Isaac Kremer/ September 15, 2011/ tactical urbanism/ 0 comments

Note: This story was originally published in Main Street Now by the National Main Street Center on September/October 2011.

Have you heard of Oyster Bay, Long Island? The place where Theodore Roosevelt spent his summers as a youth, built his home (today Sagamore Hill National Historic Site), and later operated the “Summer White House”? Oyster Bay hopes to add some community planning innovations to its claim to fame.

Over the past decade, the local Main Street program and community leaders have generated more than $30 million of investment, improved more than 60 historic buildings, and attracted over 50 new businesses. Despite these successes, neglect in key locations undermined the downtown’s potential. One of these areas was the Audrey Avenue Extension, which connects the Town Hall at one end and the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Park and the National Register-listed Oyster Bay Long Island Railroad Station at the other. This once-vibrant street lined by shops went downhill once the Long Island Railroad built a new platform a block away and abandoned the historic train station.

Unfortunately the area was devoid of any activity – businesses on this block were struggling to survive among vacancies and there were no pedestrian amenities. Despite having received ample attention in several prior planning exercises, this area was still crying for attention.

When a group of professional planners and urban innovators called “DoTank:Brooklyn” contacted the Oyster Bay Main Street program with an offer for help, the answer was a resounding “yes!” The group was inspired by the Build a Better Block program in Dallas and wanted to do something similar on Long Island. They weren’t your usual planners. Most were in their mid-to-late 20s and early 30s. They came from a variety of backgrounds including planning, architecture, and transportation (including a nationally renowned advocate for bicycling). Their suggestion was as shocking as it was simple. Take action now instead of waiting many years for big multi-million dollar projects to bring change.

Discouraged by the inability of long-range, top-down planning to empower citizens to proactively enhance their built environment now, DoTank:Brooklyn created a model called 48x48x48 that they say was “inspired by the inefficiency of conventional planning and implementation processes.” The group seeks a single city block and brainstorms for temporary improvements to make it a better place. The first 48-hour increment begins by combing the community for assets and ideas, building unlikely partnerships and challenging the participants to overcome engrained limitations with creative pragmatism. Next, the team takes ideas for transforming a space and temporary makes them happen with simple installations, using community ideas and volunteer elbow grease.  All hands are called on deck in a 48-hour intervention blitz that activates and showcases the potential of an under-utilized area.

The short-term physical improvements create what DoTank calls “laboratories,” places where the public can experience changes and engage in open  conversations. The goal is to not only help the community realize what is possible, but actually kick-start the long process of creating permanent change in a provocative way that far exceeds any plan or benchmarking exercise. These interventions inspire and inform an action plan for the next 48 weeks following a discussion on what the site could become in 48 months and even 48 years. By connecting the action with long-term goals, the planning effort evolves from a mere event into a catalyst for substantive change.

Do Tank has been particularly interested in addressing the issues Long Island’s suburbs have been experiencing – brain drain, zoning obstacles, and crumbling infrastructure. They identified four areas of opportunity for Oyster Bay and communities like it: Local Food & Commerce, Transportation, Social & Civic, and Public Space. Their 48-hour improvements project and laboratories reflect these areas of concentration.

The Oyster Bay Main Street program, the Town of Oyster Bay, and several community groups eagerly embraced the concept. Over an intense three-week preparation period, diverse stakeholders, many of whom had not previously engaged in public planning, emerged to contribute ideas, resources, and a lot of heavy lifting to forge a product that was uniquely for and by the people of Oyster Bay.

Do Tank organized a series of public meetings to learn about the community’s vision for this underutilized area in the downtown. The end goal was to make the street more attractive to pedestrians and to businesses, so that the revitalization from the downtown could trickle down to this underutilized part of Oyster Bay. They created  a series of temporary, or “pop-up,” installations on June 12-13, 2010, that were executed quickly with volunteer labor and minimal financial cost. These pop-ups aligned with the community’s wish list for public space, gathering places, eateries, activities, and pedestrian amenities. A series of meetings helped iron out the details and organized volunteers who were eager to help with planning and day-of execution. More than 30 people from various organizations participated in the event planning. Anyone who found out about the project and wanted to get involved was given a specific task to do. They figured out which vacant spaces they wanted to use, new temporary uses for them, and helped spruce them up so they were ready for action. Project leaders used a variety of traditional and social media outreach to build the buzz and get people involved. Word of mouth was the most powerful tool – over the course of the two-day event, there were several hundred people involved.

