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Monday, June 5, 2017

The Neighborhoods We Want (Business Edition, Part 2)

I haven't posted in a long time - there are several half-written posts in my head, but none of them ever got to keyboard (there's been a lot going on).  But I have to get this post written because there's another round of discussion on Nextdoor about local businesses closing.  The spice store in Virginia Highland closed - I loved the spice store, but it's gone.  On Nextdoor, it's pretty much the same discussion as last time, about rents and foot traffic and competition from cooler commercial areas like Ponce City Market or Krog Street Market and paid parking and what kinds of retail and restaurants used to be in the neighborhood as opposed to what's there now.

It's not that it's a great time for retail generally.  A couple days ago NBC News reported that over a thousand stores closed in a recent week, and more than 100,000 retail workers have lost their jobs since October 2016.  Retail space is overbuilt, and that, along with online buying and other changes in taste and habit (malls stopped being cool decades ago) have decimated shopping malls.

But our neighborhood commercial areas aren't enclosed malls or strip malls - they are appealing, and walkable, and in well-established neighborhoods with substantial buying power.  In spite of that, though, businesses struggle and the latest round of closings in Virginia Highland has reignited the discussion about what's going on.  In our small commercial area in Morningside, it seems that vacancies linger longer than they do in Virginia Highland, where hope springs eternal and retailers keep trying.  There's a "Coming Soon" sign up where Half-Moon Outfitters was and another empty location also will reopen sometime before too long as something else.  But if rents are so high that the businesses the neighborhood actually can and will support can't survive, and there aren't enough destination shops to fill the spaces, at some point, places stay vacant, because once rents go up, they don't go down.

There was an article in the New York Times last week about what happened to a small retail area on Bleecker Street in West Village in New York City.  There used to be neighborhood businesses like bodegas and laundromats and hardware stores, but then the high-end stores came in, and the neighborhood was briefly full of high-priced designer shops.  Then the designer stores failed (they didn't get much business), and now the rents are too high for anything else and the storefronts are vacant.
"If many of the high-end stores along Bleecker didn’t prosper as businesses, 'they succeeded in transforming the area into a luxury retail neighborhood that feeds on itself,' said Jeremiah Moss, who has tracked the city’s ever-changing streetscape on his blog, Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York, since 2007.
"Bleecker Street, Mr. Moss said, is a prime example of high-rent blight, a symptom of late-stage gentrification. 'These stores open as billboards for the brand,' he said. 'Then they leave because the rents become untenable. Landlords hold out. And you’re left with storefronts that will sit vacant for a year, two years, three years.'"
 Here are the last several paragraphs of the article:
"Elad Yifrach, the founder and creative director of L’Objet, an upscale d├ęcor brand that opened its first New York store last fall in one of the former Coach outposts, believes the area still has retail magic, despite the recent hard times.
“'Bleecker is quintessential West Village,' he said. 'The most beautiful townhouses are around there. The street needs to go back to bringing a cool factor, things that will inspire the audience.'
"For many longtime Village residents, what the street is missing is not a cool factor but the essential mix of businesses that makes a neighborhood function. On a recent afternoon, Marjorie Reitman, who has lived in the Village for 43 years and who was out on Bleecker Street walking her neighbor’s dog, Walter, reflected on the street’s mercantile past.
“'I remember when I first moved down here,' she said. 'There was a hardware store owned by an elderly couple, a grocery store, a newspaper store.'
"She was standing in front of ATM Anthony Thomas Melillo, a clothing boutique that opened in February to sell $115 'destroyed wash' T-shirts and other garments. The store had no customers, and the front door was open, allowing the air-conditioning to pump out into the street, something Ms. Reitman lectured the young sales associates about.
'That’s the attitude: "I have money, I can pay the fine, I don’t care,"' Ms. Reitman said.

