Data-Driven Makeovers - A Street Plans & State of Place Love Affair!

It’s no secret we’re die hard fans of fab before and after street makeovers (maybe even just a tad bit more than Fab Five makeovers…maybe…). And I don’t know about you, but five days into summer, I’m ready to indulge in that amazing “after”-glow (I’m talking about streets here, people!). But sadly, when it comes to the built environment, by the time you realize your look is severely outdated, it’s gonna take years, not hours to be able to bask in that glorious “new street smell.” And unlike cutting away some overgrown split-ends or dying out those greys, makeovers of the street kind are sometimes a matter of life and death, as we’ve discussed in the past.

The typically slow-moving nature of planning and development is one of the hurdles we help our customers overcome - by using data (on nearly 300 urban design features) to make better decisions (with our super fun SimCity tool that helps identify projects that maximize walkability, livability AND ROI), then using that data to help effectively communicate those decisions and thereby streamline the approval, funding, and buy-in process, and ultimately promoting the end-result - those afters - with actual scores (since those 300 data points get conveniently converted into a score from 0 -100…and because even as adults we still love getting graded on stuff!). But one thing we haven’t yet quite overcome is how long these projects take to come to life once they’re approved, partly because they come with a big price tag (so financing will still take some time) and partly because they are often large, complex projects.

But what if there was a street version of an ultimate Fab Five makeover that happens over the course of a week not years? Well, enter tactical urbanism - a street revitalization paradigm that borrows from the “Lean Startup” fail-fast, build, measure, learn philosophy, which so many startups employ to quickly iterate and test a business concept, and applies it to real life street projects. Now, we’ve discussed the idea of marrying these approaches before - we did a whole series on “Lean Placemaking” you should totally check out. But the gist of it is - cities should be using data and evidence along with community input to create hypotheses about potential interventions that could address the needs of a project or neighborhood (borne out by said data), and then run quick, low-cost real-life experiments to test those hypotheses, measure their impacts (again with data), and ultimately inform funding priorities for permanent projects.

Clearly, as fans of data, this approach is a no-brainer win-win, combining evidence-based design with low-cost, quick proof of concepts and a bottom-up process. And lucky for us, Tactical Urbanism is the squishy, yummy, “lighter, quicker, cheaper” center of this “lean” sandwich. This is why we’re delighted to kick off our new partnership with Street Plans - the grandfathers of…um…let’s say fathers (the founders are like my age ;)) of tactical urbanism - with not just one of the juiciest before after makeover stories ever, which was done in - wait for it - THREE days! AND with a community-led process, but ALSO, hello, LOADS of data!

Ever intrigued by the venerable Mike Lydon and Tony Garcia (said, definitely not grandfather-aged, founders of Street Plans), after months of (definitely not stalking them on Twitter and IRL in conferences in Mexico and Norway that finally led to) lively conversations, we narrowed it down to the perfect kick-off project to showcase how data-driven makeovers will be the new it thing of this summer - and beyond! So without further ado, I bring you the story of how downtown Asheville brightened up a drab, tired street in its up and coming South Slope neighborhood, Coxe Avenue.

We have compiled a great Q&A from the project managers at Street Plans that tells the story of this makeover, including best practices and lessons learned. But lest we bury the lead, we’ll start you off with the final reveal quantified first - namely, we present to you the before and after State of Place Index and Profile, translating the impact of this very colorful transformation into hard data about both the quality of place and economic value of the project! We truly believe that combining our approaches will not only inform the project design phase of Tactical Urbanism and Street Plans, but also help create a more effective community engagement process (because who doesn’t love to play SimCity!), and in the end, help not only justify temporary projects, but lead to optimized design makeovers, while making the investment case for permanent re-dos!

