Collingswood: The Main Street Model

32 thoughts on “Collingswood: The Main Street Model”

  1. There are pockets of this in Southern California – many of them seem to be beach communities, but not all. I call them “paleo-new-urbanist” because they did all the things new urbanists want in like 1904! Old CDM has a couple pockets of apartment dwellers in it, and nobody thinks their “property values” are ruined by this.

  2. “And then there are folks who can’t hold their head up high in church on Sunday if they don’t live on a quarter acre lot out on the far fringe of the metroplex with four cars parked in front of their fully detached home.” Unfair pick on church people…. most can’t afford 4 cars.
    I love Collingswood. Most people walk to church there…..

  3. In your first graph, please note, a period ALWAYS is placed inside the quotation sign. It should read “town.” not “town”.

      1. Interesting article, thanks. Amusing comment nitpick! FYI this practice was from the days of typesetting – periods were more delicate and placed inside quotations to protect them. Current standards are not so strict about this, nor about the two-spaces-after-period rule.

    1. Time to live in the present; this archaic rule was abandoned by logical writers long ago. In this particular instance, the period belongs outside of the quotation, because the quotation does not contain the end of a statement.
      Mary said, “It’s called a town.”
      Mary said it’s called a “town”.

      You’re welcome.

  4. Another great post. You are right that many people who have only known suburbia interpret smart growth-y things as meaning Manhattan, and forced residence at that! When I discuss it, I point out that smart growth is basically small town living on a pre-1940s foundation. They seem to be able to grasp the idea with that image.

    I am also curious about the role of federal requirements for commercial loans. This seems like a place where policy change could make a big difference without facing NIMBY issues.

  5. Thank you very much for this article! My short time here was most delightful! I lived right there on 9 Lees, worked out at the Healthworks (I bought Rick coffee everyday!), and worked at the pool store on Cuthbert! So many great memories and friends, trying to make this town awesome. I hope to visit next year as I am on my way to Philly for the World Beer Cup competition. It would not be complete without taking a stroll through town again!

  6. Love it. All my favorite hoods follow this “Main Street” pattern (2-3 stories mostly) even if they are part of larger cities technically. Some California examples include South Pasadena, Inner Richmond S.F., Rockridge Oakland, downtown Burlingame, Midtown Sacramento, Sawtelle Japantown., etc.

    The difference on the West Coast is that towns like this are rare and precious ($$$). They also degrade to sprawl much faster than older cities in the East & Midwest. Anything resembling this (that’s affordable) is generally far far away from urban culture and jobs. Spokane, Fresno, etc.

    Short of moving East or Midwest, building off the limited “old” towns that do exist is probably the best solution going forward. Windsor in Sonoma County did this with some success. It doesn’t seem to work well for pure car-based places though. Case in point: Santana Row.

    A tough job going forward because as you point out – it’s illegal in most places and requires an entirely new set of rules to be drafted, which often takes years of expensive studies and EIRs, etc and meets stiff resistance even when the political will is there.

    1. Yeah. I did a blog post about Santana Row a while back. If you stand in exactly the right spot and squint it looks great. But shift your gaze even slightly and it’s just a mall and some cheap ass stucco and particle board condos embedded in an ocean of sprawl.

      Honestly, moving to another part of the country is a reasonable option. I know. I know. “But it snows there!” Suck it up cupcake. With the $700,000 you save on real estate you can buy a winter home in a sunny place. Or just embrace the four seasons.

      1. Yeah but what about the jobs picture though? Texas, Colorado, Washington, NYC, etc. CEOs tend to love status coastal cities and/or country club exurbs. Then they’ll dump the call center in some sad corner of Phoenix or the Phillipines and that’s that. I realize urban pioneer types can change that logic but it’ll take a while before that’s a reality.

        1. If you’re already living in an expensive coastal city and you’re staying… it isn’t bad enough for you to move.
          If you’re a CEO or aspire to such a top flight corporate position… sure. You can bitch about the high price of real estate, but you’ll manage in order to keep up with the status city thing. It’s like needing to wear a $4,000 Italian suit and $900 shoes as you drive your Tesla to the office. But realistically, how many of us do that kind of work? Not many. Mostly people work and scrape by as teachers, pharmacists, and office managers – or lower level service workers. It’s a lot easier to be a middle-of-the-road employee in a less expensive place with a much higher quality of life. Philadelphia starts to look really good after a while.

