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2022 HR&A Anti-Racism, Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (ADEI) Progress Report

In 2022, HR&A updated and refined our commitment to anti-racism, diversity, equity, and inclusion (ADEI). We focused on accelerating our progress from past years and working to further embed ADEI into the fabric of our culture and processes.

 

This is an ongoing journey. We are continuously learning, unlearning, and implementing new initiatives, including:

 

Launching a BIPOC Sponsorship Program that provides dedicated professional development support and resources to BIPOC employees. With the goal of improving wellness, retention, and pipeline towards career advancement, each participating employee has been paired with a senior leader to receive direct sponsorship, which includes monthly meetings and participation in professional networking events.

 

Developing an internal ADEI resource hub, which serves as a one-stop-shop for HR&A staff. The Hub contains resources for individual learning and tools for embedding ADEI best practices into our work with clients. We also use the Hub to monitor our progress against internal commitments.

 

Reorganizing our internal structure into “Studios.” As part of the firm’s ongoing commitment to excellent employee experience and positive retention outcomes, we developed “Studio” communities that provide multiple layers of support — especially for junior and BIPOC staff. All employees have an assigned mentor and dedicated manager who help them navigate projects and professional development opportunities. Additional support, including a peer with longer tenure, an experienced project manager, and a Partner, is also available. At the end of 2022, our retention rate significantly increased, and our employee experience surveys reflect higher levels of satisfaction, with 85% indicating they would recommend employment at HR&A to a friend compared to 51% in 2019.

 

Redesigning recruitment to remove bias and reflect the diversity of the communities we serve. Our hiring process is designed to minimize bias. This includes asking all job applicants to remove the name of their educational institution(s) from their resume. Instead, we ask candidates to define their most significant academic and/or professional accomplishments based on their unique lived experiences. Our Recruiting team continues to engage candidates across diverse campuses and professional networks. We are proud that as of December 2022 our employee-owned firm is more diverse than ever, with 47% of employees identifying as BIPOC, up from 36% in December 2020.

 

Creating new Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) to affirm and celebrate the full breadth of employee’ identities. We do this by building community among members, sharing successes, identifying common issues, promoting ideas for impact, and deepening cultural dialogue across the firm. This year, the Accessibility and Foreign-Born ERGs were launched, joining five existing groups — the Black, Asian American and Pacific Islander, Latino/a Comunidad, Women’s, and Queer ERGs.

 

Continuing to empower employees who serve on the Anti-Racism Core Team to design and implement firmwide initiatives. This group is composed of employees across identities, roles, and office locations, who meet regularly to discuss and advance initiatives in collaboration with senior leaders.

 

We remain humble, curious, and dedicated in this work. We are committed to the ongoing review, reflection, and refinement of our efforts and impact.

 

Click here for more information about our ADEI commitment.

Listening to New Yorkers about their government

This opinion piece by Sheena Wright, Shango Blake and José Serrano-McClain was originally published in the Daily News.

 

Bold investments to strengthen New York City’s civic infrastructure are key to a more equitable future and to meet the scale of the challenges we face as a city.

 

We know that historically the design and execution of city policies and programs are less equitable and generally less effective when decisions are made in isolation from the community.

 

We know that New Yorkers aren’t afraid to speak up and tell the government what they think, but government too often doesn’t know how to listen. Even when it does, government doesn’t have the infrastructure to effectively act upon community input.

 

Luckily, almost every New York City agency engages New Yorkers in one way or another.

 

But, community engagement is not coordinated among the 50-plus city agencies. On top of that, engagement teams are often understaffed and under-resourced, and efforts to engage New Yorkers have historically been more reactive and designed in ways that exclude working New Yorkers, parents, immigrants and disabled New Yorkers. All of this leads to duplicate, overlapping and contradictory engagement efforts that further distance New Yorkers from their government — sending the message that their input is not valued.

 

Our civic infrastructure — the practices, processes, supports and data that ensure that New Yorkers can easily and effectively collaborate with government — needs a refresh. We must bring rigor to community engagement — set a standard of excellence to which we hold agencies accountable. And we must provide the resources and tools agencies need and want to support and expand their efforts to engage community residents, partners, clients, participants, and neighbors.

 

Crucially, the city must have a way to coordinate these efforts, so that they add up to greater than the sum of their parts.

 

The Adams administration is pioneering new, exciting ways to deepen democracy by expanding meaningful opportunities for direct participation in government.

 

Starting on Day One, the Adams administration invited the partnership of NYC Speaks, a collaborative effort of City Hall, philanthropic partners, and a vast network of community leaders and civic institutions to learn from tens of thousands of New Yorkers from all walks of life about their priorities, their problems, and their solutions in order to shape the priorities of the incoming administration.

 

Over the last year, NYC Speaks collected more than 3 million data points from New Yorkers representing every residential zip code through the largest public policy survey in New York City history, convened nearly 5,000 residents as part of more than 220 community events, and collected moonshot policy ideas from nearly 450 city staff.

 

The community-generated data showed that New Yorkers are aligned around housing-first solutions, mental health investments in our public schools, climate-resilient neighborhoods and community spaces, jobs in the green economy, and participatory policymaking.

