An Interview With - Donna Carney, Director of Citizen's Planning Institute, City of Philadelphia Planning Commission
Wow, where has the time gone? I can't believe we're over halfway done with 2018! Didn't it just seem like the Eagles were marching down Broad Street? Now preseason is only a few weeks away! Crazy! So, my summer has been very hectic and as such, I've been remiss in getting blog posts out like I've wanted to, but I've finally made the time to get to it, and for this post I've got a fantastic interview for you all. I've had the pleasure of meeting Donna and presenting to the Citizen's Planning Institute, and it's a really great organization that does phenomenal work in the City of Philadelphia. But you don't have to listen to me, please read below and let Donna tell you all about it!
Hi Donna! Thanks for taking the time to speak with me. So, you work for the City of Philadelphia, but in a non-traditional planning capacity. Can you please describe what exactly you do for my readers?
Sure! I'm Director and founder of the Citizen's Planning Institute (CPI), which is the education and outreach entity of the Planning Commission. Its primary mission is to empower residents all across the city to be better advocates and activists in their neighborhoods for issues related to the physical environment.
Sounds like an admirable mission! What made you interested in planning?
My initial graduate degree program was historic preservation and I defined that as managing the best of the built environment. I was less interested in the technical side of conservation of materials and more interested in the “whole” of community, so I suppose I was actually doing planning without realizing it! And in my later architecture work, I realized I was most excited by projects that engaged with the voices in the community.
An architect who ended up in planning? What would George Costanza think!? So what made you want to join CPI?
There was no CPI when I was hired! As mentioned, I didn’t go through any formal academic urban planning program. I was laid off from my architecture job during the 2009 recession and was doing lots of informational interviews. When the RFP for the Citizens Planning Institute position was issued by the Planning Commission, several people forwarded the link to me because they thought it would be a good fit. I was hesitant (to apply) for a while because I wasn’t a “planner”, but my background in preservation, architecture & sustainable design, and especially organizational design, ended up being a perfect fit for creating the Institute.
As an “outsider” to planning, I didn’t come in with any preconceptions and would be learning about planning alongside the participants! I did the research and interviewed city and neighborhood influencers to figure out what the structure of CPI should be. It’s been years of growing and tweaking ever since!
That's impressive! What’s something that you learned along your career path that you wish you knew 5 years ago?
I approach life with no regrets. There may have been things I would have done differently, knowing what I know now, but learning is part of the journey of life! This position has definitely helped me to grow and learn more about myself, which has helped me be a more effective and happier leader.
If you weren’t in planning, what other career path do you think you’d have gone into?
I have degrees in interior design, theater design, architecture, historic preservation and organizational management & development. There is still time to explore other paths!
That is literally a fistful of degrees! With so many professional interests, to you, what’s the most interesting part of your job?
Definitely it’s meeting the inspiring people who are making a difference in neighborhoods all across the city. It’s also been interesting to get a glimpse into how city government works (and doesn’t).
And the least interesting?
When it stops being interesting, I’ll find something else!
Fair enough. With such a diverse professional background, I'm curious as to what you've worked on that left you feeling the most proud?
CPI has been the most inspiring project I’ve been involved with and most proud of. CPI has been the only time I was given the space and the agency to create a program that didn’t exist before-- do the research, talk to stakeholders, and design a program informed by everyone with clear outcome goals. [At CPI] People “testify” how the course has changed their view of how they are able to enact change. For example, a fall 2016 participant wrote “Being a CPI graduate has given me tools, empowered my skills and opened up doors that were always closed to me.” There is really nothing comparable [to that] in my 30 years of work as an architect.
I will say that a project I was really proud of while working in historic preservation in New York was producing the historic structures report for Ellis Island for the National Park Service. I got to do archival research at the National Archives and extensive on-site documentation when the only “tenants” were pigeons and rats!
That has to feel so good when you can get direct feedback on how you're having a positive impact on someone's life. So, you work for the City and we know that there's still a bit of a slower job market here for planners than elsewhere. In your opinion, is the Philadelphia region right now a good place to be a planner?
There are opportunities in all sectors - public, private and non-profit. I would suggest [to a job seeker] that you think about what motivates you - what are your strengths? What gets you excited to get out of bed? Then go talk to someone in each of these sectors doing work you think is interesting. There isn’t any single path. That’s what’s great about planning - you [as a planner] bring a generalist understanding that is often lacking. If you are interested in a particular application of planning, like transportation or policy - then finding the kinds of job environments that allow you to learn about that topic may be somewhat easier. My advice to anyone who comes in to talk to me, is to understand your strengths and interests, talk to lots of people from different organizations, and just dive in. Every job will teach you something!
That's so uplifting! Pivoting on that subject, in your opinion, what’s the biggest challenge facing the planning field right now?
So many urgent issues…but I don’t think there is enough discussion and planning around long-term environmental issues that will affect not just the Philadelphia region, but have global impacts. Part of the challenge is a lack of appetite to invest seriously in ideas that have long-range benefits instead of just short-term wins. As a culture, we suffer from short-term memory and a need for immediate gratification.
Well, hopefully some decision makers out there heed your words and take the steps to mitigate against those forces.
Thank you so much again for taking the time to chat with me, I'll let you out of here with one fun final question – what was the best thing you did in Philadelphia in the last year?
Get another 60 Citizen Planners graduated and out there doing good work!
Like what you read? Know someone who should be next? Leave a note in the comment section below!
