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My Wednesday afternoon session at the Reclaiming Vacant Properties conference today focused on selling homes in weak real estate market. Middle-market and distressed neighborhoods in particular face substantial difficulties in such an environment.

The general consensus among the panelists, aside from traditional "marketing plan" strategies, was to sell the neighborhood and the vision, not the individual house. That is, convince people about the benefits of living and investing in the specific neighborhood/project as a tool for selling the actual home.

Here are some take-away quotes:

  • There are two ways to sell a neighborhood to the "creative class": make it cool or pay them (subsidy). These two strategies don't always work together - that is, "cool" people may not respond to or qualify for specific available subsidies.
  • A strong neighborhood or "city" marketing campaign must have sustained deployment - the time horizon is years, not months.
  • Meet 1 on 1 with real estate professionals - they are the ones who you depend on to sell the neighborhood or development to prospective buyers.
  • 36 percent of buyers start the process by looking online. Have an effective online presence.
  • Understand your target market and make sure your product meets their needs. If the product doesn't meet the target buyer's needs, no amount of marketing will help.
  • Marketing strategies: Internet, paid advertisement, earned media, events, printed materials, partnerships, promotions.

Baltimore has created a multi-tiered marketing campaign with a collaboration between a non-profit citywide marketing organization, developers, real estate professionals, and community-based organizations. The sole goal of this extraordinarily successful organization is to grow the City's population by promoting Baltimore as a great place to live.

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Cleveland Rocks

13 Oct 2010

The Reclaiming Vacant Properties conference runs today through Friday in Cleveland, Ohio. As part of my scholarship responsibilities, I will be blogging about the conference - I hope to come away with some practical ideas for neighborhood revitalization in Des Moines.

My sessions don't start until this afternoon, so I am taking the morning to accomplish a little bit of work.

Pedestrian-Friendly Street in Cleveland HeightsPedestrian-Friendly Street in Cleveland HeightsI'm staying with some friends in the suburb of Cleveland Heights, adjacent to Case Western Reserve University. In some ways, this area is very much like my own Drake neighborhood in Des Moines. At the end of the street is a small commercial district with a variety of shops (including the Starbucks in which I sit).

Note the simple yet thoughtful pedestrian-friendly elements in this photo:

  • Street parking separates the sidewalk from the relatively busy street.
  • A regular row of trees helps define the dedicated pedestrian area.
  • Brick pavers create an area between the cars and the walking path for amenities like newspaper vending and business signage.
  • Buildings are built right up to the sidewalk creating a defined edge.
  • Each retail space has a large storefront window.

These are all simple and relatively inexpensive things to do - they don't require major infrastructure improvement, and relatively minimal ongoing maintenance.

And they work. Most of the people in the coffee shop right now appear to have walked here from the surrounding neighborhood. If we create nice places to be, close to the places we live, and comfortable paths to get there, people take advantage of the opportunity.

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Iowa Supreme Court Building: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Iowa_Supreme_Court.jpgIowa Supreme Court Building: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Iowa_Supreme_Court.jpgThe November general election ballot covers both sides of a legal-sized sheet. Elections range from Senator and Governor to the County Agricultural Extension Council. (Have you ever heard of the County Agricultural Extension Council? I haven't either.)

The most important election is on the back side of the ballot: Iowa Supreme Court judge retention. More important than Governor? Yes, and I'll tell you why:

  1. This election deals with fundamental legal rights. The court found that the Iowa Constitution did not permit discrimination by the State in the issuing of civil marriages. The push to recall the three justices up for retention is organized as part of a larger effort to circumscribe Iowan's civil rights. This should be of concern to everyone - not citizens who are gay or lesbian.
  2. This election will determine whether we are people want to be governed by religious doctrine or the civil rights granted by the Iowa Constitution. The arguments put forth by people opposed to the Varnum decision are fundamentally (so to speak) religious in nature rather than civil/logical. The court found no substantial logical basis in restricting civil marriage to heterosexual couples. They are correct. I discuss the actual arguments here.
  3. This election will affect the balance of power between the three branches of State government. Independent judicial review is critical to balance the law-making and administrative powers of the other two branches. Particularly when it comes to civil rights, the job of the Supreme Court is to protect citizens against incursions by the legislature and governor. This is a place where political conservatives, libertarians, and liberals should all align - except for the injection of religious doctrine.

