Thursday, February 7, 2013

If We Decide Main Streets are Things of the Past, We are Committing Community Suicide

Franklin, Tenn., a Great American Main Street winner
In his blog posting on Switchboard, “Are Main Streets a Thing of the Past? Is that Ok?” Kaid Benfield suggests as much as he likes Main Streets, they are destined to be a distant memory of their once-thriving past. I have learned much from Kaid, as I am an avid reader of his posts on Switchboard and Sustainable Cities Collective. But I have worked with Main Street communities for 10 years, and have seen downtowns achieve outstanding successes. Main Street revitalization programs rally the community’s support to reinvent themselves through grassroots-driven, strategic economic development. I want to keep this dialog going.

I won’t pretend that every Main Street revitalization program has been successful - I've been to some crummy places. “Main Street” certainly does have a muddied definition because so many people (and companies) claim it. And I won’t pretend that I don’t enjoy a little ruin porn. But holding up Sandy Sorlien’s depressing, yet still beautiful, photographs as evidence that Main Street is dead puts a cloud over the thousands of existing communities working towards vibrancy. I am going to do the reverse and give you my optimistic photos and perspective and throw a few stats at you. The National Trust Main Street Center tracks the cumulative reinvestment data of its national network of local communities and reports: $53.6 billion in total reinvestment; 104,961 net gain in businesses; 448,835 net gain in jobs; 229,164 building rehabs; and a reinvestment ratio of $18:1. Those aren’t numbers of a failure.

Kaid's blog states: “A by-the-numbers environmentalist may not have a reason to: if land consumption is reasonably limited by new models, if places are walkable and reduce car trips and emissions by placing shops, services and people close together, if they are well located (and especially if also transit-served), why worry if someone’s sentimental bit of Americana isn’t what it used to be?”

Fruitvale, Ca., transit-oriented development
I, too, appreciate density…in proportion to scale. While downtowns have more density than sprawling suburbs, they don’t have the density of Manhattan; but America will never be a series of Manhattans, because not everyone wants that lifestyle or their jobs are connected to agriculture in rural areas. We shouldn’t abandon small towns for metropolises of glass towers when we can invest in and build on what’s already here. Density and adding transit-oriented development and infrastructure in older places is being done well – just look at the highly celebrated successes of Fruitvale in California.

I ask the by-the-numbers environmentalists, what is the impact to our environment if we demolished those 229,164 buildings that the Main Street network rehabbed? I am not worried about people who don’t care about being sentimental. I am worried about people who don’t care about embodied energy. The work of the National Trust’s Preservation Green Lab proved that “when comparing buildings of equivalent size and function, building reuse almost always offers environmental savings over demolition and new construction.”

The sweet spot for the Main Street Four-Point Approach to commercial district revitalization is in places with populations under 50,000 – of which there are 30,000 in the US. A former director of the National Trust Main Street Center once suggested that there are at least 30,000 central business districts in need of some level of reinvestment; and within those places, there are probably 3 million older and historic buildings needing some TLC and even green retrofits, and 5 million small and independent businesses giving new life to those older buildings. Throwing away those 30,000 existing communities is a horrific idea – but when we declare the death of Main Street and believe they are only good for remembering Americana – we are committing community suicide.

Environmentalists can’t afford to be so linear in their thinking. In fact, that is why I think the sustainability movement is so critical. It blends three important areas that traditionally had been silo’ed – environment, economics, everybody.

Lifestyle center in Clarendon (Arlington, Va)
It's not just about embodied energy. It's about embodied history, culture, and craftsmanship. But social sustainability is too often under-appreciated. Maybe because it acknowledges the “soft” assets of a community – the smaller buildings where independent businesses can afford a commercial lease or mortgage, “third places” for public gathering, sense of pride, inclusion and civic engagement, gorgeous architecture (that we can’t afford to build anymore), a structures that tell the stories of our nation. Our history and our built environment is of great value to Americans – note the surging support for preservation after New York’s Penn Station was demolished. I’d be shocked if in 100 years from now, people have a similar reaction to tearing down lifestyle centers, although I do feel they are a better way to develop the suburbs. (On a more personal level, I have yet to have a memorable experience in front of the isolated fountain by the Crate and Barrel in Clarendon’s lifestyle center.)

On the economic side of things – the National Trust for Historic Preservation didn’t form the Main Street Center because of nostalgia. It figured out that comprehensive revitalization and economic development (the Main Street Four-Point Approach) can save historic buildings. The economics piece trumps preservation so much that the Trust is spinning the Center off as a subsidiary.

