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Getting Started: Initial Homework

July 8, 2015

Screen Shot 2015-07-08 at 4.24.21 PMAfter our last call, Laura kindly emailed me various Main Streets handbooks for getting started, and then today we had another call.  A lot of the info in the handbooks I learned at the National Main Streets Conference, but there is always more to learn, and do.

There’s A LOT of material, so here are the homework items that apply to us right now:

>> Take stock of the town’s businesses.  There’s no precise way to do this, but we can get a pretty good idea if we:

  • Walk the downtown streets and list each business, categorized by type, target demographic, and relative popularity/success (if known).
  • Go to the city government offices (often the Financial or Business office) for a list of active business licenses.
  • Research any other demographic studies recently conducted by developers.

>> Find out the business district’s zoning.  For Fairfax, we found them in the Town of Fairfax website > Government > Town Code > Municipal Code of Ordinances > Zoning > CC Central Commercial Zone.  We have a few good ordinances in place already, including regulated first-floor offices in retail zones, liquor stores, theaters, etc. so that there may be a healthy mix of business types. Read more…

The Main Streets Approach: Are you ready?

June 27, 2015

dive inI had an initial call with Laura Rowe-Cole, the Executive Director of the California Main Streets Alliance, about bringing the Main Streets approach to Fairfax. I met her at the National Main Streets Conference in Atlanta in March.

She was the Executive Director of Main Streets Davis and Fairfield for over 15 years, and has worked with towns across California for almost 10 years, helping them to start and maintain Main Streets programs.

Her experience shows in her immediate quick-fire questions to gauge Fairfax’s “readiness”:

  1. How big is your town?
  2. What’s the downtown like?
  3. What’s your town’s reputation?
  4. Are business owners open to change?
  5. Is there a Starbucks?  What chains are there?
  6. Are people into locally-owned businesses?
  7. What’s your city government like?
  8. How engaged is the community in “community things”?
  9. Are people generally conservative or progressive?

She didn’t say what the “right” answers were, but I could deduce:

  1. Any size.
  2. Cute is good. Cool is good. Charming is good.
  3. Anything is workable.
  4. Yes.
  5. No. Not many, or any.
  6. Yes.
  7. Open-minded.
  8. Moderate to very.
  9. Generally progressive.

Okay, Fairfax passed the initial test.  Next up: Homework.

The National Main Streets Center

June 27, 2015


Excerpts from the Main Streets Center website.

We all know where our Main Streets are, but do we know what they are and why they matter? Whether they are named First Avenue or Water Street or Martin Luther King Boulevard, what they represent is universal. Main Streets are the traditional center for social, cultural, and economic activity for their communities. They are the big stage, the core of the community. Our Main Streets tell us who we are and who we were, and how the past has shaped us. We do not go to bland suburbs or enclosed shopping malls to learn about our past, explore our culture, or discover our identity. Our Main Streets are the places of shared memory where the entire community still comes together to live, work, and play.

So what is Main Street?  When we talk about the Main Streets movement, we are thinking of real places doing real work to revitalize their communities and preserve their character. Specifically, the Main Street Center movement is three things: a proven strategy for revitalization, a powerful network of linked communities, and a national support program that leads the field. Read more…

Asset Map: Fairfax Country Club

June 18, 2015

Marin Town & Country Club aka “Fairfax Country Club ~ Photos from Patch & Fairfax Historical Society.

When I first moved to Fairfax, a friend told me to find out what was happening with the defunct “Fairfax Country Club”.   I had never even heard of it, but then – when grabbing a quick bite tonight to-go from the bar at Iron Springs Pub (the only place open past 9:30 pm I might add, wtf) – I sat next to James Reed who lives on the Country Club property.  Nice!  He runs Tree Monkey Fun business, teaching kids how to climb trees higher than you ever dreamed to fund more technical tree-climbing equipment and skills for an Ecuadorian tribe that depends on their towering trees for sustenance and medicine.  Super cool….But, what’s up with that property?

James explained: The early missionaries or tribe sold the very first parcel of Fairfax to a Max Friedman in the early 1900s. (Google tells me that actually a Domingo Sais was first given the land for his service to the Mexican government, the land passed through a few hands during the 1800s — including Lord and Lady Fairfax, a fancy restaurant, Emporium Capwell for employee retreats, two women — and then eventually Max bought it in 1943 for $125k.) The parcel was essentially all the acreage of the Country Club + the current Fair-Anselm Plaza and Good Earth Grocery property. Max added to the first pool Emporium built, including six more pools, summer cabins, and recreational facilities.  Soon, the club turned into a popular respite for everyone in the city fogged in during the summertime months.