When Toys R' Us closed, it seemed like just the latest in an unending onslaught of retail giants closing, leaving strip malls and shopping centers with enormous vacancies - not to mention the loss of jobs and tax revenue for the cities and towns they are located in. After Toys R' Us filed for bankruptcy and closing their stores, they will vacate 735 stores and lay off over 31,000 employees. It's a staggering number when put into this context: with the average size of a Toys R' Us store at 35,000 square feet, Toys R' Us is vacating nearly 600 acres of retail space - over 50 acres larger than the entire neighborhood of Old City Philadelphia (Walnut to Spring Garden, River to 6th), and that doesn't include the normally immense parking lots. From a real estate leasing perspective, it's a nightmare. From a planning/economic development perspective, this is just the first wave of a coming tsunami of retail/big box stores that will be closing in the coming years.
When Radio Shack closed/became Sprint stores, it was an economic impact, but with most Radio Shacks having small footprints, it wasn't quite the leasing problem. Radio Shack had over 7200 stores - it now has 70 - but each store was only 1500 square feet. The impact of Radio Shack on a national level was half that in terms of square footage, and on a municipal level, leasing a white-boxed 1500 square foot store is what they call in the business "an easy commission".
What came with Toys R' Us though, which hasn't happened yet on a national scale, is the full-wave closure of huge retailers en masse. It's starting to happen with Sears, JC Penny's, Macys - but none of these companies have fully closed up shop - yet - but many will. Market Street in Philadelphia is littered with the remains of buildings that housed major retailers back in the day - Gimbels, Strawbridges, Lit Bros - they all, for one reason or another closed. These and other retail companies will unfortunately face the same fate - not because brick and mortar retailing is dead (if Amazon is buying Toys R' Us locations and opening its own stores, that's proof it isn't) - but because tastes, preferences, and human geography changes.
It's a massive economic question as well as a practical planning problem - what are we going to do with all this dead space? If the website DeadMalls.com is anything to go by, America hasn't really figured out a proper answer to this problem. They list HUNDREDS of vacant, derelict shopping centers, accounting for tens of millions of square feet and thousands of jobs. There's a few examples of shopping centers being reused - medical offices, schools, and one example I find particularly interesting is a greenhouse. Residential is also trotted out as a preferred reuse, though with the general lack of external windows residential is a tough conversion process and needs the right type of store.
So, what are we going to do with these, and other stores? Here's my top 3 ideas for reusing dead department and big-box stores:
1. Warehousing and Distribution Centers
As mentioned, Amazon's buying Toy's R Us. Whether they want to use them for brick and mortar retail remains to be seen - but with thousands of these stores littered across the country, what a better strategy than to use these stores for logistics? They come with built-in loading docks, loads of parking that can be cannibalized for the industrial use, are often located adjacent or close to major arterials, and have clear-span floor plates (means few columns) that allow for easy storage set up. This of course works best in warehouse type stores (Best Buy, Sears), but given the proliferation of online retailing, allowing these spaces to be reused for shipping centers is a better use of land in my opinion than building a new million square foot facility on farmland.
2. Extreme Sports & Experiential Gaming Venue
It depends on the size of the facility, but given the trend towards experiential activities (think axe throwing, escape rooms), these stores would be perfect for skilled operators to cobble together a few uses and make them into full "fun houses" in a manner of speaking. The parking lots could be out-door go-karting tracks, inside there could be escape rooms, axe throws, and on the roof could be rappelling. It's hard to expand this many uses to a mall, but for the right store in the right location, one could make it work.
3. Urban Farm
As the organic foods movement continues to pick up momentum, the demand for cheap, quality, non-pesticide food will get louder and louder. Enter the shopping mall farm. Cannibalize the parking lot for planter beds, while inside there can be processing facilities for canned and frozen goods. Even enough room for chickens too I would imagine - though zoning would be tricky. The appeal to local restaurants and the general public to buy fresh food from the farm without having to wait for a farmer's market is a strong incentive. Maintaining good relationships with the neighboring T-Mobile store though may be somewhat challenging if there's actual livestock though.
So what do you think? Do you see yourself at a Best Buy Urban Farm one day? Or perhaps JC Penny's extreme emporium is more likely? Have another idea you think is more practical?
Leave your comments below!
So, it's kinda official - Starbucks is going to open a new store in Fishtown, at 1405-21 Frankford Ave (the site is currently under construction). As noted in the article, it's about a block north of the La Colombe flagship store, and a few blocks away from Reanimators Coffee (my personal go-to in the area). What's most amusing though, is the reaction that this announcement has brought out among the local residents - or at least those that are on social media.
There's two camps, though one is certainly much larger than the other - on social media comment pages at least. Camp A is vehemently anti-Starbucks, and they oppose the company on various grounds (no pun intended) including arguments of gentrification, amplifying current racial tensions between the company and general public, and a general disgust for chain restaurants/perceived homogenization of the urban environment. Camp B is less pro-Starbucks than they are nonchalant about them locating in the area. These people are more nonplussed, pointing out that there are already chain restaurants in Fishtown (Dunkin' Donuts, McDonalds, and an existing Starbucks inside the Acme at 2nd & Girard), as well as noting that as a capitalist society businesses are free to locate where they believe they can make the most profit.
In my opinion, both sides have reasonable points - but there's a deeper question under all this: is this location actually a good spot for a Starbucks? Ignoring the current firestorm of racial tension that the company is going through in Philadelphia (which is admittedly hard to ignore), I couldn't resist sitting down and putting the green mermaid from Seattle through SSC's own process for site selection.
In order to determine if Starbucks (or any company really) should actually locate in Fishtown, SSC runs the following analyses:
1. Competition Analysis - what's there that would compete and how well are they doing?
2. Demand Analysis - are there customers that want what's being offered, and how many of them are there?
3. Customer Profiling - what're the type of people that live nearby that would be customers?
4. Market Potential - do those potential customers have the money to spend or is the market saturated?
5. Forecasting - if the customer isn't there now, will they be in the future?
So, is Fishtown a good location for the coffee giant? Let's start with Competition Analysis.
