Stillwater TIFing a bridge to campus

There are all kinds of planning tools with which cities have physically and strategically linked their downtowns to neighboring institutions or landmarks; whether they they a greenway axis, physical bridges, transit corridors. A TIF would be a new one in my experience, but not outside the realm of rational nexus due to the obvious necessity of financing more physical linkages.

The development scenario playing out in Stillwater, Oklahoma – home of Oklahoma State University’s flagship campus – is that of a large land grant university growing in spite of its college town, where development has generally not taken full advantage of the campus or other core opportunities. Stillwater has sprawled to the southwest, blanketing the hills of the Crosstimbers with residential neighborhoods, and to the northeast where strip malls and apartment complexes have spilled into the flat plains north of town. Downtown’s iconic Main Street corridor has benefited from revitalization a la preservation-minded developers and a retail-focused BID, while the surrounding blocks have visibly languished.

The entire core of Stillwater has languished with disinvestment and high renter-share due to typical college town housing dynamics. Landlords can rent out a minimally-maintained house for a premium, with no incentive to upgrade or invest for longer-term due to the transience of college tenancy. Stillwater has spent the last decade discussing options and ideas for revitalizing the core between campus and downtown, illustrated in the below aerial:

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While the downtown, shaded in blue, shows good density in the aerial and appears anchored along Main Street, activity and investment drops off sharply off of Main Street and even north of 6th Avenue along Main Street. The picture on the ground, illustrated below along 4th Avenue equidistant between campus and downtown, is even more stark:

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Further along Main Street itself, north of 6th Ave:

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Furthermore, where development is occurring, it can make surrounding deteriorated conditions and public infrastructure disinvestment all the more obvious:

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What’s happening in the above photos are classic examples development in spite of planning. REITs behind student housing developments have gotten religion on housing consumers wanting walkable, urban-styled housing; they are building this, despite the obvious lack of a walkable, urban-styled environment and supporting infrastructure.

As it stands today, the core between downtown and campus resembles both physical challenges and intrinsic challenges, the latter stemming from a lack of pride in a community that should do better as the state’s premier college town. The physical challenges involve housing conditions, lack of density, lack of sidewalks and those few that exist being in disrepair, general street conditions, and land that is likely unsuitable for development even if there were investment, which is instead occurring in new development areas on the edge of town. None of this is the fault of the city or any planners, who have for decades talked about walkability and trails/paths/streetscapes in this area, but lacked a funding mechanism to bring them to fruition. Now the private sector has given up waiting and is just moving in on the area without planning or coordination, and it remains to be seen how all of these mid-rise development will come together in the end. All of this forms the backdrop for Stillwater’s major proposed TIF.

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A few key facts about this TIF, according to two Stillwater Newspress articles (article one, article two):

  • Covers a concise area generally representing the Main Street commercial corridor, surrounding downtown blocks, and everything between 6th Avenue and campus excluding the 6th Avenue commercial core
  • Runs until 2026 or 2027 according to Stillwater Newspress
  • Generates $32.5 million over lifetime, earmarked for physical improvements
  • Proposed Project Plan to be approved after TIF mechanism is approved, with already stated purpose of enhancing walkability and beautification
  • Stillwater Public Schools has City agreement for $5.6 million guarantee on top of state’s equalization funding formula, thus increasing net school revenue
  • County is proposed to forego $700,000 in theoretical property tax, and VoTech district $5 million, none of which is currently on tax rolls today
  • Projects must be consistent with Comprehensive Plan, Core Commercial Districts Plan (2005), and Corridor Redevelopment Plan (2012) all of which previously lacked funding mechanisms

While I believe that generally, the city should find mutually beneficial ways to achieve common goals like county-provided services and workforce development with the Meridian Technology Center, I look forward to seeing Stillwater bring some of its decades-long planning to fruition now with the assistance of a funding mechanism. I think generally, as a premier college town, Stillwater is a somewhat unique beast when it comes to property development, land use, community investment, provision of public services, and economic development – I think that the town-and-gown divide has prevented unity toward achieving all of these goals and getting them to work in tandem. While making everyone whole in the end, I look forward to seeing my college town find ways to finance long-term community investment.

This is not to say that I support TIFs in general, nor do I support or oppose the details here, but do believe this to be a worthwhile case study and a development scenario I intend to watch closely, while rooting for its success.

