Church Hill North Better Block Project: One Year Later

By Max Hepp-Buchanan

This is re-posted from sportsbackers.org. Read the original post here. 

For two days in June of last year, we built a better block in Church Hill North. We facilitated dozens of “pop-up” shops in taking up residency along North 25th Street, including inside several vacant storefronts. We added bike lanes and new crosswalks for the weekend using duct tape and other temporary materials, saw the rise of a pocket park on an undeveloped piece of land, turned a concrete slab into a stage for an afternoon of soulful music, painted buildings, painted murals, and doled our thousands of dollars donated by Capital One for façade improvements to the existing businesses.

In case you missed it, you can watch a short documentary about the Better Block Project here:

The project took months of planning and forming partnerships with Team Better Block, the City of Richmond, Bon Secours, Capital One, Davita Dialysis, Storefront for Community Design, Groundwork RVA, Partnership for Smarter Growth and others.  And finally, on June 13 and 14 of 2014, the East End community came together for a weekend of temporary transformation of two blocks of North 25th Street into a more walkable, bikeable, vibrant and economically healthy corridor.

But what has changed since then? Did we help create any lasting improvements? I went back to the intersection of N 25th St and Venable St this week to find out.

While it wasn’t my first time back all year – I’ve been back many times since then – I looked hard for what I could interpret as permanent positive change. At first glance, the street looked almost the same. But as I walked the corridor and peered into windows, I began to see the subtle and not-so-subtle changes that told me it was all worth it.

At the northern end of the Better Block project site, big changes are happening on the Track-Muralstreet with the addition of a large roundabout at N 25th St and Nine Mile Road. Construction is currently underway, and while this is not a direct result of the Better Block Project, it does demonstrate the City of Richmond’s ongoing commitment to make the East End a better place. Making my way south, I was happy to see Ed Trask’s mural that was painted during Better Block still in pristine condition on the side of a building, and that the business in that building had a new, secure front door paid for by Capital One’s contribution to façade improvements.

Our home base for the Better Block Project was located at 1105/1107 N 25th St. While it was originally envisioned to house a coffee shop, it now has a tax office as new tenants. But previously, the space was vacant and uninhabitable due to major repairs that needed to be made, and many of them were made as a direct result of Better Block.

1008-N-25thThe building that sticks in my mind the most from Better Block is 1008 N 25th St. Once a bright blue and white exterior, a team of volunteers repainted the entire two-story building over the course of a week to match the color pallet of the historic district. Nothing was in there before Better Block, so the property owner agreed to host a pop-up clothing shop for the weekend. Today, it’s clear that a new retail store is about to open in the remodeled space – there’s a new door and windows, fresh carpet and paint on the interior, and retail merchandise is starting to fill the shelves.

The grassy area next door to 1008 – which was transformed into a pocket park for Better Block – has become a priority project of Better Block partner organization Groundwork RVA, which is engaging Armstrong High School students in the planning and design of what will hopefully become a permanent park and asset to the community. Currently, it is still privately owned but appears to be maintained regularly.

At the southern end of the Better Block Project site, a once vacant building is now Pocket-Parkinhabited with a thriving business. 1000 N 25th St, one of the city’s first gas stations and later converted into a bologna sandwich take-out spot had been vacant for years. During Better Block, a woman sold home-made cosmetics out of the uniquely shaped triangle building. But today, a new place to eat has taken residency, selling fried fish. Appropriately named, “Jus’ Fish”, the sign hanging from the building makes sure you fully understand: “All we do is fish.” So don’t go there looking for fried chicken! When Jus’ Fish opened a few months ago, the owner of the building emailed me to say:

“Just wanted to thank you for your hard work and efforts toward revitalization of my community. Thanks to that great weekend last year, I have secured a tenant and a new restaurant is open… Thank you again for such an eye-opening event!”

The last and most subtle – but arguably the most important – thing I observed was a sign hanging in the window of the N 25th St Market, a corner store that sells junk food, cigarettes, and alcohol (among other things). The sign read: “Fresh Local Produce”. Thanks to Tricycle Gardens, Church Hill North residents now have the option to buy healthy food in what is otherwise a significant food desert.

Fresh-Local-ProduceBetween the City of Richmond, Bon Secours, and a community of non-profits and residents who are fully invested in Church Hill North as a place to live and work, great things are taking shape in the East End. For example, four blocks away, residents are organizing in support of the area’s first “neighborhood byway” on N 29th St, which would offer a comfortable place for people of all ages and abilities to walk and bike for transportation, and would be a central connector to key destinations in Church Hill.

That stretch of N 25th St on Church Hill still has a ways to go. But things are certainly changing for the better, and there is a whole community up there who still cares a lot about building a better block.

How to build a green bike lane

Akron Better Block green bike lane
Akron Better Block green bike lane

We’ve been working on a book outlining lessons learned from Better Block projects occurring around the world, and as a part of the effort we’ve begun assembling recipes for interventions that are often implemented. One of the most notable has been the inclusion of temporary green bike lanes, which we stumbled across with help from the Baton Rouge Better Block team, and later applied with enhanced detailing in the Akron Better Block project sponsored by the Knight Foundation. Check out how we did it below, and pass it on to others (high res PDF here):

BetterBlockGreenBikeLanerecipe

 

Akron Better Block: Transforming North Hill Into A Vibrant International District

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Through a partnership with the Knight Foundation, Akron, Ohio’s first Better Block project was realized the weekend of May 15th-17th and showed how the community could come together to transform a blighted block into a vibrant neighborhood destination. By introducing buffered bike lanes, enhancing pedestrian infrastructure, and creating two public plazas, the Better Block proved that a street that once existed only for cars could be scaled down to make way for bikes, people, and programming.

