Urban Planners are like Orchestra Conductors, and I’ll tell you why.

Early in my career as an Urban Planner, I attended networking events excited to shake hands and proclaim “I’m an urban planner!” After a consistent series of confused looks, I quickly realized that Urban Planning was not as common a profession as I had thought. Now ten years into the profession, with a strong professional network built, I’m still puzzled that people ask, “what is it that you do exactly?”.  After fumbling through conversations trying to explain what an Urban Planner does…

“You know, that new project downtown…well, no I didn’t design it…no, the city didn’t build it exactly…never mind…yes, I work for the city, that’s what I do. I’m a city employee…”

 …I’ve come up with a more concise description. I’ve also come up with a pretty cool analogy. So the next time you’re trying to explain to your family, friends, and non-design colleagues at the cocktail mixer what the heck you do everyday, the conversation should go a lot more smoother.

So what is it that you do exactly?

Simply put, an Urban Planner coordinates development in a city. The analogy – well, we’re like Orchestra Conductors. Like Conductors, Urban Planners must understand each section’s unique role (government agencies, developers, politicians, community members), anticipate the next note to be played (demographic and development trends), and guide the orchestra through a harmonious performance (development review and regulations).  We are the guy, or gal, standing at the unique vantage point overseeing the orchestra, and waving the baton in odd motions. From the audience’s point of view, it seems like random uncoordinated movements (“why the heck did they approve that?!”). But to the orchestra and audience members who are really paying attention, it’s a well-coordinated series of movements and decisions. Guidance, that if followed, will lead to harmonious development, I mean, sound – that everyone will enjoy.

 Don’t be concerned. It all makes sense.

con·duc·tor  [kuhn-duhk-ter]  

noun

1. A person who conducts; a leader, guide, director, or manager.

2. A person who directs an orchestra or chorus, communicating to the performers by

motions of a baton, his or her interpretation of the music.

3. URBAN PLANNER

Examples I would use…
Like an orchestra, city development is a series of notes, played by different sections in harmony.  If one section is flat, the whole composition or development suffers.  

Photo: Southeast Nashville Community Center, Library, and Predators Ice Hockey Team Practice facility under construction.

Nashville Planners worked with public agencies to make sure that a quarter mile off-site sidewalk  was included in the plans for the new facility.  Without it, pedestrians would have a difficult time walking to the new complex from surrounding neighborhoods. Without the sidewalk, the development would have fallen flat. With it, the development is harmonious, providing safe pedestrian access to the new development.

The Conductor studies the composition well ahead of time and understands each section’s part of the composition. Planners, like Conductors, must understand all components of development review. From the street and transportation components, to storm water, and other public utilities. To guide development, planners must understand how these elements work together.  

Photo: 23rd and Elliston

The project, 23rd and Elliston in Mid-town Nashville, required coordination of street components including a bike lane, wide sidewalk, and building setback. The result is a street that is safe and fun to walk along.

The Conductor uses the baton to guide how fast or slow, loud or soft, the orchestra plays. Planners use demographic and development trends to determine how rapid cities may change.  For example, change can be the result of the number of people moving into or out of a city. Change can also occur based on the type and amount of new housing units needed, the frequency of transportation routes, or the number and location of schools. Planners use trends to predict changes and to recommend ways that a city should adapt.

Photo: The Gulch

Places like The Gulch in Downtown Nashville, respond to market trends with a mixture of retail uses and various housing types. Millennials and Baby Boomers are buying in walkable places and that have a diverse range of housing.

Oh I get it!!

I hope this helps you explain to others what an Urban Planner does. I also hope it explains the important role that Urban Planners play in the development of cities. If they’re still not convinced – hit ‘em with this:

Imagine showing up to the symphony, only to hear an unorganized musical performance. With no leader in sight, every section is doing their own thing. Playing notes that sound right only to their section.

Now picture a street with no sidewalks or sidewalks that are too narrow. Or an abandoned commercial strip that needs new businesses, or obsolete housing. Well, that’s the result of uncoordinated and uninspired development. Without a conductor-leader, development in a city falls flat.

Now you’ve won them over.