The plantings and furniture arrive (Photo credit: Oyster Bay Main Street Association). Volunteers set prototype of clock in place for future Railroad Plaza (Photo credit: Mike Lydon).

A local landscape and garden supply business, Dodds & Eder, loaned tables, chairs, benches, and planters to line the street during the two-day event. Renaissance Property Associates, a major property owner downtown, offered two of their vacant buildings on the street to use as a pop-up store, workshop space, and for a café that was run by a local business. Many businesses and the Oyster Bay Chamber of Commerce embraced the vision and participated in the intervention. There were activities all day long: people taught yoga, zumba (a dance-oriented fitness craze), and dancing classes; a pop-up “theater” showed a movie in a vacant storefront; and food vendors lined the streets.

Pop-up park at the end of Audrey Avenue (Photo credit: DoTank Brooklyn)

Even more exciting, a pop-up park sprang up in the parking lot at the end of Audrey Avenue and next to the National Register-listed Oyster Bay Long Island Railroad Station. Three hundred square feet of sod were laid down. A sand box, water feature, and toys provided fun and excitement for kids of all ages.

Oyster Bay Farmers’ Market (Photo credit: Robert Meltzer)

Efforts were made to start a farmers’ market during the intervention. Given the short notice, only a handful of vendors could be recruited to participate. They were enthusiastically greeted by the community; so much so that little more than a month later a full-fledged Oyster Bay Farmers’ Market was born. This market continued to operate for the next 13 weeks. The vendors said that this became one of their favorite markets on Long Island thanks to the great setting in a historic downtown.

Billy Joel at the 48x48x48 intervention (Photo credit: Mike Lydon)

As things were just getting started on Saturday morning, a totally unexpected special guest pushed the event over the top. Billy Joel (yes, the singer!) cruised down the street on his motorcycle, with half-a-dozen other bikers who parked in front of the main pop-up-shop where area organizations placed informational displays, where community planning sessions were held, and other activities took place throughout the 48 hour event. Billy Joel sat at the tables and chairs placed on the sidewalk in front of the building and participated in activities over the next two days.

DoTank:Brooklyn leading a planning session (Photo credit: DoTank: Brooklyn)

Had the story ended there, it would have been notable. What happened in the months to follow was even more special. Billy Joel had already been contemplating locating a showroom for his extensive motorcycle collection in Oyster Bay. Following the 48 hour event and a thorough renovation to the building where the workshops were held, Billy Joel’s “20th Century Cycles” showroom was opened to the public in October 2010.  His project instantly became a shining gem and attraction on this long-neglected block. The first few weekends after being open literally thousands of people visited historic downtown Oyster Bay to get a glimpse of Joel and his amazing collection. Existing businesses such as A Healthy You specializing in organic food and natural supplements, and the Oyster Bay Railroad Museum Preview Center, experienced a big boost in business following the event. Fast forward to almost one year later, in August 2011 it is expected that a healthy eatery called Sweet Tomato will open in the space used for the pop-up store, following a renovation of that building as well.

So much has already been accomplished with a minimal investment of $1,346, which the Main Street program covered for costs related to food for the farmers’ market, landscaping, table and chair rental, and portable bathrooms.  Some materials, like the sand for the park, traffic barriers, and trash cans were donated by the town. When you add other businesses and organizations that directly participated, or organizations in the surrounding area that benefited, there was a net economic impact for the event of $1,412.74. Oyster Bay Main Street was pleased to see that its investment helped generate an equal or greater amount of spending in the community. Throughout the weekend several hundred residents and visitors came to see the transformation taking place. Of these, over 50 active volunteers spent over 400 hours of their time helping to plan and implement this successful event.

Through this project, we learned what a difference 48 hours could make. Short-term actions immediately changed the perception people had about one of the most neglected areas in Oyster Bay. After 48 hours of change, we are seeing new building improvements and new businesses. Plans for the next 48 weeks and 48 years were put forward, to help changes continue. These were in each of four areas: Local Food & Commerce, Transportation, Social & Civic, and Public Space.

