable. You want to create as much parity as possible here.

streetsize

 

Both sides of the street have 20′ sidewalks, with a 20′ street for cars. It’s necessary to keep cars in the mix, but don’t prioritize them…doing so, or attempting to make places that have greater space for cars changes the equation of desirability enough to make these landscapes inhospitable.

Now notice where we’ve created similar forms (buildings, sidewalks, and streets) in Dallas:

WestVillage-Good

 

The West Village is often highlighted as an exciting and vibrant destination for Dallas, and the parts of the block that work best, have the highest priority for pedestrians over cars. Notice just one block over where the equation is dramatically shifted for cars:

WestVillage-Bad

 

Sterile, cold, and uninviting. You can’t have places that are great for cars and great for people. It doesn’t work. We’ve all learned by now that it’s hard to find parking in the truly great places that we love around the world, and traffic flow for cars is typically horrible. That’s a reality that we need to look at for creating places that have lasting vibrancy, promote local businesses, and allow for greater local ownership.

WestVillage-Block

The above block required one master developer to create. Compare that to the High Street picture at the beginning of the post. Why did we move away from small individual owners clustering buildings, to giant single owner/developer instead? Far fewer people are invited in the mix to create this, in fact, outside-the-region funds must be injected which ultimately is anti-local banks, local business, et cetera. We’re building our infrastructure in such a way that only a handful of players are able to take part, which is why communities are so reliant on big box development over local.

Notice that other places that we love around Dallas, like the Bishop Arts District, have a similar form where cars and people have closer parity. More dramatically, you can see the change on one block of Greenville Avenue. The streetview picture still shows the old form where sidewalks are small, and cars are given much greater priority:

greenvillebefore

And the re-tooled block with wider sidewalks, pedestrian amenities, and greater parity for cars and people:

greenvilleave

One of the key insights from Councilwoman Angela Hunt was to simply focus on fixing one block only. This is exactly what we’ve learned from our work. Master planning large corridors is a great exercise, but far too reliant on massive funds and conglomerations of hundreds of property owners and area stakeholders to become a reality. What we do know is that many of the great places in our city, and even around the world, are often only a block in size (Bishop Arts), but they have a giant ripple effect on economics for an area, perception of safety, health, and other factors.

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Now looking at the Camden High Street picture again, notice that these places don’t have to be large. One building is only 17 feet wide, 28 feet deep, and 35 feet tall. And if you could gather 12 separate entities to build one each, you could create a viable place with people living in the area, businesses operating, and a vibrant destination. At 220 feet per block, this is attainable, but we have to find ways to create these places with property owners willing to divide their land in a way that promotes this smart density. Also we need financing mechanisms through local banks that understand and support this type of development. Very few have taken on the challenge, but these developments should not be out of our reach.

Lastly, these small live/work blocks which are similar to the streetcar stops that existed throughout the city years ago and nestled comfortably into single family home neighborhoods, are proven models even to this day. Unfortunately, we now require single owners to do the heavy lifting of gathering capital, massive construction contracts, and more to make the same thing today. Our work now should be focused on breaking down the elements that make this “tiny clustered building” type of development more accessible and viable for communities around the country.

 

 

 

Norfolk’s Second Better Block a Success!

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Andrew Howard of Team Better Block leading Norfolk’s second Better Block project community walkthrough

 

Last year, we highlighted the outcomes of the first Better Block in Norfolk, Virginia (ie. rapid zoning changes, new business creation, and building sales) so to ring in the new year, the final report has just been released on the second Better Block which took place in November in the Park Place neighborhood.

Download (PDF, 7.75MB)

This project, a collaboration with the city of Norfolk, the National Association of REALTORS®, the Hampton Rhodes REALTORS® Association, and the Park Place Business Association, took two blocks of semi-vacant historic building stock with wide streets, and converted them into an active, and vibrant neighborhood destination complete with 19 new businesses, pedestrian calmed intersections, and re-claimed right-of-way for greater use by the neighborhood.

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Norfolk Park Place Better Block build team

 

Prior to the effort, local merchants organized to help spearhead the Better Block project and create a unified vision for the area. Outreach occurred to locals interested in starting new businesses, and city staff was advised on the creation of outdoor cafe seating, pedestrian bulb-outs, and improved landscaping. Vacant spaces were cataloged, and baseline metrics were gathered to show existing vehicle counts and speeds, and pedestrian use. Code for America’s Streetmix tool was used to profile the existing streetscape:

existing-cross-section

All total the Better Block took place over two days, totaling 10 hours of business operation. Within that time, with $13,000+ in revenue generated. Also, after the project ended, one of the local businesses incubated through the project is now setting up permanent shop on 35th Street.

Re-lighting of the historic Newport marquis, which had been off for 37 years.
Re-lighting of the historic Newport marquis, which had been off for 37 years.

 

One of multiple parklettes created during the Better Block
One of multiple parklettes created during the Better Block
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Former vacant building converted to use with local business
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Vacant lot converted to pocket park for residents with farmers market

 

local restaurant created in vacant business space
local restaurant created in vacant business space
Mid-block crosswalk installed at Better Block
Mid-block crosswalk installed at Better Block

Can Retirement Plans Help Shape New Blocks?

Skinny Buildings

An issue we’re beginning to delve into with the Better Block is how can we begin creating places that support and incubate small local businesses, while increasing density so that a large enough population can help keep these places afloat, all while promoting a greater sense of place.

When you look at the above picture of a row of skinny buildings, you might not realize that much of what is shown that we built regularly in the past, is now illegal. One of the major initiatives of the Better Block project is to expose the policies and rules that restrict this type of development and to begin a plan to revise these in order to allow more optimal land use patterns that generate greater economics, and help provide a stronger revenue source for its surrounding infrastructure.

Multiple skinny buildings which were constructed by multiple individuals as opposed to the now typical “Master Developer” process

Two major hurdles we face are that block development of this type is now largely placed in the domain of single “master developers” who create large buildings that will fill the entire block. These developments are typically uniform, and reliant on massive outside capital investments to construct. Also, international fire codes restrict much of this development, preferring to create greater separation of the buildings which diminishes land use potential, increases construction price, and reduces walkability.

Thinner streets, which are more affordable to maintain and construct, alongside skinny buildings with high retail activation and affordable residential on top, creating a more sustainable and walkable neighborhood.

So how can we begin building anew in a form that we regularly created in the past? One area to look at is having large financial groups like pension funds diversify their investments and look at identifying multiple blocks in a community and constructing a single skinny building in these places. Also, work with existing businesses in community to change retirement plans from volatile market based investments, and look at investing in their own communities with additional skinny buildings. These investments, if done properly, could allow the same returns for employees, and also create a vested interest from the shareholders since the health of the buildings future is directly tied to the future retirement of the individual. Also, we’ve heard time and again that real estate is a good bet for long term investment strategies.

Residential tower development constructed with Firemen’s Pension fund. How many skinny buildings, sprinkled throughout neighborhoods could have been built for this same price?

We hope to look at more of these models in future Better Block initiatives and to even help craft our own retirement plan for future employees that does exactly this. Stay tuned!