"The original Marc Jacobs store on Bleecker that started the boom was next door with its windows blacked out. Ms. Reitman had an idea for that space and the other empty stores that dot Bleecker Street like missing teeth in a very expensive mouth.
"'They should all be pot shops,' she said. 'Seriously. I’m not kidding. I can’t imagine what else could go in and pay the rent.'"
If it is not possible to make enough to pay the rent, no one will stay in business, and once rents go up, they don't, apparently, go down.  So Caramba is replaced by Burger Tap which is replaced by the waffle sandwich place (okay, so maybe there is a reason other than high rents why some of these places didn't make it) which is replaced by Timone's which is replaced by Timone's which is replaced by Whiskey Bird. I certainly wish the Whiskey Bird folks well, but it they don't make it, it's back to brown paper covering the windows and a "For Lease" sign.

I would like to be optimistic but I'm not.  I don't know if there is any turning the clock back, once you lose the places that make your neighborhood function for the people who live there.  If the business plan requires that lots of people come from outside the neighborhood, then there's the reality of competition from cooler places and traffic and parking -- it might work for Murphy's, but it's hard to see it working for the entire commercial district.  Our neighborhood commercial areas may not be quite at the "high-rent blight" stage, but if it happens, at least now we know what to call it.

 And for all those folks on Nextdoor, we have the answer -- the rents are too high.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

The Neighborhoods We Want (Business Edition)

It was in early September that we got the email announcement that Toscano & Sons, the Italian grocery store in Virginia Highland, was closing.  This was a shock.  That was where we bought flour for pizza making in 50 pound bags and cans of Italian tomatoes for pizza sauce.  They had great sandwiches and it was pleasant to sit on the sidewalk with a panini and watch the people go by.  But the rents were high, and ultimately (Tom heard from the owners), it just wasn't worth it -- the landlord was making more than the business owners were.

The closing of Toscano & Sons led to a long and surprisingly lively and constructive discussion on Nextdoor about the difficulties that neighborhood businesses face.  My response when my favorite places close is blame the landlords for rents that are too high, which may or may not be fair; there was discussion in the Nextdoor thread about whether or not Virginia Highland is still a shopping and dining destination for people from outside the neighborhood, with competition from other commercial areas, like Ponce City Market and Krog Street Market and Inman Quarter.  There were complaints about Park Atlanta, which is always fair game in my book, but others pointed out that most of us can easily walk or bike there so parking should not really be so much of a deterrent for us in the nearby neighborhoods. There were discussions about the mix of businesses in Virginia Highland, pointing out that there were only so many bars and boutiques the neighborhood could support, and some proposals for what kind of businesses we'd like to see in the neighborhood, with most of the suggestions not sounding very viable to me (a lot of focus on "organic" and "locally sourced" which doesn't go so well with "inexpensive").  There was nostalgia for an independent bookstore that used to be nearby that I don't remember so it probably closed more than 25 years ago.  And some of the local business owners spoke up, and made the case that just a little more business from all of us would make a big difference to them.

There are lots of reasons to support local businesses -- we'd rather do business with people that we know and that know us than with strangers; it's more fun to walk to Morningside Kitchen than to drive to Buckhead (actually, almost anything is more fun than driving to Buckhead); and it would be so depressing if Virginia Highland or Morningside Village got replaced by, say, a Walmart.  Another reason is what the American Independent Business Alliance calls "the local economic multiplier effect" -- what we spend at locally-owned, independent businesses is far more likely to circulate in our community, contributing to the local economy, than what we spend at absentee-owned businesses, locally-owned franchises, or (in the worst possible case) a distant, online retailer.  ("Buying remotely creates almost no local benefit – just a few minutes’ work for a delivery person.”)

We shop at Costco and Target and Amazon, and will continue to, but having Toscano & Sons close and the subsequent conversation about our neighborhood businesses has made me realize that if I love having these businesses nearby, I need to support them better.  And if all of us did that -- just a little more shopping and dining in the neighborhood -- we wouldn't keep having our favorite places closing.

