Archive for August, 2010

Make sure you have your coffee before you start reading this.  It’s a long post and no pretty pictures.

For the past several months we’ve been on tour, taking in various public spaces around West Virginia, talking about what works and ignoring whatever shortcomings the places might have.  One of my self-imposed rules in writing this blog is to be positive.  It’s just too easy to criticize what someone else has done, and it’s not fair when you don’t know the constraints they had to work with.

A couple of weeks ago I told you about driving around Charleston with my wife on a Friday evening, looking for an outdoor place to go where we could hang out, maybe have a cup of coffee and watch the world go by.  Fortunately, we stumbled onto the Live at the Levee event and had a nice evening.  Had it been a Thursday, we would have likely gone home less than satisfied.

I think we were subconsciously looking for the Charleston equivalent of Huntington’s Pullman Square.  I keep coming back to Pullman Square because it works.  It’s a place designed for people to enjoy every single day, not just at special events.  On any given day you’ll see a variety of people from skate boarders to college professors to wealthy professionals.  Why aren’t there more Pullman Squares?

Pullman Square is a private development.  Maybe a private developer will someday provide the same kind of space in Charleston.  But what about my hometown of St. Albans?  Or its sister city, Nitro?  Or Buckhannon?  Or Martinsburg?  Or any number of small towns across West Virginia?  What are the odds that a developer will build a Pullman Square in those cities?

I recently mentioned a post by my liberal correspondent, Joseph Higginbotham, in which he talked about what he missed about living in Lexington, Kentucky.  Joseph enjoyed meeting people and exchanging ideas and wishes Charlestonians had both the inclination and opportunity for such chance meetings.  Maybe the inclination and the proper venue go hand in hand.  In Lexington, his meeting place of choice was a Starbucks.

I’ve seen the same kind of thing happen at the Pullman Square Starbucks.  In Williamsburg, Virginia there’s a coffee shop called Aroma’s.  Yeah, it’s a tourist draw but it’s also a place where William & Mary professors and students meet to talk about…well, anything and everything.  I’ve seen and experienced similar interactions at the local Panera’s and Tim Horton’s.

Coffee shops (sometimes with food, sometimes not) are where people go to hang out.  Sometimes to meet people (while pretending to work on their computers).  Sometimes to meet a friend.  Sometimes to be by themselves and figure things out.  Sometimes to watch everybody else.  I imagine some people go to drink coffee.  But more often than not, coffee is the excuse.  Let’s face it: nobody would go to Starbucks and just sit at an empty table.  Coffee may be the excuse but coffee is also the juice of social interaction.

I am convinced that if Pullman Square didn’t have a Starbucks, it wouldn’t be nearly as popular.  I probably wouldn’t have made my first visit if I hadn’t been able to buy a cup of coffee.

So if coffee shops are so important, why doesn’t every city open a downtown coffee shop?

Having been involved in downtown development organizations, I’ve heard many times statements that go something like this:

“What we need is a _______.”

Fill in the blank with your own answer.  I’ve heard everything from bookstores to art galleries to ambitious dreams like a Spaghetti Warehouse.  A common answer is a coffee shop.  But its one thing to see the need and something else entirely to make it happen.  Ideally, demand, demographics, and opportunity collide and an entrepreneur with the wherewithal to make it happen will step in and fill the need.

In the perfect business model, the coffee shop will have opportunities for outdoor seating, which leads to spillover into other public places.  As more coffee drinkers make their way to the shop, another entrepreneur sees the opportunity and opens an ice cream shop.  Another opens a bookstore.  Then an art gallery.  A frame shop.  A furniture store.

But many of our small downtowns are economically challenged.  A streetscape project is a good first step, but it’s not an instant solution.  You’ve got to figure out a way to bring people downtown.  It can begin with coffee.

So if coffee is the juice of social interaction and the coffee shop is the new social venue, does every small town have to wait for Starbucks to show up?   Not necessarily.

Periodically a city will outgrow its town hall and look to build a new one or remodel an old building.   If the leaders care about their city, they’ll locate their new town hall downtown.  The outskirts of town might be where the action is, but government shouldn’t be taking valuable real estate that the private sector would be glad to take care of.  Downtown needs city hall.  And the city needs a healthy downtown.

Next, serve up the coffee.  In the new town hall, set aside a few hundred square feet for a coffee shop.  Set it up specifically to be a coffee shop.  Lots of windows, access from the outside, good seating both inside and out.  Take bids and offer a lease to the highest bidder.  Or offer a lease that’s too good to pass up and request RFQ’s and take the best plan.

People coming to the town hall for business might have a cup of coffee afterward.  The shop might become an informal gathering place before city council meetings.  The morning coffee group that meets at the local fast food eatery might just find a new place to meet occasionally.

Take the idea a step further.  In planning for the new town hall, include a town square.  It doesn’t have to be huge, but it needs to be carefully planned as a place where people can get together and meet, talk, watch people…you know, everything we’ve been talking about for the past several months.

The point is, we don’t necessarily have to wait for the private sector to save our downtowns.  All we have to do is plan to provide better opportunities for people to get together.  We can have more Pullman Squares.  We can have more Lexington-style hot spots.  It just takes a little vision and leadership.

Time for a second cup.