So I encourage every Urban Planner to channel their inner Conductor…

…because without us, it’s all just notes on a piece of paper.

 

Do Black Folks Drink Coffee?

Coffee or Cocktail? For African-American Neighborhoods, is the coffee shop the desired ‘third place’?

On a lazy Saturday afternoon I found myself channel surfing, landing on the popular T.V. show Friends. Taking a much-needed break from reality T.V., I was again entertained by the sitcom; an actual script with real characters and timed jokes. As I watched I thought about the set of Friends – set in New York City, the characters’  local coffee shop was just as much a character as the people themselves.  The coffee shop Central Perk was the characters’ Third Place. The Third Place in the planning world is that place where people gather in addition to their first and second places – home and work. This often translates to your favorite coffee shop, book store, or lounge.

As I watched the cast of Friends split their time between their New York apartments and the fictional coffee shop Central Perk, I thought about other ensemble cast shows of the era  and remembered that they all had their own third place that played its own ‘part’ in the show. However those places where distinctly different between all white or all black casts…hmmm….

FRIENDS

Who can forget the coffee shop (and Jennifer Aniston haircut) that started it all!

SEINFELD

The cast of Seinfeld often gathered in the fictional Tom’s Diner,  squeezing into the same booth show after show.

SEX IN THE CITY

Who can forget the diner where relationship war stories were shared. Enough said.

FRASIER

Café Nervosa was the backdrop for the quirky psychologist, his brother, and friends.

For shows with African-American casts, the third place was a bit different. It wasn’t the traditional coffee shop or diner, it was often the after hours spot. (And just a note, photos of these places were more difficult to find, hints that they were less of a ‘character’ on the show.)

 MARTIN

 Martin, his crew, and his alter egos, often spent time at the fictional Nipsy’s Bar after work.

GIRLFRIENDS

Throughout the seasons, Joan and her Girlfriends often relaxed over wine and good laughs at cool night spots.

NEW YORK UNDERCOVER

And who can forget the dope musical performances at the end the New York Undercover episodes. Well the name of the fictional bar was Natalie’s and it was owned by a character played by Gladys Knight. This portion of the show was so popular that a soundtrack was released during the show’s earlier seasons.

So, Coffee or Cocktails?

I had the opportunity to sit in on a focus group in a historically African-American part of Nashville, TN to discuss development opportunities. When pressed for what type of amenities they would like to see in the area, all agreed that a sit down restaurant to relax in the evening with family and friends was the way to go. So that got me thinking…what is the third place in African-American neighborhoods? Is it always the revitalization darling the coffee shop, or something else? If we can answer that question, perhaps we can find a revitalization solution that works for African-American, or other minority, consumer markets.

Culturally Relevant Places

This brings me to the question of, what types of amenities could enhance a sense of place in minority neighborhoods? Google “Culturally Relevant Place Making” and you won’t find much. It’s not a buzz-phrase in planning circles as of yet, but it ought to be. Cultural Place Making is identifying what creates a sense of belonging for a particular demographic. Identifying what is culturally relevant in terms of the urban environment, could ignite a stronger connection to one’s community. Organizations like the Latino Urban Forum are bringing attention to this concept by engaging minorities in the planning process to help them identify what ignites that sense of belonging.

SpeakNow!

If you had a preference of the ‘Third Place’ what would you choose – coffee or cocktails?

AND

What ignites your sense of belonging in your community? 

Forks + Knives + Spoons = Neighborhood Revitalization

On a random Thursday night, my husband and I decided to try a new spot that a family member recommended. In the neighborhood called Cleveland Park on the east side of Nashville, the restaurant called The Pharmacy, has been serving up great hamburgers for the past several years.  As we walked through the door past a waiting crowd, my husband commented that in the late nineties we wouldn’t be just casually walking around in this part of East Nashville. Since that time however, this corner of Cleveland Street and McFerrin Avenue and the neighborhoods around it have undergone significant change. I have to believe that the two restaurants, The Pharmacy and its sister restaurant The Holland House, had a little bit to do with that.

