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Facade improvement programs: do they work?

Wannaplan?

Galactic Superstar
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3,149
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27
Do facade improvement programs help revitalize depressed commercial areas? Visit this facade improvement program page in Detroit for some before and after shots of some improvements near the Mexicantown area. Here are some samples:





What do you think? Is this a chicken or egg type of question, or can depressed areas just clean up their facades and expect shoppers to come in and throw down their dollars? It seems like this is rather simplistic - there has to be some changes going on, demographic or otherwise, that are bringing people in or near depressed commercial districts.
 

Jeff

Cyburbian
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4,161
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27
Philly is getting into all kinds of trouble simply by requiring windows where they should be....

I couldn't imagine trying to anything more than that in this city.
 

Seabishop

Cyburbian
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3,838
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25
We've substantially cleaned up our downtown with ours. But in a sense it is only skin deep. We still have our share of vacant storefronts although its not as bad as 10-15 years ago. I think it could be a good first step though to show that there is some committment to the area, especially if you're trying to attract residents also.

Hopefully all the local hispanic markets won't turn into Subways though ;)
 

Cardinal

Cyburbian
Messages
10,080
Points
34
The answer is a definite maybe.

Problem 1: There is a program, but the standards are poor and the "improvements" are just as bad as what was there before.

Problem 2: The incentive is not enough. For example, you might offer low-interest loans, but with interest rates already low, they are no real incentive.

Problem 3: The improvements are cosmetic. Real structural or other issues with the building are not addressed through the program.

Problem 4: Nothing happens. The buildings get fixed up, but there is no market for the space. You have nice looking empty buildings.
 

Mud Princess

Cyburbian
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4,896
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27
Alan said:
Do facade improvement programs help revitalize depressed commercial areas? ... It seems like this is rather simplistic - there has to be some changes going on, demographic or otherwise, that are bringing people in or near depressed commercial districts.
I think you answered your own question. If there isn't a market for the businesses that are located there, or other strategies to bring people into these commercial areas, a facade improvement program isn't going to have much of an impact.

That said, facade improvement programs can be effective as part of a more comprehensive revitalization strategy. Another approach is to link the funding for building improvement to business development and job creation activities.
 

Wulf9

Member
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923
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22
In my previous job, we had almost identical historic grants program (worked) and facade improvement program (didn't work)

We didn't have much staff, so we only did small grants ($5k max). You write a check and have very little additional staff involvement. Small grants can be a very powerful way to get owners involved. Most owners spent a lot more than the cost of the grant.

History worked because preservation has clear guidelines. Owners knew exactly what to do.

Facade didn't work because there weren't good design guidelines. In most projects, you couldn 't tell that anything had been done. In some, the facades looked worse than before. In a few, things, looked better.
 

Mud Princess

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Wulf9 said:
Facade didn't work because there weren't good design guidelines. In most projects, you couldn 't tell that anything had been done. In some, the facades looked worse than before. In a few, things, looked better.
Many facade improvement programs will set aside funds to hire a project architect to develop drawings and plans. Or they require the property owner to consult with an architect before construction. These controls (along with careful selection of contractors) help to ensure quality projects. It also helps if the community has specific historic district guidelines or requirements for rehabilitation.
 

Wulf9

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923
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You are right. Architects and control would have helped. We just weren't there on our program.

I did the history grant program and it worked well because the expectations and standards were clear.

On the question of whether facade programs help an area. They help if they get owners or businesses more involved with their property or business. Sometimes they have such low expectations that they don't try any more. After we started a main street programs, owners started looking for tenants. Before the program, they were pretty much convinced there wasn't any demand, so they had stopped trying to fill their spaces. Any thing that engages owners and merchants helps an area.
 

BKM

Cyburbian
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6,464
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29
It depends, of course, on your definition of "work." As other posters have noted, they are not a cure-all. On th other hand, we have had some success with such a program in a depressed commercial strip in Fairfield. What helped is that we placed on retainer a talented architect, who was able to come up with some nice, but still affrodable, improvements to buildings that were true eyesores.

Unfortunately, the program doesn't in itself address underlying land use issues, but there are some prominent properties along the corridor that look much nicer.
 