Conversely, I was in Denver last month, and had some time during a flight layover en route to Seattle to take the train downtown and explore. Denver has extended its iconic 16th Street corridor with bridges and tails that connect across the Platte Valley to the neighborhood across the Platte River and I-25. In doing so, they have created deliberate linkages that are visually and intuitively obvious, and seamlessly connected their downtown to areas of west Denver that previously felt disconnected. Doing this has not only improved west Denver, provided pedestrian access to economic opportunity in downtown, but also created billions of dollars of development opportunities in the Central Platte Valley, all anchored by these incredibly textbook connections.

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Compare to the above development photos from Stillwater, and consider the long-term importance of infrastructure and human environment toward bringing planning goals to fruition. There are a lot of means to an end, and a TIF can accomplish a lot of means, but what is really the end goal, and how can a TIF truly elevate that?

In economic development, an often-missed point is that nothing is advanced in the long run by development for the sake of development.

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History Cast Aside

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In the rust belt, historic demolition doesn’t just mean the loss of bricks and mortar. In many of these cases, the loss is an entire way of life. Given that many of the rust belt’s great neighborhoods were originally built as factory housing, post-industrial redevelopment has just become the local flavor of gentrification, if such a neighborhood should be so lucky. For the rest of them, they will just add to the thousands of vacant and blighted historic homes that litter communities “from Scranton to Oshkosh.”

Even in Columbus, typically considered an oasis of growth amongst the rust belt, this week has brought the news of not just another factory closure, and not just specifically the loss of the historic Columbus Castings foundry – but also a workforce of 800 in need of retraining, families that will be uprooted, a community that has lost an employer, and a nation that has lost another steel foundry.

I usually say we do not have gentrification in Ohio, and as such, usually cheer on any urban redevelopment. That said, we really don’t need redevelopment everywhere. Sometimes things are fine the way they are. The reality is that you can redevelop a neighborhood, but you can’t redevelop the lower-income families that reside there, who then have to move on with their lives elsewhere.

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While most of Ohio’s urban neighborhoods are so disinvested that it’s insane to oppose investment, at the same time, we don’t need to proactively redevelop factories on the other side of town. This site in particular really should be industrial. Surrounded by railroads, cut-off from surrounding neighborhoods, and adjacent to freeway access – this is a site where goods should be made and shipped.

This is not a site where we need a mixed-use utopia for more millennials and empty nesters, or even destination shopping for families. Even if economic activity on this redeveloped site creates low-income accessible jobs, they won’t be good jobs like the 800 provided at Columbus Castings. When we do find a way to grow quality low-income accessible jobs, they are usually located far removed from the communities where people live.

The City of Columbus tried valiantly to find (and financially support) a buyer who would keep the foundry open. Close, but no cigar.

Watch this space. The whole South End of Columbus, where an urban blue collar way of life was holding on, is transitioning to something else. Whatever that is will be dramatically different than what it was, for better or worse.

With this deal, the real estate industrial complex makes another revolution around the sun, which has set on yet another rust belt neighborhood.

Design Ingenuity: My wknd stay in Canadian public housing

Design Ingenuity is a series highlighting teachable examples of urban design. The first Design Ingenuity post highlighted US Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, the second highlighted OKC’s citywide park redevelopment plan. The goal of Design Ingenuity is to understand the difference that good design makes in the lives of city residents.

1-year ago, after learning about development processes and policy mechanisms behind American public housing at an accelerated rate, I had a hair-brained whim to go explore the Canadian equivalent.

daniels-spectrumI particularly wanted to see Regent Park – Toronto’s “most notorious” public housing estate (for all the wrong reasons, if you could imagine such a thing in Canada) – which underwent an ambitious revitalization project in 2005. Regent Park’s Daniels Spectrum community centre (an art gallery I believe?) recently won the UK’s prestigious Civic Trust Award, along with a bevy of other awards. This is not your grandfather’s public housing, or even Drake’s – see MTV article likening a co-appearance with the Toronto-native rapper to “a passport out of Regent Park.” The NY Times has hailed Regent Park, once a “neighborhood in despair,” as an international “model for inclusion.”

In case it seems odd (or insensitive) to “vacation” in another nation’s public housing…

  • I am very interested in the culture of public housing, which is quite rich.
  • I am very interested in the design opportunities surrounding public housing, which are limitless.
  • I am very interested in the social and equity implications of redesigning public housing, which are a double-edged sword.

Regent Park was an amazing thing to check out for all those reasons and more. It turns out that, thanks to the mixed-income composition of the replacement housing, you can find AirBnB units within Regent Park itself. It might even be the best AirBnB location in Toronto, for someone on a budget who wants a sleek rental near downtown TO.