Yesterday, after early voting, we walked to Virginia Highland for breakfast, and I was surprised to see this in the window, where Toscano & Sons used to be:

It looks like we might have another chance at supporting our neighborhood Italian market.  I'll do better this time.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Public Assets -- Private Uses

Almost every weekend, there's some kind of event in Piedmont Park.  This weekend it's a kite festival, last weekend it was the AIDS Walk, and the weekend before that it was Pride weekend.  Tents and tables and port-a-potties appear, and then they are gone.  Sometimes there's more trash left and sometimes there's less, and sometimes -- depending on the event and the weather -- there's damage to the grass, and sometimes there isn't.  My usual weekend bike ride is through the park, and for the most part, the events don't disrupt access, although the bike lanes on 10th Street are often temporarily blocked, like in the photo below, which I took during Pride weekend.  But it's only during the event or immediately before or after, and although I grumble about it, it just comes with the territory of living in town.

I was off work for several weeks during August and September, and during that time I rode my bike almost every day.  Music Midtown was in Piedmont Park the weekend of September 17-18, and I could have understood if access to the bike lanes on 10th Avenue or parts of park was limited during the event.  What surprised me, and seems terribly unacceptable to me, is how much of this wonderful public space was inaccessible for so long both before and after the event weekend.

On Sunday, September 11, access to the main path along the meadow was blocked, as was the sidewalk and bike lanes on 10th Street.  This was six days before the festival.

After that I took other routes on my bike ride, since it was so unclear whether or not I could get through the park, and even if I could, getting dumped out onto 10th Street without a bike lane wasn't my idea of a fun bike ride.  I was back at Monroe and 10th on September 16.  By then they had added a "BIKE LANE CLOSED" sign.

I was back at work the following week, but I think it took them almost as long to clear out of the park as it took them to set up; access to the park, and to the sidewalk and bike lanes on 10th Street, were limited for almost two weeks.  Music Midtown may be a great event, but it's not right that this public space is made inaccessible to the public for so long for this private use.  If they can't get into and out of the park much, much more quickly, the city should not let them use it.

Speaking of the City of Atlanta's management of public assets - the Eastside Trail has gotten a diverse cross section of Atlanta outdoors, walking and biking and rollerblading and skateboarding with their friends, their kids, and their dogs from early morning into the night. It has also produced a huge windfall for developers who have built luxury apartments and condos in parts of town that used to not really be full of luxury apartments and condos. There are two different organizations that collaborate on the project, the private Atlanta BeltLine Partnership and the public Atlanta BeltLine Inc.  Both are receiving deserved criticism for the impact on neighborhoods and the lack of attention to assuring that current residents are not being forced out by rising property values and a failure to build affordable housing. In late September, Ryan Gravel (whose masters' thesis first proposed the 22-mile corridor around the central city) and another board member resigned from the board of the Atlanta Beltline Partnership, because not enough attention was being paid to issues of equity and affordability.  So these are real issues that need real solutions.

So what are they spending their time doing?  A woman named Jessie Fream had started a Facebook group called "Humans of the Atlanta BeltLine," featuring photos and stories about people she met while walking on the trail.  According to a story first posted on the Atlanta Loop, the Atlanta BeltLine Inc., notified Fream that "BeltLine" and "Beltline" were trademarked by Atlanta BeltLine Inc. and asked her to stop using the words in the name of her Facebook group.

I don't even know where to start with this.  A part of Atlanta city government has trademarked the name of a place, something that should be shown on a map.  It's like trademarking "Atlanta" -- what are we supposed to call it?  And now, instead of dealing with, say, the need for affordable housing in the city, they are harassing some woman who is posting pictures on Facebook.  This is just so unacceptable.  Did they talk to Jamestown Properties about the signs at Ponce City Market pointing which direction to go to get to the trail?  I don't see any "™" there.

Here's what I think.  The Atlanta BeltLine Inc., should work with the Partnership on affordable housing and lay off harassing users of a place name.  And in the meantime, I'm not using their trademarked special word, and I don't think anyone else should either. We all should call it something else.  

