Tampa’s First Better Block Hopes To Revitalize Underused Corridor

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In its inaugural Better Block, The Tampa Heights Civic Association, Congress for New Urbanism, and Urban Charette are teaming up to bring a historic block on Franklin Street back into the city’s focus. The project will take place on Saturday, January 10th from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Franklin Street between 1-275 and Henderson Avenue.

“By bringing Better Block to Tampa Heights, we will simulate what a thriving and lively corridor would look like on Franklin Street,” said Brian Seel, president of the Tampa Height Civic Association Board. “The block is part of a Tampa neighborhood where we are starting to see urbanization. Our project builds on this momentum and gives the community a voice in the development of Franklin Street.”

Using Better Block’s principle of creating small-scale, short-term improvements to encourage lasting change and bringing the community together to build and improve their neighborhood, the group hopes to transform the block into Tampa’s “Yellow Brick Row.” The event will feature local vendors, retailers and residents hosting pop-up storefronts, local breweries will be offering beer samples, and the street will be reimagined with Cuban art and music, parklets, street art and entertainment for the one-day demonstration.

Earlier this year, Tampa Heights neighborhood members participated in a visioning exercise with the CNU, sharing their preferences and desires for the future of historic Franklin Street, and the Better Block is the group’s opportunity to see their ideas in action.  

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Loeb Video Profile of Better Block Co-Founder, Andrew Howard

In 2014, Andrew Howard, Co-founder of the Better Block project, became a Loeb Fellow at Harvard. This opportunity has allowed him to study the projects that have developed around the world and led to real change on the ground and stronger ties between communities. Andrew originally came from the traditional urban planning world, but tired of its strict rules and lack of regard for on-the-ground realities that derail most planning initiatives. See more about Andrew and his path in the above video.

Better Blocking the Harvard School of Design

 

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That’s me, Andrew Howard, co-founder of the Better Block with the 2015 class of Loeb Fellows at the Graduate School of Design. Now half way complete with the year long program, my thoughts have already changed about what can be done to make American Cities more liveable. When I first started the program, which brings planners, architects, landscape architects and all sorts of do gooders out of practice and into academia, I thought most of my days would be spent arguing with Harvard (STAR)architects about good building form.

rem-koolhaas-cctvThere have been some days that I wanted to run out of a class because the dialogue had turned to modern architecture as the standard design method for all buildings. I regress, what I have found is that architecture and architects are not the problem.

My first realization was that the problem with architecture and city building today is that we don’t have enough developers. The majority of new development in America is done by multinational conglomerates that build projects using a master developer approach. Meaning they get huge loans for hundreds of millions of dollars, receive public incentives of equal amount and build projects on a short time frame all at once. Which makes for a great ribbon cutting, but a lousy community. So architects are forced to come up with designs and programs for clients that are most of the time only focused on return on investment (ROI) and completion dates. See the Domino Sugar Factory in Williamsburg below.

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This instant gratification city planning and development is directly counter to the way we built some of the most beloved places in the world. Like the High Streets in London that have multiple owners, built over a number of years. The character and life that is found on these streets have yet to be duplicated in any master planned project I have seen.

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There has been much debate and trials of changing zoning in American cities to try and require developers to build small, walkable places. New Urbanist plans, form based codes, performance based zoning and even no zoning have been touted as the way to rebuild our fragmented cities. Many have resulted in places that got the form correct, but something seems to be missing. I call it the  “Truman Show” effect. A little to plastic. Maybe perfection is boring!

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The question I have now come to is not how to change architecture or zoning, but how to change who is building the city. For most Americans it is easier to invest in a company in a far away country or on the stock exchange than in the coffee shop across the street. In fact, the Security and Exchange Commission says that if you are not an accredited investors with a net worth of $1 million and income of at least $200,000 per year you can’t openly solicit for investment in Real Estate. So most of America is being built and is owned by less than 3% of it’s population. Increasingly the capital is also coming from outside the US.