Coxe Avenue, Asheville, The DATA

And State of Place says…

So first, we gathered data on over 290 urban design features, like sidewalks, benches, vehicle lanes, curb cuts, etc. on the existing conditions of the project area (we have heard a collective sigh of relief from the planners and developers in the room - yes, you no longer have to do this manually! Instant intelligence on what’s working and what’s not for any place for which there exists digital imagery - and if there isn’t any, just send us the pictures!). Then our software crunched these data into a simple to understand score from 0 -100. At 42.3, Coxe Avenue definitely needs some TLC, although it scores slightly above our database average, which stands at about a 39…It’s really hard to get a great score on State of Place - because there’s always room for improvement, plus, we’re grading you on your performance, not where you rank (think actual SAT score vs. your SAT ranking…if most folks taking the test score poorly, who cares that you have a high ranking! Same goes for walkability…most blocks in the US score poorly. So giving you a ranking score is giving you a false sense of hope. We’re keeping it real by giving you a score that measures how you actually stack up, so you know, you can figure out how to do better!). Anywho, yeah, Coxe needed some help and that’s why they turned to the folks at Street Plans!

Coxe Avenue, between Banks & Buxton, Before

State of Place Index, Coxe Ave, Before

So, based on their goal of increasing walkability in particular, our platform recommended prioritizing Pedestrian and Bike Amenities, Traffic Safety, and Parks & Public Spaces. Luckily, that’s exactly what Street Plans ended up doing (the story of how follows below)! :)

State of Place Profile, Coxe Ave, Before

State of Place Recommendations

So to see what the impact of Street Plans’ awesome project was, we ran it through our fun, SimCity-like scenario tool to see just how much this tactical urbanism approach to revitalization impacted Coxe Avenue. The results are staggering, considering the changes were mostly accomplished with some elbow grease and colorful paint! And man did it pay off in spades! Not just with respect to earning nearly 30 points more on the State of Place Index…but also…

Coxe Avenue, After

State of Place Index & Profile, Coxe Avenue After

in terms of return on investment! Those near 30 points increase in the quality of place translates to upto $6.53/sq. ft. premium on office rents and nearly $5.00/sq. ft. on retail rents! (This was based on an average office rent for the market of $16.18 and $16.13 for retail, and an estimated square footage of approximately 14.3K and $17.8K, respectively). And with such a low price tag, the ROI is over 23X (using a five year return period)!! Now that’s what we call tactical!

Forecasted Office and Retail Rent Premiums, Value Capture, and ROI (based on a 5 year return period); reference for existing office and retail rents:

Coxe Avenue, Asheville, The STORY

So the question is, how did they do that?? Well, in their own words, here’s the Coxe makeover story about how community engagement meets a lighter, quicker, cheaper approach can turn around a place in a matter of THREE days folks!

Q: What were the key challenges the community was facing before they approached Street Plans

Enhancing walkability was a top priority from the outset.

Coxe Ave Before

Coxe Ave Before

Coxe Avenue is an area in transition. It has an auto-oriented legacy of one-story car parts and maintenance shops as well as light industrial and commercial land use such as dry cleaners and paint suppliers. Along the street, the result is a very diminished urban form with parking frontages, long curb cuts, and missing sidewalks.

Getting buy-in from the Business community

Thanks to the work of Asheville on Bikes, the local cycling community is engaged and invigorated. What was challenging was getting participation from the businesses immediately on and around Coxe Avenue who were not particularly interested in participating in conversations about street design changes.

Different mobility needs of diverse customers of existing land uses

Coxe Ave 3D view, before

Coxe Ave 3D view, before

Coxe Avenue has three overlapping stages of development co-existing on the corridor: older buildings with long-established light industrial and service-oriented businesses; older buildings with newer creative, entrepreneurial ventures like breweries, designers, and artisans; and the latest phase which is new condominium apartments, restaurants, coffee shops, and art galleries.

the true test was the design process

Full stakeholder buy-in at the outset was only truly critical from the side of the City and the bike advocacy group that we partnered with. Using the tactical urbanism plan-by-building technique with temporary materials, we were able to gain additional buy-in AFTER implementation. Thus the test IS the design process, and when the city comes back for a permanent reconstruction, the community will already have an informed position on which aspects of the project they support and which may need refinement.

Q: How/Why was Street Plans approached?

Good Old-fashioned Relationship and Trust Building

Bike / Walk NC invited Principal Mike Lydon to deliver a keynote at their statewide conference in Asheville. Asheville on Bikes was part of that conference and invited us back to us to do a local speaking engagement on the advantages of tactical urbanism, namely using low-cost, quick-build methods to experiment with transformative changes. Based on the success of these two presentations and the energy and willingness of the City and the community to further the conversation, we were hired to lead an engagement process that eventually led to the Coxe Ave project.