But by the 1970s, Max was in his 90s and over it.  His kids held it stagnant for a few decades, and then sold the 28 acres of the country club to the current owner, Michael Makintosh, for $5.5 million in 2002.  The property is zoned for “recreational use” only, and the only people allowed to live there are those who are in the legacy buildings.  So, basically, James lives in a repurposed locker room building of the club.

What’s the status of the pools and recreational areas?  They’re overgrown and “back to nature”, James says. His Tree Monkey Fun camp and another resident’s Flying Dutchman camp are the only activities going on there because Mr. Makintosh allegedly only trusts residents of the property to operate businesses there.  Hmmm.  Seems there is some cool potential here to put it back to use in how it was intended (and zoned)!

The Main Streets Approach for Fairfax?

June 15, 2015


Last year when I was in Detroit for the Kellogg Foundation Food & Society Conference, there happened to be another big event at the same venue: the National Main Streets Conference. All day long I’d meet people from this “other” conference in elevators and on escalators, and I was blown away at how effortlessly and confidently these Main Streets folks talked about their successes in preserving historic architecture…. while revitalizing local economies and small businesses…. while fostering stronger human relationships in communities…. while HAVING FUN. I mean, What?!

These issues are close to my heart. I grew up in Portola Valley (between San Francisco and Silicon Valley in the hills west of 280), which used to be a place where the Alpine Inn historic pub parking lot would have just has many horses “parked” as there were cars. It was legit country life with vast open spaces and tight-knit community, and yet just a short drive from the City. These days, “PV” is known as the land of McMansions and, looking at any parking lot, you will see Mercedes, Ferrari, Tesla, Lotus, BMW, another Ferrari….and a dearth of genuine community feel.

Horses, the bygone mainstay at historic "Rossoti's" est. 1850

Horses, the bygone mainstay at nationally registered, ever-popular Portola Valley pub “Rossotti’s” est. 1850s

Palo Alto, our closest town had its quaint main street with local shops in historic buildings, with a mix of local teens, local families, and Stanford university professors and students. These days, it’s a heart of Silicon Valley and a franchise megapolis with towering stucco architecture with the likes of Restoration Hardware and Cheesecake Factory, and a bounty of yuppies and techies. Now its nickname is “Shallow Alto.” Sigh.

In San Francisco, after living for over a decade in Pacific Heights and Russian Hill, in 2005 I moved to Hayes Valley because it wasn’t so perfect. It was an “up-and-coming” neighborhood with a few great restaurants, a few great stores, and an ubiquitous reputation as being diverse, down-to-earth, and, well, pretty awesome. Same with parts of the Mission when I moved there from Hayes Valley. You can guess what happened to areas of both neighborhoods: Gentrification, an influx of hipsters and, at least in Hayes Valley, a lot of older cool architecture torn down. Another sigh.

Now I live in Fairfax in West Marin County, which reminds me so much of Portola Valley pre-McMansion, pre-Ferraris. The small town is still made up of local businesses, the gorgeous natural open spaces are still intact, and the vibe among everyone in town is still super friendly. I don’t have the heart to see yet another cool place — that’s not yet totally on everyone’s radar — go down (or up?) in flames.

This blog is switching gears now to the Main Streets “agenda”, more specifically following some friends and I in Fairfax as we see what we can do by following the Main Streets process to help at least our one small town keep things real in these times of inevitable change — revitalizing local businesses and economies, preserving historic architecture, continuing to protect open space, and strengthening our local diverse culture whether that’s ethnic, economic, artistic, or other!  Wish us luck. 🙂

Is Business An Art?

August 8, 2014
by Melanie Cheng



Recently, I was talking with two friends who say that it’s not. One works for a leading commercial design manufacturer (what I’ll call a business around art), and the other works at SAP (business) and has a professional photography career (art) on the side.

Starting a business is fricken hard, and maintaining a successful business is just as hard. (Btw, if you don’t believe these basic assumptions, read about the daily 99% bad-decision rate of CEOs – especially successful ones – and how rare it is to create a company that lasts.)