The importance of this particular question is perhaps the only thing that Bob Vander Plaats and I will ever agree on.

It is critically important all people who are committed to equality and the rule of civil law be vocal about their opinions - before the election, in the voting booth, and as we sort through the post-election rubble. It is a mistake to view this issue through the narrow lens of gay marriage. The impact of enshrining specific civil rights discrimination in the State constitution should scare everyone.


In a related ballot question, it is also important to VOTE NO on CONSTITUTIONAL QUESTION 2 (Shall there be a convention to revise the Constitution, and propose amendment or amendments to same?) - This is a related effort to address the Varnum decision through a constitutional amendment.

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During the 2010 Legislative session, the Iowa Smart Planning Task Force (Task Force) was created. Since then, the Task Force has been researching, developing, and evaluating policy options to support and enhance integrated smart planning in Iowa. On September 15, the Task Force released draft recommendations that will be part of a report submitted to the Governor and the Iowa Legislature in November.

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Ballot boxWhat if you held an election and nobody showed up? Well, yesterday my vote counted more than it usually does. You see, there happened to be an election, and I was one of just 5,077 Des Moines Independent School District voters who voted on a property tax ballot question. This small group of voters decided whether to continue collecting a $.63 per $1000 property tax for school facilities improvement.

Let's say the average house in the Des Moines Independent Community School District is assessed at $100,000. I just spent $63 of your money! That's a fabulous dinner for two at Cafe di Scala, two oil changes, or 60 cups of coffee at Mars Cafe (with Foursquare check-in). Dear people who didn't show up to cast your vote: Thanks for letting me decide!

In all fairness, I can't place the blame solely on the voter. Publicity for this election was woefully, well, nonexistent. I must acknowledge my friend Kelli Griffis, who sent out a Twitter message alerting us that the election was underway. Had I not received that notification, I too would have missed my chance to cast a ballot.

Here was the question put before us:

Shall the Board of Directors of the Des Moines Independent Community
School District, in the Counties of Polk and Warren, State of Iowa, for the
purpose of repairing, remodeling, reconstructing, improving, or expanding
the schoolhouses or buildings and additions to existing schoolhouses;
expenditures for energy conservation; purchasing and improving grounds;
rental of facilities under Chapter 28E; purchasing buildings; procuring or
acquisition of libraries; or purchasing equipment authorized by law, be
authorized to continue, for a period of ten (10) years, to levy annually, as
determined by the Board, a voter-approved physical plant and equipment
property tax not to exceed Sixty-Three Cents (.63) per One Thousand Dollars
($1,000) of the assessed valuation of the taxable property within the School
District, commencing with the levy for collection in the fiscal year ending
June 30, 2012?

What the heck does all that mean? Well, it basically asks whether we should continue the way things are for the next 10 years, or get rid of the $.63 per $1000 property tax that is paying for school infrastructure improvements.

Whatever the question, turnout was embarrassingly low.

How might turnout be improved?

  1. Social Media - The Polk County Auditor should have a Twitter account for updates. I would appreciate them capturing email addresses for critical announcements as well. Both of these could serve double duty for communicating with residents during disasters. Polk County Health Department has a Twitter account that I have found very useful (@polkcohealth).
  2. Traditional Media - Whenever a decision meets the threshold for a public vote, it becomes important enough for the media to cover... it's their money, too! I didn't see any media coverage of the election (except, perhaps for some post election returns).
  3. Better Ballots - The graphic design of our ballots and the wording are both horrific! Not only are they visually confusing, but the text is difficult to decipher. I'm sure that any of our local creative talent could design a better ballot...
  4. Election Days - Holding an entire election in order to decide this particular question alone was costly and unnecessary. Election laws should be changed to encourage timing school board elections to align with other elections.

