Sunday, February 19, 2012

Walking Tour: H Street NE


If you ask any young professional in D.C. which neighborhoods are the most exciting, the H Street NE corridor would be at the top of most lists.

One would think that officials who oversaw the transition of a neighborhood that barely survived the 1968 riots to one that teams with nightlife would be thrilled. However, after joining the Coalition for Smarter Growth on a walking tour of the area led by Ward 6 Councilman Tommy Wells, I learned that there is some trepidation about H Street’s title as D.C.’s newest hotspot.

In 2003, D.C. officials chose H Street as the site of its first streetcar line. And in 2005 the corridor became part of the Great Streets Initiative to turn create an inviting and vibrant neighborhood.

To create their vision of an attractive area with a mix of housing, retail, and dining options, the city tried innovative techniques to spur economic growth along the corridor including tax increment financing, grant programs and other financial tools.

H Street NE was one of six commercial corridors to receive funding from the D.C. government to attract local business and improve the retail options in the area in 2007. Tax increment financing is a tool that municipalities use to finance new developments or rehabilitation projects in strategic areas, with the idea that the money would be repaid through future gains from increased tax revenues as property values rise due as a result of the initial investment.

Residents debate the effectiveness of TIF on H Street as some on the tour stated that it has been used to attract major tenants like Giant or established more bars and restaurants that leave the neighborhood lively at night but deserted during the day. In other cities like Chicago, TIF districts are a great example of how public-private partnerships can revitalize areas.

D.C. officials have also established a grant program to support small businesses, as well as a tax on vacant properties to decrease vacancy rates and attract other businesses.

To combat the nightlife “problem,” the ANC has created a moratorium on new liquor licenses and is using its status as an overlay-zoning district to ensure that both residents have access to entertainment and needed commercial businesses like barbershops, grocery stores, and bookstores.

I look forward to the day I can ride the streetcar from Union Station to the H Street Country Club for a pint or wander aimlessly on a Saturday morning. And today’s walking tour proved that the future is not too far.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

California dissolves its redevelopment agencies. The right choice?

I was among over 1,400 planners, developers and elected officials who gathered in San Diego for the 11th annual New Partners for Smart Growth Conference this week. 

The conference coincided with the enactment of a California law to dissolve all local and county redevelopment agencies. Redevelopment Agencies have spent years revitalizing California’s downtowns and communities by funding projects that include pedestrian and bike facilities, transportation infrastructure and, most importantly, affordable housing developments. As a result of the law, plans for transforming some of the state’s most blighted areas are effectively on hold.

During the conference I had an opportunity to tour the North Park district in San Diego. North Park is a perfect example of a formally “less desirable” neighborhood that now attracts artists and young professionals who invest both economic and “cool” capital to make the community a popular place to live.

Like most inner ring suburbs, North Park began as farmland until developers cleared the land and constructed homes to support San Diego's burgeoning population in the early 1900's. The neighborhood quickly became the city's premier residential area due to its location on the streetcar line and thriving retail centers in the 1920's. However, soon after the streetcar stopped rolling through the community and the popularity of suburban retail locations in the 1960's and 70's began to increase, North Park began to experience a period of disinvestment from both the public and private sector leading low property values and negative perceptions of the community from San Diego residents.

In the 1990's the neighborhood witnessed a revival of its commercial corridor and a new appreciation for its historic and diverse housing stock. Today, North Park continues to gain attention, and there are talks building a new streetcar line to re-establish the neighborhood as a mixed-use and pedestrian friendly community.

I wonder if North Park and other revitalized neighborhoods in California would have been successful without the aid of the state’s redevelopment agencies. The value and efficacy of these agencies have long been debated, but it's clear that California must continue to make strategic investments in its most needy communities.