Why North Hill?

Akron Better Block took place in the North Hill neighborhood on N Main Street, a wide, intimidating four-lane thoroughfare that was created to quickly move carsakronbetterblock from Downtown to the suburbs. The expansion of Main Street is a “solution” too often used in cities around the U.S. to allow for increased capacity on the road and to relieve congestion. Instead, the added lanes left the road under-trafficked, allowing
cars to blitz through the neighborhood at high speeds.

As a result, businesses have suffered and pedestrians fear being on foot. While the street is home to a number of charming historic buildings, many are vacant, neglected, and are beginning to be torn down, leaving empty lots in their place. These gaps in the street discourage pedestrian activity and make it difficult for small businesses to prosper.

The Better Block was introduced in Akron as part of an ongoing effort to increas
walkability in the City. Road reductions in the Highland Square neighborhood set precedence for the project, and the Akron Metropolitan Area Transportation Study (AMATS) has been creating a comprehensive road diet plan to present to the City.

To spur these ongoing improvements, under support from the Knight Foundation and with the help of a dedicated group of Akron community leaders, Better Block worked to reduce the scale of the street to allow for human activity, and encouraged local entrepreneurs to test out their business ideas in the vacancies for the weekend. The Akron Better Block team filled the gaps made by parking lots and demolished buildings by creating pedestrian plazas and fields for playing sports, yoga, and ping pong. For one weekend at least, N Main Street realized its potential as a thriving, economically viable block.

Identifying the location

In Akron, as with any City Better Block works in, we evaluated the community’s assets and redevelopment potential before choosing a block. Blocks that house pre-war buildings with good pedestrian form but lack a complete street are preferred. These blocks are typically found at former streetcar intersections, which was the case with N Main Street in Akron. We seek out these former streetcar neighborhoods because they were constructed with the pedestrian in mind, and traditionally follow a human-scale, classic Main Street model. When surveying location in Akron, we paid attention to five different factors for a neighborhood with redevelopment potential:

Edges that define space. Walkable districts always contain buildings that edge the sidewalk, with storefronts facing the street to create a welcoming atmosphere and gather pedestrians into one space. N Main Street, being along an old streetcar line, still maintained many of its traditional pre-war buildings that lined the street. However, a number of the historic buildings had also been torn down to make way for parking lots and to eliminate eyesores on the street, giving the Better Block team plenty of “gaps” to fill in order to exemplify how a pedestrian-friendly district should flow.

Leasable buildings. In order to encourage development, there need to be some vacancies on the street to instigate change and to incubate entrepreneurs during the Better Block weekend. N Main Street had a number of leasable spaces where we placed pop-up shops, giving them a low-risk way to test their businesses.

Potential for multi-modal infrastructure. N Main Street had been expanded to accommodate additional traffic, making it easy to pinch it back to down to one lane in each direction to allow for wider sidewalks and dedicated bike lanes.

Proximity to a neighborhood. As with most streetcar intersections, N Main Street at Cuyahoga Falls is located within a grid of residential homes, making it easy for residents nearby to walk to the commercial corridor and support their local businesses.

Interest from local partners. No matter how great the location, a project is only as good as the community it’s within. Luckily for the Akron project, we were privileged to work with an extremely engaged and active community of leaders and volunteers that were eager to get involved in any way they could. From sharing ideas to lending tools, creating pop-ups, organizing outdoor markets, and painting pallet furniture, the project suffered from no lack of community involvement.

Community Walk

 

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After choosing the location, we partnered with a number of organizations on the ground in Akron to conduct a series of community walks. These walks are designed to incorporate interested community members and hear what they’d like to see in their neighborhood.
From our Akron walks, we gathered that the perception of safety was the biggest factor preventing pedestrians from visiting the block. Additional lighting, filling vacancies, and putting eyes on the street can increase the perception of safety, so we decided to string lights in the plaza, place pop-up businesses in the vacancies, and build a number of outdoor seating areas for pedestrians to gather and feel welcome. Attendees also repeatedly mentioned that high traffic speeds prevented them from feeling safe crossing the street, so the team narrowed down the street to one lane in either direction, moved the parallel parking spaces to the outer edge of the bike lanes, and installed crosswalks to slow traffic and begin to train drivers to interact with pedestrians and bikes on the street. The data we gathered before and after the event showed that average car speeds decreased by 15 mph during the event.

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The Workshops
After months of planning, the Akron team hit the ground running to transform the IMG_6251block in under a week. In the days leading up to the Better Block, we conducted a series of workshops with volunteers from the community to help us expedite the process and have the community take ownership of the project. The workshops conducted included Plaza Preparation & Build, where volunteers built a bocce court, created and strung bunting over the street and painted pedestrian areas; Street Repair, during which volunteers cut crosswalks from recycled materials and striped bike lanes; Parklet & Pallet Furniture Building, where volunteers constructed and painted street seating and parklets out of old pallets; and Measurement Workshops, allowing community members to gather data on elements of walkability and safety before and during the event.

Building the Block

These workshops, combined with invaluable community partnerships with Tina and John Ughrin, International Institute, Keep Akron Beautiful, AMATS, Countryside Conservancy, 427 Design, ECDI, and countless others, we introduced five major improvements to the block: buffered bike lanes, 2 pedestrian plazas, an activity field, an open air market, and 6 pop-up businesses.

