At last month’s ULI panel presentation, Alvin McNeal, Senior VP for Planning and Development at Fraser Forbes Company in McLean, Virginia, spoke about adopting new development strategies in Springfield.
“In reviewing the most successful cities,” McNeal began, “one of the lessons, or recurring themes, all of us have been able to identify is that they began thinking like a master developer, [enabling cities] to create more of a market-driven master plan for taking actions and making things happen.”
“There are certain preconditions, or focal points, that are important,” McNeal continued. “You must identify what your strengths are, and leverage those strengths. …Ultimately, what we’re talking about is polishing your image. Preserving historic buildings, celebrating those existing buisnesses that can make a contribution, not only in the downtown area, but also in your commercial corridors.”
“We want to work consistently with both the private sector as well as our institutional partners,” McNeal said. In mentioning the second action item in the slide above, inventory and classification of vacant properties, McNeal added, “The city has quite an inventory of vacant parcels as well as structures. The panel suggests, in the report, some very specific criteria for evaluating those parcels, in both a short-range as well as a long-range development potential.”
Lastly, the panel recommended securing “a development partner who has the ability, and the willingness, and indeed the capital, to proceed forward with some of the redevelopment that we see in the downtown area, and in your commercial corridors.”
McNeal underlined the need for a visible difference. “That visible difference,” he said, “will be made depending on the choices you make with respect to your priorities.”
McNeal went on to list a few important “preconditions,” as he called them: reduce crime, increase homeownership, and become more business-friendly.
“You must address the issue of crime, and the perception of crime, and I would even go so far as to say the sphere of crime. Some very, very aggressive actions are underway now. We had an opportunity to interview the police commissioner, and he’s very aggressively approaching this issue. We think more can be done, and indeed, he’s doing more. One of the things that has been recommended is that he seek to link with some of the exisiting organizations that can provide additional eyes on the street; for example, the downtown BID, and some of the neighborhood groups, could become a little bit more active in perhaps a watch type program.”
“There are so many vacant properties, under the control of the city or the private sector, that they offer… an unusual opportunity, if you will, to do a variety of things in terms of infill developments in some of the communities that we visited,” McNeal said. “But also in terms of creating a tone within some of the corridors; I think one of our colleagues referred to creating nodes along the commercial corridors. In many instances you’ll have vacant parcels, and vacant structures of sufficient size, to make a difference within those corridors.”
Continuing on the issue of vacancy, McNeal said, “We’ve suggested that you think in terms of bundling some of the vacant lots and to sell them to qualified developers. That expands not only the number of interested parties, but it also has the ability for you to begin to define a certain image by the mere collection of those different parcels in making this visible difference in certain areas.”
(Of note, such bundling was mentioned as a future action item in an article in today’s Springfield Republican. Finance Control Board Executive Director Philip Puccia was quoted by Azell Murphy Cavaan saying, “We’re looking to bundle something such as 20 properties at a time.” No mention was made in the article of the ULI panel’s recommendations on bundling, so we’re left to guess on whether this is a follow-through on suggestions.)
McNeal defined becoming business-friendly as forming partnerships with major employers, “which you’ve done to a certain extent. We’re suggesting that you go the next step, and perhaps create some type of merchants’ association in your downtown area, and perhaps a similar kind of organization along some of the commercial corridors.”
Attention must also be given, for business-friendliness, to “the various permitting processes; your zoning, and your planning process. And we do make very, very specific recommendations in connection with those tools,” McNeal added. “In fact, we are also suggesting the addition of another tool that has been very useful in other cities, that is referred to as a public services program.” The purpose of such a program, McNeal said, is to “start netting together your captial improvements program with your operating budget. It becomes, we believe, a very effective tool for managing development in the city.”