 

The rigor of this data served as a center of gravity for bringing senior government officials to help solve the problems New Yorkers said they cared about most. Through a series of workshops, senior government leaders, non-profit service providers, activists, academics, and philanthropists together developed policies that were both responsive and actionable.

 

The culmination of the survey data and Community Conversations, and coordination between civic institutions and mayor’s administration, five “North Stars” emerged:

    • North Star #1: Formerly incarcerated New Yorkers will have the support and resources they need to succeed when they return home.
    • North Star #2: NYC public school students will have access to culturally competent mental health resources.
    • North Star #3: Historically disinvested neighborhoods will be prioritized for capital investments in community and recreation spaces that support social, economic, and climate resilience.
    • North Star #4: Young New Yorkers and residents in Environmental Justice communities will have access to green career pathways created by city-led decarbonization and resilience efforts.
    • North Star #5: NYC government will be transformed into a national model of collaborative, inclusive, and accountable governance that strengthens democracy, expands civic engagement, and enhances civic trust.

     

    Last week, NYC Speaks unveiled its first annual Action Plan that includes a set of tangible policy commitments that will serve as the basis upon which the administration, private philanthropy, and civil society will continue to build over the coming year.

     

    NYC Speaks demonstrates that despite the fragmented nature of civic discourse, there are methodical ways to find common ground, and that our government can act in ways that are bold and strategic when provided with a quantified mandate.

     

    NYC Speaks is just scratching the surface of what must be done to strengthen our city’s civic infrastructure if we are to develop solutions commensurate with the scale of the challenges we face.

  • Wright is deputy mayor for strategic initiatives. Blake and Serrano-McClain are the co-executive directors of NYC Speaks.

Smart Cities New York Urban Tech Summit 2022 Key Takeaways

Giacomo Bagarella shares insights from the 2022 Smart Cities New York Urban Tech Summit. This piece was also featured in The Envoy.

 

Urban technology comes in many shapes and sizes, and they influence the lives of city-dwellers in myriad ways. Take, for example, your commute home from work: You can call a ride with an app on your phone, step into an electric vehicle when it arrives, and then use another app to turn on the heat in your apartment so it’s comfortable when you arrive. These technologies have various financing mechanisms, lifespans, energy needs, and interdependencies. Together, they make up a slice of everything that’s required to keep a city operating and our lives moving, and to do so with fewer carbon emissions.

 

The 2022 Smart Cities New York Urban Tech Summit focused on this topic with two packed days revolving around “The Climate Mobilization: Harnessing NYC’s Urban Tech Ecosystem.” Hosted and organized by Cornell Tech, the conference offered a convenient (and transit-accessible) way to reconnect in person with this community after several years of remote-only events.

 

Here are some themes that stood out:

 

The green transition will depend on new financial and financing models. Supporting the coming generations of technologies and infrastructure requires making investments affordable and desirable across potential users — from households to businesses to governments. This will involve a combination of up-front and life-cycle incentives, payment plans, new ways to generate revenue streams, insurance that appropriately allocates risk, and structures that protect early adopters of rapidly evolving technologies. While recent federal legislation provides some of this, the green transition will need many more solutions and capital to occur at the required pace. Regional, state, and local entities — like green banks and even other forms of public banks — could become key players in this space.

 

Energy storage is a land use challenge. Storage will be an increasingly in-demand use outdoors (on open lots), indoors (within existing buildings), and in garages (for vehicle-to-grid solutions). Cities need to resolve big questions around site selection and zoning, the type of leases that’ll be needed for this kind of long-term infrastructure, negotiating community perspectives and impacts, and more. Storage may also offer a solution to underutilized or lower-quality office space and real estate.

 

Building decarbonization will require integration to scale. The design and construction industries are not vertically integrated, are fragmented among urban markets, and build buildings that are effectively bespoke. To achieve widespread decarbonization, there will need to be much greater integration across all of these dimensions to scale solutions and reduce costs for both new construction and rehab.

 

A growing number of organizations are entering this space. There was very strong representation by venture capital firms like Perl Street, Third Sphere, and Blackhorn Ventures, some of which focus exclusively on green transition technologies, and a plethora of startups like Enerdrape, Just Air, Hydronomy, and Ninedot Energy. While Cornell Tech itself is now 10 years old, the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture + Urban Planning had several staff attend and talk about a new urban tech degree it is launching, demonstrating an appetite for this field by universities and students. Philanthropic intermediaries like CIV:LAB, a co-sponsor of the conference, joined to present about their impact models. Lastly, there was intriguing representation from consulates and trade missions. Representatives from Canada, Sweden, Finland, Switzerland, and London attended. Canada and Switzerland have New York City-based accelerator programs, and Sweden has a Sweden-U.S. Green Transition Initiative that will heavily intersect with the tech world.

 

Despite the many panels, workshops, and substantive conversations that took place, the summit could have explored two areas more critically.

 

There was limited coverage of workforce challenges and opportunities. Despite a dedicated panel, the event seemed to only scratch the surface of this issue and could have done a stronger job providing a more comprehensive view of this area and more humanizing insights on user journeys and personal stories that demonstrate effective approaches. Perhaps this emerged more strongly in breakout rooms, but speakers could have focused on this more to explain where we are today, where we need to be in the future, and pathways from the former to the latter.