The Street

IMG_20150514_103625Unlike many of our past projects, where the bike lanes were painted by volunteers using rollers and tape, the City of Akron came on board and enlisted Public Works to help us paint the lanes. While the paint was still temporary and the borders were marked with white duct tape, the lanes could have easily been mistaken for the permanent green lanes found in major cities across the country. By including a buffer and moving street parking to the outer edge of the bike lane, we created a space where cyclists can enjoy the street without the stress of traffic. The addition of the lanes, as well as the widened sidewalks, pinched the portion of the street reserved for cars down to one lane in either direction, reducing speed and making the street safer not only for cyclists, but pedestrians and drivers as well.

The team also added areas for people to gather around the street, including an outdoor beer garden, seating areas outside of restaurants, a parklet and benches along the sidewalks. Shade and seating, combined with food and drink options, invite people to linger and get to know one another in an otherwise unfriendly, car-centric atmosphere.

IMG_20150515_151039The Plazas

The pedestrian plazas included one on the East side of the street that housed a bocce court and seating area, and a Western plaza that staged the outdoor market as well as an art installation and landscaped garden inspired by timeless plaza layouts found throughout the world. Countless volunteers came out in the days before the project to plant flowers, build furniture, shovel crushed limestone into the bocce court, and create bunting to be strung across the street. The Akron chapter of the League of Creative Interventionists constructed an art piece for the plaza, and International
Institute and Asia, Inc. enlisted dozens of talented performers to showcase their music, dance, and storytelling on stages throughout the weekend.

 

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Like all of our projects, Better Block sources its materials locally and works to use borrowed tools and equipment to save on costs and to engage the community in the build process. Temporary donations were used to landscape the street, recycled billboard vinyl became bunting, chair covers, and mural backdrops, and old rubber tires were turned into art.

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The Pop-Up Shops

Starting a brick-and-mortar business can be intimidating to a first-time entrepreneur, making Better Block the perfect platform for local makers to test out their concepts. By eliminating many of the barriers associated with starting a business, six different pop-ups were able to open for the weekend, including Three Sisters Momo, Stray Dog Diner, Summit Cycling Center, a local art gallery, International Welcome Center, and Neighbor’s Apparel.

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akronbbmap
Akron Better Block concept map

As an international district, North Hill is home to hundreds of refugees from Bhutan, Nepal, Burma and the Middle East, making it a community rich in culture and diversity. The shops and activities throughout the weekend reflected the multi-cultural flair of the neighborhood; Three sisters served traditional Nepali dumplings by employing Bhutanese refugees; Neighbor’s Apparel employs local refugees to create its unique clothing and accessories; the art gallery showcased work made by local refugee youth; and the International Welcome Center served to educate attendees about the global identity of the neighborhood and provide resources to immigrants in the community. In addition, businesses that already existed around the block, such as a family-owned grocery store and  Nepali Kitchen, benefited from the increased pedestrian activity in the area and saw a boom in sales over the weekend.

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By engaging the refugee community in Akron and giving them the resources they need to start businesses and invest in their community, the neighborhood has the potential to become a self-sustaining, vibrant economic center that thrives from its own residents.

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The Results

During the event, pedestrian activity and perception of safety drastically improved. Average vehicle speeds decreased from 29 mph to 13 mph, and we saw an exponential increase in the amount of bikes, families and neighbors on the street.

The pop-up businesses made record sales during the weekend, and a few of the them are already in negotiations with property owners about making their locations permanent, or at least continuing to conduct business temporarily while the space is vacant. The owners of the parking lot that housed the outdoor market and plaza garden for the weekend was disappointed to see it go and is interested in making the plaza a permanent addition to the block.

As far as the street improvements are concerned, plans are now in the works to begin taking concepts developed for the Better Block and making them permanent. AMATS is including the results of the better block project in their road diet recommendations to the City of Akron.
Many thanks to all of the community members, property owners, city staff, and volunteers for making this an incredibly successful event.

 

 

Analyzing a block by asking “Would it work in a mall?”

woulditworkinamall
In Better Block projects, the areas we look to revitalize are often former streetcar stops, which are neighborhood Main Streets that conform to Dave Sucher’s “three rules for a walkable neighborhood”. The important form of the street, buildings built to the sidewalk without setbacks for parking, are often disrupted over time due to structures being demolished creating “gaps in the teeth.” These gaps are often converted to parking lots which break up the walkability of the block but are deemed crucial to the business which no longer has the luxury of heavy foot traffic the streetcar once provided. This parking problem solves one issue, but creates another.

gapsintheteeth
Akron Better Block project study area showing gaps in the street wall that have since been converted to parking. A compromise that helps the building’s tenant but hurts the walkability of the block (Google Streetview image)

While developing concept plans to activate the historic wall, the gaps are where we find the energy of the street rapidly decline. Other common issues are half walls, or places where one side of the street is intact and the other side has been leveled. The symbiosis of the two walls is important to create a street that feels alive and hugs the public space correctly. Fortunately, temporary ways to re-engage these gaps is to use things like food trucks, or biergartens which begin re-stitching the street. Unfortunately, many people don’t see the necessity for having these spaces tightly interconnected and activating each other in a way that allows the parts to help the sum. Where we see this most commonly working correctly is in the suburban mall, a place that has re-appropriated many of the successful concepts of a Main Street. In fact, to simplify the analysis of what works and what doesn’t work in a Better Block, we’ll often ask “Would it work in a mall?”. Specifically, taking the example of a half-wall street, we could ask the question, “Would a mall with a hallway that one side is empty and the other side is full work well?”. It might work partially, but it wouldn’t be nearly as successful as both parts together. Also, looking at several of the new mixed-use developments occurring where the retail on the bottom floor is homogenized and all of the store fronts have little detail and appear to be one similar store front after another, would that same aesthetic be appealing in a mall? This is often what shopping strips employ, and those with the least detail and differentiation between facades lack character and are often described as feeling artificial.

halfwall
An example of a “failing” mixed use project. Would creating a wall of identical store fronts on one side and empty space on the other work in a mall? If not, then why would it be expected to work on the street?
mall-foodcourt
Mall food court. Seating and tables act as shared space for multiple food vendors.