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I stayed in the extremely cool Paintbox building, which is a 26-story, 282-unit mixed-income housing tower designed to evoke its namesake. In the elevators you truly rub shoulders with people from all walks of life, and from the balcony, look down on the entirety of Toronto’s vast cityscape. You also look down on Regent Park’s namesake park itself, also redesigned as an excellent space. The view was highly instructive:

The park itself integrates all the amenities you would expect on-site for 1,800 public housing units, including an aquatic center (toward the right), greenspace programmed with active- and passive-recreation spaces, the Daniels Spectrum, and a church that was preserved. The most interesting thing in these photos are the older units, what remains of Regent Park (the next phase to be replaced), across the park.

The redevelopment is replacing roughly the same number of units – 2,083 units existed in 2005, and 1,800 will be rebuilt along with another 266 off-site (“nearby”) – while 5,400 market-rate units will be introduced on-site. Those market-rate units sell for around $400,000-$500,000 for a 2br, and around $200,000 for a studio. I have been told that they are completely indistinguishable from the public housing units, although I am not sure whether the unit I stayed in was public or market; I can attest that there are no separate entrances or “poor doors.”

All in all, Toronto Community Housing’s redevelopment will take 15-20 years to accomplish the following:

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  • Replaced RGI Rental Units: 2,083 (over 1800 in Regent Park and 266 in new buildings nearby)
  • New Affordable Rental Units: Over 210 in Regent Park and 100 in new buildings nearby by the end of Phase 2. Additional affordable rental units in future phases will be subject to funding availability.
  • Market Units: 5,400
  • Project Start Date: 2005
  • Anticipated Project Length: 15-20 years
  • Total Size: 69 acres
  • Amenities: New amenities include the Daniels Spectrum, the Regent Park Aquatic Centre, the new Regent Park, and the Regent Park Athletic Grounds
  • Retail Space: Freshco by Sobeys, Rogers, Tim Hortons, RBC and Main Drug Mart have moved into newly created retail space
  • Employment: 1,100

All of which looks good on paper, but looks even better in person – as it such amidst Toronto’s beautiful cityscape, replete with open modern design, green rooftops, and “red rockets” (Toronto streetcars).

Perhaps it is not only possible for public housing to raise people up, but to more importantly immerse people in an immersive community that naturally provides better social supports than a community action program ever could.

DC: WMATA TOD Tour

IMG_4554The Washington Metro is by far one of the most successful transit networks in North America, both in terms of ridership as well as economic development. As it relates to economic development, it isn’t just that WMATA makes TOD a priority, but also that the system performs well for practical commuting trips (with surge pricing to operate 2-minute rush hour frequencies), and revitalizing neighborhoods by concentrating 713,000 daily riders into walkable marketplaces.

Such was the case with Columbia Heights in particular, where I have spent a lot of time on the ground myself. One (delicious) word: pupusas. The area surrounding the Metro station at 14th and Linwood has been totally revitalized, but not without a high degree of public planning, investment, and long-term involvement.

Ravaged by riots in 1968, the neighborhood was subject to decades of failed revitalization efforts before transit reached the neighborhood. This included the creation of two redevelopment authorities (RLA, NCRC), and a string of failed development projects due to the neighborhood’s struggling economic base and subpar purchasing power. According to this MNCPPC presentation: Things changed in the 1990s as WMATA invested over $500 million into three new entrances, which surrounded 14th & Linwood with air rights development that the District of Columbia then provided $48 million of subsidy to support an anchor shopping center.

It looks great:

The $48 million District investment, following WMATA’s expansion into the neighborhood, catapulted the neighborhood to revitalization. That investment created a 20-to-1 ROI, with over $1 billion in resultant TOD, spread across 55 development projects.

• Since 2001, within a half‐mile of the Columbia Heights Metro Station, 55 development projects, valued at $912 million, under construction or completed

• 3,200 new residential units  Nearly 700,000 SF retail

• >36,000 residents live within a 10‐min walk of the Metro station, and nearly 40% of the population is between ages of 25‐44

• Projects include:

– 53,000 sq ft Giant Food grocery

– DC USA with retailers such as Target, Best Buy, Marshalls, Staples, and Bed Bath and Beyond.

– The 250‐seat GALA Theatre and the Dance Institute of Washington

– Highland Park and Kenyon Square mixed‐use developments: 412 residential units; 20% affordable; 20,000 SF retail– The redevelopment and reuse of the Tivoli Theater

Source: MNCPCC

While placemaking is one obvious ingredient in the success story of Columbia Heights, perhaps the most successful transit placemaking project in DC is the arch at the Chinatown/Gallery Place station – directly adjacent to the LED rotunda above the Metro escalators. This is one of the most-utilized and most-central Metro stations in the entire District, anchored by the Verizon Place arena.

