Downtown revitalization expert Kennedy Lawson Smith ’79 says it is time for the historic preservation movement to take a leap into overall community development policy and practice.
By Alicia Bessette
Photos courtesy Kennedy Lawson Smith '79
Kennedy Lawson Smith ’79 is one of the nation’s experts on downtown revitalization. She was the longtime director of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s National Main Street Center, one of the most successful economic development programs in the country.
Under her leadership, the Main Street program expanded into 2,000 districts in towns and cities in the United States and abroad. Cumulatively, these districts have experienced a net increase of 57,000 new businesses and 231,000 new jobs and have attracted more than $17 billion in new investment.
Smith has been featured in the New York Times, Business Week, The Christian Science Monitor, Red Herring, Donohue and NPR’s Marketplace, among other major media. In 2002, Fast Company magazine named her to its first-ever list of Fast 50 Champions of Innovation.
In 2004, Smith and several of her National Trust colleagues co-founded the Community Land Use and Economics (CLUE) Group, LLC, a private consulting firm that blends downtown development, land use management, and historic preservation disciplines into a cohesive approach to solving community development challenges. The firm conducts retail market analyses and economic impact studies to help guide local land use decisions, creates downtown marketing and business development plans, and helps communities develop more effective historic preservation and land use laws and policies.
Smith has served as a consultant to towns and cities in all 50 states, Canada, the United Kingdom, Italy, and Singapore. She is spending 2005–2006 at Harvard University as a Loeb Fellow in the Graduate School of Design.
The Bulletin’s Alicia Bessette caught up with Smith in Cambridge in January.
AB: What’s the Loeb Fellowship like?
KS: The Loeb Fellowship is a fabulous thing. John Loeb created it in 1970, concerned about the serious problems cities in the U.S. were beginning to see. The intent was to bring to Harvard each year 10 mid-career professionals active in some aspect of community development—architecture, urban planning, journalism, development, transportation, finance and, in John Loeb’s words, “give them the run of the place.” In some ways, it feels like a professional lifetime achievement award. The Loeb Fellows are encouraged to focus on ideas that interest us. There are no specific responsibilities or obligations—we sit in on classes, we chat with professors and students about ideas that interest us, we do research on topics that spark our attention. Some of the Fellows are very focused; others, like me, spend the first few months looking into lots of different topics and then following threads of interest.
AB: What are your new threads of interest?
KS: I’ve gotten interested in industrial ecology, and that has led me into exploring great community development ideas that have worked elsewhere in the world but not in the U.S., for whatever logistical or cultural reasons, and into ways we might make them work here.
AB: For example?
KS: There is an industrial park in Kalunborg, Denmark, in which the byproducts of one industry are the raw materials of another industry within the industrial park. It wasn’t planned to be that way; it just evolved organically over time. Now there are four to five major industries and eight or 10 smaller industries, including everything from a fish farm to a sheetrock factory. In essence, it’s a self-contained industrial ecosystem. It’s cut down on transit costs and eliminated environmental irritants. It’s a fabulous model. There are a number of people looking at this, whom I’d roughly divide into two groups—science geeks and policy geeks. But neither group has figured out a way to popularize it yet. And U.S. industries seem to be too proprietary about sharing information about their raw materials and byproducts, so it’s difficult to make symbiotic industrial relationships work.
In September, I was having dinner with the director of historic preservation for a carpet manufacturer, Mohawk. You might be thinking, why does a carpet manufacturer need a historic preservationist? Well, they’ve found more than 20,000 original carpet patterns dating from the 1800s that were used in major buildings, like theaters, colleges, city halls, hotels. Now they can replicate those carpet patterns—so, if you’re rehabbing a historic city hall, for example, the odds are good Mohawk might have the original carpet pattern used in the building.
He told me that Mohawk uses fiber from recycled water bottles in some of its carpets and is responsible for recycling something like one-quarter of all plastic bottles recycled in the U.S. But most East Coast states don’t have mandatory recycling laws for plastic bottles, so Mohawk has to truck used bottles from the West Coast to its Georgia mills, almost 3,000 miles, then shreds them and spins them into carpet fiber there. That got me very interested in ways that we could plan the locations of our industrial facilities better in order to reduce fossil-fuel consumption, air pollution, and oil runoff, not to mention time and money.
Kennedy Lawson Smith '79 at Harvard University.
Barriers to downtown reinvestment
AB: Can you comment on the historic preservation movement
KS: I believe the preservation movement is at an important crossroad. In the United States, the movement is only about 50 years old. The National Trust for Historic Preservation wasn’t founded until 1949. But the preservation movement has come a long way in that time. It focused initially on the preservation of key landmark buildings—the homes of influential Americans, for example, and architectural masterpieces. In the past several decades it has gradually begun to focus on entire communities, not just on individual buildings.
But, after working within the historic preservation movement for almost 25 years, my sense is that it’s time for the movement to take another leap forward and to make deeper inroads into overall community development policy and practice. There are several reasons for this.
First, there are a number of things that make it difficult for people to create a new business or rehab or build a building in a historic downtown. Zoning laws and building codes make mixed-use development difficult (for example, ground-floor retail, upper-floor housing), and it’s easier to get loans for one building use rather than for mixed uses. But some of the preservation policies created over the years, like design review, are barriers as well. Investment dollars are like water: they follow the path of least resistance. If you make the downtown the easiest place to do development or redevelopment, that’s where the money will go. We need to make historic downtowns the easiest places for new development to occur, not the most difficult places. Every barrier to downtown reinvestment is an additional incentive for a developer to go elsewhere.
I don’t think that design review is a bad thing—but I don’t think it should be applied only to historic districts. We should care as much about the appearance of new neighborhoods as about old ones.