 

Panelists discussed many important challenges without questioning their fundamentals and the need to change human behavior. A common theme throughout the conference was the need to manage the growing volume of deliveries and its impact on congestion, carbon emissions, waste, and more. However, speakers didn’t spend time digging into the root causes of this issue – how much and how inefficiently people order online — and focused instead its symptoms. Just as we have become comfortable questioning the need for car-centric planning and lifestyles, we should stop taking current modes of purchasing, delivery, and energy use — among others — as givens. Driving a car alone or ordering a single item online each have externalities that critically and environmentally-minded people should seek to address. Similarly, panelists discussed the aversion people could have to battery storage being built in city neighborhoods. We have come to accept some level of risk in our places and lives, like gas stations or large SUVs speeding around the city, and should have conversations around accepting some new risks, like batteries, to prevent bigger ones like climate change. Ultimately, human behavioral change will need to accompany technological change in a more sustainable, less carbon-intensive future, and we should be comfortable discussing this directly.

 

*          *          *

 

Throughout the event, it was refreshing not hear to hear terms like “crypto” or “blockchain” bandied about as theoretical “someday” solves for very pressing, real challenges. This indicated a focus on tangible solutions as opposed to hyped-up tech. In fact, participants often returned to the idea of trains as the most undervalued but perfectly tested urban technology.

 

A greener future requires better signals and interconnections. Whether it’s policymakers establishing clearer signals through incentives and disincentives, communities expressing their preferences, investors and consumers pursuing the right solutions, and different technologies integrating with each other, the flow of preferences, information, and resources will need to evolve to shape a new urban paradigm. The Urban Tech Summit is a good start in this direction.

 

 

 

HR&A at ULI 2022 Fall Meeting

HR&A is excited to engage with fellow urbanists and changemakers at the 2022 ULI Fall meeting. Below is a recap of where you can find us at this year’s event:

 

2022 ULI Americas Awards for Excellence

You’ll find Senior Advisor Marilynn Davis and Chair of the 2022 ULI Americas Awards for Excellence jury at many of the Fall meeting events and also presenting the 2022 ULI Americas Awards for Excellence. Marilynn recently shared insights about this year’s Award winners:


“Amidst the evolving pandemic and the social, economic, and environmental disarray that it has highlighted, I am inspired by the range of projects that were submitted for the jury’s consideration, that elevate our sense of community and extol the human spirit through the built environment. Whether designed for the public realm or for more focused audiences, and whether large or small, these endeavors employ the highest development and design principles to serve a range of objectives, be they urban revitalization, environmental stewardship, equity, or community-building.”

 

Speaking Events

October 25, 1 2pm CT | Principal Aaron Abelson will be moderating a Panel with representatives from the Trust for Public Land and Parks for Downtown Dallas on Green = Gold; Parks, Trails, and Open Space as a Catalyst for Generating Economic Value.

 

October 25, 1 2pm CT | Partner Mason Ailstock will be speaking as a panelist for a discussion on Innovation Districts in Midsized Cities with representatives from Ancora Partners and the City of Richmond.

 

October 25, 2:30 3:30pm CT | Partner Stan Wall will be speaking as a panelist for a discussion on Equitable Transit-Oriented Communities: Shaping Ecosystems of Equity, Health, and Affordability.

 

October 27, 10:30 – 11:30am CT | CEO Eric Rothman and Partner Amitabh Barthakur, AICP will lead a panel on Industry Insights and Trends Sessions: The Public/Private Partnership Council.

 

Connect with all of our HR&A attendees at the Fall meeting:

Aaron Abelson — Principal, Dallas

Mason Ailstock — Partner, Atlanta, University Development and Innovation Council

Amitabh Barthakur, AICP — Partner, Los Angeles, Public/Private Partnership Council (Blue Flight)

Joseph Cahoon — Senior Advisor, Dallas

Kate Collignon — Partner, San Francisco, Public Development and Infrastructure Council

Marilynn Davis — Senior Advisor, Atlanta, University Development and Innovation Council

Jeff Hebert — President, New York

Thomas Jansen — Principal, New York, Urban Revitalization Council (Blue)

Ignacio Montojo — Principal, New York

Ada Peng — Director, Los Angeles

Eric Rothman — CEO, New York, Public/Private Partnership Council (Gold Flight)

Alex Stokes — Principal, Chicago

Stan Wall — Partner, Washington DC, Transit Oriented Development Council

Martha Welborne — Senior Advisor, Los Angeles, Placemaking Council

 

Additional Updates About HR&A and ULI in 2022

ULI Prize for Visionaries

HR&A congratulates Jeanne Gang, founder of Studio Gang, for her recent ULI Prize for Visionaries. Partner and Board Chair Candace Damon served on the jury that selected Jeanne Gang. Randy Rowe, ULI Prize Jury Chair and chairman of Green Courte Partners in Chicago shared insights on the jury’s rationale for selecting Gang:


“Jeanne’s work is elevated further by her commitment to helping others envision a new future for design. Through research, publications, and exhibitions, she has educated urban designers and architects about how they can make meaningful change with their own projects. This could not be more in line with ULI’s mission, and it’s clear her efforts continue to have a lasting, positive impact on communities worldwide.”