A combination of changes to laws and practices are beginning to disrupt the status quo Real Estate practices in the US. First, the Wall Street Journal reports that equity crowdfunding holds the greatest potential for opening Real Estate investment up to everybody. The Federal Securities and Exchange Commission is yet to write the new rules, but when it does we could see the greatest transfer of wealth in America. People will be able to move their investment from low yield stocks and bonds into higher yield Real Estate investments, making the American Dream closer to reality for everyone. Political pressure from the US House and Senate on bureaucrats to write the rules is well overdue and is restricting the progress of the JOBS Act and the full recovery of the economy post Great Recession…not to mention local funding would be the catalyst for great small developments and a platform for community building.

Second, Lean Urbanism is tackling the red tape of local government building and zoning controls that have contributed to the extinction of the small developer. In most cities it is easier to build a 40,000 sqft Wal-Mart than a single story streetfront 5,000 sqft commercial space. We have basically built a set of rules that benefits corporate big box and big lot development over small. Lean urbanism is set to  dissect codes and bureaucratic process down to the bare bones to allow for innovation and small developers to take hold. Coined Pink Zones, think less red tape, these enterprise zones in cities will allow for small developers to seed themselves and grow.

Still the question arises, who will build the cities of the future? We can clear the financial hurdles, sweep away the zoning, but who is going to do it? On-line platforms that marry facebook with investing promise to match investors with developers, but that still requires small developers.

We know more people are becoming interested in the state of the city and are no longer satisfied with being users of place, they want to be owners and builders. To date we estimate over 5,000 people have undertaken the organizing of a Better Block and over 300,000 have attended a version of one. We have been successful in making city planning cool again! Better block is speed dating for future investors, developers and business proprietors to meet and test ideas out in real time.  From those projects people have gained the courage and first hand skills to start businesses, run for planning commission, show up to support a zoning changes and some really want to be developers.

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Working with the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Project for Lean Urbanism and the National Association of Realtors we will create a Developer in a Box set of tools for individuals and groups that are seeking to try their hand at development. Imagine if lessons learned could be passed down and if technology could fill the gap in small developers skill set. Apps for pro forma, ROI, maintenance, operations and taxes could be created to give a leg up to small timers.

This work will culminate in 2015, during my second semester at Harvard, when I will produce my findings in the Harvard Real Estate Journal, host a forum at Harvard with leading finance professionals and test our ideas in several cities across the US. The result will be a playbook for the next generation of city builders in the United States. A developer in a box platform that will radically change how cities are built one block at a time. Its going to be a great year!

 

 

Better Block Christmas Market

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Join us on Dec. 20th for the Better Block Christmas Market! There will be hot beverages, unique gifts made by local artisans, live music, a holiday bike ride and plenty of Christmas cheer!

5 to 10pm

Lucky Dog Books – 633 W Davis Street, Dallas, TX 75208

Fresno Better Block a Success

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On November 15th, the City of Fresno, California launched its first Better Block effort on East Ventura Avenue, spotlighting ways to make a more pedestrian friendly street.  The project was part of the Revitalize Ventura / Kings Canyon effort, funded by an Environmental Justice grant from CalTrans. Team Better Block worked with the Fresno Council of Governments, Placeworks, and various community organizations to develop and implement a rapid community-built streetscape plan utilizing locally sourced materials. The temporary measures demonstrated how proposed street improvements will bring more vitality to the corridor.

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Ventura Ave before
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Ventura Ave after 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beginning in September, community groups gathered to walk portions of the blocks of Ventura Avenue to review ways to address issues with the street. Like many commercial corridors, Ventura Avenue is uninviting and generally unsafe for pedestrians and cyclists. Ideas like creating more landscaping, improved crosswalks, and areas for outdoor cafe seating were all included in the initial planning process. In order to repair a portion of the street’s missing historic edge and create human scale, Team Better Block made plans to install a shipping container with vertical architectural elements. The temporary structure was designed to fill in the gaps in the urban form caused by excessive setbacks and parking requirements.

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Working with teams of community volunteers, work was set out the day prior to the Better Block with construction of multiple parklets, pallet furniture, and crosswalks. On the morning of the event, landscape crews from Tree Fresno arrived and set out landscaping based on plans provided by Broussard Associates Landscape Architects.  The landscaping created a canopy and soft edge that invited pedestrians to linger and enjoy the space.