 

Chinatown/Gallery Place is also one of a few of transfer stations, making it a natural fit as a TOD hub. Other less obvious TOD hubs have benefited from substantial WMATA and DC/VA/MD support, including 3 in Virginia, 6 in the District, and 13 in Maryland.

Farragut Square, near the heart of Downtown DC, is one of the most obvious examples of air rights development, with Class-A office space built above the Metro escalators. Of course, two of the Farragut Square stations have bikeshare stations, providing intermodal connectivity.

The station at U Street, one of the District’s most vibrant and active neighborhoods, models a different site plan prototype. In this development at 14th and U, an L-shaped development surrounds an open-air plaza with the Metro escalators, creating a dispersal point between pedestrians emerging from the escalators and queuing at the crosswalk. One of the city’s highest-traffic intersections, it makes sense within this context to shield the Metro station.

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There’s a Wal-Mart at the NOMA station.

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The DC Convention Center is also an interesting prototype, with the Metro station underneath the Convention Center, accessible by escalators inside the Convention Center itself. In this picture, notice that the street pavement is concrete, whereas most of DC’s streets are asphalt. This is because the exhibition hall is underneath the intersection, Convention Center, AND the affordable housing picture to the right (dwarfed but not displaced by the Convention Center).

 

Union Station, the city’s commuter rail and Amtrak hub, as well as a Metro station, is encapsulated by TOD inside and out. The interior of Union Station has been turned into a shopping galleria, with retailers such as H&M and Ann Taylor. Behind the station, to the east, is also infill housing separated by a cycle track.

On H Street in front of (but not connected to..) Union Station is the “beginning” of the DC Streetcar. That said, there are a lot of similarities to how Megabus often dumps you off under a bridge “adjacent” to a transit station, and how the DC Streetcar dumps you off on the H Street overpass above the tracks, but not at all connected to Union Station. This lack of direct connection to Union Station, and particularly the broader Metrorail system, is the only legitimate fault I can find with the DC Streetcar. The route, while short, manages to traverse three distinctly different neighborhoods.

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First is the historic commercial corridor of H Street, which is heavily revitalized, and almost entirely infilled since the streetcar project began. Second is the area around H Street and Benning Road, where the streetcar bends in front of a large outdoor transit plaza (for buses and bikeshare), surrounding by transitional urban fabric with some suburban-style shopping strips. Last is the stretch of Benning Road approaching Oklahoma Avenue, which is primarily suburban-style public housing.

As I rode it in its first week of operation, riding was fare-free, not to mention a relatively festive environment with several other curious riders taking their first ride. Some of them were taking selfies, others brought friends to check it out. In talking to a few residents, I noticed two unique POVs I never would have considered: 1, mothers with strollers were the biggest fans, because it is so much easier for them to board than a bus; 2, the eventual connection to Georgetown has area residents scared that they won’t be able to afford the fare.

The fear is that surely they won’t actually be given equitable access to the same infrastructure that Georgetown residents enjoy. By starting first with a largely disenfranchised neighborhood that was passed-up by the Metrorail, this project has an opportunity to renew these residents’ faith in local government.

Mixing Architecture

While my design soft spot has always and will always be architectural contrast, my professional work has led me to realize there is a strong consensus against that in most cases. To make matters worse (or better), anytime you can simplify design through a public process (where design literacy may vary), the better the outcome.

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Looking straight north up 3rd Street in Columbus, where the German Village’s iconic slate roofs and brick cottages comprise the theme listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The listing notes three styles: Queen Anne, Italianate, and Gothic Revival (Photo credit: German Village Society)

Historic districts promote uniformity, whether we admit this or not (through the theme of contributing properties, which may be one style or several that go together). Urban design guidelines and design districts do this as well through strict standards. That said, we also must admit uniform standards do work wonders toward preserving the quality of a district.

Design is subjective, and design standards and historic districts have been proven successful in objectively raising the bar toward an enactable minimum with which we can all accept. Toward that end, this post is not meant to be an attack on standards, but rather merely pointing out what lies outside the box.

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Outdated aerial (just showing the older Georgian section) of the Chesapeake Energy HQ Campus in OKC (Photo credit: The Lost Ogle)

Most esteemed university campuses with which I am familiar also have a distinct style, often part of their brand. Oklahoma State University is Georgian. So Georgian that the Chesapeake Energy campus in OKC, with its older core of OK State knock-off buildings, is often called OSU-style and not Georgian. #SoGeorgian. University of Oklahoma is prairie gothic, which I always found to be weird. University of Texas is mission-style. University of Kansas is romanesque. KU really is stunning, as a non-Jayhawk.