 

Staff Spotlight: Taylor Kay talks Inglewood, economic development, and the lessons she shares with her students

Taylor Kay, a native Angeleno, joined HR&A in 2021 after serving in the Planning Division at the City of Inglewood. Prior to HR&A, she worked at Thomas Safran & Associates, a developer and operator of affordable and luxury mixed-use residential communities.

 

She supports a range of Inclusive Cities, Real Estate and Economic Development projects, participates in the Black Employee Resource Group, supports firm recruitment, and taught a Policy, Planning, and Development course at the University of Southern California (USC), where she also received dual master’s degrees in Urban Planning and Public Administration.

 

How has community development evolved in LA since the start of your career? 
With scarce resources and an ever-changing world, traditional systemic approaches to community development are being reconsidered in favor of more proactive and innovative approaches. It is no longer acceptable to adopt a plan for a neighborhood, structure a (real estate) deal within a neighborhood, or infuse capital into an area without being thoughtful and strategic about the people impacted by the project. It is a beautiful thing, in my opinion, that there is now a platform to talk about concepts that were once “swept under the rug,” such as barriers to opportunity, inequality, the concentration of poverty, and “social problem recidivism” (credit to Jeffrey Snell at University of Wisconsin-Madison for this last term).

 

What’s the best part about working across so many different neighborhoods at the same time? 
Every day at HR&A challenges me! Our work connects us with neighborhoods in a way that requires a level of intuition, humility, and creativity that I have not experienced before. Working across several communities, cities, and states simultaneously enables me to bridge the gap between the realities communities are facing and solutions that empower communities to thrive.

 

What story about your hometown of Inglewood should remain in the post-Superbowl headlines?
For Black and brown people, Inglewood has been a city of economic opportunity, a safe space, and hub of culture for decades. Events such as the Superbowl, the Olympics, etc. have re-instilled pride in community members in ways that the city has not seen since the Lakers and the Kings used to play at the Forum. These events also infuse much-needed capital into an economically disadvantaged area. The caveat to all of this, however, is that these major events put immense pressure on the community as visitors come to the city and see what a hidden gem it is. In the absence of an inclusive economic development strategy, Inglewood is vulnerable to the same level of gentrification and displacement that has been felt in neighborhoods such as Boyle Heights, Leimert Park/Baldwin Hills, West Adams, and other parts of Southern California in recent years.

 

Our team recently spent a day visiting community landmarks in Inglewood, including SoFi Stadium, Image courtesy of Taylor Kay

 

What is one lesson that you tell your students to remember about planning and public policy? 
We (developers, planners, policymakers, etc.) carry a unique and nuanced responsibility to the communities we inhabit, as both people with lived experience and practitioners in positions of power. Our ethics, values, and politics inform the decisions we make that influence outcomes for people and planet. Therefore, it is important to operate from a place of servant leadership and global citizenship no matter what aspect of the industry we decide to pursue.

 

What are a few of your favorite locally owned businesses?There are far too many, but here are a few!

How to win a $63 million federal grant as a first-time applicant

Written by Kate Wittels and Giacomo Bagarella

 

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs and Inflation Reduction Acts present communities with once-in-a-generation opportunities to pursue federal funding. Historically, communities with more resources or experience navigating the complexities of the federal funding landscape have had greater success. Politics also plays a major role in decision-making. Both facts, along with a lack of equity-driven thinking in the design of these programs has reinforced long-standing inequities.

 

We have shared federal funding success stories from HR&A’s clients in previous features, but working with the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, a non-profit economic development organization active in southwestern Pennsylvania, was perhaps the single most exciting instance of disrupting this status quo. In early September, the Economic Development Administration (EDA) announced that the Allegheny Conference and southwestern Pennsylvania were one of only 21 Build Back Better Regional Challenge (BBBRC) awardees and one of only five that received over $60 million.

 

Our work supporting clients pursuing federal funding opportunities suggests the critical importance of having tools and processes to simplify the complexity. Even trying to identify programs for which you are eligible can deter organizations that haven’t engaged in the process before; our recently launched Infrastructure Funding Navigator helps with that particular challenge. In Allegheny Conference’s case, a dynamic impact model and a robust application management strategy were keys to success winning the federal funding game.

 

Although the Allegheny Conference had the support of the community and was well-positioned to lead the effort, it had never submitted a federal grant application before. It brought on HR&A to support the effort, because as Vera Krekanova, Chief Strategy & Research Officer put it, “HR&A had the tools, lived experience, and internal organization to understand how to navigate the federal funding process.”

 

At the conclusion of the effort, Allegheny Conference leaders, including the organization’s CEO Stefani Pashman, sat down with us to reflect on what drove success.

 

Identify the problem and envision a unifying solution that will have lasting impacts for all.

 

The 11-county southwestern Pennsylvania region is home to 2.7 million people, one in five Pennsylvanians. Like 12 other former coal and industrial communities that received BBBRC grants, southwestern Pennsylvania has struggled to recover from the decline of those industries. With major employment loss came significant population loss — particularly in rural counties.

 

To address these issues, Allegheny Conference developed a proposal to rebuild a knowledge-driven economy that will transform assets into a system to benefit everyone within the region. In the view of Conference leadership, this twin focus on systems and equity helped them secure one of the largest BBBRC grants and funding for all five of their proposed projects.