When developing plazas or similar commons, we look at areas like food courts for examples. In a mall, these areas are open spaces edged with food retailers that all manage the public space. To be successful, we’ll look at bringing in tables, chairs, then lining the edges of the square with multiple food options (where it be food trucks, trailers, or tents). An area we often have to mitigate with vendors is the fear of losing business due to perceived conflicts of competition. What is important is for those vendors to note that what makes a district feel complete is having multiple options that create a dense feeling of mixes that all engage the space and bring as much foot traffic to the “commons” as possible. The series of options that are presented create spaces that people want to gather around and the “rising tide raises all ships” phenomenon can be seen.

"Food Truck Fridays" at RDV Sportsplex
Multipe food trucks at “Food Truck Fridays” in RDV Sportsplex (photo from Farmerdom.weebly.com)

If using the mall reference as an example, imagine a large food court with one food vendor. It might receive all of the foot traffic, but it will also make the space feel isolated and empty.

Realizing the complex symbiosis of the businesses with the public space is important to making a place feel vibrant and inviting. Although many suburban malls are in decline, the principles behind their walkability, mix of retail and food, public space engaging with private space, and facade detail can all be referenced in Better Blocks. Understanding the clustering of storefronts and noting how even small gaps can dramatically reduce the success for the relationship businesses have to the street is crucial and can make or break projects.

Interim Design / Tactical Urbanism: A New Civic Engagement Approach in Action

This article was originally published in the March 2015 issue of the Institute of Transportation Engineers Journal. Read the full issue here. 

As part of an ongoing ITE Journal series on Interim Design and Tactical Urbanism, this article explores three case studies with an emphasis on the partnerships and collaborations that can be developed through a new approach to civic engagement.

By Andrew Howard, AICP and Susan McLaughlin, AICP LEED AP

How many of us as transportation engineers and planners have started a complete street or public space project with a contentious public meeting? When is the last time you actually enjoyed the process and felt that productive input was provided and recognized in the final product?

Until the early 1970s, United States federal, state, and municipal agencies planned roadway construction with little input from the communities affected by the work. Later, emphasis was placed on trying to inform as many people as possible about public improvements with notices and public hearings. Recently, with the Internet making “experts” out of everyone, people have desired even more involvement, and designers have responded with interactive charrettes that allow participants to draw on maps and put stickers on priority elements to gauge community desires.

Planners and engineers have even produced fancy interactive websites to gather further comments, but public engagement still has been seen as a stumbling block. Recently at a National Association of City and Traffic Officials (NACTO) meeting, transportation officials from around the country conducted a roundtable on the barriers to urban street design. With all the funding shortages and battles over outdated design standards, community consensus still reigns as the number one barrier to progress on complete streets and public space design.

Why is this? Inherently most people are skeptical of change. You have been at that public meeting where one naysayer incites fear into the hearts of all who have gathered by shouting this will be “carmageddon!” Even though the traffic modeling says it will not turn out that way and the renderings look really pretty, sometimes these emotional voices win out, and what the designers are left with is a watered-down plan that com- promises best practices with the fears of the constituents. That is not to say that com- munity input isn’t valuable—but it should always be rooted in fact or experience. There must be a better way!

Posting land use ordinances that were being broken during the first Better Block experiment started a positive conversation with city officials in Dallas, TX, USA.
Posting land use ordinances that were being broken during the first Better Block experiment started a positive conversation with city officials in Dallas, TX, USA.

A few years ago, a group of friends, of which author Andrew Howard was a part, worked over a weekend to spiff up a blighted block of commercial buildings in the Oak Cliff neighborhood of Dallas, TX, USA using an alternative approach. This first “Better Block” was an experiment to lure people out of their living rooms and into public life so that they would engage in a conversation about the kind of community they wanted to live in. The group of friends—regular people representing the perfect cross section of the city’s populace—took an auto-dominated street and added the first bicycle lanes in Dallas, café seating, and narrowed the street so it was safe for all. A patent lawyer in the group identified the city land use codes that were holding back public life from blooming, like restrictions of café seating, shade awnings, flowers in the right of way, and issues such as causing crowds on the sidewalk. Andrew, an urban planner, took up the city’s out- dated street design standards that reinforced automobile priority and demonstrated how complete streets could be integrated. The group’s solution was to approach the problem with fresh eyes and to expose the rules for exactly what they were. Together over a weekend, we pinned copies of the ordinances on walls and invited our city leaders and staff for a discussion. The result was dramatic. City officials took notice and started the long process of changing those ordinances that limit true public engagement. One million dollars in the city budget was redirected toward making the weekend improvements permanent. Even more amazing is what the short project has spurred in the individuals that took part in it.

The patent lawyer that pasted the ordinances on the walls around the Better Block is now a city councilmember. Another member from the group is on the board of the local economic development committee, and two others joined together to start a real business after their pop-up shop during the weekend was so loved. Countless others that participated or just saw the event are now civic champions and are taking on city bettering projects in many fields.