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In neighborhoods across the country, small coffee houses and local restaurants boasting ‘local food’, are creating momentum in up-and-coming neighborhoods. As I’m writing this article I sit in Portland Brew in East Nashville, the cornerstone of a growing neighborhood center that includes a local Mexican restaurant, a vegetarian spot called the Wild Cow, and growing residential development; and it’s not just an urban thing – its also happening in suburbia.

In the community of Antioch, a suburb 15 minutes southeast of downtown Nashville, sits a local restaurant called 360 Burger. Opened during a time when the regional mall and other big box retailers were going out of business, the restaurant was a sign of hope for a community hard hit by the recession. Across the way in the defunct regional mall, new mall owners began advertising new food court selections from local international food vendors before new retailers, hoping that food would be the natural attractor for new customers.

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So the question is, in revitalization strategies should local food be the common thread?

I think so.

Even in the worst parts of a city where disinvestment is wide spread, it’s often the local restaurants that stick around. They stay in business by serving the people that had to remain, and the people who travel back to a dissolving area for some ‘food nostalgia’ – especially if the food is exceptionally good.  So how do we include food in the revitalization strategy – here’s what I think:

Urban planners and city officials should work with local restaurateurs to identify areas where potential restaurants could open and target those areas for revitalization strategies answering questions like – Where is there potential for foot traffic? Can vacant retail spaces be outfitted for new restaurant space? Once those areas are identified, traditional housing strategies (infill and affordable housing) should be focused in those areas.  Urban planners and city officials should work with food entrepreneurs to develop appropriate incentives and fast track approval processes that would assist restaurateurs with a speedy opening.

Similar to the food truck movement, where food entrepreneurs can test new and fun concepts without the risk of a brick and mortar location, a “mobile test kitchen” program should be created to test food concepts in different neighborhoods. This way, restaurateurs can test the market before making large financial risks. Similar to this idea, local chefs are testing out concepts at local farmers’ markets and through local non-profits. One such program and test kitchen is operating at Casa Azafran, a community center for Nashville’s growing international community. Similar programs but with business planning and loan assistance may be beneficial in helping a business owner go from testing phase to reality a lot quicker.

Food Truck

Finally revitalizing communities should market existing restaurants online and through social media in order to attract others. If business owners see that there is support of the existing food scene in an area, the perceived risks of opening may be eliminated.

Food always brings people together and I firmly believe that food can also bring communities together.  I encourage urban planners, city officials, and community organizers to really tap the food entrepreneurs in your community to see how we can harness the energy of the local food movement and neighborhood revitalization to effect real change. Food, unlike retail which can and has moved to an online marketplace, will always require a physical location that people can travel to, to see, smell, and consume their food. And its not always about eating, it’s about social interaction, and a sense of community. We would be foolish not to understand the power of this and pay more attention to food’s role in our communities.

Don’t believe me? Well, just chew on that the next time you follow a food review to a 5 star restaurant in a derelict part of town, and wonder ‘why’d they locate here?”. They saw potential and well, the neighborhood will benefit in the long run.

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Local restaurants have been a part of the revitalization scene in Nashville for years. These restaurants opened in neighborhoods at a time when the market was lukewarm because they saw potential. Here’s a few to name:

Germanton Café – Germantown

Marche Artisan Foods – East Nashville

Mafioso’s – 12th Avenue South

Taco Mamacita – Edgehill Village

Watermark and Rusans – The Gulch

The Garden Brunch Café – Jefferson Street

360 Burger – Antioch

SpeakNow!

Food for thought: What’s the food scene like in your city?

 

The REAL Story – Interview with Nashville Realtor, Designer and Investor with Damani Maynie

 

Check out cable TV any night of the week, and you’ll find a home-flipping or renovation reality show. That world seems very alluring – buy a home, put in the work, and reap big profits. Or find a client, throw a fabulous open house, negotiate, and reap the benefits. I’m sold! Sign me up!!

But not so fast little urban planner; investing in residential property whether as a primary residence or investment property – takes know-how and capital. This is where a realtor comes in. A realtor can help any first time buyer or investor navigate the world of real estate and financing. A realtor with investment experience can also help a buyer/investor make a sound financial decision. As cities and communities see resurgence, the real estate market will also grow, creating opportunities for building wealth. So if you’ve ever thought about diving into the world of real estate or investing, this post is for you!