And yet, these friends tell me that business may be difficult and require ingenuity, but ultimately you’re just navigating and optimizing life in the box. The business world box.

Especially as an entrepreneur, there are so many opportunities for failure as you learn and evolve to find your footing. To me, running your own business is absolutely an art – constantly calibrating your vision vs reality, what your ‘customers’ or ‘clients’ say that want vs what they actually need, what will make money vs what will make an impact, what you personally enjoy vs what is best for business viability, and managing human resources who are volatile complex beings by nature.

Screen Shot 2014-08-08 at 11.28.24 AMBut, perhaps, this orchestration is simply an act and exercise in engineering, not art. Engineering all these moving parts to work together seamlessly and effortlessly.

And yet, I think that even engineering – the most elegant and creative engineering – can transcend the boring and actually be beautiful. In fact, I just met with the owner of a design firm who said that some of his contractors just delivered some wireframes for an intricate and complex application, which were so well-done and so brilliantly executed that they literally made him cry.

So, I’m contending that art is defined by beauty, and that the way that business can be engineered and executed can in fact be beautiful. And, thus, it can be art.

Which brings up the next question: How to engineer business in more beautiful ways? What would make a business beautiful? My thoughts at the moment:

  • Operating lean: doing (a lot) more with less
  • Joy among the team: true happiness on a human level
  • Impact: doing good for the world while also making money
  • Collaboration: integrating models that ‘raise the tide for all boats’ in an industry; down with the one-winner model
  • Empowerment: of customers, clients, staff, board, executives, partners, everyone…
  • Innovation: expanding minds to new possibilities and more creativity
  • Community: fostering caring human bonds and relationships
  • Sustainability: honoring and protecting the most abundant art around us, Mother Nature

That would be beautiful. I think that integrating all these things is the ultimate Michelangelo of business.

Toss those Voter Info Pamphlets?

July 4, 2014

voterinfoI recently met Patrick Valentino, spokesperson against San Francisco’s Proposition B in the June 2014 election, which mandates that any proposed waterfront building exceeding height limits must be approved by public vote. I’ve always spoken out against the development of high-rises blocking the view for the rest of the city, but after chatting with Patrick about the details; seeing that SPUR, SF Chronicle, League of Conservation Voters, Parks Alliance, SF Democratic Party, Housing Action Coalition, the Labor Council, and others also opposed Prop B; and then listening to the NPR debate about Prop B, I’m more confused than ever about the truth, and what’s best for the city as its population grows.

Sometimes there is obvious propaganda from evil-doers this is unfortunately effective (flashbacks to Monsanto’s multi-million dollar ad campaign right before Prop 37‘s predicted landslide, which turned the expected win for labeling GMOs into a loss).

But often, it’s hard for even informed citizens to differentiate fact from propaganda. Why is it so hard for us to get complete info? We get the Voter Information Pamphlets in the mail, but they’re so incomplete and so often skewed, they don’t really help. Personally, I end up tossing them in the trash recycling.

Currently, the only hope for us to vote intelligently is to:

  • Spend a lot of time researching every candidate and every proposition ourselves – Veto: unrealistic.
  • Read the Voter Information Pamphlets – Veto: skewed, limited and/or bad-quality info.
  • Go by organizations’ endorsements – All We’ve Got: binary thumbs up or thumbs down.

What if we had a single place online (calling which provided one, easily-navigable, easily-scannable database of all the candidates and propositions, and allowed citizens to see right there in one place which organizations and businesses endorsed each of them AS WELL AS short paragraphs of a standardized length written by each endorsing entity containing qualitative, descriptive reasoning behind their endorsement or opposition AND one or two links to supporting resources for more information.

Then, each organization wouldn’t need to spend the time and money trying to publicize their positions (which is totally inefficient anyway), and could instead focus on their core program work (which is undercapitalized across the board for nonprofits already). And then we citizens would actually be able to get the info we need to make informed choices, whether that means a quick scan of endorsers if we’re time-pressed, or more thorough research of resources recommended by trusted endorsing entities.

Wow, that would be huge, and it’s not even hard to build.

It’s amazing how little progress we’ve made as far as creating learning channels for citizens to get the information they need to vote.  Listening to an hour-long NPR show about each issue and still be confused is not good.

Let’s do this!