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I was all set to lay down some serious thoughts about public spaces in West Virginia.  I have been brooding about them for some time.  One day last week my liberal correspondent Joseph Higginbotham seemed to be plugged into the same vibe when he penned his thoughts about what he misses about Lexington, where he lived for 20 years before recently returning to West Virginia.  Take my brooding, add some of Joseph’s thoughts, mix in a relaxing Friday night in Charleston, and guess what?  I’ve got an idea.  Actually, a pretty good idea, even if I do say so myself.  But it will have to wait.  First I want to tell you about last Friday night in Charleston.

Friday night at the levee...just a great evening.

A little context.  Like most of the country this year, we’ve been sweltering in oppressive heat and humidity, but Thursday night a cold front moved through.  (Why do weather people insist on calling a drop in temperature from 92 to 85 a cold front?  Yeah, its better but it’s not cold.)  So Friday, comparatively speaking, was very nice.  By the time evening rolled around, my wife and I were longing for a place to go to just hang out.  Someplace outdoors.  So after a quick dinner at Panera’s, we began looking for a place to go.  We were about to give up and head for home (under the cloud of my brooding about the dearth of good public spaces) when we saw the lights at the levee.  The Schoenbaum Stage at Haddad Riverfront Park to be more exact (and to give proper credit to two of Charleston’s most generous benefactors).  People my age still refer to it as the levee.

We pulled into the city garage and within minutes we were under the canopy of the amphitheater.  Now if you haven’t been to Charleston in a while, you might not know about the canopy.

Several years ago, the old levee was turned into a huge amphitheater to provide a more suitable venue for performances during the various festivals in Charleston.  One glaring problem was the sun.  Because the amphitheater is on the north side of the river facing south, it absolutely bakes in the afternoon sun.  The solution:  a giant canopy.  A smaller canopy, fashioned to resemble a sternwheel,  shelters the stage area.  A little to the west another canopy of sails will shelter a riverside overlook.   This nautical theme obviously reflects Charleston’s status as a river city.

As is my habit, I began to formulate opinions about the quality of the space.  What works, what could have been done differently.  Then something unusual happened.  I relaxed.

I began to enjoy the cool evening air.  I found my foot tapping to the bluegrass music coming from the stage.  From my perch high in the back, I could watch everybody.  Behind me, people were strolling, chatting, connecting with friends.  Kids were playing tag.  The sun was setting.  The lights were reflecting off the river.  It was just really nice.  (My apologies for the less than stellar photo.  I only had my camera phone Friday night.)

Afterwards, my wife and I were talking about how much we enjoyed the evening.  She added that it was even better because I wasn’t analyzing everything.  Hmmm.

She’s right.  Sometimes you just need to have a good time. So no serious thoughts today.  I’ll save my big idea for next week.  In the meantime, you should check out Live on the Levee this Friday.  And don’t analyze – just enjoy.

I’m not a world traveller.  (Bonus points if you can name the song reference in the post title.) Went to Mexico once when I was a kid.  Spent a few days in Aruba several years ago at a conference.  That’s it.

Not that I wouldn’t love to see the world and experience different cultures, but for whatever the reasons, that just hasn’t happened.

On the other hand…

Last week I was involved in a group discussion about public spaces started by Sara, a consultant in the United Arab Emirates.  Ingrid, a Scandinavian studying in London, suggested I read Jan Gehl’s writings on the subject.  From New Delhi, architect Ashmita weighed in, as did Trevor from the UK.  There were others.

A couple of things about this little international forum.  First, the need for good public spaces is common among all people of the world, even in the ultra-rich United Arab Emirates. Sara had started the conversation by posting a newspaper article about an urban planning conference in Abu Dhabi to address the lack of green spaces in the UAE.  Yes, the home of indoor snow skiing and the world’s tallest skyscraper needs more and better public spaces.   And the desired activities in public spaces are universal.  Everyone wants a place to sip coffee, hang out, or just watch other people.  Security is also paramount.

One of the things that varies significantly is climate.  At the time of our forum, it was 95 degrees in St. Albans.   The UAE can reach about 118.   And no, it’s not a dry heat.  Public spaces in the Middle East have to take that harsh reality into account.  It’s little wonder that malls have become the de facto public space of the UAE.

It is also apparent that developing successful public spaces is a difficult thing.  There is a universal need to design at a human scale, and quite often a public space will fail because the needs of people weren’t adequately considered.  It’s easy to create a public space.  It’s much harder to do it right.

By the time the discussion had run its course, I had learned much.  Of course I had learned a little about different cultures, but these colleagues from around the world also taught me a little bit more about the design of public spaces.  And these weren’t just people with a casual interest, they were highly educated leaders in their professions.

How did we all get together?  Most of you probably know the answer:  LinkedIn.

LinkedIn is, first and foremost, a professional networking site.  But it is so much more.  There are discussion groups for just about any topic you can imagine.  The discussion above happened in the Urban Planning Group.  I’ve had similar encounters with professionals in the American Society of Landscape Architects Group.  LinkedIn is an amazing tool to learn from accomplished professionals from around the world.

If you’re not in LinkedIn, click the link on the right and get going.  You won’t regret it.

In her short note recommending Jan Gehl, Ingrid pointed me to another website, the Project for Public Spaces.  Tons of good and interesting information.  I’ve also added the link to the right.

No, I’ve never been to Spain.  But some day I’m sure I’ll learn from someone who has.