In June, I sat down with realtor and investor Damani Maynie, in an up and coming area of Nashville called Edgehill, to talk about his own adventures in investing.  Like many of my CitySpeak interviews, the conversation took a very inspirational turn, as his personal investment experiences revealed some powerful testimonies.

Damani, the city is always speaking. What is it saying to you? 

Well, Nashville is becoming a hot place, for professionals and for those in music. And Downtown is really taking off.  But even with that progress, we still have a long way to go in terms of becoming a major city. But I think the efforts of this mayor and the past mayor has aided that. So what the city is telling me is that there are many opportunities for new businesses, and for family and individual economic growth. I think there is a market for retail growth within neighborhoods, especially for places on the outskirts of the city.  I think Nashville and the inner core has got the idea of walkable neighborhoods, parks, and amenities, but I would like to see more of that in places like Antioch, Hermitage, Mt. Juliet.

So tell me your story, how did you get into the world of real estate and investing? 

Well, my stepfather was a contractor. I hung out with him during the summers and did construction work.  I did manual labor on older homes but he also gave me the opportunity to design. I also saw an opportunity to make decent money at this; I always had an entrepreneurial spirit, and realized – okay this is something I can do! That’s when I decided to attend TSU (Tennessee State University) to pursue design work. In the meantime I was fortunate enough to secure my first investment and grow from there. So I’ve always loved real estate, investment, and especially design. And in those years I’ve done design, engineering, project management, I’ve invested, and I’ve been a landlord…I’ve done just about everything within the world of real estate! I really enjoy real estate though and my experience allows me to wear many different hats for my clients.

Do you feel any sort of responsibility being an African American realtor? And being African – American what perspective do you bring to your work? 

I guess being African American I feel like it’s my duty to share my knowledge with other African Americans that may or may not know about this world. But as far as the profession, I don’t look at myself as just an African American agent because it’s really about offering the best service. Good service is key, and if you have good service you’ll do well.  And by good service I mean, being knowledgeable, responsive, and having the ability to guide clients to properties that meet their needs, but that are also sound financial investments.  I also have very diverse experiences that I think helps my clients.

Explain that, diverse experiences…

For instance, my investment experience allows me to offer my clients options that can offer equity and room to grow. For example, advising clients to buy a less expensive home and putting in the equity through improvements, instead of buying the home that’s renovated to a ‘tee’ and then paying an arm and a leg for it. And I think this is important in the African American community. Property is a true vehicle to building wealth, for college, retirement.

Edgehill Renovation Before – A true fixer upper…

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Edgehill Renovation After

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Right! For example when I interviewed Will and Sonceria ( “I Live In – An Up and Coming Neighborhood!) I realized that their decision to renovate a home in an up and coming area was a great investment decision… 

Absolutely. In many cases these areas were or are still historically black but many blacks living there are renting, while the property owner lives in the suburbs or out of state. So in many cases we are left out of the loop with regard to profit and sales.

So is this a major concern for you with regard to the housing market?

Yes and broadly, gentrification is a concern. And it’s hard for me because I’m also an investor – one of my primary goals is to make a profit. But I can’t invest in places like Brentwood, so I have to invest in places where I can afford to invest; many of those areas are African American. But at the same time I think it’s good to educate the people who live in those areas, because I feel like a lot of people who live in those areas are getting ripped off. I know a lady who sold her house because a parent passed away, and she would call me whenever someone would call her making multiple offers on her home.  People need to get educated and know their rights. There isn’t any illegal about doing what I’ve described, but the shady part is what they offer people for their homes.