 

Within the region, energy, healthcare, and advanced manufacturing are recognized strengths. HR&A worked with the Allegheny Conference to identify a unifying economic driver that would build on these strengths, improve opportunities for a diversity of communities, and leverage world-class research and development at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) and other local institutions. As a result of a robust community engagement process, Allegheny Conference leadership identified an opportunity to “supercharge the … globally recognized robotics and autonomy cluster and ensure that its economic benefits equitably reach rural and coal-impacted communities,” thereby improving the lives of nearly 15,000 workers.

 

Erect a big tent and invite your community in, building a vision together without diluting its impact.

 

The Allegheny Conference started by leveraging its existing connections to bring more than 90 public, private, philanthropic, labor, education, and economic development stakeholders together for regular conversations. The application’s focus on robotics and autonomous mobility emerged from these conversations.

 

We began with a discussion of how establishment of a unifying theme that could demonstrably benefit every coalition member would strengthen the application. In these early conversations, it became clear that everyone — from farmers to pharmacists — could benefit from the adoption of robotics. While funding for research and development was critical to make sure ideas emerging from educational partners turned into companies, it was equally important to ensure that regional businesses were ready to be customers of these robotic technologies and that the local workforce was able to use robotics and had the skills to help scale the robotic companies themselves. The overarching vision that emerged was of a focus on the entire supply chain rather than one aspect, which would have narrowed the impact to a single party, geographic community, or stakeholder type.

 

 

Create an application management plan.

 

We needed a system for efficient decision-making. HR&A recommended core principles for application management that the Allegheny Conference relied on throughout the process:

 

  1. Inform everyone
  2. Bring together local experts
  3. Be open to feedback
  4. Make sure you have people who call the shots
  5. Inform everyone again

 

Allegheny Conference and HR&A supported the stakeholder coalition, developing templates for members to develop BBBRC-compliant programs, which would later be synthesized and summarized in the application. Among the tools we developed for coalition members preparing these program descriptions was a cost-benefit model to evaluate relative impact if money were reduced or added to a specific project. Another tool developed for coalition members was a prompt to facilitate consideration of the rationale for each project and the role it would play in equitable, systemic change.

 

The Allegheny Conference also assigned tasks and responsibilities, pushing as much content drafting as possible to local experts, while retaining management of the overall process, narrative, and quality control.

 

With consistent communication and adherence to the application management plan, the Allegheny Conference built trust across the coalition. This proved critical when amendments to the proposal were required by EDA in the final stages of the award process.

 

Translate federal priorities and principles so they make sense to your local stakeholders. 

 

The Allegheny Conference recognized how important it was for the entire coalition — not just the applicant — to speak EDA’s language. EDA’s articulated priorities differed somewhat from past federal funding opportunities, requiring proposals that offered “transformational investments to develop and strengthen regional industry clusters…while embracing equitable economic growth, creating good-paying jobs, and enhancing U.S. global competitiveness.”

 

The Allegheny Conference and HR&A identified five projects that could transform the region’s robotics, automation, and manufacturing economy and aligned with EDA priorities, including closing “not just racial and ethnic, but also geographic” equity gaps, and then wove them together, both in the imaginations of project sponsors and in the application narrative, advancing a theory of change that relied on the five projects functioning as an integrated regional system. As Allegheny Conference CEO Stefani Pashman said, this win “will bring renewed vitality to our 11-county region and enhance opportunities for a wide band of people, businesses and places in ways we have not seen before. These projects are designed to open doors to anyone who wants to participate in the region’s thriving robotics cluster. This includes expanded opportunities for women and people of color, as well as provide geographic equity throughout the region.”

 

Presentation of the projects as an integrated system enabled both the coalition and EDA to see the importance of funding the entire package and the tradeoffs if one or more projects were not funded. EDA ultimately funded all five projects — distinguishing the submission from many others, where EDA funded only one or two. The Allegheny Conference proved that with the right tools and a well-considered framework for impact, even organizations that have never played before can win the federal funding game.

 

Images courtesy of Allegheny Conference.

What Does the Future Look like for Post-COVID Downtowns?

 

What Does the Future Look like for Post-COVID Downtowns?

Written by Candace Damon

 

We have been wondering how the diversity of cities in which we work are innovating and adapting to the new reality of hybrid work. Specifically, we were curious if the civic leaders with whom we’ve worked on downtown revitalization in some parts of the country had lessons to share with their counterparts in other regions. Below, we invite you to read responses from nine private developers, city officials, business improvement district heads, and other civic leaders. Here are the key takeaways:

