Too often, dilapidated buildings and contaminated land hold communities hostage. Because cities do not decay overnight, reviving them can take years, and often requires the resources of the entire community. However, three cities of different sizes — Pittsburgh, Miami Beach, Fla., and Garden City, N.Y. — have unearthed the value buried under their rubble, and have returned sections of their towns into viable parts of the community.
Pittsburgh is fortunate to have two professional sports franchises: the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Pittsburgh Steelers. The city was also fortunate when, in the 1990s, the city’s leaders saw the teams’ owners’ request for new facilities as a chance to revitalize an entire section of town.
Although many of Pittsburgh’s residents love their home teams, who played at Three Rivers Stadium, they rejected a 1998 sales tax increase to fund the two new stadiums, as well as a new convention center. As a result, Mayor Tom Murphy turned to the Pittsburgh Sports and Exhibition Authority (SEA) to help find a way to fund the new facilities.
Through a combination of bonds backed by sales and hotel taxes, federal transportation funds, federal parks funds, private foundation contributions and state grants, SEA raised $1 billion for a major downtown redevelopment. The project would include not only the new stadiums and convention center, but also would convert former parking lots into 18 acres of green space along the Allegheny River. “Parking is not the highest and best use for the riverfront,” Murphy says. The resulting complex of stadiums, convention center and park has sparked $1 billion in additional private development nearby and completely changed the face of downtown Pittsburgh into a modern, more pedestrian-friendly landscape.
Parking the problem
Stadium parking posed a major problem for Pittsburgh planners because the parking lots were on the waterfront, which prevented residents from enjoying the river as a recreational attraction. Once Murphy convinced the teams to build new parking lots and a garage off the riverfront, SEA hired a landscape architecture and urban design firm to design the North Shore Riverfront Park.
Phase I, including parks in front of both stadiums and a river walk that connects them, was completed in 2002 after the new stadiums opened in 2001. “These projects are poised to take advantage of the city’s amenities and make the area between the stadiums vibrant for business, restaurants and residential life,” says Tom Kennedy, SEA’s project executive. “When we built the stadiums, it made sense to improve the edge of the riverfront to make it more developable.”
The North Shore Riverfront Park features a greenway with hiking and biking trails that wind through a series of man-made coves, formal esplanades, native plants and a causeway at the Carnegie Science Center. “It was important that this be a place where people want to be whether it’s game day or not,” Murphy says. “We also wanted a park with dozens of access points, stunning views and interactive elements. As it turns out, we got exactly what we wanted.”
The developments on former surface parking lots between PNC Park and Heinz Field along North Shore Riverfront Park cost $250 million. The comprehensive improvements have spawned three new retail developments at a projected value of nearly $100 million. Planned developments also include 500 to 600 new housing units and an amphitheater. Additionally, Del Monte’s new headquarters, a 270,000-square-foot building, is scheduled for completion in January 2006; the 150,000-square-foot Equitable Resources Building is scheduled for completion in March 2005; the Marriott Springhill Suites should be finished in February 2005; and SEA plans for its new amphitheater to be ready for the 2006 summer season.
Murphy offers some advice to other city officials considering similar revitalization efforts: “Dream big and don’t sell out for ‘It’ll do.’ Force decisions, and keep moving. It’s like a family vacation where 10 people are trying to decide where to go to dinner. Consensus doesn’t always happen, so someone has to make a call.”
Sprucing up the beach
So what does it take to revitalize a city without a sports team to help turn up the heat? Miami Beach, Fla.’s urban regeneration efforts have been fueled by officials and residents who understand the importance of open spaces and historic preservation. Thanks to two state-mandated, fully funded redevelopment areas and a scrappy collection of city bond-funded capital improvement projects, major infrastructure, streetscape and public open space improvements are under way in all of the city’s 13 neighborhoods. Over the next six years, each of the neighborhoods will have between one and four projects designed, bid on or constructed.
Revitalization in Miami Beach started in 1981. A Preservation and Development Plan commissioned by the Miami Beach Historical Society led to $3 million in pedestrian and infrastructure improvements, including widening sidewalks, as well as improvements to Lummus Park between 1986 and 1988.
Later, a parks bond issue passed in 1994 as did an assessment on property owners for open space improvements to the Lincoln Road Mall between 1996 and 1998. The City Center Redevelopment Revitalization Area was established in 1993 to encourage economic development, and it uses tax increment financing to fully fund related, complementary improvements.
Funds for the scores of ongoing capital improvement projects in Miami Beach come from three sources: a $46 million general obligation bond that was issued in 1999 to make above-ground improvements, such as sidewalks and landscaping; an existing $40 million water-and-sewer bond; and a $55 million stormwater bond. “In meetings with city commissioners and neighborhood associations, in the six months prior to the [1999 bond] vote, we prioritized a list of projects that were to go forward,” says former Miami Beach Mayor Neisen Kasdin. “Through those meetings, we were able to build enough support throughout the city to get the bond issue passed.” According to city officials, the North, Mid, and South Beach areas each will receive one-third of the revenues, with neighborhoods receiving one-quarter to one-third of the geographical area allocations.