That’s the tough thing about gentrification,  there has to be a willing buyer and a willing seller. So people just need to be educated about the market and the options they may have. I also feel like blacks can help minimize gentrification, by bringing their money and investment to black neighborhoods to maintain the culture and character… 

I agree if young blacks did that they could change the inner city. They need to bring their resources to where the resources are – city services, amenities – because that’s what others are attracted to, the city services.  Many like that fact that they can walk to the park, to the grocery store, and never have to get in the car!  And many people like the suburbs because its family oriented, and there are large lots. However the city is changing, there are family parks, and other family oriented amenities. But the way the city is growing, the Antioch-s and Bellevue-s will continue to grow and those places will become more urban. But all in all, education is extremely important. I try to do that in the communities I work within. I share with owners what their homes are worth, and what other properties have sold for.  Just so people are not tricked by investors. I want people to come to the negotiation table educated.

The Urban Pioneer – Damani’s personal home Before…

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Damani’s personal home – After

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So tell me about your first experience at the negotiation table; your first investment. 

My first investment helped me go back to school and focus on that. It paid for school, life, everything – it gave me financial freedom. Now that same investment pays for my personal mortgage, family expenses, and it’s allowed me to dive into my real estate career. But it was a great risk – a divine risk.

So what was that risk like? Were you nervous? 

Yea, I was nervous! I had my eye on a small house, but the deed was caught up in the courts. I knew I could flip the house so I could use that money to live on campus. At my age mind you! (Damani was a non-traditional student).  So I wanted a small house but I ended up buying a 4 unit apartment building.  I walked around it and I walked around it, and the units were boarded up, but I went for it. I sent the owner a letter and he called me and said he’d just prayed about selling the building. And so when we went to closing, I didn’t have enough money at closing. The seller at closing wrote me a check for the difference of $1,500. He said, ‘you know what, I like you, I’m going to sell it to you for what I owe and not make a profit’. He was a black man.

This is similar to Will and Sonceria’s story. They bought the house from a black man in Salemtown who believed in them…

Absolutely, it was divine intervention for sure. I lived in one of the units. And that was the blessing. I was going to live in a small dormitory room, but God gave me a whole building! And this building is the cup that keeps on giving!

The Building That Keeps on Giving! – Damani’s first investment property

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And I knew that I was being led to invest in this property.  I was like ‘I have to do it’. But, there was a point when I almost went into foreclosure. I couldn’t rent it. Another investor in the neighborhood, told me ‘man just hold on, it will always rent – don’t worry.’ When he told me that, I had one more month before I was to go into foreclosure. But it finally rented and I never looked back. I knew God didn’t bring me that far to leave me out there like that. It really tests your faith. I was in school, no job and behind on my car payments. But He didn’t leave me. So when I got the opportunity I started buying more.

So what is your goal for your real estate career?

Wow, that’s a big question!  At the end of the day, aside from growing my business, I just really want to help people. I have seen how real estate can impact my life, how it helped me, so I just want to help others be successful.

Sold!

Damani is now a full time realtor with Village Real Estate.  To contact Damani Maynie visit www.ddm-thepropertyconsultant.com. 

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Damani’s Real Estate Tips

  1. Find a realtor that is responsive. Real estate decisions are often emotional and when you find a property you love, you want to act on it immediately. Your realtor needs to be easy to get in touch with.
  2. When selling your property, make sure you research the market. Don’t fully depend on your tax assessment for property assessments. It’s probably only about 80% of what the property is worth- it’s just for tax purposes. Get a realtor to give you a market analysis. It’s not an appraisal, but it will give you a good sense of what your home could sell for in the market.
  3. If you are underwater, but can pay the mortgage, keep paying your mortgage. Eventually the value of the home will come back. If you just have to get out, contact the bank because they have options. If you want to sell, a short sale (selling the home for less than what is owed) should be your last option because it could disrupt your credit.
  4. Keep an open mind. Sometimes your dream home could be a different housing style, location, or a fixer upper. In all cases lean on your realtor to help guide you through the process.

SpeakNow! – Are you a realtor or investor? What tips would you add to this list? 

I LIVE IN!…DOWNTOWN! (Exploring The Meaning of Home)

The “I Live In!” series provides a glimpse into the different ways that people live in our communities. By understanding how people live, perhaps we get a better understanding of ourselves, our neighborhoods, and cities.

