From Toa Baja to Detroit, Advisory Services Delivers Solutions

A ULI Advisory Services panel convened to advise Toa Baja, Puerto Rico, on a post-hurricane rebuilding strategy and panel convened to advise Detroit on a tactical building reuse and preservation strategy offer a glimpse at the breadth of urban challenges addressed by the Institute’s advisory program, as well as the collaborative effort between ULI and panel sponsors to find solutions.

A panel of ULI members visited Toa Baja in December 2018 to advise the municipio, which had been ravaged by Hurricane Maria in 2017, on how best to build for local economic and climate resilience as well as boost prosperity for all residents. The panel was supported by ULI Southeast Florida/Caribbean, the Puerto Rico Builder’s Association, Alvarez-Diaz & Villalon, the Kresge Foundation, Toa Baja Municipality leadership, and Mayor Bernardo “Betito” Marquez.

Following tours of the hardest-hit areas and interviews with numerous community stakeholders, the panel concluded the week-long visit by advising Toa Baja that it can rebuild in a strong and prosperous way if it embraces physical, social, and economic strategies as pillars of resilience. Its recommendations emphasized different facets of resilience, including the following:

– Physical resilience: The panel recommended that Toa Baja encourage the use of natural drainage systems on private property, redevelopment, and new developments;

– Social resilience: Panelists urged the municipio to prioritize consensus building and civic engagement activities, and strive to become a regional model for other municipalities; and

– Economic resilience: Panelists recommended that Toa Baja identify locations for housing relocation and growth by launching a strategic locational planning effort, support storm-affected businesses by providing grants and mentorship programs, and pursue federal workforce training and job creation programs.

“We entrust the panel recommendations to the leadership of Toa Baja to utilize in their community discussions around resilience. We believe that, with commonwealth support, Toa Baja can serve as a model for other municipios in Puerto Rico,” said panel chairman and ULI Life Trustee James DeFrancia, principal of Lowe in Steamboat Springs, Colorado.

Sarah Sieloff, executive director of the Center for Creative Land Recycling in Oakland, California, served as the panel’s vice chair. “Ultimately, our recommendations were grounded in an understanding of Toa Baja’s vulnerabilities, a focus on jobs and housing, thinking critically about how and where to build, and viewing resilience in a business sense, especially considering the costs of inaction.”

Mayor Marquez pointed to the benefit of having the panel’s fresh perspective on what could be achievable. “It was clear that doing things in a traditional way would be ineffective,” he said. “I felt that the combination of local community leadership working together with experts from ULI from around the globe would be the best way to disrupt the process and rethink all these issues.”

  • “I felt that the combination of local community leadership working together with experts from ULI from around the globe would be the best way to disrupt the process and rethink all these issues.”

    – Bernardo “Betito” Marquez, Mayor, Toa Baja
  • “Tactical preservation is a way to educate and involve the community.”

    – Karmi Palafox, Advisory Services panelist, Detroit

The panel in Detroit, supported with a generous gift to the ULI Foundation from ULI Trustee Preston Butcher, offered advice on identifying, quantifying, and implementing tactical preservation measures for an estimated 66,000 empty buildings in neighborhoods scattered around Detroit. Convened in July 2018, the panel was sponsored by the city of Detroit, the Michigan Preservation Network, and the DTE Energy Foundation, which sought ULI’s help in identifying solutions to retrofitting buildings with historic implications for innovative mixed-use and adaptive uses. The panel’s visit came on the heels of a $130 million expansion of the city’s Strategic Neighborhood Fund to include at least seven neighborhoods, with an increased emphasis on maximizing inclusivity as well as asset potential.

The panel’s assignment centered on how the city can help facilitate tactical preservation in multiple neighborhoods, such as:

– Zoning changes to accommodate new uses;

– Strategies and building code considerations to more efficiently transition buildings from vacancy to partial reuse;

– Adapting utilities to accommodate partial use of a building;

– Development of a flexible, replicable strategy for tactical preservation;

– Forging partnerships with the private, nonprofit, and philanthropic sectors;

– Funding to start and maintain tactical preservation; and a

– A timeline for immediate as well as long-range implementation.

Following days of evaluating the building preservation potential in the targeted neighborhoods and meetings with public officials and community representatives, the panelists developed recommendations that included a scoring matrix to help city planners and other public officials evaluate structures, advocate elimination of barriers to reusing sections of buildings, and set goals and timelines for swift action, including adoption of a “triage approach” in assessing neighborhood landmarks.

The matrix tasks city planners with scoring a building’s heritage value, community value, proximity to a corridor, impact in that corridor, structural integrity, potential use, alignment of the floor plan with that use, ease of partial use, level of finishes, access to utilities, and financing.

Panel chairman Michael Stern, principal of MAS Places in Jackson, Wyoming, emphasized the urgency of the situation, noting that Detroit must “get started now because these buildings are literally falling down around us.”

The panel recommended that the city identify 10 to 15 structures viable for renovation in different neighborhoods across the city, and strive to secure, reuse, or renovate spaces in the buildings as a starting point for preservation efforts. The initial projects could serve as job training in the construction business for area residents, noted panelist Karmi Palafox, senior adviser for Palafox Associates in Makati City, Philippines. “Tactical preservation is a way to educate and involve the community,” she said.

Panelist Ernst Valery, president of SAA/EVI in Baltimore, stressed the importance of including real estate professionals who are women and people of color in the city’s preservation efforts. “Economic inclusion will lead to increased economic vitality that will benefit everyone,” he said.

Following the panel’s visit, the panel sponsors embraced the recommendations, starting with the formation of an interagency tactical preservation task force to delineate roles and responsibilities for implementing the city’s tactical preservation program, which is underway.

Apply for service on an Advisory Services panel through Navigator.

Find reports with detailed recommendations from the Toa Baja and Detroit panels as well as other Advisory Services panel reports in Knowledge Finder.

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