Consumer Brands for Place-Based Fair Trade

March 2, 2014
Peruvian alpaca

Top-quality wool: Peruvian alpaca

Yesterday I met a woman from Boulder, Colorado who told me about a new branding initiative to support the growing fair trade sustainable textiles & handcrafts movement. The same organization/coalition that promoted the “925” stamp for quality silver jewelry in Mexico is creating some sort of stamp of authenticity for Peruvian products made from their regional alpaca and sheep wool.

Then, we naive tourists – especially when visiting these regions ourselves – know to look for and value the products made from quality wool, and thus our dollars go back to the people who produce the real thing. And then ultimately, people from Peru who create these amazing products following age-old traditions may preserve their cultural heritage. Hooray. Success.

For the past many years, I rarely buy synthetic fabrics anyway – not because of the sustainability factor – but because they just don’t feel as good, they fall apart faster, or they simply don’t work (tried an acrylic scarf?).

I’m excited and inspired to see people who are thinking about the concept of place with the concept of fair trade. I’m not sure yet how it will grow in the marketplace or in various tourist destinations. i.e. Will shoppers just care about fair trade alpaca wool, or will they seek out the upcoming Peruvian brand of fair trade wool because they understand the economic and cultural impacts for the Peruvian people in buying those specific products?

Obviously, there will need to be a lot of education of both shop keepers and tourists to make any new brand meaningful, and regulators to enforce its integrity.

As usual, it’s hard to identify the ‘best’ answer or silver bullet. There’s also Fiber Shed, which is all about finding/wearing clothes that are made from local fibers, local dyes and local labor from Your region. Eat local, dress local? At first, it was a bit too idealistic for me, but then I realized it actually does mirror the regional food movement in that it’s all about environmental sustainability and economic development.

I guess we can buy Peruvian alpaca for cultural preservation, and we can also buy locally made designs for our community’s own cultural development. And, then in our extra time (ahem), track all other suppliers by using the Sustainable Apparel Coalition‘s Higg Index covering the “environmental and social impacts of apparel and footwear products across the product lifecycle and throughout the value chain.”

I look forward to hearing more how folks in this textile, clothing and handcraft movement support regions around the world economically, while also preserving heritage artisan culture.

Celebrating Hands-On Benevolence

December 24, 2013

When the western world is so resentful of the “self-serving 1%”, it’s refreshing to hear about someone with ample means not only choosing to contribute financially to improving the world but actually taking a hands-on, hard-working role in making it happen.  I think that everyone, especially other wealthy 1% people, would benefit from hearing more and more often about those who are being a bit more proactive with their money, mind, creativity and influence.

Screen Shot 2013-12-24 at 11.37.48 AM

Chronicle Books: good for humanity

I bring this up after hearing about the owner of Chronicle Books, Nion McEvoy, the (wealthy) great-grandson of M.H. de Young, founder of the SF Chronicle and of whom the De Young Museum is named in honor.  He could have done anything with his time, brain and his funds, but he chose to buy Chronicle Books from a former Chronicle exec and make it focus on what he deemed important: quality of life and lifestyle. I think that most everyone has seen and loves Chronicle Books.  They’re eye-catching and crowd-pleasers.  This is shown in their mission: “Inspired by the enduring magic and importance of books, our objective is to create and distribute exceptional publishing that’s instantly recognizable for its spirit, creativity, and value.”  They publish imho seminal, fun books about life as a human (see above).  I think that’s an important niche!

What I loved most about hearing about McEvoy is that a) he wanted to take a hands-on role in running the company.  And b) even though their Photography books are apparently the worst performers in their list, he personally feels it’s important for humanity to know and learn about, so he continues publishing and pushing it.  This might not seem that noteworthy, but I think it actually is.  How many other wealthy folks choose to simply invest or donate to causes instead of doing the work?  How many companies are driven only by their bottom line and share-holders to “trim the fat”.  Ditch anything not bringing in the biggest ROI.  How many would ditch the Photography list?  How much of what we value in the world (like aesthetics and quality of life) are de-prioritized by the fewer and fewer choices we have in products and services offered by big companies?

It would be great for us all to be made aware of and celebrate those who have the capital and influence to do the right thing and are doing it themselves…like Nion McEvoy.  Or, like Jeff Skoll, who made his billions from eBay but then, instead of just becoming a serial investor/single-bottom-line money maker, he founded the Skoll Foundation, which contributes over $80 million in grants each year to social entrepreneurs “dedicated to solving the world’s most pressing problems”,  and Participant Media, which has produced over 50 films about social, environmental and cultural issues, including An Inconvenient Truth, The Cove, Food Inc.Lincoln, and many more.