As this example shows, the concept of urban planning is not stale. It is not a process run by city staff and consultants. It is a culture. In extreme cases, practicing urban planning in this way may lead to quitting your job to pursue civic engagement full time, as was the case for Andrew, who went on to co-found the social-enterprise consulting firm Team Better Block as a result of his experience. At the very least, this concept will make your job as a transportation engineer and/or planner designer easier because the community will be directly showing you what they desire from the city, helping you translate that into a permanent solution.

This kind of conversation about the future of the city cannot take place in City Hall or a library meeting room. It must take place in the streets, and, as the inaugural Better Block showed, those streets must be for people. For too many places in America there is no such venue, and many places actually make having such a conversation impossible. That is why the challenge lies with us as transportation professionals and enthusiasts to pop one up and build a Better Block that kick starts the conversation of public life.

Cities across the country are inviting these spaces into the everyday fabric of neighborhoods to disrupt the status quo and highlight what needs improvement. These living labo- ratories are experimenting with what people want in the city and thus keep a constant conversation going about the future. In cities that have invited disruption, we are seeing a growing engaged citizenry that understands what good design is and why it matters, and will advocate for it forcefully.

Team Better Block works with cities, developers, and stakeholders to create quick, inexpensive, high-impact changes that improve and revitalize underused properties and highlight the potential for creating great Complete Streets. This map shows the locations of their projects across the United States and Canada.
Team Better Block works with cities, developers, and stakeholders to create quick, inexpensive, high-impact changes that improve and revitalize underused properties and highlight the potential for creating great Complete Streets. This map shows the locations of their projects across the United States and Canada.

Better Block is part of an emerging and somewhat disruptive movement in urban and transportation planning. Like any new movement, it is going by multiple names. Broadly it has been coined tactical urbanism by urban planner Mike Lydon, who offers this definition: Tactical Urbanism is a city, organizational, and/or citizen-led approach to neighborhood building using short-term, low-cost, and scalable interventions intended to catalyze long-term change.

Parallel to the grassroots efforts, professionals have begun to adopt the ideals of tactical urbanism. The National Association of City and Traffic Officials (NACTO) implemented a set of Interim Design Strategies defined in the following: With limited funding streams, complex approval and regulatory processes, and lengthy construction timetables, cities are often challenged to deliver the results that communities demand as quickly as they would like. Interim design strategies are a set of tools and tactics that cities can use to improve their roadways and public spaces in the near-term.

By either definition, what this means for engineers and planners is a fresh approach to the project delivery process. Over the past five years these approaches to building a culture for street and public space changes have been applied in three distinct fashions:

1. Direct Citizen Action (Dallas, TX, USA)
One of the amazing freedoms in America is our right to assemble. Starting with the first Better Block in Dallas up to the most recent one in Tampa, FL, USA, an estimated 80 cities across the United States have used local block party permits to demonstrate street improvements, test public space improve- ments, and stretch the zoning and building codes to prove that cities can be better today. By using the standard approval and review process found in all local block party permits, citizens do not tax already-burdened city employees with extra work. Yet, it still seems daring and fun to change the street and try out ideas that would never make it off the planning or design table. This approach is often used to raise awareness of local issues that are stalemated and garner momentum for change. An example is the first Better Block project in Dallas, Texas.

2. Part of a Planning Process (Norfolk, VA, USA)
In cities that have over-planned, people often have “rendering fatigue” and “analysis paralysis.” Jason Roberts, who co-founded Team Better Block with Andrew, explained that their firm was founded in response to this “rendering fatigue,” in cases where com- munity enthusiasm has waned during a long planning process. In these situations the public is often only represented by the “frequent fliers”—the folks that are always at the public meetings. Municipalities in need have looked toward Better Block type projects with the aim of bringing in a younger more diverse group of constituents to the planning process. The approach also frees designers and planners to think about short-term, low- cost actions rather than long-term, high-cost ideas that could change dramatically given local market dynamics.

In April 2013, the City of Norfolk, VA, USA hosted the Dallas-based consultants Team Better Block to organize a“rapid place-making” event on Granby Street in the city’s proposed downtown Arts District, the first of four planned projects in the city. The efforts used temporary collaborative place-making to coalesce the community and change citizens’ and City officials’ sense of “what’s possible.” During the weekend-long event, residents created temporary spaces, piloted small busi- nesses, and forged important connections. The weekend also led to the city’s adoption of permanent zoning changes. In the year and a half since this Better Block project, more than 2 million dollars in land transactions and improvements have occurred, a complete street plan has been completed, five new businesses have launched, and a public space has been completed.

The Better Block pop-up public plaza built by residents in Norfolk, VA, USA has now been made permanent.
The Better Block pop-up public plaza built by residents in Norfolk, VA, USA has now been made permanent.

Jason Roberts says,“We [founded] Better Block as a 30 day vision, not a five year vision.” He believes that good place-making aims to create “a highly connected community or tribe.” The City of Norfolk sought out Team Better Block because past planning efforts had resulted in the same crowd of naysayers attending public meetings, and they really wanted young people involved in city building. Assistant City Manager Ron Williams made the decision to try a new approach.

The Better Block approach began with a pre- liminary site walk with community members. The second project walk drew approximately 50 people, followed by a series of community meetings with the City and a self-selecting core group leading up to the implementation event. The April Better Block event focused on transforming downtown’s Granby Street into the commercial spine of a new Arts District. The weekend of implementation drew more than 130 volunteers, including, parents, artists, DIYers, architects, cycle advocates, and Norfolkians from all walks of life who joined together to create three pop-up shops, a Dutch bicycle intersection, a giant public plaza, 80 feet of parklets, and count- less amazing pieces of art.