For this installment I sought out a resident of one of my now favorite cities (thanks to my husband) – New York City! I caught up with a college class mate Charles Garbareth. I knew of Charles in college but we didn’t formally meet until years later at mutual friends’ wedding. Having been a good friend of my husband, the three of us had a ball at the wedding. Charles kept me laughing the entire time; It was like we clicked! His sense of humor and love of life was contagious; I’m so glad to have met him.

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When I heard that Charles was working and living in New York City, I thought he’d be great for this installment of I Live In! I called Charles to conduct our interview over the phone (although a trip to New York would’ve been fabulous!). I was expecting another laugh-out-loud experience for our interview, but what I found was a very chill, thoughtful, and gracious Charles; which I found to be very comforting. He was very happy to speak with me about his ‘humble abode’ and for this humble blogger, I was very appreciative. So on we went with our conversation and it was delightful. I learned more about this home life, and I even learned some surprises along the way….

So Charles I know that you’ve moved to New York from Las Vegas – where in New York do you live?

Well I live in Downtown Brooklyn, and actually, I am living in the Hotel Marriott right now, because I’m in the process of moving to Miami! I’ve only been in New York about six months.

What!? – What made you decide to move to Miami?

Well Miami will be my home base. So I’ll be commuting – about every 15 days I’ll be in New York for work, but living in Miami. I chose Miami because it was away from the hustle and bustle of New York City.

So at this point, as a writer, I thought – well there goes my New York City story! But just like life had taken Charles from Las Vegas to New York, to Miami, I was delighted on where the conversation eventually landed…

Interesting – so you’ve gone from Las Vegas to New York, to Miami. Since you’ve lived so many places this question is extremely relevant to you – what does home mean to you?

Hmm…good question! Home is internal. It’s inside of me. Home is that space that you have to build within yourself; I had to build it within myself, especially with traveling so much. My physical home in Miami however, for me, is paradise. It means rejuvenation, and restoration.

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View from Charles’ Miami Condo

Now, where are you originally from?

I grew up in Fulton Missouri.

So you went from a small city to several large cities – how was that experience?

You definitely have more cultural experiences in larger cities, that’s for sure. In a small town, you just have blacks and whites. But now I’ve experienced almost every culture imaginable! And the food choices – let’s not start on the food choices. I’ve discovered however that my favorite food is Caribbean food.

What is your Brooklyn neighborhood like?

My neighbors are mostly young single people. There aren’t many families in the city. Also commuting by transit is how I get around mostly. But the commutes are great. I usually take the train, but if I have a longer commute I’ll take a taxi or bus.

So in Miami and Brooklyn, you live in very urban “downtown” environments. So many people are flocking to downtown urban environments so we all know they’re great, but I want to know, what’s the biggest misperceptions about living “downtown”?

People don’t realize how far your everyday things are. Sure you’re able to access 24-hour amenities, but if you need daily things like groceries, a light bulb, whatever, it’s so far away. In New York, that is why the bodegas are so popular. They are on every corner, and you can shop in your neighborhood.

Bodega – from the Spanish term “La Bodega”, these are small grocery stores, commonly found in dense urban environments on the east coast.

There was also some safety concerns in the city for me. Growing up in the suburbs of Missouri, I didn’t have to worry about that. But in the city, people pretty much keep to themselves, so you’re not sure who’s “looking out for you” so to speak. In suburban areas, there seems to be more community, and more people looking out for you.

Another misperception is that people in the city are NOT concerned about development issues; but they are! Like for instance when they built the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, it included chain restaurants and stores. Some of the people in the neighborhood were concerned that the chains would affect the local stores in the neighborhood. People were afraid of the area being improved too much; preserving character was important to them.

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That’s interesting – based on the misperceptions you mentioned, do you think you’ll ever move back to the suburbs?

Yes I will, someday. You know I love the small town environment; that’s essentially what raised me and I value that upbringing. (CS: What values?) – well you know, things like a good church and church family, and good elderly people. The elders in my town really inspired my growth. They are wise and are always willing to share, and I can relate to that. Also I’ll be looking for that feeling of safety that is sometimes hard to find in the city.

After living in three very different urban environments, what advice would you have for someone moving into the city?