    • Cities that have committed to the long-term project of building mixed-use downtowns with a strong residential presence are bullish on their future. This is a theme that runs through the narratives from Fort Lauderdale, Jacksonville, Philadelphia, and Arlington (VA). The corollary is also true: cities like Vancouver are seeing the development of commercial product in formerly residential neighborhoods. These market developments will clearly have implications for long-term public policy with respect to, at least, transit investment and zoning.
    • Some of the currently most successful real estate products respond directly to the requirements of hybrid work. While demand remains soft for many conventional commercial and residential products in many markets, hybrid products that address the requirements of hybrid work are succeeding in cities that welcome experimentation. For instance, in Fort Lauderdale, commercial spaces that offer high-end residential amenities like dog runs are leasing strongly. Similar kinds of successful experiments with hybrid space usage are reported in Chattanooga. We wrote about the potential for this kind of development in an earlier issue and are intrigued to see it coming to pass.
    • Other kinds of experimentation with space reusage offer opportunities to improve equitable outcomes. A Portland real estate leader notes the potential of obsolete, small-floorplate office buildings for conversion to affordable housing. An Amarillo friend writes about successful reuse of a variety of obsolete and underutilized spaces to foster innovation and workforce development in that city’s core strength in meat production.
    • Investment in the public realm can do triple duty — improving equitable outcomes, boosting private commercial returns, and building residential demand.  That’s the view of clients and colleagues in New York City, Fort Lauderdale, Jacksonville, Chattanooga, and Arlington (VA). For AJARR’s readers with a passion for parks and open space, that is welcome — if unsurprising — news and ought to be part of the narrative we advance in our work.

    Please reach out if any of these experiences resonate with you, or if you want to share other lessons from the contemporary downtown experience.

     

 

Fort Lauderdale

Jenni Morejon, President & CEO

Fort Lauderdale Downtown Development Authority

Three pillars are driving Downtown Fort Lauderdale’s (FTL) successful evolution: a strong pipeline of residential development; offices that blend the line between living and working; and investments in public space.

 

More than 6,000 new residents moved to Downtown FTL in the past two years. The population growth—80% since 2010—created a healthy balance of residential and commercial uses. While most city centers largely made up of office buildings went dark during the height of covid, Fort Lauderdale thrived.

 

Traditional offices in FTL are now competing with unique amenities in new residential developments, from outdoor terraces to dog runs. This healthy competition requires new offices to up their game and blend the line between living and working, which in turn attracts new talent and the companies hiring them to Downtown Fort Lauderdale.

 

Quality places for the entire community to gather outdoors are key to an equitable future. For example, the reimagining of Huizenga Park in Downtown FTL will transform a vacant large outdoor event space into a highly activated park.

 

By prioritizing new residential growth, blending the line between living and working, and investing in accessible public spaces, cities can reenergize traditional central business districts towards a more vibrant and resilient future.

 

Pacific Northwest

Pat Callahan, Founder and Chief Executive Officer

Urban Renaissance Group LLC

Adaptive re-use is one of the most powerful tools we have for revitalizing the public realm and commercial business districts in a post-Covid world. The most immediate action item for local and state government in this new environment is to encourage change in use from older small floor plate office buildings into affordable residential units, close to services and jobs. Small floor plate office buildings can easily be converted to small residential apartment units and Single Room Occupancy (SRO) formats, if regulatory obstacles are removed. In fact, governments should provide subsidies to encourage these conversions through incentives, including low interest loans. We have a housing affordability crisis, and we need to get serious to solve it. This will address affordability and urban vitality at the same time. Single room occupancy should also be encouraged.

 

Experimental retail in the urban core should also be encouraged. For example, Urban Renaissance Group is currently reimagining Portland’s Lloyd Center — once the largest mall in the world, which “Portlanders had left for dead.” With a new master plan and tenanting strategy, Urban Renaissance Group is proud to engage in this iconic project turning around.

 

New York City

Celine Armstrong, ASLA, LEED AP, Chief Development Officer

Fifth Avenue

New York City has a rich and beautiful history of adapting and innovating during moments of uncertainty, struggle, and crisis. Case in point, during the early months of the coronavirus pandemic, the city’s people reclaimed their streets as well as the city’s underutilized spaces. While this is nothing new to many New Yorkers, it became a citywide reality, taking on a brand-new energy with people of all ages and economic status demanding—and creating—more spaces for outdoor activities.

 

People need to be around other people and thanks to these new spaces, New Yorkers were able to truly appreciate the pedestrian-friendly environment. The city quickly adapted several different areas, finding room for outdoor classes, eateries, and more. As with several European cities, the parts of the city that embraced these changes became more vibrant and their stores and restaurants lived to see another month.

 

Fortunately, city leadership has supported efforts like Open Streets and there is now enough data available to know that an investment in the public realm not only leads to an increase in revenue for local business, but also increases quality of life in a way that people want to return to the reimagined business districts.

 

Jacksonville, Florida

Jake Gordon, CEO

Downtown Vision Inc, Jacksonville Florida

Like all cities, we’re still adjusting to the “new normal” in Jacksonville, Florida. We as city builders need to continue to focus on what’s important — the people that make our urban centers great. In Jax, we have focused on supporting existing tenants, and adding residents, both valuable and effective strategies.

 

Still the effects of pandemic were substances. In Downtown and citywide, our office market is experiencing record levels of available and vacant space[1]. However, direct asking rates have not only surpassed pre-Covid levels, but they have actually reached record highs[2]. Talk about a new normal! Downtown covers less than one percent of Jacksonville, but it’s home to a third of Jacksonville’s office inventory and so most affected with changes brought on by increased remote work.

 

Yet these negative effects from the pandemic are balanced out in Jacksonville by both a huge increase in relocations to North Florida and ongoing diversification of who is coming Downtown. Sustained growth has actually led to an overall increase in street traffic Downtown. Plus, in the past five years, we here in “DTJax” have focused on adding residents and have doubled that number over the past decade. If all the development projects in the current pipeline are built, the number of residents will double again, reaching more than 16,000 people. Meanwhile, the City and our Downtown Investment Authority is investing heavily in waterfront activation, parks, and bike and pedestrian trails to provide unique amenities to enhance the quality of life and recruit business and talent.