1. Competition Analysis
In terms of direct competition - there's quite a lot in the area - though none of which really compete in Starbucks' frozen/cold/specialty drink sector. Certainly, La Colombe is the biggest and closest, but even they don't offer the variety and scope of Pumpkin Spiced Lattes that S'Bux does. Other competition nearby includes Reanimators as mentioned, Steap and Grind, Milkcrate, and One Shot Coffee - all in all around 10 stores in a 1/2 mile that would sell coffee first and foremost, as opposed to restaurants that serve it as a compliment. Ironically, the closest competition in terms of offer, Dunkin Donuts, is on the periphery of the neighborhood, and the other competition (McDonalds) doesn't offer the same type of in-store atmosphere. It was surprising when doing the research - but the biggest competition for a Starbucks is really itself at the Acme - and few people would venture into a grocery store just for a Frappucino. Those Starbucks Acme customers are making an impulse buy while doing other shopping.
While Starbucks does sell food and other retail merchandise - it's still drinks that make up the bulk of their income - and the Frappucino by itself makes up around 20% of their total revenue. Honestly, if I was engaged by Starbucks to do this research - I'd already be encouraged by these findings.
2. Demand Analysis
So, with the competition strong in the general coffee sector but weaker in the specialty drinks arena, SSC then needs to proceed to the demand analysis - that is, is there no competition because there's not really a demand for the product?
The answer? There's absolutely demand for the product, and in the immediate area as well! ESRI's Business Analyst actually has information on how many people visit/buy Starbucks products and then crafts models on predictive behavior. I looked at the two variables - people who buy/use the pre-packaged Starbucks coffee and also those who have visited a Starbucks in the last 6 months, at rates higher than the national average. Amazingly, that area of Fishtown and Olde Kensington actually had very high rates of people who purchase Starbucks products (the areas in blue). Furthermore, there are over 11,000 people that live an estimated 10 minutes walk-time (about 1/2 mi) from the proposed location, with a median household income at ~$50,000, which is about $5,000 higher than the City as a whole.
In short - the areas in blue above show concentrations of people who have both the inclination and the income to buy Starbucks. So, there's demand for the product, but, do those customers actually want Starbucks, or do they buy it because due to their sheer number of stores, it's convenient? For that answer, a customer profiling of the neighborhood is required.
3. Customer Profiling
ESRI has what's called "Tapestry Segments", which essentially outline the mindsets and other behaviors of consumers, based on spending patterns, demographics, and other variables. In the 10 min walk area mentioned, there's four different segments: "Trendsetters" (23.7%), Emerald City (19.9%), Front Porches (18.2%), and Old/Newcomers (13.0%). Together, these groups account for over 75% of the local population. But, what does any of this mean?
Well, Trendsetters would be a challenging demographic for Starbucks, as "image is important to these consumers," and they are "socially and environmentally conscious...are willing to pay more for products that support their causes." These are likely the people responsible for the most vocal backlash against a new location - but they are less than 25% of the total customer market. Emerald City people are similar to Trendsetters, but they're older, and have a bit less disposable income. They're conscious of nutrition and environmentally friendly products, but are less ideologically motivated for their purchases. Front Porches are blue collar individuals and families for whom "price is more important than brand names or style," and "are not adventurous shoppers," - which may make them both less and more likely to visit a Starbucks depending on whether they would consider a Unicorn Frappucino an adventure. Lastly, Old and Newcomers are an older subset, mostly single households, and 32% of these households are on Social Security. They're "price aware...but open to impulse buys," which makes that coffee jolt a bit harder for these individuals to turn down.
In summary - of the roughly 11,000 people who live within a short walk to the store, less than 25% would really be unlikely to be a Starbucks customer by ideology. The rest of the neighborhood would have a mix of people that are either fans of the brand or indifferent - which confirms what we already suspected with the demand analysis. With a revised likely customer base of around 8,000 people, not including visitors to the area on a daily basis - it still makes sense for a Starbucks to be located in Fishtown. In theory...
4. Market Potential
So, the competition is relatively weak, demand is pretty good, and there's not enough people who hate the brand to be enough of a deterrent to open. All great stuff - but more research is needed before making a confident recommendation. For that, financial projections are necessary - what's the market doing and is there actual room for a new operator?
Leakage is a term that's used to describe when consumer dollars are leaving a community to be spent on products outside it. It's a good metric for whether there's scope for a new business to come in and operate. Looking at the Supply/Demand metrics for the area, there's an estimated $676,000 surplus (red numbers) for Special Food Services and over $7m surplus for Restaurants/Other Eating Places. It's hard to determine where Starbucks would fall between those two definitions, but it's a safe assumption that the area is pretty well served in the cafe/restaurant category. While this doesn't mean SSC would recommend against a Starbucks locating here, it means that there's not a ton of room for error, as their customers in part are likely going to be pulled from other nearby competition who prefer the convenience of this new location, or had preferred Starbucks' offer from the beginning. Now, there's just one last piece of research crucial to a thorough recommendation - forecasting.
So, the market may be saturated, it may not be - but what's expected for the future? Real estate is a long game - is there enough growth coming that could offset these numbers in the next 3-5 years?
Well, population growth to 2022 is projected to be about another 1,000 residents - which is good growth but not astronomical. Household income though, is projected to go WAY up - from $50,000 to almost $60,000 per year, and vacancy is projected to go down by 2% falling from 8% to 6%. This means that the area is going to become more densely populated with rising wealth - people who can buy that $5 latte.
While no one knows FOR SURE what the future will bring - it's at least a reasonable assumption that if things keep going the way they are in the neighborhood, Fishtown/Olde Kensington is going to be a more densely populated, increasingly affluent community.
