Monday, July 15, 2013

Creative, Chaotic Placemaking

The Silver Spring Civic Building and Veterans Plaza Learns to Walk and Play in the Same Sandbox

Excerpt from this blog posting served as a short 3-minute presentation to the Night-Time Economy Task Force July 15, 2013. In that presentation, I was humbled to be part of a panel with three distinguished folks* that are making the Silver Spring and Veterans Plaza the vibrant, thriving place that it is. (*Mike Diegel, Chair of the Silver Spring Arts and Entertainment Advisory Committee provided historical context; Jewru Bandeh, who operated the facility for two years shared operational issues; and, Evan Glass, Chair of the Silver Spring Citizens Advisory Board brought the broader community perspective.)

We could name this presentation many things. Some examples:
  • How the idea of this urban space has defined our public realm
  • Creating the urban fabric with an intentional multicultural tapestry
  • Making a spicy gumbo, not a melting pot (as our County Executive likes to say)
  • The Soul, Salsa, and Spirit(s) of Silver Spring
All of these statements try to capture the essence of how this amazing community, dysfunctional as it is, has created - is creating! - one of the most vibrant, thriving, successful public gathering space in the United States.

When I first met the facility’s architect - a proud Argentinean from Boston - before opening day back in 2010, I respectfully told him: “You have given us an architectural masterpiece, and an operational nightmare!... But ultimately, as beautiful a space as you have created, it is the people that will make the place.”... And, "make the place" they have, indeed!

I was rather amused when doing research for this presentation that Project for Public Spaces promoted their recent national conference by stating: “In a compelling entry into the public dialog around placemaking, Project for Public Spaces argues that people, rather than merely places, create vibrancy in a ... I think I’ll send them my blog posting from 2010 where we made this exact same argument for this facility:

Indeed, my sole contribution to the architecture of the facility was to insist - much to the chagrin of some (at the time) - that we put rocking chairs on the Plaza. As you well know, these have been quite a hit.

This place - Veterans Plaza and the Civic Building - is what it is because of the commitment of the social entrepreneurs and community investors that have spent countless hours to make it work. These have been people, institutions, and corporations that have demonstrated a passion for the simple vision that this facility be our living room; our patio; our gathering place; our public square. This vision for the facility was generated years back; and reaffirmed when the facility opened. See the blog posting:

Without these passionate and committed folks, this vision would have never been realized. Some of these folks have included:
  • The Dreamers and the Doers: Those folks that sat around kitchen tables literally decades ago and refused to accept a dying downtown.
  • Committed Neighborcrats: The countless civic activists that have toiled long and hard, arguing, fighting, writing letters, expressing their opinions, and doing what it takes to keep the vision alive.
  • Bureaucratic Champions: Most recently, Jewru Bandeh who spent no less than 16 hour days - including weekends and holidays - over the last two years to ensure the place operates professionally.
  • Engaged Social Entrepreneurs: Hannah McCann and now Megan Moriarty who made the Fenton Street Market work typify the personal risks taken to make this place work. 
  • Private Sector Interests: This place would not have worked without Peterson Company, a private sector development entity who was there day one and is still there today. Nor without Discovery, the AFI, Round House Theater, United Therapeutic, and the Fillmore. We also must recognize the development community that during the housing crisis of the last few years continue to be bullish in downtown Silver Spring as a great place to invest.

This place would not have succeeded in a vacuum. Its timing was intentional - if a tad late because of economic reasons... This place was conceptualized and designed in a time of prosperity. It was built and began operations in a time of relative austerity. We are now in deep dialogue about how to move forward as the economy slowly begins to bounce back. In summary, here’s how the history of this facility’s short life can be summarized:
  • Year Minus One (2009): Adjustments to budget reality
  • Year One (2010): Learning by doing
  • Year Two (2011): Introduction of policies and protocols
  • Year Three (2012): Improved access (through the Community Access Pilot Program)
  • Year Four (2013): Reinventing hospitality and welcome
  • Year Five (2014): Expanding the Impact (street performers)

So as to prove that necessity is the mother of invention, in the absence of unlimited resources, this place began to live and breathe without a master plan, without a marketing plan, without a voluminous strategic plan. The staffing resources were simply not there to do this in a traditional sense. So we made-do. Invented. Charged forward.