 

Downtown Jacksonville is on the rise! All of these statistics come from our new State of Downtown Jacksonville Report 2022, to be released soon at DTJax.com/research.

 

[1] 2022 Q2; 26.1% vacancy rate in Downtown, 19.8% in Jacksonville overall

[2] 2022 Q2 Average Lease Rates: $22.96 for Downtown, $21.94 for Jacksonville overall

 

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Prema Katari Gupta, Executive Director
Central Philadelphia Development Corporation and Vice President for Parks and Public Realm

In Philadelphia, office-to-residential conversion is not a new concept. A quarter-century of successful conversions of old office buildings, while new ones have been added, has yielded a highly diversified downtown with one of the country’s largest residential populations. Today, foot traffic on Center City sidewalks is approaching pre-pandemic levels, despite the fact that only 52% of office workers have returned, typically only three days per week. Residents, and increasingly tourists, have animated streets and generated economic activity that has insulated downtown retail and restaurants from a more pronounced downturn. Demand from residents and visitors for parks, shopping, museums, and theater will sustain the amenities that entice more office workers downtown.

 

A diversified downtown brings together people from across the income and socioeconomic spectrum. Compelling research from Raj Chetty has demonstrated that meaningful cross-class connections boost individual economic mobility more than anything else. As regions become more politically polarized, neighborhoods sort by demographics, and social media displaces eye contact, downtowns remain places where everyone can come together and share space, making downtowns a key accelerant of upward mobility and a pathway to the American Dream.

 

 

Chattanooga, Tennessee

Emily Mack, President & CEO

River City Company

What happens when you combine a pandemic with a city that has been voted “Best Outdoor City” twice and offers the world’s fastest community-wide internet through their local municipal utility, EPB? It welcomes a flood of new residents and companies along with recognition as “PC Mag’s 2021 #1 remote-working town.” Since 1986, River City Company has led downtown redevelopment projects, which have been replicated across the United States, including a renowned riverfront featuring large-scale festivals, billions of dollars generated from tourism and a renewed focus on emphasizing creating an atmosphere for residents first.

 

Today, organizations like River City Company are needed more than ever. As Chattanooga continues to evolve, River City Company serves as the convener and works with companies to transform single-use spaces like offices and surface level parking lots into dynamic spaces geared toward improving social interactions, new housing types and connections to culture. By no means does this mean the “traditional office” is dead. In fact, Steam Logistics, who was just ranked #254 on the Inc. 5000 list of America’s Fastest Growing Companies, is renovating a decades vacant downtown building to welcome 400 employees to their new headquarters.

 

For those returning to the office, some are expecting more from it. green|spaces just announced embarking upon a “Living Building Challenge” with the goal of a creating a health-conscious community hub that is net positive water and energy. History has shown us that downtowns can be resilient, but only if the residents and businesses are willing to take steps to evolve and transform. Chattanooga, where the streetlights were once set to blink after 5pm, is a shining beacon in the South that has proven through strong private/public partnerships, innovation, adaptiveness, and a bit of grit, you can create a city where all can thrive.

 

Arlington, Virginia

Tracy Gabriel, President/Executive Director

National Landing

COVID has changed the landscape for downtowns and central business districts. Locations that foster a mix of uses, welcome inclusive growth, invest in open spaces, provide regulatory flexibility for reuse, and embrace innovation will be best primed to succeed in building a more resilient, competitive, and equitable market.

 

Seek Balance. The pandemic exposed the economic vulnerabilities of office-dominated downtown districts. In National Landing, a growing downtown and innovation district in Arlington, VA just outside DC, we have learned the importance of a balanced mix of uses — including housing and open space — for a competitive district. Our nearly 1:1 ratio of workers to residents has buoyed the area and fostered a vibrant, active streetscape. Increasing housing, including committed affordable housing and adaptive reuse of vacant space, is key to building an equitable future, especially amid affordability pressures.

 

Innovation Mindset. To tackle vacancies/reuse, we are keeping our sights set in National Landing on embracing innovation, digital infrastructure, technological advances, and sustainability as key to evolving our future. We are building on the assets of major employers and educational institutions, like Amazon, Boeing and Virginia Tech, to pilot technology, enhance mobility, and support workforce development to cultivate talent for an inclusive ecosystem.

 

Vancouver, British Columbia

Katie Maslechko, Director of Development

Beedie

As a city challenged with extreme issues of affordability, the greatest lesson the Metro Vancouver region stands to take away is to embrace that “traditional” doesn’t look the way it used to, and that this new reality has accelerated a new definition of commercial business districts.

 

Across the region, Vancouver’s past decade of transit expansion created half a dozen neighborhoods with unique cultural and ethnic identities, each at a scale and mix of uses to rival the traditional commercial business district in downtown Vancouver. Prior to COVID, while many of these neighborhoods built more affordable communities focused on providing housing options, residents still commuted to the traditional commercial business district for jobs and services. All of that that changed after COVID.

