Something as simple as the width of a sidewalk can affect how a person feels about where they live, an expert said Tuesday at the Wilmington Real Estate Summit & Awards
And that feeling, or sense of place, has far-reaching consequences for an area’s economy, said Katherine Loflin, a consultant and researcher who advises business and government leaders about ways to use the placemaking model as they map an area's future.
“‘Place’ has recently been named as the new American dream,” said Loflin, the keynote speaker Tuesday morning for the summit, held at the Wilmington Convention Center and produced by the Greater Wilmington Business Journal.
Placemaking, Loflin explained, involves taking places as they are, with their own specific strengths and positive qualities, and optimizing them, often accomplished through social offerings, aesthetics and openness.
People make economic decisions, from accepting a job in one city over another to buying a home in a particular neighborhood, based on their emotional investments in an area, according to studies conducted by Loflin.
“The No. 1 thing that most drives resident attachment to their community is the opportunity for positive social interaction in the community,” whether that interaction comes in the form of a festival or something less formal, like being able to meet on a bike path, she said.
Secondly, “having an environment that is aesthetically pleasing seems to help with the connectedness to that place,” regardless of a person’s age, income or other demographic category, Loflin said.
Openness, or making a place more welcoming to a diverse group of people, is another factor in the attachment formula Loflin shared on Tuesday.
“The goal cannot be welcomeness to some; the goal has to be welcomeness to all,” she said. “That is a very high goal to hit, and that’s why a lot of U.S. communities struggle with this.”
Diversity in the housing options a community offers is one path to more openness. Loflin used the example of a group categorized as “young talent,” or people just starting out who might not be able to afford to, or want to, buy a home.
“Are you giving them an invitation to stay, or are you giving them absolutely no choice but to leave?” Loflin said.
More than 52 percent of all renter households and more than 30 percent of all homeowners in the Cape Fear region are paying more than they can afford for their housing costs, recent studies show.
Suzanne Rogers, the city of Wilmington’s community development and housing planner, explained Tuesday how a lack of affordable housing is more than an individual problem.
“When folks are spending so much of their income to keep a roof over their head, then they have less disposable income to put into our local economy,” Rogers said, as she participated in a series of 10-minute presentations at the summit.
Some potential solutions, along with preserving existing affordable housing, include allowing for more density, providing incentives to developers of affordable housing, city programs that can help with home mortgages and down payments, inclusionary zoning and deferred fees. The Brunswick County Board of Commissioners was one of the recipients of real estate awards bestowed Tuesday at the summit for its interim policy of defering payment and collection of certain fees from developers to a later date instead of requiring payment before issuing a building permit.
Planning for the future
Some of the topics Loflin covered Tuesday as she explained why placemaking matters are threaded throughout recent planning efforts in the city, county and Cape Fear region.
Glenn Harbeck, director of planning, development and transportation for the city of Wilmington, said his staff is about three quarters of the way through the development of the city’s comprehensive plan. “We hope to have something delivered to City Council in the spring,” Harbeck said during a session at the summit Tuesday on local long-term planning efforts.
Themes that have emerged in the city’s process, he said, are the need for alternate modes of transportation and the desire for more walkable or bikeable communities; the need for alternative housing models for baby boomers; and the advantages of mixed use development.
Mixed use, Harbeck said, is “the only real solution to our transportation problem here in New Hanover County where we’re boxed in by the river and the ocean.”
Addressing the issues of affordable and diverse housing, Harbeck said, “I think one of the challenges we face is that we have an institutional and governmental bias toward big projects,” with planning and building costs that get passed down to the price of the units being one of the main reasons why.
“But unfortunately, we’re not distributing the diversity in our community; we’re just reconcentrating it in other locations and the history of low-income housing in our country is that as long as you concentrate large numbers of people all in one place, you will go through a constant cycle of degeneration, demolition, reconstruction.”
The solution, he said, is “to find models where we can incorporate lower income, affordable housing into more diverse communities.”
New Hanover County’s comprehensive planning effort is also under way, with a report on existing conditions available online at NHCplan.com. “Right now we’re working with a 12-member citizen’s advisory committee to create strategies to address those issues,” said Chris O’Keefe, planning and inspections director for the county.
Mike Kozolosky, executive director of the Wilmington Metropolitan Planning Organization, said his organization expects to finalize the priorities of the Cape Fear Transportation 2040 long-range plan by March. After that, the group wil “go back out to the community to receive feedback on the effort, make sure we’ve got it right before we take it before each of our local jurisdictions for adoption.”
That plan covers New Hanover and portions of Brunswick and Pender counties. The WMPO received 4,000 responses to a survey conducted last year, Kozolosky said.
“Eighty percent of the people who responded to the survey use a personal vehicle for commuting, but we’ve also heard that they desire change,” he said, citing an example of one of the WMPO's findings.
More corporations are recognizing investments in placemaking as a way to recruit and retain talented employees, Loflin said.
CastleBranch Corp. CEO Brett Martin described the placemaking that has gone into tekMountain, a high-tech business incubator on the top floor of his company’s headquarters on Sir Tyler Drive in Wilmington.
“We give them a world to go to, to create their ideas,” Martin said of the entrepreneurs tekMountain welcomes.
Aside from specially-designed spaces to meet and work, the incubator includes a gym and in-house brewery, among other features, because for those in the high-tech industry, Martin explained, work is home.
It’s important, Martin said, to provide that kind of environment as Wilmington continues to become known as a place for tech start-ups.
“I hope that one day instead of us saying that Wilmington is a great place to come to retire, that we will say, no, it’s a great place to come and work,” Martin said.
With land available for new development becoming more scarce in the city, revitalization and redevelopment are now “the name of the game,” said Allen Davis, urban planner with the city of Wilmington, as he discussed placemaking in a short session Tuesday.
Redevelopment sites are most of the sites that come to the city planning department’s door, he said.
“We’ll need to rethink our shopping centers, like The Galleria [a closed shopping center at 6800 Wrightsville Ave.], and turn those into mixed use places,” Davis said. “We need to reactivate our storefronts, even if it’s just temporary….we need to move from a site by site mentality to a coordinated placemaking mentality.”
The city’s comprehensive plan recognizes both general placemaking and strategic placemaking, Davis explained, with the latter involving an “organic” creative way “of doing things with our cities and public spaces that we don’t necessarily have a policy framework in place for.” Zoning alone, he said, does not create good places while outside-of-the-box, strategic placemaking boosts those efforts.
“Through placemaking and good design, we’ll continue to move Wilmington from good to great, giving ourselves, our 60,000 new neighbors [the number of residents projected to join the city in the next 25 years] and more and more visitors the places that we’re looking for,” Davis said.