48x48x48: An Intervention in Oyster Bay

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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”? Now, a Oyster Bay is now adding community planning innovations to its claim to fame.

Over the past decade, Oyster Bay's local Main Street program and community leaders have generated more than $30 million of investment, improved more than 60 historic buildings, and attracted more than 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 with shops went downhill after 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 the block struggled to survive among vacancies and the area had no pedestrian amenities. Despite having received ample attention in several previous planning exercises, this area was still crying out for attention.

DoTank: Brooklyn—Do It Now!

When a group of young 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.

Discouraged by the inability of long-range, top-down planning to empower citizens to enhance their built environment now, DoTank:Brooklyn created a model called 48x48x48. The group seeks a single city block and comes up with 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 temporarily makes them happen with simple installations, using volunteer elbow grease.  All hands are called on deck during 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 not only to help the community realize what is possible, but to 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.

DoTank has been particularly interested in addressing the issues Long Island’s suburbs have been experiencing—brain drain, zoning obstacles, and crumbling infrastructure. The group identified four areas of opportunity for Oyster Bay and communities like it: local food and commerce, transportation, social and civic, and public space. DoTank’s 48-hour improvements project and laboratories reflected these areas of concentration.

Pop-Up Planning

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.

DoTank organized a series of public meetings to find out what the community envisioned for this underutilized area of 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 underused area of Oyster Bay. They created  a series of temporary, or “pop-up,” installations on June 12-13, 2010, that were set up quickly with volunteer labor and minimal financial cost. These pop-ups met the community’s desire 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 took part in planning the event. 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, decided on new temporary uses for them, and helped spruce areas 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 several hundred people became involved.

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 downtown property owner, offered two vacant buildings on the street to use as a pop-up store, workshop space, and 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. Activities took place 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.

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, and a sand box, water feature, and toys provided fun and excitement for kids of all ages.
Efforts were also made to start a farmers market during the two-day event. Given the short notice, however, 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, and vendors have described it as one of their favorite markets on Long Island thanks to the great setting in a historic downtown.

An Avenue Transformed

As things got 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. They parked in front of the main pop-up-shop where activities were taking place throughout the 48-hour event. Billy Joel sat at one of the tables placed on the sidewalk in front of the building and participated in activities over the next two days.

Had the story ended there, it would have been notable. What happened in the months to follow was even more remarkable. After the 48-hour event and a thorough renovation to the building where the workshops were held, Billy Joel’s “20th Century Cycles,” a showroom for his extensive motorcycle collection, opened in October 2010. His project instantly became a shining gem and attraction on this long-neglected block. The first few weekends after the showroom opened, 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, which specializes in organic food and natural supplements, and the Oyster Bay Railroad Museum Preview Center, experienced a big boost in business after the event.

Oyster Bay Main Street was pleased to see that its investment of $1,346 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 of the avenue. Of these, more than 50 volunteers spent 400 hours of their time helping to plan and implement this successful event.

What a Difference Two Days Make

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 keep the change going.

The mere act of filling previously vacant spaces on the block with life and activities jump-started the process of bringing them back into public use. The change did not take place immediately. The vacant spaces needed substantial renovation so they would be in suitable condition for occupancy. Once the renovation was completed, however, the two spaces used during the event became home not only to Billy Joel’s “20th Century Cycles” but also to Sweet Tomato, a healthy eatery. A block that once had the highest number of vacancies downtown is now fully occupied. The transformation has been dramatic, and that’s at least partially due to the 48-hour event, which focused attention on the potential of this space

DoTank helped get the community started down the right path by holding 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 the public sector, the private sector, and volunteers work together to achieve shared revitalization goals.