To [make] the change we wish to see, I think that we need to empower those with the funds and influence (ie the 1%) with examples and role models of their peers who are stepping up, getting their hands dirty, and making it real.  Maybe this kind of book “Celebrating Hands-On Benevolence” could be published by Chronicle Books?  🙂  I know a few other hands-on, hard-working benevolent wealthy individuals who don’t share very broadly the good work they’re doing, when they really should.

Honoring Historical Architecture In A Changing City

September 8, 2013

Lately I find myself continually referencing an article from The Urbanist magazine (published by SPUR*) called “Adapt, Transform, Reuse”.  It outlines how a city can modernize to accommodate an evolving population, while still honoring and preserving historical architecture and aesthetics.

“New buildings can help reinforce older urban forms and old buildings can be re-imagined to serve new uses. It is the juxtaposition of old and new that gives cities their interesting corners, their urban surprises, their texture.

Adaptive Reuse: The Ferry Building

Adaptive Reuse: The Ferry Building

Imagine a city where time has stopped — no new buildings are allowed to be built, and the ones that do exist must retain their original use. Such a city would lose its vitality due to lack of change.

Imagine another city where no old buildings or forms are retained— everything is torn down and built new. This second city would also lack vitality but for another reason — because it has no history, no soul.”

In an era of keeping costs to the bare minimum and profits to the absolute maximum, developers notoriously cut corners with simple, cookie-cutter, ugly design and uber-cheap materials.  This makes for really ugly, soul-less cities and communities.

So, clearly, there is an opportunity and need to create beautiful integrations of old and new.  The question is simply (haha) how much old and how much new.  “People have passionate feelings about their environment, sometimes expressed as a love for the buildings or landscapes that currently surround them, other times as a desire for change.”  You will be hard-pressed to find design solutions that make everyone happy.

Nonetheless, assuming there is compromise from both historians and modernists, The Urbanist article outlines key ways that we can bring new life to old buildings to accommodate the ever-changing city:

Adaptive Reuse — when old buildings are repurposed for a use that they were not originally designed to serve.
Example: the SF Ferry Building on the waterfront turned into foodie mecca marketplace.
Incorporation: Original African Hall within the rebuilt California Academy of Sciences

Incorporation: Original African Hall within the rebuilt California Academy of Sciences

Incorporation — when elements of old buildings are incorporated into new buildings.This category includes spolia (when bits and pieces of buildings are preserved), facadism (when the facade of a historic structure is retained but the rest of the building is replaced) and encapsulation (when a historic building is kept in its original location but surrounded on all sides with newer, bigger construction).
Example: the original, beloved African hall from the original California Academy of Sciences building incorporated into the 2008 modern, LEED-certified museum reconstruction all around it.
Juxtaposition — when something new responds to, but does not mimic the old. The contrast between old and new defines and amplifies the qualities of both.  This can be seen in additions to existing buildings, in infill construction within a historic context and in the relationship of new buildings to older urban forms such as alleys or piers.
Examples: The Contemporary Jewish Museum cubic addition and inside remodel.  And, Mint Plaza’s modern plaza among historic architecture.
Juxtaposition: Contemporary Jewish Museum

Juxtaposition: Contemporary Jewish Museum

Juxtaposition: Mint Plaza

Juxtaposition: Mint Plaza

So, there you have it: Honoring historical architecture and design 101.  Yep, old and new can co-exist.  Modern hip design can accentuate historical city-soulful design, and vice-versa.  I’ve heard that The Urbanist‘s publisher SPUR* has done a great job at helping advise developers and the city planning commission to ensure we keep these principles in mind.  I’m so grateful San Francisco has such a kick-ass organization doing great work.

SPUR actually just opened a San Jose brick-and-mortar headquarters as well.  Oh, if only they had done that in the 1970s, I bet we wouldn’t have the atrocity of ugliness and paved-over prime farmland that is Silicon Valley.  Better late than never!

And, if we could get suburbia (aka the land of Maxi-Malls) to adopt these principles as well…

For details and more examples on the methods above, read the complete “Adapt, Transform, Reuse” article from The Urbanist.

SF Planning & Urban Research Association.