The aforementioned examples revolve around classical styles, which are most commonly found in authentic samples. Developing anew in a historic motif, like Chesapeake, is rare and should be discouraged as far as architectural authenticity is concerned. That said, the future will not have homogenous 21st Century districts simply because we are almost always working with a pre-developed context. 100 years from now, the 21st Century styles that we will be preserving will be more mixed amongst older styles, so far as urban context is concerned. If we don’t reconcile our perspectives toward mixing architecture, we risk the chance of enacting the wrong standards and following the wrong approach altogether. Preservation must eventually become more sophisticated, just as development has.

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Corner of NE 2nd and Walnut in OKC’s Deep Deuce area, with the new Aloft Hotel, LEVEL apartments, replete w/ Native Roots grocery store and a bikeshare station in front (Photo self-attributed, taken in 2013)

Modern design districts come in two forms. On one hand you have something like Deep Deuce in OKC, which is almost entirely new infill, developed over parking lots for which OKC’s historic black main street was demolished in the 50s and 60s. With very few original pieces still extant, those have been mostly restored, and some of the infill features nods to the red brick warehouses that once were. However, most of the infill, for lack of an authentic surrounding context, has been pretty outrageous – with free reign for architects to create a 21st Century neighborhood. Steve Lackmeyer, downtown beat writer for The Daily Oklahoman, wrote about Deep Deuce as the “complete” mixed-use neighborhood other cities dream about.

Cleveland Botanical Garden and CWRU

Mixed design built within landmark historic district in Cleveland’s University Circle. Modern landmarks such as Frank Gehry’s Weatherhood School and Uptown CLE wedged between CWRU’s historic quads and Little Italy. (Photo credit: Bill Cobb)

The last and most common case is where modern design truly coexists in a mixed environment, which usually includes a more nondescript historic building stock (else the modern would be toned down). In the case of University Circle in Cleveland, perhaps Ohio’s most magnificent square mile, few neighborhoods have so masterfully blended old and new, landmarks alike. That said, sometimes the new does endanger the old. CWRU has famously targeted entire historic districts for demolition, such as Hessler Street – giving rise to the famous Hessler Street Fair where the historic street stands tall against outside threats. Little Italy, (the smattering of cottages between the tracks and Murray Hill in the above photo), is better-protected – but its corners have been reinforced with high-end modern condos.

That mixed context, in my opinion, is the most impressive. I hate seeing historic landmarks in University Circle threatened, but as long as the neighborhood can evolve and retain ALL of them – University Circle remains the unquestioned most spectacular square mile of Ohio. It’s a rich and varied architectural cultural that befits Ohio’s cultural district. It’s as simple as that. Tearing down a building is not unlike the Cleveland Museum of Art moving out the Monet to make room for the Chihuly (which they would never do!), however refusing to make room for the Rothko also diminishes the overall value and authenticity.

That said, you don’t put the Rothko, Chihuly, and Monet in the same frame, let alone gallery. In Columbus, a locally-significant developer Jerry Solove (his family name is on the new OSU Medical Center), has proposed to demolish one of Old North Columbus’ most historic High Street blocks. While within two blocks there exists entire blocks of strip malls that could easily be demo’d for their concept, they of course must demolish the best block to make way for 11 stories of modern student housing. Worse yet, the entire project is designed to cleverly slip through zoning and design review in a city with shockingly weak development controls. The only two homes whose zoning would need to change have been swallowed into the development as a façadism nightmare. The setbacks going up every two floors also circumvent the height limits inherent within the zoning classification. With the city zoning administrator’s signature in hand already, the development could practically begin tomorrow and irrevocably demolish what little historic integrity remains on High Street, north of the OSU campus.

Just because there isn’t much integrity left doesn’t make that low-hanging fruit for redevelopment. Sophisticated cities, which Columbus just isn’t quite yet, find ways to retain the good and focus redevelopment opportunities where those opportunities actually exist. The flip side is the argument that “this argument is irrelevant because said development has this site, not that site.” That is the developer’s problem, not the city’s, or community’s. Otherwise there is natural development pressure to keep building up on the good sites, continuing to ignore the bad sites. What gives in the end? When that happens, you get the below nightmare (which really should also render the empty block of strip mall parking two blocks away).

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Google Earth Aerial of Old North Columbus, with the Pavey block outlined in red on the right, and a strip mall screaming for redevelopment outlined in red on the left

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Pavey Square at High and Northwood in Old North Columbus, notice the two otherwise beautiful Second Empire homes swallowed up (Photo from Columbus Underground)