Here's hoping that more people care enough to vote in future elections.

If you didn't vote, why not? Feel free to respond in the comments.

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So I find myself in Clive waiting at Holmes Auto for my passenger-side axle to be replaced (yes, a twenty-minute oil change turned into a four hour repair). Of course, I should have expected it when I said "...and would you also check out the clunking noise coming from the passenger front tire?"

Not my favorite way to spend a beautiful Summer day - I'd much rather be working on my front porch! For lunch I declined the offer of a ride from the friendly repair manager and decided instead to venture out and take the one-mile stroll up NW 114th to University.

This post addresses the pedestrian experience on my walk.

View Larger Map

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Victorian Home in Danger of DemolitionVictorian Home in Danger of DemolitionIs there an abandoned home in your neighborhood that you would like to see saved? Perhaps a unique vacant storefront or even a cool gas station? Here is your chance to get some publicity for a building you think we all should know about: the Des Moines Rehabbers Club is seeking nominations for the 3rd Annual "Most Endangered Buildings" list!

An old railroad depot, a one-room schoolhouse, and a decaying Victorian home are all finalists from past years' lists.

There are two ways to nominate a building:

  1. Register (for free) at http://RenovateDSM.com and fill out the online nomination form - you must be logged in to view this form.
  2. Print a nomination form, fill it out, and mail it back.

Nominations are DUE by October 8, 2010. More information about the Most Endangered Buildings list can be found on the Des Moines Rehabbers Club website at http://renovatedsm.com/node/593.

Individuals and organizations are encouraged to nominate endangered buildings that they would like to see saved.

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Shell Sweet Shell

23 Aug 2010

Historic Ruan House in River BendHistoric Ruan House in River BendI stirred up a little discussion a couple days ago when I posted the following on the reNew Design Studio Facebook page about a historic tax credit project I am working on:

Historic Ruan House historic tax credit application draft is complete. Trying to get the River Bend neighborhood some money back for their FABULOUS renovation of a burned-out shell!

A couple of my friends thought I was being a bit too harsh in describing the pre-renovation building as a "burned-out shell". I admit to descending into a bit of hyperbole, perhaps inspired by my excitement, with this message. Indeed, the words "burned-out shell" may conjure up an image of charred wood studs poking out from beneath a pile of rubble - the pre-renovation Ruan House was not at that level of destruction.

Yet there can be legitimate debate about the terms "burned-out" and "shell". What is the point at which a fire-damaged house becomes burned-out? 25%? 50%? I don't know. My sense is that it relates more to a general feeling about whether or not the interior character of the house remains intact or has been damaged beyond recognition.

I apply the term "shell" to buildings that are substantially intact on the outside, yet can no longer server their intended purpose due to neglect or physical damage on the inside.

When is a Building Too Far Gone

Ruan House (before renovation)Ruan House (before renovation)The pejorative label "burned-out shell" begs the question, is a building ever too far gone to repair?

Prior to its complete rehabilitation by the River Bend Neighborhood Association, there is little doubt that this historic home had serious issues. There had been a fire in the attic. The roof damage and ensuing water infiltration damaged much of the interior plaster. The rear addition was structurally deficient, building systems and fixtures were missing or inoperable, the entry stoops were crumbling or missing.

Clearly this structure was uninhabitable at the time in terms of both local ordinance and basic human decency. Only those with a healthy understanding of and respect for architectural history would have noted any particular redeeming quality in the physical structure, though it was at one time the residence of a prominent local businessman.

In general I have a pretty low threshold for "save-ability" - that is, I know from experience that older buildings (masonry in particular) are relatively resilient when it comes to water infiltration, fire damage, and general neglect. The Ruan house is a prime example of how a building that many people would assume should be demolished can in fact be rehabilitated into a crowning jewel, a prominent entry market into a National Register historic district!