          1. Not talking about CEO aspirations. Take my little sister for example. She grew up in Sacramento & could care less about urbanism. She wanted to be an EMT but found it hard to break into during a recession. She went into the Army and got nurse training & college credit. After leaving the army, she literally walked outside the base in San Antonio, TX to tons of jobs, low taxes, new buildings and affordable housing as far as the eye can see.

            And I’m gonna tell her to go to Buffalo? Tell her about the Ponzi Scheme? Bottom line, I think my sister represents the vast majority. As long as the burbs keep delivering, she’ll be there. I believe they will stop at some point, but “peak suburb” may be a lot further off than many people predict. There’s a lot of space in this country to continue the madness..

            1. Apples and oranges. Your sister found the perfect place for herself and her lifestyle. Good for her. But I’m not focussed on people who actually like suburban life. Those folks have unlimited options. Like you said – there’s a whole lot of country out there full of split level ranches at really good prices. I’ve never suggested otherwise. And yes, suburbia will endure for a very long time – if only because it’s 85% of the physical built environment.

              I explore the options available for people who would love to live in Brooklyn, Toronto, Vancouver, San Francisco… but who just can’t get the numbers to add up. That’s a very different set of challenges. How many San Francisco type places exist in North America? Spot the difference? You and I are asking different questions and trying to solve different problems. Honestly, a good neighborhood in Buffalo is infinitely better for someone seeking great urbanism at a reasonable price point than the realistic alternative – a crappy tract house out on Long Island surrounded by strip malls and used car lots.

        2. I think the point Brian was making is that companies tend to be located where CEO’s want to live, regardless of the effects on subordinate employees. Or that venture capitalists often require startups to be located in already overheated enclaves, ignoring the vast talent and resources located all over the country.

  7. Of course, one of the problems is the nature of retail in the modern era. In the search for convenience (Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death is my favorite punk album of all time!) and Always Low Prices, we have sacrificed much of our retail to WalMart (or Tar-jhayyy if we are upscale) and now the Internet. And, zoning laws may exacerbate/enable this, but…

    Plus…home building for the middle class is now more than ever a mass production thing. Partly because the Growth Ponzi Scheme now requires upfronting of infrastructure costs through “impact fees”.

  8. Collingswood was historically a nice blue-collar town that went through a decline in the 1980’s. The community and local government cared enough to get the town back on track. It’s nice to live in a town where people care about where they live.

    1. Absolutely. I was interviewed yesterday and was asked what I look for when assessing the long term potential of a neighborhood. It’s not about the buildings themselves, but the way the local people contribute to a culture (or not) that make or break a place. Collingswood has fantastic people and it shows.

    2. Yes… Grew up in Collingswood… Vibrant in the 70’s but the 80’s eta of the mail killed the main street… Wonderful example of a community coming together and rising out of the ashes… Many folks from Philly moved here and made the town a destination… ☺

  9. Johnny , lovely article..but you should have come down to Browning road and see the houses that aren’t like any other in traditional Collingswood …One dates from the 30’s it’s a great example of that era , and I live in a Frank Weise house which is a 1952 all glass midcentury that stands alone in the world ….The architect designed it for friends who wanted to live in Collingswood back then. What’s great about our little town is how much we all love living here and the comradery we feel with each other . We really do love our little town .

    1. I have a tremendous fondness for high quality architecture. And yes I’m familiar with Browning Road and Frank Weise’s work. But I’m much more interested in the way individual buildings relate to each other and form the public realm. I gravitate toward great buildings, but I generally prefer mediocre buildings that work together to form a great neighborhood rather than magnificent buildings that stand alone in a vacuum.

    1. What’s illegal about Haddon Ave? It’s a long list. Here’s my short version. Look at a typical building.

      1) Modern zoning forbids the mixing of retail and residential uses in the same building. Fleisch and milch must be kept apart. You would have to build two separate buildings – one for each function. And those two buildings would probably have to be in different parts of town. That’s why towns built after about 1950 are all strip malls, tract home subdivisions, and office parks. Look at Cherry Hill and Marlton. Modern zoning is like a four year old at the dinner table. The peas can’t touch the mashed potatoes.