Q: How did your team choose to address the challenges and why? Describe the process your team took to determine the best way to address the challenges.

Pounding the Pavement

There were three key elements to our approach in this project that made it successful. First, we met the community on their own turf, walking door to door for feedback and hosting multiple workshops and engagements right on Coxe Avenue at different times of day so we could get as many stakeholders involved in the dialog as possible.

The Customer is always right

Local volunteers

Local volunteers

Second, we honored the integrity of the outreach process by keeping a very open mind as to what the final product would be - going in we thought we would be designing a protected bike lane but the result ended up being a shared-use path, curb extensions, and enhanced public space incorporating public art.

Public Participation

Third, as in most of our projects, we leveraged the active participation of the community in the project implementation as a way to generate excitement and a sense of ownership.

Q: Describe your solution/intervention/process

Shared Mobility

Based on three workshops and a number of design iterations, we arrived at a program that very carefully balanced the needs of all street users.

Screen Shot 2019-06-26 at 12.53.23 PM.png
  1. We developed a plan for painted curb extensions that could be shared for walking, bikes, and scooters

  2. We vastly consolidated the number and size of curb cuts across the sidewalks

  3. We created a flashy, eye-catching street mural designed by a local artists

  4. We did it all without removing any on-street parking or vehicular travel lanes.

Q: Describe the process you had to undergo to implement your solution/intervention. What went well/what was challenging?

“Go slow to go fast”

The process for this project ended up having numerous steps - from an introductory presentation to a workshop to a charette to a final presentation to implementation, with numerous conversations and iterations within the project team in between each step. Although the outreach phase took nearly a year from when it started to when the project went in the ground, the “go slow to go fast” process of carefully progressing through development and outreach resulted in a project that was widely supported and ultimately able to move very rapidly from formal design approval (September) to implementation (November).

Q: What were the results of the solution/intervention?

Art + Mobility = Success

The final project has been tremendously successful and roundly endorsed. The street mural in particular gets attention and praise that would not normally be expected with a simpler bike infrastructure project, and that has been powerful for galvanizing board support. We are very proud of this project and excited about what it means for downtown Asheville - an area in the nascent stages of building out more pedestrian- and bike-friendly streets.

Paint by numbers…

But there was a major lesson learned when it comes to material performance. The City did not want to use long-lasting materials that would be too challenging to remove if the design needed to be changed. But in the cold, damp conditions of the Blue Ridge Mountains in November, some of the paint designed for medium-term use did not adhere as well as the manufacturer had specified it would.

Q: Is there anything you could have done differently after the fact?

Weather it

As a low-cost test of a traffic configuration, all the main project objectives for a medium-term (1-2 year) experimental design were achieved. However, based on the experience we had with some of the paint failing, there’s no doubt if we could do it over we would have pushed to do the implementation earlier in the season when weather conditions are more favorable. Or as an alternative, we could have used more durable, longer-lasting paint. Instead, there are going to have be some touch-ups and re-painting in the spring to make sure the finished quality of the installation is up to snuff.

Q: What most brings a smile to your face about this project?

Hearts beat as one - literally and figuratively!

More than 60 volunteers came out on two days of borderline freezing temperatures to help us install these street improvements, many with their own vehicles, wheelbarrows, tools, and equipment. No one complained and everyone had fun, ate pizza, and played music. The vibe of people coming out into the street of their community to improve their neighborhood with their own sweat, elbow grease, and enthusiasm simply can’t be beat and puts a smile on our faces every time.


If you want to learn more about Street Plans and their amazing work, please check out the case study on their website (with loads more before/after pics) or just spend hours on Mike Lydon’s Twitter Feed! ;)

And if you are interested in learning more about how State of Place can help quantify the amazing projects you’ve worked on - or are trying to currently lease or sell (nothing like objective marketing!) - OR even better yet, are currently evaluating your target market or city for opportunities (especially in well, opportunity zones!), or have a project in mind but want to maximize its bang for the buck (hello, ROI!), or need help justifying an existing project to help get it approved, funded, or simply get the community and stakeholders on board, like we said, we love us some urban makeovers, so please do get in touch!

Mariela AlfonzoComment