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Drake Neighborhood StreetscapeDrake Neighborhood StreetscapeI will be presenting a talk at the upcoming State of Iowa Historic Preservation Conference in Red Oak. My topic, also the subject of my talk at a Terrace Hill Tea, is "Why Old Buildings Matter".

I am not a strict preservationist. My basic approach to renovation design is to identify those elements I feel are "character defining" about a building and open everything else up to reinterpretation. My personal threshold is somewhat less than the State Historic Preservation Office. Of course, when I am working on a historic tax credit project, I conform to their requirements. The exterior is of particular importance in most historic buildings because the relationship between buildings is often a character defining element of a neighborhood. Consistency of character across a neighborhood or sub-neighborhood enhances the value of all the homes.

So why do old buildings matter? Here's a little preview:

  • Context - The shape and size of homes, and their pattern of arrangement into neighborhoods, both influence and are influenced by broader social, economic, and technical forces.
  • Narrative - To people who know what to look for, old buildings can weave just as complex a narrative as the greatest storyteller. These narratives give us a connection to the past.
  • Craft - Most of the materials and methods we use to construct our buildings today are designed to be replaced rather than repaired when damaged (and they tend to damage more easily).
  • Sustainability - At the individual level, extending the useful life of a structure through renovation allows us to improve energy efficiency while minimizing use of new-source construction materials. On a larger scale, renovation and preservation allow us to better utilize existing infrastructure and provide services more effectively to more people.

Come to Red Oak to see the whole presentation - hope to see you there!

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The phenomenally bloated 2010 Iowa Democratic Party State Platform has an entire section devoted to planning and zoning:

We support:
201. “Leadership in Energy and Efficient Design” requirements for publicly financed building construction.

While energy efficiency is a laudable and necessary goal, requiring all publicly financed buildings to conform to LEED standards is in my opinion an ill-advised and expensive approach. A better approach in my opinion would be to determine a set of targeted performance-based criteria and encourage creative solutions.

"LEED" is sometimes used interchangeably with "energy efficient" and "green", but it refers to a specific set of standards and procedures implemented by the US Green Building Council. It is an expensive process simply to go through the certification, let alone meet the criteria. There are other established standards that should be explored as well before committing to LEED as a goal.

Even better would be to encourage reuse and renovation of existing structures!

202. Reducing urban sprawl with two-rate property tax on commercial properties.

I'm not sure what this means, but it is not the right way to reduce suburban sprawl. The form of our cities is largely determined by transportation investment. The way to promote centering of development is to invest in transportation infrastructure that encourages density.

Comprehensive transportation and land use planning should occur within a framework of incentives that shift public subsidy from suburban expansion to urban revitalization. Such a revision in priorities would also preserve valuable farm land.

203. Counties issuing zoning permits.

I'm not sure what this one means either, or what problem it is trying to solve. Zoning is primarily a City function. I do believe that comprehensive planning should happen at multiple levels, including state-wide. A discussion on exclusionary single-use zoning is a topic for another post.

204. Enforcing laws protecting ambient air quality.

Yes. We should enforce existing air quality laws.

205. Sustainable, low-impact development.

A laudable goal. The implication here is perhaps that the consequences of "development" can be mitigated by green building. The greenest, most sustainable building is the one that doesn't get built. I believe that it is nearly impossible to have "sustainable" development at the fringes - there are simply too many developable and redevelopable sites within the existing developed areas.

206. “Complete Streets” legislation that promotes safe community transportation networks accessible to all users.

Yes, yes, and YES!

On a side note, one of the few places the Republican and Democrat platforms agree is in opposing Eminent Domain.

Another side note: the Iowa Democratic Party platform is just plain poorly conceived, poorly written, and poorly formatted online. Not only does it weigh in at a hefty 382 platform statements, but almost all of them are way too specific to serve as guiding principles - particularly because most of them have no explanation. My advice for the next round: cut it by half and hire a graphic designer to design the publication.

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