Until someone comes up with something better, I'm calling it the BeltLoop. 

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Waiting for the Bus

I've had some time off work recently and have been out and about in the city on MARTA a little more frequently than usual.  There are two bus routes that run on Highland near our street, and between them, you can get to lots of places -- one of them goes to downtown, and another goes to Midtown, and both connect to rail stations so you can get to everywhere the rail system goes, including the airport.  But the buses don't run very frequently -- if it's not rush hour, you're going to wait a long time, and even in rush hour they may still be 25 minutes or longer apart, so for this to not be a complete exercise in frustration, you need to know when the bus is coming so you get there before the bus you want comes, not after.

This is the premise of MARTA Army's Timely Trip project, to post (and keep current) schedules at neighborhood bus stops.  I've signed up for the two closest to my street, and went to the MARTA Army event a couple of weeks ago to get my updated schedules.  We were at the Atlanta City Studio, temporarily located at Ponce City Market.  The Studio is occupied by real city planners from the City of Atlanta, but is open for visitors and hosts events that are open to the public.  This time, the MARTA Army folks proposed that we personalize the schedule, with art or in some other way.

I opted just for a short message in colored pencil, pointing out that if you took MARTA, you wouldn't have to find a place to park:

And here they are, in place:

Now that's all well and good, but for the posted schedules to be helpful, the buses need to run on schedule, and they don't so much. Sometimes there's little traffic and few passengers to stop for, and they run ahead of schedule, or the traffic is terrible and they run late.  Even that wouldn't be a complete deal-breaker if you could find out that your bus is running 10 minutes early or 15 minutes late - you could plan accordingly.  MARTA does have an app with some helpful functions but you still can't really tell from the "real-time map" when your bus is likely to show up.  This is not one of my bus routes (more about that in a minute) but this is what the map looks like:

The map is not continuously updated, and even when the buses appear on the map, sometimes they disappear or just don't move and and it's hard to figure out from this whether it's time to head for the bus stop or not.  That's when they show up on the map in the first place.  This is the current map for Route 16, the bus that goes south on Highland to downtown:

There should be a southbound bus but nothing shows up (it being early Sunday morning as I am writing this, there is not yet a northbound bus running; that's a separate problem.)  Many of the buses don't seem to have location information available, which makes this function not useful.  (I also tried to take a screen shot of the other route on Highland, Route 36, but every time I try to open that map, the app closes, which is another feature which really limits its usefulness.)

I was complaining about this absence of information about when the buses were expected to show up at the very first MARTA Army event I went to, and someone told me that there is an app that provides this information that the MARTA app does not.  One Bus Away takes the location information from MARTA and projects when your bus is expected to show up.  Or at least it used to; more recently it doesn't seem to know where the buses are, and just shows you the scheduled times, which doesn't help:

Advance Atlanta, one of several groups that is working on regional transit issues, is collaborating with Civic Dinners to provide a framework for people who are interested to get together and discuss what are the problems with transit in the Atlanta region and hopefully get more of us to care about the solutions.  You can sign up to host a dinner or find one that someone else has organized and sign up to attend one.  My neighbor Alyssa hosted the first one last week.  This is not quite our entire group -- one person joined us after this was taken -- but we had good representation from the neighborhood, and and there were several people with professional interest in transit issues.  It was a good discussion, and it was interesting for me to hear other perspectives on the issue.

One of the questions we discussed was if we could magically solve one really big, intractable problem, what would it be?  By the time I spoke up, others that already mentioned the big ones -- absence of an integrated regional transit system, fragmented governance across the metro region, and the racism that is so deeply entangled with transit issues in Atlanta -- so I said I just wanted to be able to tell when the bus was going to show up.  Really, I'd take it more often if it wasn't so frustrating.  This should not be so hard.  Just let us know your best estimate of when the bus is going to show up at the bus stop.

