After perusing a few of my recent posts a reader asked, “So now that you’ve pointed out all the problems with this town, what are your solutions?” I could quote any number of people in response. Chuck Marohn from Strong Towns likes to say that when people ask for solutions what they’re really asking is, “What can other people do differently so I can keep doing what I want?” My goal in writing this blog isn’t to present solutions. The problems that face many of our towns are structural in nature. Business as usual isn’t going to be an option for that much longer. Instead, I’m fascinated by how individual people respond given the alternatives available to them.
I was fortunate to listen to Chuck Marohn speak again recently as he gave his Curbside Chat in southern California. He addressed various local officials and members of the public. Over the last few years I’ve gotten to know people in different municipal offices all across the country. The one thing I’ve learned is that local government has almost no control over the really big stuff. In California, and in other states, the bulk of local tax revenue is gathered up and sent off to higher levels of bureaucracy that then reapportions the money back with all sorts of strings attached. State capitals and the feds impose endless unfunded mandates. Local voters hate taxes and fees, but expect ever increasing levels of government services. The mandatory costs for county police service rises each year, but the tax money to pay for it stagnates. Road diets are proposed, but the fire chief says his giant trucks need to be able to race down extra wide streets in order to save lives. The list goes on.
Even when local planners are excited about taking a fresh approach to urban development the private sector isn’t always so inclined. One official spoke with a developer about a proposed national chain retailer. He encouraged the project to include fewer than the normal number of parking spots since the site was in a highly walkable and transit served neighborhood. The builder said it didn’t matter what the town or site was like. Corporate headquarters said they needed the full compliment of abundant surface parking and so did the banks that were bundling the loans to resell to the pension funds. Every property needs to conform to the national standard. The problem with the standard products that are routinely smeared across the North American landscape is that they stopped functioning a long time ago, but no one knows how to do anything else. All the interlocking parts are stuck and no one can unstick them.
After decades of post World War II economic growth and horizontal expansion many of our towns have stalled and entered a period of decline and insolvency. The “solution” to the economic stagnation is to have a space ship full of high paying jobs land and unload pallets of cash to reinvigorate the local economy. In rare instances this actually does happen. Silicon Valley is nearly identical to every other assemblage of tract homes, strip malls, and office parks from coast to coast and the place is absolutely thriving. Economic behemoths like Apple, Yahoo, and PayPal keep spinning off high salaries and plumping up the entire region with stock options and big bonuses. Unfortunately, for every Cupertino, Sunnyvale, or San Jose, there are a thousand less fortunate towns that simply flounder and contract as their supply of cinder block, plywood, and sheetrock buildings slowly delaminate. There aren’t enough Oracles, Genentech, and Googles to go around. The most some of these fair-to-middling suburbs can hope for is a smattering of low grade back office crumbs, but they need to make themselves competitive with other towns and labor pools in India, the Philippines, and Brazil. It’s best not to count on the space ships landing where you live…
Instead of offering solutions I’ll attempt to provide an answer to the question, “Where do we go from here?” How do towns respond in the face of this relentless new economic reality? Chuck Marohn seems to think we all need to go back to the old fashion incremental pay-as-you go model of city building that was in place for the last few thousand years. The best example I know of for how to stabilize a town in the throws of the no-growth-blues comes in the unlikely form of an old 1950’s gas station. Here. Back in 2008 in the grip of the financial crash two former public school teachers decided they needed a change. They stopped teaching and rented this old building and turned it into a successful cafe. They made modest cost-effective improvements to the building and after three years they had enough positive cash flow to purchase the property. Most small businesses of this kind fail within the first two years, but this place continues to thrive and mature with a loyal local clientele. This business didn’t receive any government subsidies. There was no tax abatement scheme. It wasn’t granted any special regulatory waivers. There were no public infrastructure upgrades to incentivize the private investment or job creation. It cost the government nothing and didn’t require an army of economic development officials to make it happen. It was just two teachers, an old gas station, and a lot of hard work.
Photo: June Milham here
Here’s what the property looked like in 2008 before it was embraced by its current owners. You can see from these grainy Google Street View images that it was a barren fenced in vacant lot and a small uninhabited building. The former tenant was a barber who evidently wasn’t able to make a go of it.
The larger context is a low density exurb in an unincorporated part of Los Angeles County. It’s composed mostly of single family homes, strip malls, and large patches of open desert. The default urban form in the region is the gated community and big box retail pod with very wide high speed roads.
One of the reasons this particular cafe has done so well, aside from the determination and creativity of the owners, is that the town was hungry for an intimate and authentic place to gather. In a part of the world that venerates interior private space, security, and drive-thru convenience there just weren’t that many venues where people in the neighborhood could get together, have something to eat or drink, and have casual unstructured social interactions. These folks created a place that serves that pent up demand.