Local school bands, mariachis, and a classic car show were programmed for the event to create additional opportunities for the community to re-take their block. By the project’s conclusion, hundreds of residents and stakeholders visited and lent support to the effort. Local news services including NPR and Telemundo covered the Better Block event.

As a result of the Better Block, Placeworks was able to collect valuable feedback from the community about the proposed changes to the Ventura Avenue.  Although the changes, including curb bump-outs and landscaped improvements, had been discussed at community meetings, this was the first opportunity for area residents to see them in action. Placeworks can now take the community’s feedback from the event and parlay it into their plans for permanent changes in the corridor. The Fresno Better Block yet again demonstrated the power of temporary improvements to energize a community and fast track change.

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Form and Ferguson

Everyone wants out of Micheal Brown’s neighborhood (Canfield Green) according to several resident accounts.

Now Canfield Green’s residents find themselves trapped in the same kind of segregated, violent, deteriorating neighborhood they had hoped to leave behind.

That process took years, but since Brown’s death, the change at Canfield Green has been swift and ominous. “It’s a ghost town over here now,” said David Whitt, a 35-year-old married father of three who’s lived here for a year and a half. “Nobody wants to live like this.”

Place like Canfield Green were built to fail, using out dated urban design principals. Lets take a look at the Neighborhood of Michael Brown:

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This is not a place anyone wants to live anymore. Went first constructed it was attractive, but as the newness wore off it aged poorly and the form did not support investment. Now lets look at a low income development in Baltimore and compare designs.

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Where do people in Canfield Green shop and meet others?

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Pretty lifeless? Let’s look at my neighborhood destination in Oak Cliff (Dallas, TX).

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The issues in Ferguson are not limited to form, but how could we start to repair parts of cities that were never built to foster community and sustainable economy?  The City of Saint Louis has completed four Better Blocks to date and there was even one in Ferguson in 2011. The role of temporary changes that can insight new perceptions about a place might play a role in Ferguson, but for now we pray for justice.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Breaking Codes and the Next Industrial Revolution

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A marvel from above, looking out over the sprawling Ford River Rouge Complex in Dearborn, MI.

Albert Kahn was known as the architect of Detroit and built more than 400 buildings there. Some of these massive industrial buildings had no precedent in the World and subsequently no land use or building codes to govern their construction. In the words of Jana Cephas, Harvard Graduate School of Design Lecturer, “the Dearborn planning commission was silent on the regulation of these new building types.”

Free to use his own ingenuity and discretion, Kahn (and Henry Ford) crafted buildings to augment the assembly line, like the giant crane pictured below. The complex of buildings became an industrial trend setter for the 20th century and were emulated around the world. What if the City of Dearborn would have demanded that these buildings that housed the second industrial revolution had to conform to rules for the first revolution? I doubt a 19th century millworks building would have been able to produce enough military aircraft to win WWII!River_Rouge_tool_and_die8b00276r

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Where are our places today to experiment with how the built form will prepare itself for the next revolution, the Human industrial revolution?

What we need is fewer rules and more discretion…. Too much of the time, the government tells people exactly what to do and exactly how to do it… rather than just describing its general goal and letting human beings use their own creativity and initiative to get there.                       The Future of Government, Cass R. Sunstein (2013)

The Better Block has been testing over a weekend how to adapt old buildings and spaces to the new sharing, innovative, human focused economy we are currently living in. We have done this as guides, gentle curators that express a goal to people and allow them to create without too many boundaries. The results of everyday people innovating in the city are fantastic!

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Volunteers in Norfolk, Va where asked to create shade for a new plaza. They harvested bamboo and hauled it to the site on bikes. The result was a beautiful and functional!

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20000 SqFT Building in Norfolk, VA that was once a car parts store and then a furniture store had gone vacant. With no dedicated parking or interested parties, what do you do with it?