Second, I’m concerned that design guidelines are inadvertently encouraging boring new architectural design. To get speedy design approval for their clients, too many architects and contractors are presenting architectural review boards with building designs that are safe and uncontroversial. But safe and uncontroversial rarely translates into exciting, dynamic new design. Instead, it often translates into bland designs vaguely reminiscent of something colonial (American colonial in the East and Midwest, Spanish colonial in the West). Historic downtowns reflect the entire history of a community and generally reflect good, creative design from each era in a community’s evolution. We need to encourage distinctive and unique design but not penalize building owners and designers with lengthy or confusing review processes in order to get it.
Somewhat ironically, the preservation movement is actually about preserving modern architecture—meaning, innovative architecture from every era, whatever was modern‚ at the time it was built. But now many preservation policies seem to be inadvertently resulting in architecture that mimics architectural styles from the past. It’s as if we’ve become keepers of the code‚ rather than keepers of the flame.
Third, the historic preservation and community development movements have grown up more or less at the same time, but on very separate tracks. There are several thousand local historic preservation organizations in the United States, and there are several thousand community development corporations, often working in the same neighborhoods but speaking different languages, as it were. For example, community development corporations develop new housing in low-income neighborhoods, but generally don’t know how to redevelop historic housing. The number of historic houses we demolish every year in the U.S. eclipses the number of new affordable housing units we’re creating. At the same time, historic preservation organizations may understand the opportunity that exists to rehab and reuse historic buildings, but many of them lack the real estate development skills and access to financing that community development corporations have. I’d like to see us create a new sort of community preservation corporation that would be an amalgam of the two, bringing local preservation and community development together.
Archaeology and market analysis
AB: What were your Bryn Mawr years like?
KS: Bryn Mawr was a fabulous experience for me. I went there because I had a boyfriend at Swarthmore, which was a stupid, stupid reason to choose a college. The boyfriend and I broke up, of course, and there I was. It was like an awakening: “Wow, I’m at a woman’s college!”
I majored in Growth and Structure of Cities, but many of my most interesting classes were in Classical and Near Eastern Archaeology. I spent most of my career doing retail market analysis, and I think that my archaeology classes have made me a good market analyst. Archaeology teaches you to look at facts in a dispassionate way, without jumping to quick conclusions, and then put them together, which is an essential skill for being a retail market analyst.
I had Bruni Ridgway, who was enthusiastic, helpful, humorous and very empowering. In one of my first classes with her, I was up toward the front of the room, and someone asked her a question and called her Dr. Ridgway. She said, “Please call me Mrs! I had a lot more fun getting a husband than my Ph.D.”
Cities classes were fabulous, too. Barbara Lane was enormously helpful in talking you through ideas, and she is as much an inspiration to me today as she was 25 years ago.
AB: And after Bryn Mawr?
KS: I went to the University of Virginia for architecture. But the program was focused on new buildings, rather than on blending new and old architecture, and I was looking for something broader. I found many of the architectural critics to be more focused on creating trophy buildings than on emphasizing buildings that knitted themselves into the fabric of the community. Downtown revitalization was much more to my liking—it was about old and new, about experiences, about businesses, about government, about collaboration.
Downtown soap opera
AB: How did you get started in downtown revitalization?
KS: I was working in downtown Charlottesville for a merchants’ association and had just heard about the Main Street project, a demonstration project the National Trust had just concluded in three Midwestern communities. I liked it that the process they pioneered in these three towns involved working simultaneously in four broad areas: design, organization, economic restructuring, and promotion. Until then, most communities had focused on just one of these broad areas—rehabbing historic buildings, for example, but not developing new businesses, or conducting lots of promotional activities but not thinking much about the appearance of the physical environment.
I realized that one of the greatest needs in downtown Charlottesville was business development. There were lots of ground-floor vacancies downtown. I had no idea where to start but finally decided to begin by learning more about the downtown’s workers. They were a captive market downtown every day, and I thought that if I could find out more about their shopping habits, I could identify some new businesses that might work well downtown. But I ran into a stumbling block: nobody really knew how to examine market opportunities for downtowns. Retail market analysts were using methodologies developed for shopping malls—but shopping malls are very different from downtowns. Shopping malls have essentially one use—retail—while downtowns have many uses—retail, of course, but also offices, services, housing, entertainment, government, public assembly. So, I cobbled together a market analysis methodology for downtowns, essentially looking through many different market prisms to see what patterns emerged.
To test that methodology, I decided to try to increase lunchtime restaurant sales. My survey told me that most downtown workers were leaving downtown Charlottesville for lunch. So I came up with the idea of a live daily soap opera called Noontime Downtown. It was performed every day for eight weeks during the summer. A drama graduate student drafted an outrageously funny plot outline, and the actors all worked in the downtown area.
My goal was to get 50 people to eat lunch downtown daily. I had estimated that that would bump up lunchtime restaurant sales by two percent. Only seven of the 21 restaurants took part. But by the end of the summer, there were hundreds of people downtown watching the soap opera every day. I had to get a second phone line in my office and put an endless loop on the line for soap updates because so many people who had missed the show one day wanted to know what had happened to this character or that character.
Lunchtime restaurant sales went up by 85 percent by the end of the summer. It was a home run, and it got me hooked. I was so fascinated by the fact that you could set an economic goal and have fun making it happen. A producer for PM Magazine saw the soap opera one day and filmed it. It broadcast nationally, and someone from the National Trust saw it, called me and hired me.
AB: What are your hobbies?
KS: Lots of things. Recently, I’ve been writing screenplays
Return to May 2006 Highlights