Better Block efforts encourage community members to physically make things and place them in their shared environment. A low budget for interventions is a hallmark of Better Block projects, and according to its founders, one of its major strengths. Tools, materials, and street furniture are borrowed, donated, or improvised. This borrowing builds ownership and trust within the community. Many times we want to skip this part of the process and buy things or hire people to do it, but if you do authenticity is lacking. In-kind donations in the form of art, landscaping, and construc- tion materials are solicited from residents, local businesses, and organizations. What little actual funding is required, including fees for the consultants, usually comes from a mix of sources. In Norfolk the effort was largely City- funded, although most recently the National Association of Realtors, John and James L. Knight Foundation, and People for Bikes have been major sponsors.

The Better Block model also tests small businesses on a temporary basis—in Norfolk, these pop up businesses ranged from a maker space to a beer garden. This strategy gives would-be entrepreneurs a low-commitment way to test business models while providing the greater community with a vision of what the block would be like with commercial activity. Team Better Block calls it speed dating for entrepreneurs, investors, and the city, to get to know each other, try things out, and— hopefully—fall in love with it.

After the conclusion of the weekend, Team Better Block provided the client with a report including metrics and an implementation guide for moving forward. Following the Granby Street event, resistance to land use and zoning changes subsided and the City Council unanimously approved additional uses that would encourage a viable Arts District, includ- ing art studios, breweries, flea markets, farmers markets, used merchandise stores, and com- mercial recreation centers. Frank Duke, Norfolk City Planner, says, “The first Better Block awak- ened the City officials and previously hesitant neighborhoods on the market potential for an Arts District in this downtown area.”Within several weeks food trucks were authorized, and design consultants working with the City developed a streetscape plan and began feasibility studies to examine narrowing some driving lanes to provide more on-street parking and wider sidewalks. The event also resulted in a $1.1 million sale of a long-listed building in the district as well as the opening of five new businesses that had been piloted during the event. On the softer side, lasting friendships and open lines of communication were forged. Six months after the event, small business owners marveled at the changes in the area, such as seeing a runner jogging alone on the street past dark, which as one merchant stated, “you never would have seen” several months ago. Norfolk has now hosted two additional Better Block projects in other budding districts with similar results.

As shown in this picture of Team Better Block in Norfolk, VA, USA, citizens don’t just participate in the planning process, they help build it.
As shown in this picture of Team Better Block in Norfolk, VA, USA, citizens don’t just participate in the planning process, they help build it.

3. Part of a Design Process (Seattle, WA, USA)
Road diets, street closures, new public spaces—new anything—is often questioned in established areas. Engineers and planners spend countless hours modeling, debating, and second guessing community assumptions about how improvements will be perceived and used. In many cases, it makes a lot of sense to just try it out! This allows for designs to be tested and for people to interact with the space and overcome fears of change. Engineers have cited design flaws during these brief tests and planners learned how a community would use the space. The following case study examines one such project.

The City of Seattle, WA, USA hosted its first Street Scrabble Tournament in August 2014, in partnership with Fehr & Peers, Team Better Block, and Framework design firm. This fun and engaging event offered a unique opportunity to raise awareness about a strategic public space plan that was under development: the First Hill Public Realm Action Plan. The Action Plan’s objective is to iden- tify short-term solutions to a long-term park deficiency in the First Hill neighborhood. This downtown-adjacent neighborhood has a growing population with more than 400 new residential units in the last decade and is also home to three major medical campuses; in fact, First Hill has the second highest job density in downtown Seattle, with nearly 85 thousand jobs per square mile! As one of the few neighborhoods zoned for high-rise residential buildings, available land comes at a premium and has made open space acquisition extremely challenging.

The City of Seattle, WA, USA hosted its first Street Scrabble Tournament in partnership with Fehr & Peers, Team Better Block, and Framework design firm during the ITE Annual Meeting and Exhibit in August 2014.
The City of Seattle, WA, USA hosted its first Street Scrabble Tournament in partnership with Fehr & Peers, Team Better Block, and Framework design firm during the ITE Annual Meeting and Exhibit in August 2014.

The Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT), Seattle Parks and Recreation, and Seattle Department of Planning and Development have taken an innovative approach to delivering new public space that would meet national and local parks criteria. One of these strategies is to put under-utilized right of way to a better public use by reallocating street space to park space. The Street Scrabble Tour- nament temporarily closed an intersection that was identified in the Action Plan to test the concept through tactical means.

A life-size Street Scrabble Tournament requires large wooden letter tiles (1×1), four 8-foot long wooden letter stands, and a board constructed of duct tape and spray-chalked with the variety of double and triple word scores displayed on the traditional board.

Each of the one hundred letters was fabricated by hand by City staff and volunteers by sanding and painting each individual tile to match the font found on Scrabble boards.

SDOT Traffic Operations helped to design the intersection closure with appropriate safety measures taken to ensure pedestrian safety for the 24-hour closure through edge lines, traffic barriers, and cones. Once the intersection was closed, volunteers helped lay the groundwork for the Tournament to be played the following day. Some of the interim design features, aside from the Scrabble Tournament board and tiles, included landscape planters, table, chairs, tent, bike facility delineation, and Twitter account information for photo sharing. There was design liberty given to volunteers that were armed with spray chalk.

The event was advertised in advance and people interested in playing in the tournament entered their names into a lottery to be randomly chosen the day of the event. There were 2 semi-final rounds to select the final four players and prizes were given to all winning participants.

