Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Monday, October 12, 2009

The Importance of Place Making - Right Now

The Front Street Streetscape 100% design phase is complete, and I got my first review last week. They are okay, I was frankly hoping for something really cool, or unique. Besides, this is our last chance to make a really cool impression on the next couple of generations.

When I was in Milwaukee attending the IDA Conference, I sat in one session presented by the folks from Vancouver on their Granville Street project. They went the extra mile, and put recycled glass in the concrete as an aggregate. The end result was a sidewalk that sparkles when it rains. We have some interesting aggregate that is indigenous to our area. As a child, I remember scraping the shark teeth from the sidewalk and pavement in our neighborhood. The local cement plant that used to provide the aggregate is no longer in business, but it sure would be cool to have something like that in our new sidewalks. Perhaps we can find a way to add shark teeth into the cement as it is poured. This will give us a unique look that won’t look like “Anywhere, USA” and will have a truly unique aspect. This would be something a little special that the tour operators can point it out when giving tours.

One thing that has gotten some people fired up lately is the use or re-use of granite curbing. In the past, the city would keep all of the granite that was pulled up. In fact, there is a field somewhere off of River Road where this “stockpile” is. You see, almost every session I’ve been in, someone says, “Are we going to use granite curbs?” The typical refrain from the city staff has been, “it’s not in the budget, we can’t afford it.” Well in my opinion, if we can’t afford it, go find the money. If we can’t go get the money, cut the project down in size. This is a historic street, one of the oldest in the state, and granite curbing is a vital part of our urban fabric. Granite curbing exists throughout most of our city. Wilmington is home to the state’s largest historic district, and we need to act like one.

Granite curbs will take no longer to install than poured in place concrete. This project has been designed by engineers, who have tried to “value engineer” this project. Front Street is too important to “value engineer” so let’s pull out all the stops and make this project special.

Similarly, we’ve gotten feedback on the idea of installing recycling bins. You see, I feel it sends an important message to visitors when they see a recycling bin. It also gives the locals an option. Many of us recycle at home, and to be on the sidewalk and not be able to recycle is bothersome to most. You see, humans are a creature of habit. I know the experts will say, recycling bins in public space does nothing to reduce the amount of trash. Well it’s not always about the trash, but the public relations.

This project is going to hurt; there is no doubt about it. A few small businesses are almost always casualties in projects like this. But this reminds me of another session I sat in on. Jon Schallert gave a presentation on “Destination Retail.” You see, Jon found businesses across the United States that do huge numbers. Not big box or chain stores, but small Mom & Pops who do huge business. How? By getting that one niche, or providing that extra level of service. Jon went around and met all of these folks and asked them the question, “How do you do this?” Frankly I’m shocked he got answers, but like the old saying goes, “It ain’t braggin’ if it’s true.” Jon has developed a 14 point pyramid system to help you grow your business. You can learn more about the program at www.destinationuniversity.com and login with the promo code FREE9. He’s quite inspirational, but his point was … “if you’re good enough, people will climb over a bulldozer to get to you.”

I had a brief meeting this morning with a high level business executive in our community. She said “my problem with your downtown merchants is that they run their businesses like a hobby, they don’t work it.” And she’s right with regards to several owners. Our conversation carried on to complain that there is nowhere to get breakfast before 8:00 am in downtown. That is a real shame in my opinion. Do some of these people feed their kids, drop them off at school and then come to work? I know I do, but I don’t sell breakfast for a living.

Anyway, sorry to get off on a tangent, but I know the project will hurt. But the project is too important to rush, or take the path of least resistance. We must do this right. It must have charm, and uniqueness, and character. Otherwise, we will continue to dwell on other problems.

You may know the work of Richard Florida and Rebecca Ryan. Florida’s Earth shaking book, The Rise of the Creative Class has been a best seller and reference guide for elected officials worldwide for a number of years. Our on Chamber of Commerce is delving into the Cape Fear Futures program, based on the work of Florida’s Consulting Firm Catalytix, Inc. I saw Rebecca Ryan with NextGen Consulting speak at the International Downtown Association. I consequently read her book, Live First, Work Second on the plane ride home. What both authors tell us, to paraphrase; you must make your place so special, that all the really cool and super smart people want to be there. When that happens, companies will choose to call your city home. Why, because that is where the talent pool has chosen to call home. You see, the next generation of worker will find his/her new home based on a number of factors and guess what, the job is not as important as the cool place they choose to live in. [That’s a really bad paraphrase, but succinct enough I hope to make the point.] We have an important first step with the Front Street Project. If we choose to make this really special, we can position ourselves to improving our competitive edge and attract the future work force, and consequently, our economy. Always keep your eyes on the big picture and make our Place special. It is Place Making 101!!!