Know what you want to do and seek a location that will help you thrive in that. For me I wanted to be a public speaker, so I started my career in Las Vegas. And now after being in these larger markets, my career is thriving.

Also, find a place that makes you feel good, and where there are like minded people – you know if you’re a young professional, seek out places that attract young professionals.

If you do these things, you find a place that aligns with your professional goals and that is aligned with your path in life.

And don’t forget – always look for a good view!

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View from Charles’ Downtown Brooklyn Hotel Room

SPEAK NOW – Would you live in a DOWNTOWN environment? 

Tifinie Capehart is an Urban Planner and Community Engagement Professional who has worked to engage communities in Nashville TN. To learn about how CitySpeak and Tifinie Capehart can assist your staff in better engaging the communities you work in, contact info@cityspeaknow.com .

Antioch’s Bulls Eye: Target Raises Concerns about Suburban Retail Decline

November 2012 Target announced that it was closing the Antioch Tennessee store in southeast Nashville. After weathering several other retail closings and the closing of the Hickory Hollow Mall – a large regional mall in southeast Nashville – the announcement of Target leaving sent a shock wave through the community.  “Save Our Target” petitions, and news coverage of protest outside of the store commenced just days after the announcement.

Unfortunately Antioch TN – a fast growing suburban community in southeast Nashville –  is experiencing what many other communities across America have experienced – Suburban Retail Decline.

What is Suburban Retail Decline?

Suburban Retail Decline is as an urban planning issue that surfaced in recent decades. As retail and development continued to sprawl or “leap-frog” to newer opportunities and as urban mixed-use centers became the entertainment and shopping experience of choice, older suburban retail areas filled with vacant strip centers and dying malls that were left unnoticed. In addition to these common land use trends, social and economic trends also added fuel to this fire. The recession coupled with changing shopping preferences and the over saturation of suburban retail in some markets, made it difficult for older suburban retail areas to survive.

Abandoned Suburban Retail Strip Center – Photo Credit http://viewfrommadrid.blogspot.com/2012/01/backlash-against-sprawl.html

Cause: Suburban Sprawl and Retail Competition

Suburban sprawl and retail competition contributes to suburban retail decline. Retailers and developers overlook existing infill sites (sites with existing infrastructure in a developed area) to develop in greenfield sites (vacant sites where new infrastructure may be needed) in outlying areas. In the case of Antioch TN, retail development leap-frogged to greenfield sites in outlying counties, and impacted the Hickory Hollow retail area’s primary and secondary trade areas.

Hickory Hollow Mall retail area in Antioch TN, reached a primary trade area of 20 miles and a secondary trade area of 40 miles. Within this trade area lifestyle centers with traditional suburban retailers developed. To put 20 miles into context, this primary trade area reaches Murfreesboro TN – a growing city 20 miles south of Antioch TN. When The Avenue lifestyle center developed in the city of Murfreesboro with similar retailers, this impacted Hickory Hollow Mall’s trade area. Similarly, Providence Market Place, a lifestyle center in the growing city of Mt. Juliet TN roughly 15 miles from Antioch TN, also pulled shoppers from the Hickory Hollow Mall trade area.

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Hickory Hollow Mall Trade Area – Credit http://www.cblproperties.com

Cause: The Recession and Changing Shopping Habits

Within this decade, the country experienced a recession. During that time homes and jobs were lost, and as a result, many spending habits changed:

  • Shoppers began to spend money on necessities only. For this reason, grocery and discounts stores such as Wal-Mart, Krogers, and the Dollar Tree are doing well in weak or rebounding suburban retail markets.  Specialty retailers (in Antioch, Best Buy and Pier 1 for example) suffered because those items were not considered ‘necessity’. As a result, many large specialty retailers downsized their store format and/or closed under-performing locations.
  • When shoppers did spend money, it was within a new shopping experience; new mixed use neighborhoods, suburban lifestyle centers, and online shopping. Lifestyle centers – outdoor walkable malls – and emerging mixed use neighborhoods were more appealing than the older indoor mall format. In Antioch TN, when the regional mall began to decline, many Antioch residents sacrificed a 20 minute drive to these new areas, while others shopped online.