      2) If zoning weren’t a problem… the 50/50 split of retail and residential on most Main Street type buildings make them impossible to finance through a bank. The absolute maximum amount of retail allowed in a residential building is 20%, otherwise the banks can’t bundle the loans in with ten thousand other conforming loans and sell them off to the pension funds. Those are federal parameters.

      3) If you could get one of these buildings financed somehow… the lots these buildings sit on (typically about 25′ x 125′) are too small to accommodate the minimum legally required parking spaces for that many square feet of retail and that many residential units.

      4) Fire marshals currently require massively wide roads in order to access burning buildings with huge fire trucks. That means the narrow pedestrian friendly streets become overly wide high speed highways instead of charming neighborhood streets.

      The new buildings on either side of Powell Lane on Haddon Ave are considerably larger than their neighbors in part to satisfy the requirements for off street parking, and in part to make sure there are 80% residential units upstairs to the 20% commercial units downstairs. Then there are the required elevators and blah, blah, blah.

      Building a cute little freestanding single owner mom and pop shop with an apartment or two upstairs gets very hard to create from scratch these days. That’s why we have big condo complexes instead of lots of smaller buildings.

      Voorhees Mall has been trying to turn itself in to a “Town Center” with some mixed success. But you’ll notice Voorhees Town Center is built on a massive scale where A) There is a huge amount of parking – both surface and structured B) Most buildings are single use apartment blocks set apart from each other by wide roads and parking lots C) The mixed use buildings are huge in order to meet the 80% / 20% financing rules… etc.

      I could go on with a dozen other rules and regulations, but you get the idea.

      – Johnny

      1. In Ithaca, NY there has been a *concerted* effort recently to repeal these sorts of demented rules.

        Perhaps most important, though I haven’t thought about it much before, is that we have our own local sources of private financing, which avoid the federal financing rules. I can think of three reliable sources of “nonconforming” financing off the top of my head: a not-for-profit, a co-op style credit union, and a fairly creative local bank. But I think there are more.

        The fire department are reasonable people here and have not caused trouble.

        Parking minimums are still a huge issue, but the residential parking minimums have been substantially reduced in the city proper (we’re working on the township, and on the commercial minimums). And we have metered street parking, which helps.

        The zoning remains the biggest problem, and it’s being very, very slowly worked on, but not as fast as it should be. The most important change, which has gone rather under the radar, has been a vast increase in the list of “automatically permitted uses”. “Residential” zoning automatically permits most types of personal service businesses which don’t have a shopfront, while if I’m not mistaken “commercial” zoning automatically permits both housing and very light (zero emissions, zero noise) industrial.

        A large problem was the lack of any coherent system to fund sidewalks (lots of property taxes for streets for cars, but nothing for sidewalks), but that was finally resolved in the city last year (again, we’re working on the township).

        A bigger problem was height limits and “single family” zones — causing downtown properties to *skyrocket* in value because it was impossible to build any additional apartments even though demand was huge and developers could make tons of money off it — and some progress is finally being made on this, thanks to electing mayor who couldn’t afford to rent an apartment without a roommate.

        Still, it’s amazing how hard it is to get these idiotic rules fixed in a progressive town full of smart, well-educated people who generally understand the problem. Even the sidewalk funding was a huge fight. I can’t imagine what it’s like in a know-nothing “we think we don’t have a problem” town.

  10. Living most of my life on LI NY and always being in working class, I had a hard time picturing this when bouncing comments last week about your bus post.
    I know I sound like a stupid suburbanite when I say this, but I did not even know places like this still thrived…I get what you were talking about.
    Looks like a nice place to set up shop.

    1. I’m familiar with Long Island. I have relatives in Franklin Square/Valley Stream, and I grew up partly in New Jersey which is very similar. Ever notice how the rich people out in the Hamptons enjoy intact postcard New England villages (with rail service to Manhattan) surrounded by farmland and nature? You pay extra for that. The fair-to-middling suburban parts of Long island have been paved over with Jiffy Lubes and used car lots. There are still the vestiges of pre World War II towns embedded in the sprawl, but they’ve mostly been degraded.

      1. Exactly! And once you are lock in to your 30yr term…like me…you are stuck with what you have. Then you become a road warrior and spend 1.5-2 hours a day traveling to keep the status quo…the American Dream, my friend.

    1. If it weren’t illegal, the local politics would probably oppose them… We absolutely need more main street towns and neighborhoods like Collingswood, but we’ve got a shortage of towns to go with our shortage of cities…

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