Yuppies Want Camden Town

posted by Will Wilson On Tuesday night, I had the pleasure to participate in a focus group conducted by the team that will be designing ...
by | May 3, 2007 AT 3:00 AM

posted by Will Wilson

Camdentown_3 On Tuesday night, I had the pleasure to participate in a focus group conducted by the team that will be designing the new Old Convention Center space in DC. The group consisted of about fifteen 30-somethings, most of whom seem to have been chosen for their purchasing power and taste for flavored vodka.

I won't go into the particulars of the design plan -- you can find more on that elsewhere. Instead, I want to note some observations I took away from the meeting.

First, yuppies want Camden Town. The design team broke the group into four smaller groups and had them pull pictures of "what they wanted in their city" from magazines. Invariably, each group ended up with the same Camden Town/Soho/Haight selection of images. (Ironically, at least to my mind, no one in the focus group actually fit the "personality mold" of those neighborhoods. A desire for vicarious youthfulness was the esprit de corps -- people whose determined upward mobility forbids tattoos want to be near tattoos.)

I have to believe that raises a problem for the developers. When I think of those neighborhoods, the common theme seems to be compact, heroin-chic grittiness. The Haight offers one heck of a shopping experience -- those who haven't been back since the 60s may not realize that tragically hip boutiques line the boulevard -- but it resists economies of scale. Camden Town became a shoppers' delight only after authentically aggressive punks of the 80s ceded to upscale cheeseries and wandering Belgians.

Are clean trash and nice scumbags for hire? How does one manufacture "well-worn grimy smallness?" And supposing one could, what developer in their right mind would want to plunk down a big chunk of cash in order to underdevelop a space?

photo via Flickr, from Rob Inh00d

At the same time, not doing so could be development damnation. One (brilliant) comment about another recent DC development area was, "Gallery Place is fake-seeming." The Gallery Place area seems to do decent business, but unless there is a game in the arena, it shuts down after 10 PM. No consumer conspicuously loiters in Gallery Place, as they would in the Dupont Circle area, or in Haight, or in Soho.

My hunch is that the "big development plan" nature of the Gallery Place project causes a lot of deadweight loss because development committees can't efficiently capture the best utility on the marginal square foot. That's what I think the person meant by "fake-seeming." Perhaps over time the area will develop the space with more organic efficiency. Perhaps. But it seems darn near a metaphysical certainty that no developer could construct an "authentic" arrangement.

Because developers cannot truly reproduce what focus groups demand, the group adopted a "careful what you wish for" mentality, hesitating about word choices and design suggestions. One fellow declined to use "diverse," no doubt because nothing is gaudier than diversity-by-committee (faux antiques, ersatz international bric-a-brac).

Finally, perhaps the most interesting thing was that no one mentioned the federal government. In Washington, DC, a city marked by bland institutional architecture (except the monumented Mall, of course) and a building height restriction! Keep in mind that at the end of the day Congress calls the shots in the city -- regardless of what the mayor or citizens or focus groups may want -- and it seems pretty clear that denial was the order of the evening.

All of which makes me wonder why developers, especially big space developers, still bother with focus groups at all; surely there is a better way to track revealed preferences.

Will Wilson | Former Correspondent | willbwilson@gmail.com