Good customer service in Rogersville, Tenn.
When you are restructuring an economy that sat idle for 30 years, your work is cut out for you. But you take inventory of your assets, opportunities, and what your competition does better and you figure out what your position is in the marketplace. Then you work your ass off to get there. Sometimes, it is becoming a travel destination or building on the good fortune of being in a college town – but most of the time it about discovering the sales leakage and pent up customer demand for products and services and finding ways to plug the leak and meet the demand. These aren’t magical economic circumstances; they are results of market analysis. We can’t buy socks on most Main Streets anymore. But, let Walmart sell those. Main Street is better off being a home for unique independent restaurants and shops, where attention is placed on providing an experience and personalized customer service.

Here are just two quick success stories of successful Main Street districts that aren’t tourism destinations and aren’t wealthy bedroom communities of larger cities.

Artsy, quirky cool Old Town Lansing, Mich
  • The local Main Street program in Old Town Lansing, Michigan, began in 1996 amidst crime, grime, and a 90% vacancy rate. The changes from applying the Main Street approach are dramatic – 13 businesses open during the recession and today there is an 11% vacancy rate and the district saw $55,800 in public investment and $6,231,531 in private investment. Entrepreneurs and artists made a commitment to the community and led with arts-related development. Artist-created public art and street furniture, arts-related businesses and galleries, and arts-oriented events brought people back.
Before & after of the "Pink Palace" a community-led rehab
  • Jacksonville, Illinois, is a small town with a population of 19,466. When its Main Street program started in 1999, the commercial vacancy rate was 27%. Today it is 6%. Urban Renewal decimated the downtown and shattered the spirit of the local people. But the people persevered despite all odds – little support at the start of implementing the Main Street Approach, high crime rate, and no economic bullet. $17 million in private reinvestment and $7 million in public improvements later – their Main Street is thriving. The Main Street program spearheaded rehab of a historic home that had became a haven for drug users and transients at the district’s gateway. People volunteered their time and resources - the bank donated the money that would have been used for demolition, trade school teachers taught students how to perform tuck pointing and other skills, and prison laborers help get the job done. Once complete, the home was sold for $20,000 more than what real estate experts said it could and the day-to-night change in appearance sparked $85,000 in investment in nearby homes.
A blog entitled “Are Main Streets a Thing of the Past? Is that Ok?” has already decided that they are relics. But Main Street towns are still here – they were built with pride and built to last. Keeping them going is the highest level of recycling and realizes the goals of smart growth. Reviving an economy isn’t easy; big box stores and e-commerce are challenges, and, hell, financing rehabs and mixed-use projects today is tough. But it is being done – so, please, let us talk about that. People aren’t saving Main Streets because of idealized visions of Mayberry. They save them because they are great places to live, visit, and work and with strategic economic development efforts and the support of the community, they will always have a future.
Culpeper, Va., community members celebrating a new public art installation done by a local artist


Jeff S said...

Thanks for another great post. I am glad someone responded to the Kaid article. I dont think it was very well thought-out and this line was to the point of being absurd "The places in America that still have successful Main Streets likely have special economic circumstances, such as a tourist economy, a truly remote location, or a surrounding or nearby wealthy suburb whose residents like the historic, walkable atmosphere for certain occasions but go to the mall or a big-box to buy clothing or electronics."

I also kept reading it and rereading it trying to find where he states why Main Streets are a thing of the past. I found lots of pictures, but never the argument.

I just cant understand how a sustainability writer would propose that walkable historic downtowns are somehow not worth saving. Maybe its a case of being dramatic to get attention. That is all I can think.

In any case, thanks for the great post.

Andrea Dono said...

I appreciate your comment, Jeff S. If you read the comments on the other blog, too, the photographer points out that one of the photos was taken when the business was closed and says it is actually quite a hopping establishment. I guess the flip side of that is when I post photos of Main Streets during festivals that maybe suggest they are flooded with people all of the time? Not quite the same.

Cary said...

Look for upcoming blog post linking pictures of successful historic commercial cores & taking the logic leap that therefore all downtowns are successful.

I'll confess that I thought about 1/4 Mr. Benfield's post was correct - the fact that the term "Main Street" has become so ubiquitous as to not hold the meaning it once did; much like the term 'green'. However, he fails to address the issues of population shift and all of the accompanying right-sizing issues that follow for small town America. Indeed, revitalizing downtown in much of America's once thriving, now declining small towns is the most effective tool these communities have. Downtown revitalization, or better yet, Placemaking & smart(er) growth give small town America it's best chance to thrive in the 21st century economy. As we know, people in the 21st century economy can live anywhere, but that don't want to live anyplace.

