Post-Trip Wrap Up, Part 3
There's a tension that's clear in traveling across the U.S. between our preferences for spreading out and filling in. By "spreading out" I mean the pattern of low-density residential housing, accompanied by linear commercial strip development. And by "filling in" I'm referring to our desire for strong main streets and compact development.
Not surprisingly, there's plenty of spreading out. In looking back at the reports I posted, I see that it's not something I covered that much. In large part that's because it's a pattern we're all so familiar with, and one that has so dominated our field of vision since World War II. In virtually every community I passed through on Route 50, there was plenty of evidence of spreading out. Just two examples:
[first photo: heading out of Chillicothe, Ohio; immediately above: Jefferson City, Missouri -- perhaps you can spot the stately capitol dome in the background. Click on images to see them at larger size]
For better or worse, the heart of our towns, cities, and metro areas is generally surrounded -- in larger places for mile after mile -- with this low density spread. I often felt a sense of relief when I finally cut through these outer layers and arrived at the center.
What surprised me was that in most places there still was a center. In fact, in many of the smaller cities and towns along Route 50 the downtown or main street was remarkably intact, at least in terms of streetfronts lined with well-built commercial buildings.
[contrast the photos below, also respectively of Chillicothe, Ohio and Jefferson City, Missouri -- in most of the cities I visited, you'd see this geography of bland commercial strip development -- often along gateways into the community -- not far from handsome downtown main streets]
[left below: Route 50 in the central Indiana city of Seymour (pop. 18,000) -- typical of the "look" of Route 50 as it cuts through the Midwest. But Seymour, like most Route 50 communities, still has its main street just off the arterial].
Of course, remarkably intact does not always equate to being in full use. Yet overall I found much reason for optimism. There are embers glowing along our main streets, and many individuals -- planners and citizens -- working to spread the warmth that comes from an active main street. We've begun to fill in the spaces.
One of the more striking ways in which this is being done is through restoring main street theaters. In the small Indiana city of North Vernon, one amazing lady -- Hulda Reichenbach -- led an effort that eventually (and with help from a community foundation and other groups) resulted in the reopening of the community's historic theater. This has, in turn, triggered other activity along main street. [photo to left, Hulda with Steve Mobley, the Executive Director of the Jennings County Community Foundation; for more details, see my post on Hulda's Theatre].
Much the same is in the works in Emporia, Kansas, where citizens are volunteering time and contributing money to restore the remarkable Granada Theatre -- right in the heart of Commercial Street (Emporia's main street). Even though the work is not yet complete, the project has already produced benefits in bringing the community together to appreciate what they already have downtown -- and to start envisioning how much more active Commercial Street will become once the theatre is open. My report from Emporia has more about the theatre.
[above left: exterior of Granada; above right: Dr. Duane Henderson who has helped lead the effort to restore the Granada; contractor Bones Ownbey; and Emporia zoning administrator Kevin Hanlin / we covered the benefits of historic theaters in a special issue of the Planning Commissioners Journal that provided an introduction to historic preservation planning]
Having other arts and cultural institutions in our downtowns and on our main streets is also taking off. I visited a downtown arts center in Dodge City, Kansas (below left). In Carson City, Nevada, just a block off Carson Street -- the city's main street -- you'll find a combination gallery/store for local artists and community theater space (below right).
In city after city, the planners I met also pointed me to the beginnings of a return of residential housing downtown. Yes, this was happening in big cities like St. Louis and Kansas City. But it was also taking place in smaller cities like Vincennes, Indiana; West Sacramento, California; Pueblo, Colorado; and even in remote Ely, Nevada (population 5,000).
[left: the Oliphant Building in downtown Vincennes is one of several slated for housing. The City, through its Urban Enterprise Association, provides matching grants of up to $10,000 to promote loft conversions. The program is modeled after one in Evansville, Indiana]
In large part, this filling in reflects changing demographics and preferences. Empty nesters and young professionals account for much of the new infill housing I was shown. We still haven't figured out ways of attracting families with kids to our downtowns (though for a look at what one city has done to promote family housing downtown, see our brief report on Vancouver).