Do Tank helped get the community started going down the right path with a wrap-up session with community leaders. Some of the recommendations have been acted on already, others have been harder to implement and will take more time. But today, a visit to Oyster Bay will show what can be accomplished when volunteers, the public sector, and private sector work together on shared goals for revitalization.

Design of a new pedestrian plaza by the Town Hall to be created in the weeks and years to follow (Photo credit: DoTank Brooklyn)

Sidebar: How do 48-hour improvements become 48-month/48-year improvements?

How does a temporary pop-up become lasting change? Here are some ideas that were tested in Oyster Bay:

The mere act of filling previously vacant with life and activities, seeded these spaces for bringing them back into public use. The change was not immediate following the event. Both spaces needed substantial renovation so they would be of suitable condition for occupancy. Once this renovation was completed, however, the two spaces used during the event became home to Billy Joel’s “20th Century Cycles” and the other one for Sweet Tomato – a healthy eatery. This block that once had the highest concentration of vacant spaces downtown, is now fully occupied. The transformation has been dramatic, and this is at least partially due to the 48 hour event and how this helped to focus people on the potential of this space.

Local Food and Commerce: 48 Hours: Host a farmers market – 48 Weeks: Outreach to change the culture of food and health – 48 year: Promote healthy lifestyles by searching fresh foods.

Our pilot farmers’ market during the 48 hour event, helped to accelerate efforts to launch the Oyster Bay Farmers’ Market a month later. This had a successful ten week run from July to October. The market returned this year with even more vendors to a location on Audrey Avenue where the 48 hour event had initially taken place. It has been welcomed by businesses in the area who appreciated the increased exposure their block has gotten. Plans are still underway for the next 48 years. One of the most promising opportunities is a community garden that is being planned in collaboration with the Town of Oyster Bay. Amenities like a cooperative market would also be welcome.

48 Hours: Increase foot traffic to local businesses by creating temporary attractions like the Oyster Bay Railroad Museum: 48 Months: Open Billy Joel 20th Century Cycles Museum and use Railroad Museum’s rail cars as low-overhead business incubators. 48 Year: Transform the economy to support local.

There has been a marked increase in foot traffic with the more vacant storefronts that have been filled. Billy Joel’s “20th Century Cycles” has gotten national attention and helped to attract thousands of people to the downtown. Work on the Oyster Bay Railroad Museum continues though has been affected by the slow economy and the falling off of State and Federal money needed to get such a venture started. Recently U.S. Senator Charles Schumer visited the site and touted the important economic development opportunity this presented for the Long Island region. The recent addition of street lamps and benches along this street made it that much more welcoming to residents and visitors. One of the next steps is to get an opening to Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Park at the end of Audrey Avenue to make a grand entrance between the park and the downtown area. This fits in the long-term plans for the Oyster Bay Railroad Museum whose future home will be in the National Register-listed Long Island Rail Road Station at the end of Audrey Avenue and the entrance to Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Park.

Transportation: 48 Hours:  Apply shared street lane markings for safe and shared bike and cars use. 48 Months: Install permanent bike lanes, connecting to a regional network, and install bike racks downtown. 48 Years: Install bike sheds and build out bike network. Public transit circulator system to main downtown nodes and attractions.

Of all the changes to make, these were hardest to get people to catch on to during the event, and to implement following the event. Basic tasks like management of our existing parking to allow for increased turnover in spaces that helps to support a growing number of local businesses has been challenging. Bicyclists continue to utilize Oyster Bay, especially during the weekends, though the infrastructure to receive them and make them feel welcome is frustratingly limited. The community has been focused on trying to get a trolley service started connecting various different attractions. This too has been difficult to get started. One recent breakthrough was an agreement with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority that operates the Long Island Railroad, for them to provide and promote a package where people can get a reduced rate ticket and “Spend a Day in Oyster Bay.”

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About Isaac Kremer

Isaac Kremer is a transformative leader with a track record of success in downtown revitalization, placemaking, and supporting small businesses. He holds an M.A. in Historic Preservation Planning from Cornell University, and a B.A. in Economics and Management from Albion College.

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