It's also worth mentioning that the praise for the CNU planning in the gulf coast is admirable, what I've heard from friends & colleagues in that region is that while academically effective, the tone & style of those working in the region was so off-putting as to be ineffective. And this is a shame but can so often be true with some (note SOME) new urbanist.

I'm a huge fan of Mr. Benfield & read his blog with regularity. It was deliver to my inbox close to daily before FeedBurner killed that delivery system and I like to watch its echo on - I can't wait for the comments there - but I this piece was lacking quite a bit of context.

Andrea Dono said...

Absolutely, Cary. I hope my blog didn't imply that Kaid didn't have salient points.

I have to say that I, too, heard from the local practitioners who worked with the New Urbanist folks and were given "smart codes," "energy codes," and a variety of other planning suggestions that seemed to less incorporate local conditions and context for big-city and European-style concepts instead. I have never seen follow up reports on implementation. But the biggest complaint had been that the implementation piece wasn't provided.

I want to give some praise to the likes of Main Street Oakland County and other coordinating programs as well as the many local programs through out the US that donated time, money, and items to help their sister Main Street cities hurt by Katrina. The Center organized work field trips when we had our conference there several months after the storms. Every contribution helped.

Thanks for your comment, Cary.

Nick Kalogeresis said...

I have never been a fan of Benfield and his recent work at the Atlantic Cities. He is just one of many recent writers which claimed that the best way to sustainabilty is just density, let alone that have so many derelict landscapes and places around this country.

But the larger planning world does not understand preservation-based economic development - that's why people like Benfield write what they write. The Main Street message still has a long way to go to convince people that preservation can play a huge role in sustaining communities, both large and small.

Andrea Dono said...

Nick, tell us how you really feel!

It is my hope that we can all have conversation about density, preservation, sustainability, economic development, and the value of existing communities and the potential we have in reinvesting them rather than retreating from them. However, planners, sustainability folks, Main Streeters, architects, economic developers, and preservationists (not to mention lenders and other important players) are infrequently in the same forum let alone the same room.

Waiting for some leadership to emerge after far too long at the National Trust Main Street Center to take a thoughtful look at these issues and build some bridges.

Cary said...

The other thing I want to publicly point out is how troubling I find this passage: "Even the Main Streets that are relatively healthy today evoke the past, not the present. It's not a coincidence that the best-known program on Main Streets sponsored by an advocacy organization is housed in the National Trust for Historic Preservation"

I read damnation in those sentences. It is as if to say: "Main Street is shackled to the past, drowning in nostalgia, ephemeral, irrelevant." It is a damnation of both organizations & their work and I am deeply troubled by this as I believe it's inaccurate. As much as anything it tells me that we're not doing a good enough job telling our story. However, I hope this post & many more in the future continue to reverse that trend.

Donna Ann Harris said...

Andrea Thanks for writing a great post to counter one that is misguided. Keep on blogging!

Erik said...

Andrea, great follow up post!

As a board member of a local main st. org not too far away from Jacksonville, IL, I can see both sides. In fact, this program made me realize something like this even existed.

Our downtown here is still the stagnate, depressed place it was 13 years ago before the organization started. In my 1.5 years aboard it is still easily to see much education as to why it is important to ignite this area is needed.

On the other hand, Jacksonville, and some other towns here in Illinois are great examples. Jacksonville is never going to be a booming metro, nor should it. It has its roots in the farming community that surrounds it. Main Street, the program, is best able to serve those small communities who need to realize their identity and maximize their potential as such.

I agree that far more important than some preservation of nostalgia perspective is the economic aspect of it all - especially when it leads to better managed land use, reuse of buildings, savings of not having to provide new infrastructure, etc...

Anonymous said...

Interesting....the latest work of the Trust is damned here:

Many are concerned

Andrea Dono said...

Thanks for your insights, Erik, as a board member. And, thanks, too, to Donna for your support.

Anon - I saw that blog, too - and I think Max had some good insight there. I think the power of the Main Street Approach speaks for itself. The future of the local and statewide Main Street network can take care of itself, I think, regardless of what happens at the Trust. Also remember that the Trust is spinning the Center off. Just waiting for that to take shape. Still waiting...

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