The Scrabble tournament was extremely successful in engaging people with the space that could be transformed in the future. Social media and surveys from the event indicated overwhelming support for the reallocation of right of way to make a future park in this location and to do more street activation events through interim or tactical design strategies. The community saw it in action instead of just hearing about it in a public meeting, and that made all the difference in the world.

Team Better Block one of 32 Knight Cities Challenge Grant Awardees

 

Team Better Block was awarded today a $155,000 grant from the Knight Foundation to pursue a project in Akron, Ohio. The funds will be used to convert excess housing stock in the city into boutique hostels and cultural hubs utilizing the Airbnb platform.

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Through multiple visits and conversations with Akron city leaders and residents, we identified the need for increased hotel options near the downtown area. At the same time, the City of Akron, Ohio is faced with population declines, excessive housing stock, and a lowered tax base to maintain existing infrastructure. This problem, combined with the lack of hotels near the city’s core, the opportunity arose to temporarily repurpose existing housing stock as Airbnb hostels or hotels to demonstrate to the community how their homes can be activated and returned to economic viability. By focusing on the North Hill neighborhood, where a Better Block project is currently in development, the growing Bhutanese refugee community (representing 70% of new immigration to the area) will be engaged when developing the concept. This will give the demonstration space a cultural point of reference while providing a shared cultural amenity on the grounds for the neighborhood. The AirBnB concept will operate for 18 months, and provide a detailed prototype that residents can engage with and learn how to convert other homes in the area into shared economic resources.

The Knight Cities Challenge is an annual $5 million call for ideas focusing on one or all of these three key drivers of city success: attracting and retaining talented people, expanding economic opportunity, and creating a culture of civic engagement. They awarded the grant to Team Better Block for meeting these three criteria in an innovative way.

The Better Block team is celebrating the award with a party on March 31st from 5 to 9 p.m. at their new office location: 323 W Jefferson Blvd., #203, Dallas, TX 75208.

 

Case Study: Tampa’s First Better Block Project Reimagines District With Deep History

Guest post by Kevin Young and Kasi Martin

FranklinOn January 10th, 2015, the future of the North Franklin Street corridor was put into the hands of over 2,000 attendees, multiple media outlets, and city planners. Tampa’s first Better Block Project, on North Franklin Street, kicked off the Tampa Heights Civic Association’s efforts to revitalize one of Tampa’s most historic neighborhood corridors and bring principles of tactical urbanism to the city on a grand scale.

Recognizing a need

Franklin-montageDowntown Tampa is standing on the threshold of a major redevelopment boom. Forty acres of Tampa’s oldest suburb – Tampa Heights – are ripe for development. Bordering the northern edges of downtown, the neighborhood used to enjoy a bustling corridor on North Franklin Street. Long-forgotten, this corridor functioned as a neighborhood gathering place with restaurants, a theater, and public transportation. Now, it is home to vacant storefronts and abandoned lots. Recently a few trailblazing entrepreneurs have gravitated to the corridor, foreseeing Franklin as Tampa’s next beacon of urban development.

Seeing the potential for development, a Better Block Planning Committee formed. A Franklin-frontgroup of young professionals active in local policy came together with Tampa Heights residents and business owners in the summer of 2014 to present the Better Block project and host the city’s first visioning exercise. Through concept boards, planning exercises, and group discussion, the neighborhood expressed their long-term vision for North Franklin Street. It included:

  • Mixed-use development
  • Redevelopment with an emphasis on low-rise residential buildings
  • Pedestrian/bike friendly thoroughfare
  • Locally-owned restaurants and retail
  • Expansion of artistic and creative offerings (The Rialto Theater and Franklin St. Finest Woodworking have already set up shop)

Significant obstacles to this vision were also identified during the planning exercise:

  • Exclusion of the corridor from Community Redevelopment Area special funding districts and a general lack of city redevelopment attention.
  • The lack of a neighborhood identity (no district name)
  • Perceived safety issues associated with a large homeless population using North Franklin Street to travel to social service offerings in the neighborhood.
  • A lack of transportation planning including no bike lane, needs for traffic calming, lack of foot traffic, lack of bicycle racks, no bike share stations, and no streetcar stop.

A new neighborhood identity

Franklin-streetUnlike other bustling neighborhood corridors in Tampa, this area of North Franklin Street had lost its identity. Taking their cues from the street’s distinct, blonde brick buildings and utilizing the power of social media, the Planning Committee rebranded this corridor as Tampa’s Yellow Brick Row district. False store fronts were built to mimic the blonde brick architecture, reflecting the neighborhood’s desire to keep the development aesthetic uniform on the street. Yellow bricks were also painted in the street and on sidewalks to reflect this vision.

Hello…#YellowBrickRow, A bustling corridor unveiled

The planning group worked from the Better Block open source model, infusing it with distinctive local flair and ideas. The day-long event transformed five blocks of North Franklin Street into a prominent corridor of Tampa’s future.

Tampa’s offerings included:

  • Local Cuban art and food showcase inside an old dance club
  • Handmade building facades to mirror the unique yellow brick buildings on Franklin Street
  • A “Retail Row” featuring pop-ups from local jewelers, bakers and artisans
  • Handmade wayfinding signs
  • Local food truck park and outdoor cafe space
    Beer garden with up-and-coming brewery previews and local bands
  • Temporary bike station by Coast Bike Share
  • Metalwork sculptures from a local artist (one was permanently donated to the area)
  • Interactive parklets with gardens, games and rest areas
  • Interactive “Imagine____ on Franklin Street” chalkboard wall
  • Temporary transformed streets with painted crosswalks, parking and footsteps
  • Temporary greenspace
  • Artwork in street windows to reimagine vacant storefronts with tenant options
  • Franklin-boardFranklin-art

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another distinguishing element of Tampa’s Better Block was inclusiveness of the existing neighborhood and establishments. During the event, the homeless population mingled with 2,000 attendees, showing that the presence of social services in the neighborhood needn’t stall efforts to revitalize the corridor.

