ULI report: Jeff Kaplan on the “soul of the city”

kaplan.JPGAt last month’s ULI panel presentation, Jeff Kaplan, an associate with Wulfe & Co. in Houston, Texas, addressed the matter of Springfield’s image and potential for reinvention—with focus on its culture, its economy, and its government. He began by sharing the panel’s observation that there seems to have been a lack of a vision. “The city used to be the City of Homes,” he said, “and today it’s the City of Question Mark.”

“The consensus of our panel,” Kaplan continued, “is that the city should be known as the cultural urban center of the region.”

A lot of American cities, Kaplan pointed out, are creating “faux downtowns, faux urban centers that don’t compare at all to what you have already in your current downtown. Our belief is that you should really focus on branding yourself as the center of the Pioneer Valley region.”

Kaplan called out aspects of downtown as “the soul of the city,” like Main Street, the theaters, and Symphony Hall, saying that they “should reflect the culture of what the city is about.”

What is the city about, then? “If you look at the demographics of your city, things are changing,” Kaplan explained. “Things have changed a lot in the recent past. Almost a quarter of your city is under the age of 25, so you have a very vibrant youth market. The culture, the soul of your city, particularly downtown, need to reflect what’s happened in the city in the last several years.”

Kaplan turned next to the city’s economic prospects, which he conceded were justifiably clouded by some negativism. “At the same time,” he said, “there’s a good base with MassMutual and Baystate. Baystate is the 16th largest employer in the Commonwealth. There’s a burgeoning minority class of entrepreneurs opening businesses. And there’s a real opportunity to collateralize what’s already here, to stimulate further growth downtown.”

As a case in point, Kaplan cited the need to collaborate strategically with universities, as has been successfully accomplished in other cities: “In Chicago, Roosevelt [University] came into a dead department store, in the downtown, and moved all their classroom facilities—it’s a commuter school, not dissimilar from Springfield [Technical] Community College—and it was a real catalyst.”

Listen to Kaplan’s four-minute presentation on Springfield’s reinvention (mp4, 1.9 MB)

A change in perspective can also benefit how we perceive of subsidized housing, with a focus on artists and students. “Although both of these forms of housing are subsidized housing,” Kaplan said, “the market does not perceive that form of housing to be subsidized. The perception is that if you get students or artists on the street, things are cleaning up. There’s plenty of affordable housing today, and the panel’s consensus is that there needs to be a focus on market-rate housing, and particularly on artists’ and student housing. And it’s certainly doable. There’s an incredible building stock to focus on downtown today.”

Kaplan noted that with the economy stagnating, and because resources are limited, the panel underlined that it’s critical for the city to focus its energy on the “right projects.” These include clustering retail to start, creating nodes, for example on Main Street, or in places along the emerging State Street corridor.

“You can plan broadly,” Kaplan said, “but focus the energy, and get two or three of the right catalytic retailers, or universities, to come in, because little deals will lead to a lot if they’re marketed and branded the right way.”

“The message here is that everyone needs to buy into this vision, and push it forward,” he added.

Lastly, on the subject of reinventing government, Kaplan noted the “real need for leadership. There are a lot of opportunities with this young class of people that are coming up. You have an incredible youth market. Those people must be brought into the system.”

“It’s time to get over the past. There’s a lot of bad blood in the city,” Kaplan said. “A lot of people are still living in the past. It’s time to put it aside, and look forward, and focus on that new vision.”

Author: Heather Brandon

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