The past few months have been challenging, but rewarding. Looking back, my tenure as a VISTA has remained true to a chart given to us in our Pre-Service Orientation in Philadelphia called Cycle of Service, which explained that most VISTAS reach their optimal level of efficiency and comfort with their position roughly half-way through their assignment.
In many ways, this has been especially true for my work and I feel much more confident about the combined impact for our three-person VISTA team. In many ways, the three of us have collectively entered a good flow in terms of our work and collaboration, both with each other and the Community Development team as a whole.
Recent Successes from the Middle Main Initiative: Made in Middle Main Partner Breakfast & Community Meet-Up
Last Week on March 17th, the Middle Main Initiative invited business partners in the community, which include merchants along Main Street and established Poughkeepsie investors to attend a partner breakfast at Michel’s Coffee Shop, located at 380A Main Street in downtown Poughkeepsie. Up until the day of the event, our team had worked hard to invite as many businesses along Main Street as possible, personally giving them printed information.
As the first of many breakfasts that Middle Main plans to host, this breakfast was meant to inform Main Street businesses about the Main Street Economic Development Strategy. Lead by Kevin Dwarka and Tiffany Zezula, consultants at the Pace University Land Use Law Center, this discussion was looking to collect information directly from merchants along Main Street in order to have better public participation in the planning process. The room was filled, having broad representation from many businesses, not for profits and developers, also including businesses that we had never seen representation from before such as C&F Shoe Repair and Unique Salon, who both took it upon themselves to not only attend their first Middle Main event, but also actively participate.
Above, Kevin Dwarka facilitates community discussions at the Made in Middle Main partner event.
As the meeting progressed, Kevin and Tiffany asked questions as to how individuals, business owners, and the city, can work together to create a better and more vibrant business corridor along Main Street. While conversation greatly varied, many community members expressed concerns with maintaining sidewalks, continuing to address crime, enforcing ordinances to keep main street clean and creating attractive signage for businesses. A summary of the event is also online through the Poughkeepsie Journal, who covered the event that morning.
Later that evening, we also had our March Community Meet-Up, which had the largest attendance since our June meeting earlier in the summer. In addition to allowing our five working groups to provide updates, we asked Kevin and Tiffany to continue the discussion about the Main Street Economic Development Strategy and had an information session from Tracy Lerman, Co-Convener at the Poughkeepsie Plenty Food Coalition. An excellent discussion followed.
Above, Lindsay Duvall, Community Development Coordinator at Hudson River Housing opens our March Community Meet-Up.
On a personal note,I am always pleased to see public participation grow with our Community Meet-Ups and I am very excited to see this impact grow in the near future.
Reactivating Vacant Commercial Storefronts along Poughkeepsie’s Main Street
Completing this project was challenging, but interesting. The end result, which took a few weeks to finish allowed our team to visualize and understand the overall business diversity in the neighborhood, including the growing number of ethnic restaurants, types of service agencies available, how many total businesses are open and many other factors. As of March 2015, there are an estimated 108 storefronts open along Main Street, with 28 vacant storefronts. 28 vacant storefronts translates to a 21% vacancy rate, which has improved from our 2013 when it was over 28%. Still, in the grand scheme of things, 21% in a major improvement, however visible it still remains in the neighborhood.
Above, vacant storefronts observed along the 400 block.
Above, vacant storefront for rent near 530 Main Street. The metal doors covering the windows are among many factors that also contribute to negative perceptions about public safety in downtown Poughkeepsie.
Vacant storefront at 297 Main Street. The glass windows in this picture could be filled with art or a temporary installation until the space is rented.
In connection to this, our team is trying to activate vacant storefronts with a combination of artistic installations, interim use and temporary urban space. So far, we've identified every storefront in the neighborhood, which we feel could have a higher and better use while at the same time, working to make a marketable plan that can not only occupy vacant commercial spaces, but also market them to new business development.
In terms of reactivating vacant spaces, there are numerous models that are being implemented in many American cities, namely No Longer Empty in NYC, who uses “ the power of art to explore the history of buildings and community narratives” in order to “…advocate for creative interim uses.” Their model uses a rich array of approaches, which incorporate artists, events, community education and more in order to reoccupy vacant buildings and put them to a higher and better use. Their process is very comprehensive, having sit visits, neighborhood research, proposals, installation of work, community collaboration and community feedback. They’ve been in the business of creative adaptive reuse for over five years and have an impressive array of projects and exhibitions, which connect to the communities they serve in. Their work in many ways establishes public participation and opens doors to new development.
Above, past exhibitions of NLE have created pop-up events all over New York City. Shown above are some of their exhibitions, which combine art, artists, performance art and more in order to reactivate vacant spaces and storefronts.
These same principles could definitely be applied to Middle Main, which is, for all intensive purposes, is an open canvas for experimental and creative techniques in urban planning and urban design. Other online organizations, like Pop-Up City, a well known blog that reports design trends and ideas that shape the city of the future is very useful for finding inspiration in projects that give us pause - are often done in a response to an urban problem, which creates a better solution.
One can only hope that with the recent opening of the POK Pop-Up Shop at the Mid-Hudson Heritage Center, that Pop-Up Retail and other forms of "tactical urbanism" will happen naturally on their own, created and inspired by people who care about Poughkeepsie and its #poughtential.
In any case, our end goal is to have as many vacant commercial storefronts rented along Main Street as possible.
Above, a huge crowd was present for the opening of our POK Pop-Up Shop which sells locally-made products, items, artwork and more. The shop is open during regular business hours of the Mid-Hudson Heritage Center.
Stakeholder Survey & Beyond
On April 11th, I will be facilitating a class of student volunteers, who will be supporting our Stakeholder Survey, which is our annual survey designed for us to understand challenges and perceptions in the neighborhood. We’re hoping to have in upwards of 25+ volunteers who will be stationed at one of ten locations in the neighborhood and going door-door. This will be a great opportunity for us to build on the 58 survey responses that we have already. We’re hoping to collect 150 between 10-2PM that day. I certainly hope we reach this mark!
Over the next few weeks I will be creating more maps for our website, which will show:
Hudson River Housing properties and target initiatives
Potential impacts of the Poughkeepsie Underwear Factory
Findings from our Business Inventory
In addition to this, I’m hoping to create:
An interactive community map system, which is on our website and publically accessible and
A more visible public perception of the Middle Main Initiative with established community building organizations such as Planetizen and Pop Up City so that our impact can be seen by as many new audiences as possible
For my next blog, I’m planning on interviewing the owner of My Place Pizza, Patrick Fitzgerald, who is a long-time community advocate in Poughkeepsie. Please look for this in the next week or two.
How would you like to see vacant commercial storefronts reopen in Poughkeepsie?
Do you have any ideas? What sort of business would you like to see downtown?
Please add your comments.