SGB

Cyburbian
Messages
3,387
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25
Mud Princess said:
If there isn't a market for the businesses that are located there, or other strategies to bring people into these commercial areas, a facade improvement program isn't going to have much of an impact.
In a similar vein, a facade improvement isn't going to strengthen a poorly run business. (I've seen poorly run downtown businesses in what should be a strong market for their businesses and/or services.)

There are no magic bullets in downtown business district improvement efforts.
 

Wulf9

Member
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923
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22
Design is nice and can be a component of a larger program, but it doesn't work if it is the only thing being done.

We did a downtown beautification project (brick sidewalks, nice lights, trees, bump outs, etc.) The downtown had 20% vacancies for nearly a decade.

We then did a Main Street program, straightened out some organizational problems, did some promotion things, and eliminated ped barriers. The downtown went to 100% occupancy in 2 years and stayed at full occupancy since 1991.

You can have strong business without good design, but good design doesn't necessarily bring in strong business.
 
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H

Cyburbian
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2,850
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24
There seems to be a perception that Clean = Safe, so I would say that façade is an intricate part of revitalization, yes. But obviously only a piece of the pie.
 

jresta

Cyburbian
Messages
1,474
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23
I think that rough buildings and worn sidewalks are much stronger players than nice façades and new sidewalks.

The area around 12th/13th&Chestnut in Philly for example. I think the development pressure there is intense and as the street (façades included) has been cleaned up the other changes in the area have been obvious.

In places where the economic pressure is not there i don't think that façades and streetscapes provide as much of a benefit.

Another question to ask, considering that people don't automatically start making more money after a façade improvement program, is -

When people start spending more money at the shops on your improved street where were they spending money before that they're not spending it now? Is shifting the cash flow from one location to the next really healthy for a local economy?
 

Mud Princess

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jresta said:
When people start spending more money at the shops on your improved street where were they spending money before that they're not spending it now? Is shifting the cash flow from one location to the next really healthy for a local economy?
It is if the money would have gone to Wal-Mart, Applebee's, or any one of the zillions of chain stores and restaurants.
 

michaelskis

Cyburbian
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19,465
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44
The city of Reading PA’s façade improvement program is strict. Most of it is in the historic preservation areas. We do have some parts of our downtown, and a neighborhood along the park has a temporary improvement program. For our businesses it is a 5k match while the residential is only a 2k match. All the improvements must be approved by the historic preservation specialist, and if it is in an historic area, it has to go though the historic architectural review board. There is mixed success with it being that it only works if the home owner needs to invest, and in low income areas, people spend money some place else.
 
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Facade Improvement Program

I'm doing a paper for school on Facade Improvement Programs, and I like your answer as most say the program is great..... do you know of any other places I could get info on Facade Improvement programs?? Thx...

The answer is a definite maybe.

Problem 1: There is a program, but the standards are poor and the "improvements" are just as bad as what was there before.

Problem 2: The incentive is not enough. For example, you might offer low-interest loans, but with interest rates already low, they are no real incentive.

Problem 3: The improvements are cosmetic. Real structural or other issues with the building are not addressed through the program.

Problem 4: Nothing happens. The buildings get fixed up, but there is no market for the space. You have nice looking empty buildings.
 

wahday

Cyburbian
Messages
3,960
Points
23
I think facade improvement programs are important and can do a lot of good in generating a spirit of revitalization and improvement in depressed areas. But in and of itself, it is not a viable economic development strategy. It has to be part of a wider effort to assist small business owners, improve the sense of safety and vibrancy along with an overall improvement in the economy.

Living in a notably poor city, for example, one of the problems small businesses have is that their profit margins are usually quite small (making weathering storms of slow times difficult) and, on a more basic level, many people in the community (potential and actual buyers) just don't have a lot of spending cash. Until that changes, nice looking stores are not going to be that much more viable than crappy looking ones, unless they are also capitalizing on tourist money. It makes a difference to look good, but that alone won't do too much.

This has been the case along a section of the Barelas neighborhood in south Downtown Albuquerque. The place looks great - nice public art-integrated public transit stops, some nice facade improvement - but businesses who have moved in since the improvements have not fared well and many have closed. There are other reasons for this: high crime and drug activity in the area, high homeless traffic (which puts off many potential users), its geographically a bit cutoff from other parts of downtown (because of street patterns) and the neighborhood is really very poor. Again, unless these issues are addressed in concert, things will probably not improve significantly in the near future.
 
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