So, after all that, what's the outcome? If SSC was advising a client (in this case, Starbucks), the report would say that opening a store would come with moderate risk. Competition is generally strong, but specifically weak in the variety of offer Starbucks provides. Demand for the product is solid, and customers opposed to the brand are limited in number. The market appears saturated today for another coffee shop, however future population and income growth could mitigate that risk in the future. From an operations standpoint - the store would do well to more heavily market its cold, frozen, and specialty drinks, as well as its line of healthy, organic convenience foods to take advantage of the consumer preferences and gaps in the market. Strong community outreach and engagement would also be advised to help mitigate any current ill will that exists in the neighborhood.
So what do you think? Do you think the Green Mermaid will thrive in Fishtown, or will she be filleted by the locals? Leave your thoughts in the comments!
Sears is closing another 72 stores in the coming months - which is sad for those who are employed by the decaying retail giant and the towns that they are located in. Somehow, the company still hasn't decided to go the Toys R' Us route and call it a day - filing for bankruptcy and wrapping up the entire company. How much longer can the company keep going like this is anyone's guess - though I did predict they'd be the first one to go in the big box retail armageddon we've been seeing recently.
I think we can safely assume that Sears doesn't have much longer to go as an American retail brand. So, with its unfortunate demise now really a matter of when, and not if - what memories do you have of the company? Good, bad, indifferent - what will you remember when Sears is sadly just a memory? For me, it'll always be that jingle - "Come see the softer side of Sears...". Leave your thoughts in the comments!
I found this really interesting chart from the St. Louis Federal Reserve while doing research for a presentation I'll be giving later on this year. It's a bit hard to make out, but what it says is that the general estimated sales for "General Merchandise Stores" (read your Wal-Marts and the like), which for the better part of 10 years was the dominant retail category, fell behind "Food and Beverage stores" in 2014. What's really shocking though, is that neon blue line, which is "Food Services and Drinking Places" (aka restaurants and bars), which has exploded in growth nationally. In 2009, that sector accounted for about $38bn in sales - today that number is $58.5bn - and growing. But also, pay very close attention to that black line - "Nonstore" retailers - aka your online Amazon stores and the like. What was a $25bn industry in 2009 is today more than double that, at almost $56bn.
For decades, Americans spent more on food than they did on anything else - and then the superstores came into vogue and there was a shift in spending away from food/drink stores until the early 2010's. Now, it seems that either restaurants or online shopping will overtake groceries as the top retail category in the US by 2020. But things do go up and down, and people will always have to buy groceries - right?
Personally I think we're starting to see the peak of the hill of online retailing. Not at the top - I still think that's at least 5-6 years away - but I feel the rapid growth stage is ending.
What do you think? Do you think we're reaching the permanent end of groceries as the dominant retail category? Will Amazon own EVERYTHING? Will we ever get to "peak restaurant"? Post your thoughts in the comments!
A long, long time ago, on a continent far away, I was the president of an American Football organization called Gridiron Victoria (GV). To this day, it remains the largest organization I've ever led. GV had some 500 players, coaches, and officials when I left the organization to pursue other professional goals in 2012. When I took over as president in 2010, the league was not in great shape. We had started the year with one of our six clubs folding, leading to a few weeks of bickering as to whether we should have a 10 game or 12 game schedule (we settled on 12). The season ended as lackluster as it had began - with a boring, meagerly attended 7-0 championship game in a hail storm. Players and club administrators were growing bored. The top three teams were a foregone conclusion by week 1 and no one wanted to play the same team 3 times in a season. Those club admins who were old enough to remember when the league had over a dozen clubs in the 90's would frequently reminding the younger members of the "glory days" (and expressing understandable resentment at the current situation).
I knew what we as a league had to do. GV had to grow - or as a league it would die. Slowly at first, then suddenly - without growth, I knew GV was dead. It would only be a matter of time.
The GV Logo then and now. My how things change...
The idea of growth was generally not something the sport's leaders truly embraced at the time. Certainly, they wanted growth, but it had to be the "right" type of growth. In GV's operating rules there were requirements that a new club needed to meet in order to be allowed to participate. These requirements were extremely onerous, and as a result, a new club hadn't applied to play in about 10 years; and when I say onerous, I speak from the position of having tried to create a club. This was before the days of ubiquitous social media, so organizing people was much more difficult than today. The amount of work needed to get a club off the ground would have been a herculean task - so I gave up and decided to join a club that took me nearly an hour to get to by public transport.
Speaking with the leadership at the time, the logic as to why it was so hard to get in made sense, on the surface. They had seen so many clubs with weak finances and limited player/coach pools start up and fail, often mid to late season. I had seen this very thing happen two years before I became president - a club rep came to a league meeting, said nothing, then folded the club the next day, with 3 weeks to go in the season. It was a strain on the league when clubs couldn't make it to the end of a year, and really disheartening each time a club folded. In my opinion, while GV was protecting new clubs from potential failure, it was also protecting itself and its players from additional disappointment, frustration, and aggravation. This is very understandable. Disappointment hurts, and if you have enough of it, people become jaded, and walk away. I remember getting all geared up to play a game only to have a team forfeit after driving an hour to the field. It's not what anyone signed up for, and it's respectable for any organization to try and keep those occurrences to a minimum.
And yet, the league had crafted itself such a requirement of perfection that it had essentially constrained it's own growth - it's own success. By needing each potential club to be at such a high level of members, money, and organizational structure by the time it took the field, it discouraged people from even trying because the effort needed to succeed was so great that it wasn't worth the time to try. This type of discouragement caused by perfection is everywhere in not only business, but life. It's totally understandable - but also tremendously detrimental to one's goals.