In November, we will have a chance to vote on funding for MARTA.  This is a big opportunity, and there are lots of ideas about how those funds should be invested, if the referendum passes.  Citizens for Progressive Transit put together an interactive website where you can put together your own proposal for how to invest the $2.5B or more that the sales tax is expected to raise over the next 40 years.  But before we extend rail or build more streetcar tracks or even buy more buses, we should fix the system we have so that we know when the bus is probably going to show up. Just that one thing.  It should not be that hard.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Still Not Thinking about Selling

They are at it again,  Last week someone from Muffley & /Associates "Land Acquisition Team" left handwritten (but probably not written by the signer) at Lynsley's house and at ours, and I think he also talked to Kathy.  Here is Lynsley's card:

And here's ours:

The text of the two is nearly but not quite identical.  Here is ours:
Dear Neighbor,
I have a lovely young couple who absolutely loves [sic] your street.  They have asked me to reach out to you about your house specifically. They are ready to pay a premium for a special place to call home!  They want to know if you are interested in selling?  Please call me when you recieve [sic] this so we can discuss a price that may interest you!
Thank you, 
Jarrett Reeves [initialed "JR", followed by a phone number]
This is frustrating on so many levels.  There is the fake familiarity of "Dear Neighbor," and the "lovely young couple who absolutely love your street."  There's the implication that this lovely young couple is "specifically" interested in our house (as well as Kathy's and Lynsley's and who knows how many others), no doubt because our houses are so nice -- or maybe because they think they are teardowns, which most of us find pretty offensive.

Of course, if there really was a "lovely young couple" who wanted to live on our street, there's Danielle's house, that's been on the market for a while now.  

There's the lot where the duplex used to be, that is now home to random construction debris and a swamp.  There's the other duplex, on the corner at Cumberland, where a builder got a variance to build "an English country cottage-style home" but nothing has happened yet.  If you're interested, though, here's what they say it will look like, after they cut down the trees and build it:

And most famously, there is the site where the apartments used to be, where the city had to approve building three houses on two lots because they made a mistake on a planning map maybe ten years ago and the property was purchased based on that planning map.  Nothing has happened for years there, except damaging trees and periodic stop work orders because of tree damage and erosion.

Periodically signs for real estate companies or developers appear there, but nothing has happened.  Recently new, very large signs appeared, which may be the harbinger of new, very large houses to follow.  Or maybe not -- we'll see.

So, if there really is a "lovely young couple" who absolutely love our street, they have lots of options.  Those options do not include purchasing and demolishing Lynsley's, Kathy and Steve's, or our houses, though.  The Land Acquisition Team at Muffley and Associates may want to make note of that and save themselves some time.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

One Year Later

The small brick duplex that used to be a few houses away from us was demolished a year ago yesterday.  The duplex had not been occupied since November 2013,  It was in the fall of 2014 that several large trees behind the duplex were cut down.  By March 2015 there was a dumpster in the driveway and a "For Sale" sign from Keller Williams and a Black Dawg Construction sign in the front yard.

It was demolished a year ago yesterday, on July 2, 2015.

By the next morning, there was just a pile of debris; in this picture, the trees that were cut down the previous year are still visible behind where the house used to be.

And here it is a couple of days later, after the heavy equipment was gone.

The debris got removed along with the remains of the trees that were cut down, but by fall there was a dumpster, a pile of rocks, and a trailer on the lot.

There also was a puddle at the low point of the back yard that never really went away.

By January 2016, the dumpster was gone, but otherwise nothing much had changed.

By early June, the trailer was gone and the grass and weeds had grown tall.

There still was a puddle in the back, maybe because there was an open drainage pipe.


These pictures were taken about two weeks later.  Someone had mowed the weeds, tidied up a little, and put the signs back up, but the rocks were still piled up near the mailbox.

Now, we're a year out from demolishing the house, and the lot is still a mess and there's still mud in the back yard, even though it's been a long time since it rained.

I don't know if or when this will ever get cleaned up, but if I were Black Dawg Construction or Keller Williams, I really wouldn't want to have my sign here.