Sunday, April 17, 2016

Back to the Cities?

Even though I’ve spent the past year outside of the US, I’d like to catch up on the latest trend: businesses, and people, are moving back to the cities? I’ve heard from urban pioneers of yesteryear, now middle-class homeowners in the swankiest neighborhoods, talk about how their neighborhood “changed for the better”. It’s not a new trend, but one that entered hyperdrive since 2010- or the official end of the last recession. Places like Detroit and Cleveland are on the upswing. Manhattan is back, more than ever. In Washington, DC, gentrification has been completed in the L’Enfant City of stately apartment buildings, Victorian townhomes, and sleek new construction. Prices continue to climb; so where should urban pioneers head next, if not Baltimore?

I’ll ask, why did people move to the cities?
Because of Television
Shows like Entourage and Mad Men glorify the after-work happy hour. Driving to, but mostly from, happy hour with pals from your asphalt-surrounded office park is not a feasible idea. Ditto a decent lunch break. Long waits to take a left turn into the strip mall make the brown bag an appealing option.

Because of the Internet
Facebook says, shouts, and screams that you have to be there in the middle of the action. If college today is about the amenities purchased with tax-advantaged student loans, yuppie life is about prolonging adolescence. Whether you’re a SINK or a DINK, you can’t be more than walking distance from the hot spots.

Why did businesses move to the cities?
Cities wised up about tax policy
Without big-box stores, Washington, DC lost $1 billion per year in tax revenue as residents shopped in neighboring suburbs. Since then, Target and Walmart have opened in the city. Also, state laws limit scope of local regulations: A business can open in inner-city Norfolk or Richmond  with little more red tape than in business-friendly suburbs.

Maximize workforce within commuting distance
Mature workers may be tied down to houses in different parts of the region. Locating in the heart of the city averages out commuting distances, and makes a shorter commute for those choosy, urban-dwelling Millennials. Also, with traffic so bad, mass transit reduces commute times, as long as offices and businesses are located near transportation hubs, often the center city.

Hip and Energetic
We’ve seen companies trying to be “with the times”, occasionally embarrassing themselves in the process. Downtown offices have the same hoped effect: to give a new, friendlier image to the same old corporation. Big Data says it’s the right move to take…what could go wrong?

So where should urban pioneers head next?
How about Crystal City, a stone’s throw from the Pentagon, once the workplace of legions of military personnel and their contractors, the epitome of square culture. Hard times hit the community of 1970’s office towers and large condos with the end of the Cold War, and the subsequent Defense Department’s BRAC initiative that picked up speed after homeland security concerns came to the forefront. (These buildings replaced the wartime “temporary buildings” placed on the National Mall) It was a paradox, because as the offices were emptying out in this “bland” area 10 minutes by car, subway, or commuter train from Downtown Washington, the “authentic” U Street corridor benefited from gentrification that began with the arrival of a new subway station.

What’s wrong with Crystal City? It just wasn’t hip; street life was non-existent as commuters, residents, and hotel guests arrived by car; or by the subway, through a maze of connected basements. Polyester-blend khaki uniforms don’t take sweat-stains well, and the tunnels were a brilliant idea to keep workers of the future away from Washington’s summer heat. Recent renovations have widened sidewalks and opened more ground-level retail. I’ve seen sidewalk cafes bustling at lunchtime as today’s workers ditch the brown bag.

Washington, DC had to develop a start-up culture. Although now home to a wide range of industries outside of government, including Fortune-listed companies offering technology applications, aerospace, and hospitality; even Volkswagen; these companies were transplants like many of the area’s residents. Notable exceptions are Marriott, AOL and Capital One. Young educated born-and-raised locals, a growing demographic, had to realize that government was not the only means to a successful career in Washington.  With the necessary entrepreneurial infrastructure in place, the start-up environment was hatched. 

Then you had to teach the real estate magnates about changing times. Kings of concrete, they were used to renting out entire floors to well-paying clients like the US Government, the US Air Force, and various contractors. Today, they are becoming more accepting of smaller square-foot leases and shorter terms, required by small, fledgling, and nimble companies.  They’ve even torn down some arsenals of cubicles in Crystal City.

Part of the attraction of cities is the cool buildings and a sense of place: I’ve been to Portland, Oregon. Old loft warehouses are inspiring, especially when relics of the past are still visible. Do 1970’s office buildings, such as those surrounding the Pentagon, have to be forever branded as sterile and impersonal? One building owner remodeled one floor in the image of Silicon Valley. For other offices, I envision posting images of the quantifiable work performed and vintage encounters: satellites, mustached military officers, and secretaries with typewriters. Heck, paint the elevators camouflage green.

Could Crystal City, and its sisters across America, be the next up-and coming neighborhoods?