Better Block attendees were excited about the neighborhood, with many asking “What is next?” Business owners attended and told stories about their entrepreneurial efforts. Neighborhood residents strolling through said they were eager for a day when families could walk the sidewalks of North Franklin Street again. The most telling feedback came from an owner of Robertson’s Billiards, the oldest establishment on Franklin St. “I never thought it would take four generations to see my grandparents’ vision for this street come true.”

Follow #YellowBrickRow for continuing developments on Franklin St and the Tampa Heights neighborhood

Case Study: The Roxy Revival in East Nashville

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savetheroxy.org

The Roxy Theater in East Nashville had long been a neighborhood gathering place for first dates, family outings and classic films. It was the centerpiece of a vibrant commercial district that included everything a neighborhood needs within walking distance — a grocery store, barber shop, pharmacy, post office and clothing store.

But since the 1980’s, the block had fallen into disrepair due to irresponsible property owners, high crime, unemployment, and a decline in economic investment. Even in the midst of East Nashville’s resurgence in the early 2000’s, complete with hip eateries and trendy homes, the Roxy block remained blighted and neglected.

So, in June 2013, a group of concerned citizens led by Dane Forlines decided to do something about it. They noticed how loved the old Roxy Theater was, but also saw the lack of hope felt by the community in ever returning the old block to its former glory. Killing two birds with one stone, Dane took the principles of tactical urbanism to both re-engage the residents with their community and revitalize the block.

Dane and his group immediately kicked off a “Save the Roxy” campaign that regularly showed movies on the lawn of the old theater, installed public art on the block, and replicated the iconic Roxy marquee sign. “Save the Roxy” culminated at a “Roxy Revival Festival” that encompassed the whole block. Together with the community, Dane and his crew transformed the vacant street with pop-up artisan shops and restaurants, street trees, benches, lighting and landscaping, and the theater itself hosted live music acts and films throughout the day.

During the event, over a dozen inquiries were made about leasing the vacant spaces, and today six different spaces on the block have been remodeled and new businesses are opening.

Just like many Better Block projects, the “Save the Roxy” project showed East Nashville how civic engagement and a hands-on approach can revitalize a neighborhood overnight.

You can read the full case study here. 

David Sucher’s Three Rules For A Walkable Neighborhood

Nantucket, MA. Photo credit: www.nedevelopment.com
Nantucket, MA. Photo credit: www.nedevelopment.com

The Better Block ideals build upon tried-and-true principles that have been codified and outlined by urbanists in the past. One such source of inspiration is David Sucher, the author of City Comforts. In it, he explains the essential elements of walkable, livable cities in three simple rules:

1. Build to the sidewalk (i.e., property line).

2. Make the building front “permeable” (i.e., no blank walls).

3. Prohibit parking lots in front of the building.

Sucher emphasizes that, more than architecture, the success of a neighborhood lies in the orientation of its buildings. “The key decision in creating a walkable, pedestrian-oriented neighborhood, is the position of the building with respect to the sidewalk. This decision determines whether you have a city or a suburb,” he says.

Build to the sidewalk

Property lines should always abut the sidewalk, channeling pedestrians into one area to encourage neighborly proximity. As a sub-rule to this requirement, Sucher suggests that the entry level of a storefront should be as level as possible with the street, not only to abide by ADA laws, but to make it easy to see into and enter the building.

Make the building front permeable

“Life attracts life,” says Sucher. Therefore, pedestrians should be able to see and participate in the activities and amenities offered in their community; place windows and doors along the sidewalk instead of blank walls, don’t block parks with high walls, and ensure that the main entrance to a business is immediately off of the sidewalk. A sub-rule to this mandate is to prohibit anything that would block visibility from the street, such as mirrored glass or heavy blinds on storefront windows, which discourage pedestrian engagement with the businesses in their community.

Prohibit parking lots in front of the building

In true urban neighborhoods, there are no parking lots in front of the buildings; they are either below, above, behind, or beside it. Sucher doesn’t deny the necessity of parking lots in cities, but they should never be the focus. “Parking lots are crucial,” Sucher says, “But unless you are in high school, or are at a tailgate party before a football game, or at a classic car concours d’elegance, parking lots are not the place you want to hang around. It is ironic, of course: we invest such great money and emotion in our cars and yet we don’t want to hang around them in parking lots.” If buildings must be built to the sidewalk to encourage pedestrian life, there can’t be a parking lot separating the business from its patrons. “Save the front for people,” Sucher says.

The following GIF illustrates how something as simple as the placement of a parking can dictate whether an area is suburban or urban:

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Though Sucher’s rules are simple, they are often ignored in today’s planning processes in favor of big box stores, tight budgets, or strict parking requirements. Better Block attempts to take neighbors negatively impacted by these malpractices and re-creating vibrant, walkable neighborhoods by bringing storefronts to the sidewalk, making them inviting to the pedestrian, and encouraging streets and neighborhoods that don’t ignore the importance of the car, but are primarily designed for people. Any planning department can follow the three rules as a basic pattern for creating a successful city. “After the three rules,” says Sucher, “everything else is epilogue.

You can read more about Sucher’s three rules in “City Comforts,” or his summary online here.