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Volunteers populated the space during a Better Block with retail, office, maker space, coffee shop, beer garden, live entertainment and a little skateborading.  Now a permanent establishment, Alchemy NFK was granted a variance to operate as a “beer serving flea market”.

Communities across the country are redefining how architecture, land use and building codes need to respond to the changing economy and people centered approach to building the city. What cities are listening and who will be the next trend setter? While Detroit is getting a lot of press for attracting young creatives because of relaxed code enforcement, what city is going to invite innovation?

Lean Urbanism with support from the Knight Foundation is going to test the idea of Pink Zones (think less Red Tape) in several cities across the US this next year. Already, places like  Boston, MA are looking at Neighborhood Innovation Districts that are converting buildings designed for the old production economy into the new creative economy.

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Docester Bay neighborhood in Boston, MA converted a hot dog processing plant into a culinary incubator and food truck port. Down the street a former autobody station is being converted in to a Fabrication Laboratory for the community to experiment with technology and building methods.

Opportunity exists in second, third and fourth tier cities to be innovators. The bureaucracy is smaller and the threshold for risk lower. Using the better block method to dissect codes, rapidly test business and development methods we will try out our own version of innovation districts in various small to medium sized cities in the mid west and east coast. We hope to release these groundbreaking projects in the coming weeks!

In the mean time catch Andrew Howard current Harvard Graduate School of Design Loeb Fellow and Better Block Co-Founder at the Texas Big Six Conference.2040BIG6_LOGO_ALT2

 

 

 

 

 

Akron Better Block in the works

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Monday’s Better Block Community Walk through a block in the North Hill neighborhood of Akron.
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Jason Roberts, co-founder of the Better Block project, presenting on the Better Block

The Knight Foundation and Team Better Block have begun laying the groundwork for their first collaboration with the city of Akron, Ohio. The community of North Hill has been selected for the city’s first Better Block and residents, business owners, and city staff have all partnered to start preparing the Cuyahoga Falls and Main Street area for a project that will combine efforts with local organizations like the International Institute, Urban Vision, and AMATS.

A large group of stakeholders attended the Community Walk kick-off for the project on Monday, and ideas were submitted for potential pop-up businesses in the area.

If you’d like more information on the project, or would like to sign up to take part, visit the Akron Better Block facebook page. More details to come soon!

Norfolk Organizes Third Better Block This Weekend

After successful Better Block projects on 35th Street and in the Arts District in Norfolk, Virginia, Norview Five Points community members and business owners are leading a third Better Block on the 6100 block of Sewell’s Point Road.

The event was catalyzed by organizer Austin Loney’s attempt to relocate their pawn shop business to a building on the street. They found that strict zoning laws regulated, and often prohibited, certain viable businesses from operating on the block.

Therefore, with funding from the Hampton Roads REALTORS © Association, the City and the community are coming together on November 14th and 15th to install pop-up businesses of local Norview entrepreneurs in the vacant storefronts and program the street with activities, outdoor cafe seating, landscaping, live music and food trucks. This, Loney says, will hopefully spur economic development and zoning changes to allow for new businesses to move to the block, reducing crime and making it a more inviting place to live, work and play.

The event will take place from 5 to 11 p.m. on Friday, November 14th, and 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. on Saturday, the 15th.

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Better Block RVA Video and Report Available

On June 13th and 14th, Richmond, Virginia held its first Better Block project sponsored by Sportsbackers, Bon Secours, the National Association of Realtors, Capital One, and Davita. The block of 25th Street and Venable was temporarily transformed into a neighborhood destination, complete with pop-up businesses, a cycle-track, parklets, pallet benches, and plaza with the help of community volunteers and residents.

 

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Capital One offered a series of Microgrants to local businesses who used those funds to install new windows, re-paint buildings, and build 15 picnic benches that were installed in a pop-up garden and cafe on the block. The Better Block project galvanized the community around the idea of making a better place immediately and helped communicate principals in walkability, livability, and placemaking in a hands-on approach that has moved the neighborhood beyond the traditional planning process and into implementation.

The video above and report below provides greater details about the project and we would like to thank all the volunteers and sponsors for making in this a great project!

Download (PDF, 8.58MB)