It took time and convincing, but eventually, we were able to relax the rules, right at the time when a tremendous opportunity to market the sport to a new audience came available. The NFL was being broadcast on free TV for the first time in years, and we had HD quality footage to be utilized for a commercial, with enough money in the bank to pay for one. Everything aligned perfectly - but in all honesty, if we as a league hadn't relaxed the barriers to entry, we would have missed this opportunity to grow the league as we did. In one year we added 4 clubs, 5 teams, and doubled our player base. We did this by understanding that the new clubs wouldn't be perfect, and that was OK. Our goal was to get them up and walking first, running second. If we had demanded perfection from the outset, maybe we'd have gotten one more club, maybe one more team, but in all likelihood we'd have just swelled the ranks of the existing clubs with little actual change on the scoreboards or the bank accounts. We developed an entry level competition, to avoid burning people out within their first year, and developed timelines and milestones clubs needed to hit to maintain their status with the league. Six years later, only one of the 9 new clubs that came into being since 2010 has folded (Gippsland), and one other of the original 5 clubs merged with a new one a few miles down the road. The league was set up to grow, and in 6 years saw a tripling in the size of the league.
So where does this leave the conversation of leadership? As GV President, I was very demanding of myself, and still am in my other endeavors. I admit that I am often a perfectionist, and it's hard to fight my own impulses. But I've learned that being perfect, not making mistakes, and worse, not allowing for mistakes, doesn't make for great success as a leader. Striving to be perfect only serves to create anxiety and insecurity. People can see through insecurities, and the business world is only going to amplify anxieties with its total uncertainty. Anxious and insecure leaders don't engender loyal and devoted followers because they don't let people in close enough to build quality relationships.
In my opinion, the role of a leader, be it of a football league or of a small business or a billion dollar corporation, is to have a vision of where the organization should go, have the determination to be willing to overcome obstacles, and the creativity to be able to figure out how to bring as many people along for the ride as possible. The best leaders I've been with know how to give their subordinates the room to fail, support to those who do stumble, and just enough vision and forethought to make people want to see where everything is headed.
In life, so many times there's "analysis paralysis", that is not moving until something is "just right". The problem with this thinking, is that nothing will ever be "just right". There will always be something that can be critiqued, judged, assessed. It's much harder, and takes greater courage to say "ok, it's good enough". But these are abstract concepts, and you dear reader are probably thinking this is just another "bashing perfectionism post" - how does this apply to the real world? Well, think about you and/or your business. Is there something you're trying to do right now, but you haven't yet because it's not "perfect"? Have you ever said to yourself - what would my best friend say about it? Would they say it's good enough?
So often, because something is a labor of love by an individual (or a group), all objectivity gets lost in the pursuit of perfection. Aspects get added on like Christmas ornaments because they all seem like they're needed, when in reality it just ends up toppling over like Charlie Brown's tree. If you're stuck in this perfectionist loop - try to extricate yourself and look at the issue from an outsider perspective. Part of what made my work in GV successful is that I had the outsider perspective before becoming President. I had tried to start a new club and stopped when I saw how hard it was. I knew that I didn't need all those things for the product to be "good enough" to start, but the league couldn't see past its own concerns, understandable as they were.
True leadership then, looks at the product, service, business, organization, whatever and says - "how can we grow a success?" rather than "how do we avoid catastrophe?" That's not to say anyone should ignore risks or avoid creating standards - far from it. There has to be some level of what is and isn't acceptable. However, nothing can be fully insulated from risk and error. Someone once told me, "no matter how much you idiot proof something, the world will build a better idiot." While blunt, it speaks to the immutable truth that everything has flaws. It's knowing how to live with those flaws, and to say to yourself and/or your organization that "we're moving forward with a good enough project/product/process and we'll refine it along the way". That mindset, in time, will lead to real personal and organizational success.
So what do you think? Is perfectionism something you struggle with? How do you challenge yourself and/or your team to overcome the idea of perfect? Have a story to share? Leave one in the comments!
Interested in how SSC can help you with your small business? Click on the contact link to send me an email!
Holy cow it's been a long time since I've put out a post - and with nary a warning, I'm sure my faithful readers were wondering if I would ever post again. Well I must admit things have gotten very busy for me these past few weeks, so I've had less and less time to devote to a good blog post - but at long last I have an interview to share with you all! This week's (month's?) interview subject is Jesse Blitzstein of The Enterprise Center. Jesse and I had the pleasure of working together a few years ago, and I thought his work and organization would be of interest to read. So without further ado, please enjoy 10 questions with Jesse!
Hi Jesse! Thanks so much for taking the time to be my interview subject. So, for those who don't know much about you, can you please describe your organization, your position, and basic responsibilities?
You're welcome Dan! I work at The Enterprise Center (TEC), where I’m our Director of Community Development. The Enterprise Center is a community and economic development nonprofit that has three interrelated areas of focus – we help people grow their small businesses, with a focus on minority and women entrepreneurs; we do small business lending, with a focus on entrepreneurs who may face challenges accessing capital through the traditional financing world; and we do on-the-ground community development work, with a focus on parts of West Philadelphia. My job is tied to this latter part. I help oversee our community engagement and neighborhood revitalization work, including the ongoing revitalization of a neighborhood commercial corridor and the implementation of a neighborhood plan.
Sounds like fulfilling work! So, what made you interested in planning?
I first got interested in city planning and community development during my senior year of college. I took a great class on urban politics, and at the same time I served in a position with the university’s student government where I was a student liaison to the local city council. Both really opened my eyes to the world of planning, policy, and politics at the local level and on an urban scale.
Clearly you went against the stereotype of student government being just a resume builder. And what led you specifically to join TEC?
I moved to Philadelphia for graduate school, and when I was finishing I was looking for an opportunity to stay in Philly and work in community development, which is what I focused on within my city planning studies. An opportunity came up with TEC that was not exactly what I wanted, but was a foot in the door with a dynamic organization. I took it and several years later my role has evolved and I’m in a somewhat more ideal position now.