Given the high number of neighborhood groups, the historical significance of many buildings, and lack of room for new developments, planners and designers tackling Miami Beach have to be careful in their approach. Fortunately, significant improvements can be realized without razing the city’s historic architecture. Traffic-calming measures, Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant curb ramps, shade tree plantings, street lighting, walkways to beaches and other waterways, new signs and open spaces will make walking and biking realistic ways for people to explore Miami Beach. South Pointe Phase I, which included many of those elements, was completed in January 2003; Phase II is in the design and permitting stage, with construction scheduled for mid-2005 through mid-2006.
Work is especially sensitive in the Flamingo-Lummus neighborhood. With more than 20 miles of right-of-way located in the heart of South Beach and encompassing much of the National Register Architectural District, Flamingo-Lummus is characterized by three- and four-story buildings that fill entire blocks, studded throughout with world-renowned architecture.
However, pedestrians find it dangerous to cross the neighborhood’s 70- to 80-foot roads, and its six-foot-wide sidewalks are too narrow to accommodate them. To alleviate those problems, designers are reducing lanes to gain sidewalk space and shorten crosswalks. Planning for the Flamingo-Lummus projects began in 2001. Construction started in September and is scheduled for completion in August 2006.
The city’s capital improvement projects are bid on and implemented through a series of packages with phases that adhere to specific budgets, goals and scopes of work, to ensure the plan is appropriate for the neighborhood. “We look closely at available funds and work with the neighborhoods to spend the money as it comes in,” says Tim Hemstreet, Miami Beach capital improvements projects director.
The city conducts a minimum of four formal public meetings per project. Meeting notices are mailed to residences, and neighborhood and homeowners’ associations. The city has to balance the residents’ ideal projects with the improvements that are affordable. “When additional funding is identified, we can always come back and add to the project,” Hemstreet says. “Once we demonstrate the value of this approach to the neighborhoods, the easier it becomes to build consensus.”
Private reinvestment on Washington Avenue in the Flamingo-Lummus neighborhood alone totaled more than $121 million between 2000 and 2005, compared to a little more than $37 million between 1990 and 1999. Major private improvement projects and new investment in the city’s main retail and restaurant corridors of Collins Avenue, Lincoln Road and Washington Avenue between 2002 and 2004 (some of which are ongoing) total nearly $140 million. That does not include recently announced plans for a new theater estimated at $40 million. “The city clearly is undergoing an urban renaissance,” says Kevin Crowder, director for the Miami Beach Economic Development Division and Legislative Affairs.
How the garden grew
Investing in the center part of a city can reap tremendous returns even in small towns. For example, with only 21,547 residents, Garden City, N.Y., found a way to turn streetscapes and open space improvements into civic pay dirt. For its efforts, the village received Vision Long Island’s (VLI) 2004 Smart Growth Award for Fostering Communities with a Strong Sense of Place.
“The results from Garden City’s regeneration efforts have been tremendous,” says Eric Alexander, director of VLI, a smart growth planning organization. “They have successfully encouraged significant investment and re-investment in their town center including a mix of commercial, retail and restaurants. They have created a highly pedestrian-friendly atmosphere that is attractive to residents for after-hours and weekend activities.”
The city’s revitalization efforts, which continue today, began in the mid-1980s, when the community was facing necessary repairs to its tired streetscapes, sidewalks and trees. Village Administrator Robert Schoelle and the community’s Board of Trustees hired landscape architect William Kuhl to develop improvements to revitalize 7th Street, the village’s main thoroughfare.
By adding decorative street lamps, furniture and landscaping, the village kick-started a minor renaissance. In the 1990s, the city continued making streetscape enhancements on other major roads. For example, in 1992 Bookspan took an existing 7th Street building down to its steel frame, refurbished it and added a new structure: a $20 million investment. By 2000, Garden City had relocated utilities to accommodate parking, and enhanced landscapes and common spaces. According to Kuhl, the designs reinforce the village’s turn-of-the-century character by strengthening its visual identity in the central mixed-use corridor.
Within the past four years, TDK USA relocated some of its offices to Garden City, as did Kings Market, an upscale grocery chain. Additionally, in the past year the village has attracted a Commerce Bank branch, a Viking Culinary Arts Center and a variety of restaurants, which draw a steady stream of patrons to downtown.
In less than two decades, an estimated $50 million to $100 million has been invested by the private sector in commercial properties contiguous to the village’s improvement projects. As a result, pedestrian activity at all hours has increased significantly, and retail occupancy in the area is more than 95 percent.
Successful regeneration projects can lay claim to a rare feat: creating places where urban life thrives rather than merely hurries along. While Pittsburgh, Miami Beach and Garden City are taking different paths to that goal, all three have discovered how to bring people and businesses into their communities to make cities more vital.
Elizabeth Batchelder is a writer for San Francisco-based EDAW.