Urban Land Institute Session Teaches How Small Ideas Can Change Neighborhoods

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Jackson Pollock's Number 1
Jackson Pollock’s Number 1

Last week the Urban Land Institute (ULI) had their fall conference in Dallas. Columnist Amanda Popken already wrote about her experience. I generally feel the same way about conference sessions as I did seeing my first Jackson Pollock, “I could’ve done that.”

The main difference being that in both examples, I didn’t.

You see, conventions are full of ideas you didn’t have or if you did, you didn’t act upon. The way to get the most value out of a conference is to learn more about those ideas.  Some of them you can discard, while others you can build upon or shamelessly rip-off. Many will be completely common sense but in listening to someone who actually implemented them, there is much to learn.

One session indicative of this ability to take ideas and mold them to your specific needs was titled “Shaping Cities and Communities.”  There were three speakers and two are worth noting.  Honestly, one spoke so rapid-fire I couldn’t tell you a single thing he presented except that we should all buy his book.  Unfortunately, he was not alone.  Several sessions featured authors with stacks of books ready to sell, and be autographed, at the back of the room.  Midway barker-ism is an instant turn-off.


But hey, let’s talk about Sarah Filley, the co-founder and Executive Director of Popuphood.  In a nutshell, Oakland, Calif., has perennially lacked the cache associated with the San Francisco Bay Area.  As such vacant commercial spaces were plentiful in the Old Oakland area of the city.

Beginning on 9th and Broadway, Finney and others worked with landlords to create move-in ready retail spaces for the sort of small entrepreneurial retailers they hoped to attract.  They also further encouraged their incubator idea by offering six-months free or greatly discounted rent.  Sounds fairly simple so far, right?  But instead of running willy-nilly throughout the entire area, they instead worked one block at a time to ensure there was a critical mass of new shops before moving to a new block … a destination

I think it was this focusing of resources that was the key to its success.  After all, 10 new shops in a 10 block area wasn’t going to pull new people to the area.  But having 10 new shops on a single block was something worth coming to see. When a block stabilized, it was time to expand, increasing the pull and staying power with customers (stickiness).

Japanese Tea Whisk at Umami Mart
Japanese Tea Whisk at Umami Mart

Of course the rent incentives were a gamble for landlords, but with vacancy a sure thing, not much of one.  Within six months, a business had the chance to make it or fail, with the ultimate goal of businesses that successfully transition from pop-ups to permanent.

Manifesto Bicycle with Copper Accent
Manifesto Bicycle with Copper Accent

They’ve had quite good success.  Manifesto Bicycles, starting as a pop-up in 2011, is doing so well it was featured in a recent American Express ad.

Another, Umami Mart, began as a successful online retailer of Japanese kitchen and “lifestyle” items that added a brick-and-mortar store. It’s been so successful they’ve opened a second shop in San Francisco.

SOBU's Jaws Console Table
SOBU’s Jaws Console Table

A third success story is found at SOBU furniture design.  A husband and wife modernist design team created a nifty bed called the Junk in the Trunk with Storage in 2011.  In 2013 they opened their first store in Oakland before moving the following year to another Oakland location.  In 2016 they were able to expand their operation again.  You see, not everyone who’s successful has to stay in the same area.  Sometimes, like children, a business needs to seek further success elsewhere.

Slow Roll 1

Slow Roll Detroit

Slow Logo1

Jason Hall is a co-founder of Slow Roll Detroit and a fun guy to listen to.  He and a few friends didn’t fit into the bicycle ride clubs that existed in Detroit.  Many were speedy, almost race-like, and many were of the Spandex-wearing variety.  So through much goading, Hall and his partner went out for their first bike ride.  On the second ride, friends were un-cajoleable, so it was pretty much a two-man ride.  Flash-forward to 2014, and Slow Roll was attracting over a thousand riders regularly and had gained national and international attention for what is a very simple concept.

In 2010, Hall didn’t like the bad press Detroit was getting as a nasty place to live, so he thought an inclusive, slow bicycle ride through some of Detroit’s history was a way to re-engage residents with all the city had to offer.  You know what I mean … you live somewhere and suddenly everything becomes white-noise outside of car windows until visitors come to town and you show them around.  Post-recession, Detroit had more than its fair share of noise to cut through.  Hall wanted residents to slow down and break through the negative noise.

Getting Bigger. Group Stretched Around the Block
Getting Bigger. Group Stretched Around the Block

Between 2010 and 2016, a lot changed.  Obviously ridership is way up.  The police and City of Detroit is on their side.  In the beginning riders routinely dodged the police because rides of more than 50 people were frowned upon by the city.  Hall talked of looking both ways before crossing intersections to look for cars … and especially police cars.

Word of mouth followed and the group was flown, with bikes, to Chicago by Red Bull to stage a ride there.  There are now Slow Roll groups in Cleveland, Buffalo, Berlin, Chicago and Washington D.C. Sweden’s crazy about them with groups in three cities. Even the city of Slemani, Iraq, has had a group since 2014. Fascinated by the concept, Sir Richard Branson has even joined the Detroit group.

Today, every Monday from April to October, thousands of bike riders show up to different spots throughout the city to slowly and convivially enjoy Detroit’s neighborhoods. That’s thousands of riders who get to experience different parts of their city to reconnect and to act as ambassadors.

Slow Roll and Popuphood are two examples of ways to revitalize neighborhoods, develop camaraderie and, get us all outdoors more.  Certainly, I could see something like Popuphood working around Fair Park to bring artisans, customers, and dialogue into an area. Equally interesting could be Slow Rolls through various areas of the Metroplex to reacquaint us with the richness of our city and its many districts and neighborhoods.  Personally, I could expand my reach beyond the Katy and White Rock Lake.

Dallas needs its own Pollocks who can take these kinds of ideas and run (or ride) with them.

Remember:  High-rises, HOAs and renovation are my beat. But I also appreciate modern and historical architecture balanced against the YIMBY movement.  If you’re interested in hosting a Candysdirt.com Staff Meeting event, I’m your guy. In 2016, my writing was recognized with Bronze and Silver awards from the National Association of Real Estate Editors.  Have a story to tell or a marriage proposal to make?  Shoot me an email sharewithjon@candysdirt.com.


Jon Anderson

Jon Anderson is CandysDirt.com's condo/HOA and developer columnist, but also covers second home trends on SecondShelters.com. An award-winning columnist, Jon has earned silver and bronze awards for his columns from the National Association of Real Estate Editors in both 2016, 2017 and 2018. When he isn't in Hawaii, Jon enjoys life in the sky in Dallas.

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