Goes to show you what patience and perseverance can get you if you're in the right place for you. In that vein, what’s something that you learned along your career path that you wish you knew 5 years ago?
Relationships matter. That’s not necessarily something I didn’t know five years ago, it’s just an ongoing lesson throughout my professional career. In this line of work, being smart and knowledgeable from a technical standpoint will only get you so far. You have to develop strong relationships with partners, funders, community stakeholders, and coworkers to really accomplish anything of value. And that’s something that’s hard to teach in planning school, although I would argue that more time could be devoted to cultivating those types of professional soft skills with planning students, on top of the traditional skill, theory, and history training.
Very good points all around. So, if you weren’t in planning, what other career path do you think you’d have gone into? Why?
That’s a good question! I mean I’ve always wanted to be a professional athlete but . . . I’d just be doing that already if I could, so clearly it’s not that! I would probably still be working with youth in some fashion, which is what I was doing for a couple of years before I went back to school to get a planning degree.
It's not too late Jesse, I'm sure you can get a spot on the professional Curling circuit if you're really keen! Though given that it seems you're unlikely to be leaving the planning world any time soon, what do you find to be the most interesting part of your job?
The most interesting part might be the strategy development component of what we do, and within that the fact that there are so many gray areas to this type of work. There isn’t necessarily one right way to revitalize a neighborhood, to run a community meeting, or to redevelop a property, for example. There are strategies, best practices, guidelines, and so on. But there is a lot of variability to what we do. Building consensus among community stakeholders, leveraging finite resources, and developing strategies to achieve positive outcomes – it’s all interesting and challenging.
And the least interesting?
The least interesting part is probably the administrative side of the work. Paperwork, reporting out to funders, sitting through meetings – the nonprofit system is an imperfect beast.
I'm sensing a trend about paperwork...
But lets go back to interesting topics - what was something that you were really proud of that you worked on?
I’m going to flashback to graduate school for this. I was and still am proud of the work that my group and I did for our final studio project, where we looked at all the school closings at the time in Philadelphia (this was in 2013). We explored possible reuses for the school buildings, and beyond that we tried to think through how the city and school district could bring different policies and strategies to bear to reactivate these sites and mitigate some of the ill effects of closing these schools, so that the buildings didn’t just languish as vacant and become eyesores in their communities, many of which were already quite upset about the school closings in the first place. The work was interesting and collaborative. While city agencies and politicians ultimately ignored most of our recommendations, it’s been very interesting to see what has (and hasn’t) happened with the shuttered school buildings in the five years since then.
When you say interesting - what do you mean? Anything in line with what you recommended or wildly off base?
At the time, we recommended that other city departments and agencies be more involved in coordinating the disposition process, which to some extent happened (PIDC helped manage the process for the school district); but in particular we also recommended that the city make a concerted effort to to use tools like pre-existing development incentives and already-completed neighborhood plans to stimulate and guide the reuse of sites, particularly in the weaker neighborhood real estate markets. I'd say that never totally came to fruition.
More specifically, I think several of the buildings are in the midst of conversions to housing in one form or another, or will be soon, which is kind of what we expected. Three different sites (two in West Philly and one by Temple) were acquired by universities and demolished for new development associated with those universities, which we also anticipated. At least one, Bok in South Philly (which is a beast of a building) is being reused in some creative ways, although not without some controversy regarding gentrification. Lastly, the sites that my partner and I had looked at for our case study, Vaux and Reynolds and the area around them in North Philly, are actually being repurposed in a somewhat similar manner to what we had recommended! They are part of the Philadelphia Housing Authority's Sharswood Blumberg Choice Neighborhoods initiative (which is a controversial initiative unto itself, but that's a whole 'nother story!).
Schools in Philly are always a delicate subject, and certainly the urban planning around them is even more so. Given what you've seen the last few years, is the Philadelphia region right now a good place to be a planner?
Tough question. I think it’s a good place in the sense that there is a lot going on in the city and region. Philadelphia is one of the largest major cities in the country, and it has an amazing history and a great downtown. It is experiencing exciting growth and newfound real estate development, and yet faces serious challenges related to poverty, inequity, gentrification, and the ongoing effects of decades of disinvestment. These are challenges that are interesting yet daunting from a planning perspective. But as for the job market for planning-related work in the Philadelphia area, that might be a different story! I think the job pool is somewhat constrained for planners.
I might tend to agree with your latter statement, though hopefully things loosen up as all that development keeps happening. Pivoting, you mentioned gentrification and that's often a major issue planners have to address both publicly and privately. In your opinion, what’s the biggest challenge facing the planning field right now?
I think the biggest challenge facing the planning field right now is the ability to affect change. To be not just planers but doers. To take what are often complex concepts and analyses and make them digestible for constituents and policymakers so that smart city and community building can occur. And to do this in a way that is mutually beneficial to the diverse populations that make up our cities and communities, not just to the benefit of the wealthiest or most influential among us.
How do you mean? And how do you suggest planners be better at being doers?
I think the planning stereotype of "plans sitting on the shelf collecting dust" exists for a reason. Too often it actually happens. So, for example, if you're a planning consulting firm that does neighborhood plans, how are you sticking with an organization or neighborhood to make sure aspects of the plan actually get implemented? Could you alter your business model or fee structure to actually build in some ongoing technical assistance after the plan itself is completed? I think another specific example I see in Philadelphia is around zoning, where so much effort has been made in the last decade to revise the zoning code and rezone swaths of the city, and yet so little planning support is offered to the everyday residents who deal with zoning variance requests from developers under the "Registered Community Organization" system that came with the new zoning code. The Citizens Planning Institute is a great program, but I'd argue it doesn't have the bandwidth to really empower community members all over the city to more effectively shape their own neighborhoods, from a planning and development perspective.
