Andrew Kalish’s first ever visit to Australia took close to 30 hours and landed him in Maroochydore on a quiet Sunday night. As Director of Cultural and Development for the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership, Andrew had been invited to the Remix conference on the Sunshine Coast to share some of the lessons he’d learned from one of America’s iconic cities. He then spent a whirlwind few days taking in Melbourne then Sydney before heading home. Barrie Seppings from Wordsearch caught up with him a few weeks later to get Andrew’s take on urbanism in Australia. He started by asking ‘what exactly is the Down Town Brooklyn Partnership?’
We’re an economic development corporation, technically a not for profit, founded by the city of New York about ten years ago to guide the development of Downtown Brooklyn following its rezoning in 2003, in the aftermath of September 11. We run what’s called a business improvement district, which are basically specialist assessment zones where property owners agree to pay more tax that goes to fund fundamental services: cleaning the streets, security, sanitation, maintenance, landscaping, marketing and so on. Our job is to make Downtown Brooklyn the greatest place in the world.
You’ve been home in NYC a couple of weeks now. Looking back, what’s your impression of Australian cities?
Americans look towards towards Europe when they talk about cities, they look towards Asia and the Middle East. Maybe it’s just proximity, but the thing I said to my colleagues when I got back was we should stop looking at these other cities and actually start looking at places like Melbourne and places like Sydney. Because they really remind me of what a real city is, where people live and work and play and grow up and have families and then repeat. They are real cities, they’re 24 hour cities. Sydney not so much but Melbourne sure is. When I look at Melbourne it’s everything that’s great about a Canadian city meaning kind of the orderliness, the beauty, the natural beauty, the cleanliness, the great architecture, very friendly people, booming economies, but then its got that real urbanity that urban soul, the culture, there is still a little grit there that they have a kind of a cool way, a bit like New York City.
Did you find anything in Australia that struck you as a cool idea that would work back in New York?
I think in Melbourne, the way they have done the zoning in the CBD with the laneways and how much retail they’re requiring on the ground floors of these buildings, I thought was genius. I mean to be able to have a major brand like Burberry on Collins Street and then on Little Collins and laneways have these super cool, local businesses, whether restaurants or boutiques in the same modern glassy skyscraper was just remarkable. And I think that’s the challenge we are having in Brooklyn is how do you have all of this development, and yet not lose the character of what makes New York City great?
Image Credit: Tectonic Photos I think that another lesson for Melbourne is how they are mixing it all up again. The Docklands have been a bit of a mess, seems like everyone there knows it, it’s not what Melbourne is about. They need to move away from this kind of Asian, Dubai, middle eastern mega city model, where they’ve got these master plan projects where it was all about the future, it was all about progress, but they completely forgot what made Melbourne so great. On the other end of that what they are doing in Fitzroy, which to me is the Williamsburg of Melbourne. I was really impressed by how careful they are thinking about development. They know they need more housing over there, but they know at the same time that this could easily turn into just expensive luxury condos, then they drive out everything that makes it hip and cool and it becomes a boring place with just a bunch of rich people. So I thought they really looked at how that happened in Williamsburg in Brooklyn, which has just become a caricature of itself. I think they don’t want that to happen in Melbourne.
Do you think the partnership model between developers and the public sector in America is working better than what you’ve seen here?
Yes I think so. New York City especially has gotten very, very good at the private / public model. Sometimes it’s just basically saying to developers, you know you can still make all kinds of money on this project, but we require you to invest in infrastructure, we will require you to do affordable housing, we will require you to do education, schools and all of that type of stuff. New York has gotten very good at that, and it’s getting even better as the city gets richer and richer and more successful, the government can bargain a little bit more.
How have developers adapted?
I think what development community are adjusting to is the reality of affordability in projects, but they have adjusted very well. I think you can still make a lot of money on real estate projects even when affordable housing is part of the deal. There is a line, of course, and once you go over that line, that project becomes unattainable for a private developer. But the developer community, I think, has really stepped up recently with the affordability issues saying. The government has come in to mandate 30% affordability in any new rezoned project, and the real estate community is saying great we’re fine with that.