 

This new reality has shifted, so instead of these neighborhoods being miles away from the urban core, they have spread new services, investments, and jobs across this diverse region. It has created a fundamental shift in equity and access across Metro Vancouver that must remain as much as a focus as the reenergizing of our “traditional” commercial business district.

 

Amarillo, Texas

Matt Garner, PhD, Scientist/Founder

MicroResearch

Amarillo is located five hours from larger cities like Dallas, Oklahoma City, and Denver, and is unofficially considered the capital of the Texas/Oklahoma Panhandles. Located in flyover country, our region produces 30% of the nation’s beef and 100% of its nuclear warheads, resulting in expertise critical to food and national security.

 

To serve regional stakeholders, Amarillo developed initiatives that converted physically and intellectually vacant space to fill in workforce and technological “knowledge gaps.” Considerable local resources were allocated establishing: i) a technically-dedicated high school (AmTech) in an abandoned warehouse, ii) a Community College Center for Technical Upskilling (Innovation Outpost) in a vacant community center and iii) an EDC stimulated Beef and Dairy “Global Food Hub” aimed at resource alignment & re-branding the area as a “Technological Oasis” serving our current businesses’ technological and workforce needs in an unrented downtown storefront.

 

These ideas were manifested into physical spaces while COVID shut down physical collaboration and work across the country; meanwhile, Amarilloans continued working & making food.

 

Many small/mid-sized cities would be well-served to lean into their authentic identity & expertise by creating physical spaces to strengthen the areas where they are already global leaders and formally creating their own “Centers of Excellence.”

Welcoming New Team Members and Celebrating HR&A University

HR&A is pleased to announce one of our largest and most diverse cohorts of new additions to the firm, spanning our six offices and various roles. This group of analysts, urbanists, and creative problem-solvers came together early this summer in our New York office for our annual HR&A University training week to network and learn about the wide range of important work happening across our practice. We’re excited to continue tackling the complex challenges facing our cities with these talented team members.

 

Alexandra Belyaev, Special Assistant to the Executive Office  | Alexandra joins HR&A as Special Assistant to the Executive Office. She brings extensive experience in shaping collaborations that center dignity, generativity, and abundance.

 

Andrew Bolton, Research Analyst  |  In his role as a Research Analyst, Andrew provides research and analytical support to a wide range of projects at HR&A.

 

Melanie Downing, Practice Operations Manager – Broadband & Digital Equity  |  Melanie supports HR&A’s growing Broadband & Digital Equity Practice in the public interest broadband ecosystem.

 

Kayley Estoesta, Research Analyst  |  Kayley is interested in making cities more economically, racially, and socially just, while meaningfully engaging with neighborhood residents throughout the process.

 

Tara Fay-Reilly, Recruitment Manager  |  Tara works with our People team to oversee HR&A’s recruitment strategies, helping to ensure equitable recruitment processes and a strong pipeline of candidates.

 

Will Finkelstein, Research Analyst  |  Will provides research and analytical support to urban innovation, economic development, and real estate projects throughout the southern United States.

 

Vidhee Garg, Principal  |  Vidhee brings over 14 years of experience advising public and private sector clients in 25+ countries on developing new policies, programs, and business plans to help improve access to housing for underserved populations.

 

Kayla Jaffe, Analyst  |  Kayla is at the forefront of creating equitable and just urban communities; she has worked with a variety of government agencies, nonprofits, foundations, and private sector clients to develop policies and programs that support the United States’ changing demographics.

 

Anna Messer  |  A research analyst in our New York office, Anna is passionate about equitable economic development, affordable housing, and urban resilience.

 

Kimbaley Mitchell, Administrative Assistant  |  ‘Kimberly’ brings over 15 years of administrative experience across government, public, and the corporate sectors supporting Sr. Executives to her role as Administrative Assistant in HR&A’s Atlanta office.

 

David Nugroho, Analyst  |  David provides research and analytical support to projects ranging from transit-oriented development to affordable housing and real estate advisory.

 

Garrett Robinson, Research Analyst  |  Garrett provides research and analytic support for a variety of real estate and economic development projects.

 

Marielle Saunders, Analyst  |  Marielle provides research and analytical support to projects ranging from economic development and inclusive cities to urban resilience and innovation.

 

Mark Siriban, Business Analyst  |  Mark supports the internal business using data analytics to aid in making decisions on strategic initiatives about growth, people, and operations.

 

Kas Tebbetts, Analyst  |  Kas supports projects ranging from comprehensive planning to real estate development, with a focus on meaningful community engagement and holistic, interdisciplinary solutions to place-based challenges.

 

Alexandra Tomasulo, Executive Assistant  |  Alexandra joins HR&A’s New York City Office as an Executive Assistant where she brings over 6 years of executive assisting experience across private and public sector projects.

 

Tommy Truong, Analyst  |  Tommy draws on his experience in community engagement, data analysis and democratization, and public policy to support equitable and inclusive urban development.

 

Shoshana Wintman, Research Analyst  |  Shoshana is a Research Analyst based in the New York office. She is passionate about equitable urban development, resilient planning, and climate change adaptation.

 

Sylvia Xiaomeng Li, Director  |  Sylvia leverages her planning, design, policy, and engagement expertise to help shape transformative development, robust large-scale planning efforts, and regulatory innovations to advance housing and economic equity.