Unfortunately in Philadelphia, like many other cities, planners are hamstrung by the local political processes, resulting in barriers to implement these seemingly smart plans and policies. I think one thing the planning field could do though (at least based on my experience) is to do a better job of integrating the study of politics and policy into the planning school curriculum, so that professional planners are prepared not just to conduct analyses, design sites, make maps, and run proformas, but also to navigate political systems and influence policymaking.
And that last bit, about navigating political systems and influencing policy ties back neatly to your earlier point about the importance of relationships in planning. Final question, and it's an easy one – what was the best thing you did in Philadelphia in 2017?
That’s easy – the best thing I did in Philadelphia in 2017 was get married! I met my wife in planning school and that’s by far the best thing I got out of it.
Now THAT'S an important relationship. John Landis take note! Thanks Jesse and all the best to you and your lovely wife.
Like what you read? Know someone who should be next? Leave a note in the comment section below!
Apologies to those hoping to read a post last week - between the holiday and moving I couldn't get my act together to post - but this week I've got good news!
I'll be presenting to the Frankford Business Association at 4667 Paul St on May 2, from 6-8pm. The topic will be on retail and real estate, where I'll be providing an overview of the brick and mortar retail process, from concept to leasing and construction. Admission is free for members of the business association, $15 for non-members. Please spread the word to your networks - the more people that can attend the better!
And check back next week where I hope to have my 2nd interview done, with Jesse Blitzstein of The Enterprise Center.
"I don't wanna grow up, I'm a Toys R' Us kid..."
Ahh, that jingle. It's an iconic brand song that stuck through the decades as the lasting memory of the Toys R' Us company. Sadly, for 31,000 employees, hundreds of cities and municipalities, and millions of former customers, a memory is all that's left of the toy giant, after the organization filed for bankruptcy and has begun liquidating its assets - most notably to Amazon. While many people think the e-tailer was responsible for killing this beloved company, they'd be wrong.
I never spent a lot of time at Toys R' Us growing up. My family always spent more time in malls, where the ubiquitous toy store there was Kay Bee. I still have fond memories of that bright, BRIGHT, pink carpet and yellow walls, covered in toys, as I wandered down the aisle to scout my next Transformer or Lego set. Ah, those were the days...
But I digress. With more and more retail giants closing down, I thought I'd take a few minutes to jot down some thoughts on who I think are the next companies to close up shop, and why. This has nothing to do with debt, assets, or balance sheets - this is pure speculation, gut feelings, and some logic sprinkled in.
Sears was quasi dead to me after they vacated the tallest building in the US in Chicago, leaving some obscure, British based insurance company with the naming rights. To someone on the east coast, its the equivalent of the Yankees getting bored, leaving to go play in Utica, and then letting the Red Sox move in and call it Nomar Pahk. No - just...no.
Anyways, Sears has been on life support as a company for a long time, and they're an easy target. I hate to pile on, but the last time I went into a Sears, I was horridly disappointed. The racks looked terribly uncared for, staff were wandering around or chatting to each other - and while this may be indicative of one store's management rather than the company as a whole, I'm not the only one who feels this way. Given the extremely competitive landscape for retail, Sears lack of quality service is just going to continue to cause the company to plummet until it eventually hits rock bottom.
Look, I love - LOVE - shopping at Kohls. It's got everything a traditional department store has, but just less of it, and at that mid-range price and quality point that services the middle class with aplomb. I've never had a bad experience shopping at Kohls, and I always find 1-2 items that just last in my wardrobe rotation for years.
Of course, that mid-range price is exactly why I'm afraid they're going to be hit VERY hard, very soon. In 2016, the company closed 18 stores and while they're doing ok for now, they're a store that services the middle of the market - and that market has been shrinking for years. It's a well known fact that the middle-incomes have been declining in this country for years, leaving low-wage earning baristas and service workers and high paying tech/business professionals as the remaining customers. Someone earning $30k a year doesn't have the income to drop $50 on a pair of pants, and the person earning $300k wants something nicer. Yes, the middle isn't gone yet, but it's being squeezed hard - and with Target rapidly expanding and improving their home goods - Kohls may be next in line to go belly up.
3. Darden Restaurants/Other Suburban Chain Restaurants*
You may not have heard of Darden, but you absolutely have heard of their brands - Olive Garden, LongHorn, Capital Grille - these and other suburban staples like Outback, TGI Fridays, and Applebees are synonymous with average to above average dining experiences at reasonable prices, and family oriented. Some people may get wasted at these establishments' bars - but on the average night, it's about the families.
And - that's kinda why these and other chains are suffering. People can blame Millenials and their avocado toast all they want - but it's not consumer tastes and preferences that's dooming these brands - though that does certainly have some impact. The fact is that young families, while they exist in the suburbs, are increasingly being found in urban areas - where these restaurants aren't. Sure, not all suburban diners are families of 4 - but if you're out on a date night, do you really want to take your significant other, or group of friends to an Olive Garden? Now, that asterisk was a caveat, whereby, I don't really think these restaurants are all going to go away. Yes, Applebees and IHOP have had major store closures recently, and they are a major reason why I've put this group on my list.
However, if there's one thing I've learned about business, its that companies pivot or die. Some of these brands will likely die, but there's a LOT of floorspace these companies either own outright or have long term leases on. I don't see them all closing up because their target market moved a few miles away. I see a re-branding and unveiling of new concepts in old locations. Much like Seasons 52 (a Darden Company) arose to fill the gap of a dining experience that appeals to affluent men in their late 50s, so too will there be a brand that is designed to target the remaining people in their early-late 30s who want to still feel young and cool, but can't be bothered to drive to the city and certainly aren't going clubbing or bar hopping.