They chose this particular building because it was freestanding and in the closest thing the region has to a walkable neighborhood. Not accidentally this is the oldest part of town that was built mostly before the big box era. They could have rented space in one of the newer strip malls down the highway, but that would have precluded the option of purchasing the building. Strip malls are too big and too expensive for modest start-ups to buy on their own. There’s also a lack of control over what shopkeepers can and can’t do with a highly standardized suburban commercial building product that’s owned by a distant holding company with corporate management policies. Setting up shop in a neglected gas station was affordable and gave them the flexibility they needed to incubate their business on their own terms.
Let’s go back to that municipal zoning map for a minute. The colored patches on the paper are each probably a mile square. Zoning is done on a scale that anticipates enormous subdivisions, office parks, and shopping plazas. I’m sure there are other maps that articulate the plan at a finer grain, but there’s a fundamental difference in approaching the city or county with plans for a new Walmart or Chili’s compared to retrofitting a derelict gas station.
Here’s how the cafe folks described their experience:
“All the people and agencies we dealt with were nice, albeit slow. They may have been more bothered by our eagerness than we were by their apparent ennui. Not being a major chain with money to spend and insiders to hire, we didn’t have inspectors on our hip during the process. After waiting for on-paper approval, we had to wait for on-site approval. Yada yada yada. There were no major obstacles beyond the significant expense imposed by a system that seemed slowed by its own inactivity. I do have the impression that the big boys play the build-out game quite differently.”
Down the road a bit is a brand new retail center with a Starbucks that opened last week. From start to finish the site went from a barren patch of desert to a fully operational complex in six months. That’s about how long it took the gas station to be transformed into a cafe – on paper. Notice the difference in the scale of these two projects. I scratch my head at the concept of a drive-thru coffee shop. I just don’t get it. Why not make coffee at home and save yourself $5? It’s not like you’re going to bump into anyone waiting on line at the drive-up window (unless you want to exchange insurance cards and file an accident report). It’s not like you’re going to whip out you laptop and do a little internet surfing in the parking lot. But such is the lifestyle pattern in this part of the world. And perhaps that’s why a smaller more intimate shop is able to make it. It’s offering something unique.
Not everyone is keen on the idea that a bunch of little shops can replace “real” economic activity. I’ve heard the same argument over and over again. “First the big employers come into town and pump loads of cash into the local economy and tax base, and then the coffee shops spring up – not the other way around. What this town really needs isn’t “artists” and Hipster hangouts, but a business friendly environment to lure in big companies and create jobs.” So what happens when your town has spent the last few decades whoring itself out to every discount chain store and corporate employer with “business friendly” subsidies and tax breaks yet the town is still going broke? Maybe it’s time to try something different. How about tending your economic garden instead of loading up the incentive rifle for the usual big game hunting? How about some slow incremental organic growth from within?
I asked the cafe owners what they wanted from local government. They didn’t hesitate. “Trash cans.” That’s it. Simple stuff like trash cans, public benches, promotional banners, and some street plantings would go a long way to improving the business district. How hard could it be to get bike racks? I asked if the shops couldn’t just get together and purchase these things themselves. They already looked into it. The regulations pertaining to public infrastructure are ungodly. You can improve your own private property, which many shopkeepers have already done, but you can’t tamper with public property without engaging the most horrific and expensive political process. “Specifications Pertaining to Refuse Receptacles in the Public Right of Way, Volume Six.” It simply isn’t worth it.
This year the annual Almond Blossom Parade has been cancelled due to the prohibitive cost of police protection. Ironically the police station is diagonally across the street from the cafe so the police will be on hand to oversee the parade no matter what. But someone in the central county office ran the numbers on a spreadsheet and declared that they couldn’t possibly have police monitors for less than $X. Keep in mind, the Almond Blossom Parade has been a tradition since 1946 and reflects the local Chamber of Commerce motto: “Helping Your Business Blossom and Thrive”. This will be the first year the parade has ever been cancelled.
Here’s something to consider. The newest chain retail plaza is about the same size as the historic Main Street down the road. When your town is growing and gaining population you can make the argument that new shops serve the needs of the increasing demand. When growth stops and the population levels off or begins to decline (as in the case here) then the new big box stores are simply cannibalizing existing businesses. The chances are that the new retail complex that just went up will be vacant in fifteen or twenty years. That’s just how long these places are designed to last. The area is full of dead big boxes and half empty strip malls.
The space ships full of cash aren’t coming. The growth phase is over. The problem is the town built entirely too much cheap scattershot crap on a giant and very expensive infrastructure chassis. What this town really needs is an army of small local shopkeepers and micro-producers to fill the voids left behind by years of flimsy hollow growth. If this place is unbelievably lucky it will attract a new generation of highly organized and motivated residents – probably immigrants – who will reimagine everything about how this place functions. But that’s a longshot. Good luck finding someone to open up an intimate little neighborhood business in the old Kmart on the side of the highway.