The Solutions

There are universal and nationally recognized solutions to the suburban retail decline. They include Re-use, Redevelopment, and Re-greening of existing infill sites.

  1. Re-use includes the re-use of vacant big-box suburban retail buildings. This has been successfully implemented in the Antioch community. Nashville State Community College purchased and re-used a former Dillards. The City of Nashville purchased a former JCPenny and is re-using the building as a park and community center. Several churches in the area have also reused big –box facilities, thus revitalizing dead strip centers. 100 Oaks is a local but also national example of the reuse of dying mall for mixed use center, with medical, retail, and entertainment uses.
  2. Redevelopment includes complete redevelopment of a suburban retail site. Local Nashville example includes the Harding Mall. Harding Mall was a small community mall, that was completely razed and redeveloped into a Wal-Mart.  There are some great national redevelopment examples that set a precedent for redevelopment: http://realestate.msn.com/slideshow.aspx?cp-documentid=27670258
  3. Re-greening includes revitalizing large parking lots with green space. The City of Nashville’s Park, Library and Community Center includes reclaiming three acres of the existing suburban parking lot for a park and walking track.

In all of these examples, public – private partnerships were and will remain crucial to the success of revitalization. In many cases, innovation is also a must have implementation component of these strategies; it takes vision and thinking outside of the box to re-purpose a building or retail site in a changing suburban market.

There are also proactive grass-root steps that suburban communities can take to assist in revitalization efforts:

  1. Maintain an online database of available properties. Work with realtors and local governments to catalog, prep (e.g. appropriate zoning, development incentives), and market properties and buildings for re-use or redevelopment.
  2. Conduct a grass-roots economic and demographic survey. Declining retail areas with vacant and underutilized properties often send the message of indifference and lack of spending power. A grass-roots survey may reveal real market needs, and true spending power.  Survey results may be helpful in attracting new retailers and businesses.  Utilize free tools like Survey Monkey, social media, neighborhood networks and canvasing to get the word out.
  3. Launch a grassroots re-branding campaign. Utilize social media to spread a unified message about the community. Develop a business friendly slogan that builds community spirit and pride.
  4. Support existing businesses. Start a “Shop Local” campaign. Show the businesses that have weathered the storm that you care. Use a free web site creation tool and build a website to list all the local businesses. Doing so will make it easy for residents to find, support and sustain those local businesses.
  5. Start a “Business Watch Program”. Similar to a Neighborhood Watch Program, partner with local police officials to monitor the business district. Use a Business Improvement District – a special assessment district – to pay for additional lighting, signage, and landscaping. Doing so will display a unified effort and will help deter crime.

There are all sorts of literature available on this subject that could assist in educating those involved in grass roots efforts.

Conclusion

The residents of Antioch TN must know that they are not alone. Google search “dying malls” or visit Deadmalls.com and one would find dozens of suburban communities that are facing similar issues.  But many have recovered and Antioch can recover as well.  The first steps are the implementation of the above ideas. The next step requires more long-term thinking about the future of this suburban retail area. Fortunately for Antioch TN, in 2013 the City of Nashville will begin updating its Comprehensive Plan – the guiding plan for the city and county. In this process, the Antioch community can think about its community’s role in the City/County and the Middle TN Region, over the next 20 – 25 years; this process will be key in setting guidance for moving forward.

Belmar Mixed Use Development (Town Center). Belmar, a mixed use development in Denver, is a national example of the use of public and private partnerships to redevelop an old mall site.

As of the writing of this blog, the future of the “Antioch Target” is uncertain; petitions are still being signed, and no official word from Target has been issued.  What is certain is that there is an engaged citizenry that cares about the future of this community. Hopefully, this blog will provide Antioch TN and other suburban communities, insight and ideas on how to proactively move forward.

What do you think? Join the conversation and Speak Now by leaving a comment below.

Tifinie Capehart is an Urban Planner and Community Engagement Strategist. Need ideas about how to engage your neighbors in a specific community issue? Start the conversation with CitySpeak at info@cityspeaknow.com