[above, new infill housing one block off Aultman Street, Ely's downtown main street. Note one of Ely's murals on the left; the building on the right is the community-owned Garnet Mercantile store. See my report on Ely for more on both the city's murals and downtown store ]
[above, view of Metro Place, a 54 unit infill housing project in West Sacramento; below left, new lofts housing in downtown St. Louis; below right, similar housing in downtown Kansas City]
I'm convinced that many people want to come downtown -- if there's a reason to do so. That's part of why Pueblo, Colorado's, hard work in developing its downtown riverwalk is starting to pay off. See my report on Pueblo's riverwalk. Yes, people want parking, but much more importantly they want a comfortable place to walk, get something to eat, and have something to do and see. Our main streets and downtowns often start with a big plus -- they're lined with attractive and varied buildings and streetfronts. To pick on Pueblo again, just take a look at some of the commercial buildings that line Union Street downtown.
But I found much the same along main streets in just about every place I visited.
Take outdoor dining. When I was in St. Louis, Steve Patterson pointed out to me the importance of on-street parking in promoting outdoor dining. People aren't comfortable sitting down right next to traffic whizzing by. But put a row of parked cars in and you have a buffer that makes sitting outdoors much more pleasant. And when people starting dining outside, before you know it, more pedestrians and window shoppers start to appear. It has a snowballing effect.
Sometimes it takes a reduction in traffic to accomplish this. In Carson City, for example, main street suffers from having too much traffic, especially trucks, to allow for a comfortable pedestrian environment (see photo on right). Carson City planners envision reducing the main street to two travel lanes -- but a bypass freeway first needs to be completed so cars and trucks don't have to travel down main street.
In filling in our main streets and downtowns, it's also important to keep our key public buildings -- post offices, libraries, and court houses -- there. I know there have been mixed results with this. Too many of these public uses are still being removed from our downtowns. This hurts since post offices, libraries, and government centers are critically important in bringing people downtown. Fortunately, in many communities, these stately (and sometimes magnificent) buildings are being restored and upgraded so they can continue in use -- downtown.
[The grand Chase County Courthouse, now being rehabbed, anchors one end of Main Street in the small county seat town of Cottonwood Falls in east-central Kansas; many similar courthouses grace our nation's cities and towns. For more on the vital role that courthouses and other public buildings play in our downtowns, see Phil Langdon's Public Buildings Keep Town Centers Alive and Ed McMahon's Public Buildings Should Set the Standard -- both available to order and download]
There are things we as planners and planning commissioners can do to support and strengthen our main streets and downtowns. Kennedy Smith and Roberta Gratz have offered excellent ideas in articles we've published over the years -- many included in a collection of articles on Downtowns and Town Centers that we've published. And we'll certainly continue to cover downtown topics in the Planning Commissioners Journal.
[illustration by Paul Hoffman for the Planning Commissioners Journal. copyright PCJ; for a look at another illustration of Paul's I posted during my Route 50 trip]
Sometimes it's modest, common-sense ideas that can make a big difference.
In Emporia, Kansas, for example, zoning adminstrator Kevin Hamlin told me about the city's "code team" that, at the request of someone considering opening a business, will walk through the building. The team includes the city engineer, the building codes supervisor, someone from the fire department, and one of three local architects who have volunteered their time.
[photo above left: the Kress Building, with its distinctive brickwork and terra cotta trim was built in 1929. It is one of many well-designed structures along Commercial Street in downtown Emporia; see photos below]
As Kevin put it, this completely voluntary advance review "helps the potential business owner identify work that needs to be done, and avoid making mistakes and wasting money." It also ensures that "everyone from the city is on the same page" so that property owners don't hear different things from different arms of the local government. Many of their reviews have been of businesses interested in locating downtown.
Kennedy Smith noted in her article Downtown Hurdles (part of the Downtowns and Town Centers collection I mentioned), "An obstacle to downtown revitalization is simply an incentive for development to take place somewhere else. Your community's comprehensive plan should make downtown the easiest and most advantageous place for new development to occur."
It's programs like those in Vincennes and Emporia, and the downtown focused plans I saw being implemented in many of the cities I visited, that make me more confident that we'll be seeing more "filling in" of our downtowns. Now if we could figure out a way to stop spreading out ...