Rather than programming the space from the top down we took the risk of allowing the uses and users to be defined in a sort of ‘demand driven’ social and cultural marketplace. We purposely - thanks in part to limited resources - provided very little framework that would limit ingenuity, invention and experimentation of uses and users of the facility. 

We were proactive in providing the ice-skating rink, the Market, and the Gallery. But beyond that, we provided very little guidance as to what was supposed to go on in the place. Generally, the social and cultural marketplace gave us what we have today.

This led to an amazing array of truly grassroots, community serving, corporate, public, and institutional driven uses and users that we could have never dreamed of - that no bureaucrat could have ever envisioned or designed for. In many ways, the users and uses of this facility would make the people that dreamed up this place very proud... It is truly quite exhilarating to walk into this place under the aroma of the freshly roasted peanuts thanks to the peanut-vendor; hear the drum circle on the Plaza; see the quinceƱera celebration in the Great Hall; while a civic group is meeting in one of the rooms, the Ethiopian community is doing a poetry reading in another, and a youth group is practicing a play in yet another room... All of this while people mingle in the hallways 'doing community'...

There is one aspect of this place that I am not sure was ever dreamed of or considered. That is the extent to which this space has become the 'go-to' place for festivals of all types. This space has truly shown that community happens where culture and commerce intersect. Our County-produced Jazz Festival, Thanksgiving Parade, and Summer Concert Series proved a long time ago that downtown Silver Spring can be a destination place for celebrations. The success of the Fenton Street Market on Saturdays (when the ice-skating rink is not operating) demonstrated the area's appeal as a gathering place for commerce. Little did we know, however, that others would seize this opportunity and expand the offerings of festivals ten-fold. It is now rare the weekend that there is not some sort of festival on the Plaza and/or adjoining street. This year, during the Spring, Summer, and Fall over 20 different festivals took place in the space. This ranged from small, issue oriented gathering (i.e.: promoting organ donors in the Latino community); to large, two day ethnic festivals (i.e.: the PanaFest African Festival); to festivals promoting sustainability (i.e.: The GreenFest.) These festivals, together with the success of new venues in the downtown area (i.e.: The Fillmore), and the new apartment developments, have increased the "number of feet" on our downtown streets by at least a factor of five... That is, at any given weekend, there are five times more people in downtown Silver Spring than there were five years ago.

Our success has brought new challenges. For example:
  • We constantly try to balance the corporate, institutional and government demands of the facility with demands for community serving, celebratory, festival, and similar gatherings. 
  • We are also cognizant that the maintenance and up-keep demands of the space require laser-sharp attention and focus to our fiduciary responsibilities. 
  • And, we are always fine-tuning the customer service approach to make the space a welcoming place that will leave users with a positive, memorable experience of our Silver Spring community.
We have intentionally fit this facility in the broader urban fabric of downtown Silver Spring by focusing on an indispensable ingredient: Ensuring safety and security.  Have you noticed that there are teams of at least five different colored shirts throughout downtown?
  • Our Red Shirts are our ‘clean and safe’ team for the Urban District
  • The Yellow Shirts are dedicated to the parking garages
  • The Green Shirts are part of the Peterson Co., crew, focusing on the Fountain area
  • The Brown Shirts (on bicycle) are our recent addition for increased safety
  • The Blue Shirts, our police, of course
These teams provide the back-bone to the essential feel of the area as a safe, family friendly, welcoming urban place.

Plus, now our 'ambiance performances', provided by Silver Spring Town Center, Inc., (SSTCi) make the Plaza come alive with simple, engaging activity most every Tuesday and Wednesday evenings. These 'performances' are not concerts. They are not intended to bring more people to the area. Rather, they intend to provide the folks that happen to be in and around the space a more comfortable sense of place. These ambiance performances make the space feel safer and more welcoming.

It is quite something that in the last few years we've gone from the need to 'generate crowds' in downtown Silver Spring to now having the 'happy problem' of needing to 'control and manage' the crowds!... Quite a change, indeed.

I have challenged my friends in the planning profession throughout the Country and beyond to tell me of another urban place that has been created in the last decade that is so intentionally diverse, so thriving, vibrant, energized, exciting, with a dose of edginess, ingenuity, invention, experimentation, and where the unexpected can still happen... I know of no other such place... And, we've just learned to walk!... Please join us as we embark on the next phase of successful placemaking in our Silver Spring.

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