Denny's, Red Lobster, Ruby Tuesdays - these may all eventually wrap up their brands - but the holding companies will certainly bring out new concepts in the same spaces.
Hello out there! As mentioned a few weeks ago, I wanted to start highlighting people in the planning world that are usually the kind of folks that are a bit below the radar when it comes to public-facing interviews and promotional activities. These aren't CEOs, Presidents, or other high-ranking members of the planning world, and as such, they aren't often sought out by the media for their input - much to our collective detriment!
This week, our conversation is with Christina Arlt, Senior Planner at the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission. Christina felt like a perfect choice to be the first in what I hope to be a long running series on this blog, what with impeccable credentials and connections (Penn Grad, taught my workshop class...). As mentioned in previous posts, I'm always looking for suggestions for who next to interview, so if you know of anyone - or you yourself are interested - please leave me a comment in the comments section below. Thanks!
Hi Christina! Thanks so much for taking the time to answer these questions for the blog. So, my first question - what made you interested in planning?
My interest in planning was sparked by a sidebar about Pierre L'Enfant's plan for Washington, D.C. in my 8th grade math textbook.
That's pretty random - how'd a sidebar in a math book lead you into the planning world?
Up until that point, it hadn't occurred to me that anyone was "responsible" for designing cities and thinking about how they grow and change. So I decided to learn more about urban planning as a career.
Crazy how inspiration strikes us in the most unlikely of places. So, what made you want to join the organization you’re at now?
I interned at the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission (DVRPC) when I was in graduate school, so I was familiar with the organization and the people who worked here before I applied for a full-time position. The job appealed to me because I would get to work on a lot of different projects and learn about new topics on a regular basis.
Funny, I got my first job at The Enterprise Center the same way. Moving on to some more reflective questions - what’s something that you learned along your career path that you wish you knew 5 or 10 years ago?
So much of planning is about communication and meeting facilitation, but that's not something that planning programs spend a lot of time teaching. Learning to lead a public meeting is a definitely a skill that requires practice.
I completely agree. I definitely remember making that same comment during my grad school days. So, if you hadn't gone into planning, what other career path do you think you’d have gone into?
I like helping people learn so I would probably be either a college professor or a librarian. It would allow me to connect people with the information and resources they need to be successful.
Probably no coincidence then that you're still teaching Workshop at Penn! So what do you find is the most interesting part of your job?
The most interesting part of my job is learning something new every day. Recently I worked on a project where I got to interview police, fire, and facilities professionals from New York, Chicago, Boston, Baltimore, and Washington, DC. I didn't know much about police and fire facilities before I started the project, so I learned a great deal about the challenges police and fire departments face and was able to share this information with the City of Philadelphia as they explore rightsizing their own police and fire facilities.
That does sound interesting, and certainly relevant with municipal budgets under the strain they're in at the moment. Follow up question - what aspect of your work do you find the least interesting?
Probably the administrative tasks, like timesheets, requisitions, and expense reports that need to be completed but sometimes feel like they're pulling my attention away from the "real" work of planning.
I can feel my readers nodding in agreement. So you seem to have worked on a lot of different projects, can you please describe for me a time when you were really proud of something you worked on?
My colleagues and I worked on a project looking at land use and zoning around the stations of the Glassboro-Camden Line (GCL), a proposed rail extension in southern New Jersey. The proposed route had numerous stops in affluent suburbs but seemed to skip over certain neighborhoods in Camden, whose residents would have directly benefited from reliable transit service to get them to work, school, and medical appointments. We recommended adding an additional stop in Camden. Although the train line hasn't been built yet, it's rewarding to know that the stop will eventually expand opportunities for residents.
And even getting to that recommendation is a big step in the process to getting funding for implementation, which is often the last, if not hardest hurdle. That brings me to my next question - given the various funding and practical challenges out there for our field, do you think the Philadelphia region is a good place right now to be a planner?
I think Philadelphia is a great place to be a planner right now! With the city's population increasing in the last ten years or so, there's a great energy here. The Philadelphia City Planning Commission is wrapping up the district plans for Philadelphia 2035, DVRPC just released our latest long range plan, Connections 2045, and we've had tons of big events (the Pope's visit, the NFL draft, the Democratic National Convention, and the Eagles Super Bowl parade) that have brought international attention to the city. We are the first World Heritage City in the United States and we're on the short list for Amazon's HQ2. The Water Department is going great things with their Green City, Clean Waters plan, and The William Penn Foundation is investing in clean water and our regional trail system. So whether it's land use, transportation, community development, economic development, or environmental planning, there's something of interest to every type of planner!
That's refreshing to hear, and clearly there's momentum in Philly! Of course, part of our role as planners is to push proverbial boulders uphill. In your opinion, what’s the biggest challenge facing the planning field right now?
I think equity is a big challenge that we don't talk about enough. I'm especially concerned about the intersection of equity and algorithms. Data plays a huge role in how we allocate resources. Planners need to pay attention to how decisions are being made to ensure that they don't replicate past inequities.
What kind of decisions are you referring to?
For example, decisions about how funding formulas are written or how program criteria are determined - especially when those processes use big data or automation. I heard some really good interviews on the radio lately with the authors of books like "Automating Inequality: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police and Punish the Poor" and "Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy."
That seems very relevant in the age of Big Data/Open Data that we are in the middle of right now. So, thank you so much for taking the time to answer these questions, I'll leave you with one fun final question – what was the best thing you did in Philadelphia in 2017?
I joined a Cookbook Club at the Free Library of Philadelphia. I met new friends, made new recipes, and it helped me achieve my 2017 New Year's resolution, which was to make one new recipe per week every week for the entire year!
You can follow Christina on Twitter at @ChristinaArlt
Have something to contribute to the conversation? Comment below!
General thoughts and musings about the work SSC Solutions does and other things happening in and around Philadelphia