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When you told your story at the remix conference, what struck me was the way the partnership has been able to align the developers, the public officials, the education and the arts. What was the hardest part of that process?
I think we realised early on we had to paint a really good vision of what this should be and how to get there. We couldn’t just say oh look here’s Nirvana over there on that shiny hill right. We had to be able to say here’s the map, here’s the path, there is going to be this much of a climb and there is going to be these five water stops and eight rocks that you are going to have to climb over and so on. We were able to feed them small bits and pieces of the story of how we can actually get there, of how this was achievable. I think the real estate community is also very pragmatic, so they see that by investing in these other areas, caring about these other areas, there can be a leveraged return on their initial investment. By creating an eco-system of business and culture and education, we saw an office vacancy rate drop from 10% to 2%.
How does a city go about replicating the progress you’ve made in Brooklyn?
t was really a case of getting it all together, bringing it to the forefront and showing how it all linked together, in a way that was tangible, so people could actually understand it. You tell them: here’s 60,000 college students and we’re going to make them feel like this city is their campus, which means they are going to go out and eat at cafes instead of going to the cafeteria. Which means the restaurants are going to be full, so people will open more restaurants, and if there are more restaurants, that means more residents and then it just snowballs.
New Yorkers are famous for being vocal about their communities. Does that affect how you operate when you’re trying to spark development?
We have to really sell people on it but the thing is, we went to see these people, we listened to their concerns. We didn’t just say ‘hey guys this is what we are doing’ it was more like, ‘what do you guys want? You have been here as a community for 50 years, we’ve been here for 25 seconds, what do you want out of this community’ and then they were like ‘you know what we really just want a great place to eat’, ‘ok we will make that happen’ and we did. The we asked ‘So what’s next?” and they said ‘Ok well we really want more and better open space’, so we did that and it showed them that we were listening and reacting to their needs, and then we incorporated those needs into a master vision. A big take away from my Australian trip is that all the government people whether it’s Sydney or in Melbourne or Maroochydore said ‘oh my god you guys are going to actually talk to people? You guys engage with the community?’ and we are like ‘Yeah this is New York’ and if you don’t, they literally picket you. Some of these people have money and are connected. If they don’t want something to happen, they prevent it from happening. Sometimes, they will sue you. So we have to go talk to those people not because they are going to be a pain if we don’t talk to them but, you know what? We actually care about what they have to say, because they have been here before we were, they were raising their kids here before any of the buildings were built. We want to hear their stories, find out what they want and try to show them that all of these big glassy buildings aren’t something to be afraid of. They are actually something to embrace because your brownstone becomes a lot more valuable and they allow you greater amenity and more opportunity for your kids. Your kids can grow up and have a life in this neighbourhood and not to go to in Manhattan or somewhere else. That’s a proof point that we can be proud of and I think that we have been able to do that by demonstrating that we are not just listening to them, but we act on what we learn.
Final question is the crystal ball question: what is next for Downtown Brooklyn?
The next thing we need is to be building taller. We need to become a denser city. The only way to solve this affordability crisis is to go tall. We know all too well that happened in the West Village, Soho and Tribeca: you landmark somewhere, you turn it into museum, it limits the supply and prices rise. Basic economics. So we need to over supply, we need to put that curve way up, that needs to be a hockey stick. I think in Downtown Brooklyn we need to get denser, we need to go taller because we can support it, but it can’t just be a bunch of tall boring residential buildings, we have to care deeply about architecture and our skyline, we also need to care about what the uses of these buildings. You have go to have schools, you have got to have culture, you have got to have commercial offices, people want to live where they work and if we can demonstrate that, we can come a vibrant 24/7 community.
Barrie Seppings is the Director of Strategy for Wordsearch Australia. His coverage of the Remix conference in Maroochydore recently appeared on The Urban Developer