What do you do with an aging 1950’s suburb that can’t compete with newer McMansion communities or vibrant downtown neighborhoods? Many of these places are declining along with the bifurcating and contracting American middle class. But these towns could be reinvented as the ultimate sweet spot for a new generation on a limited budget.
The existing housing stock is modest, yet perfectly respectable. These homes offer great value for first time home buyers. They’re also preferable to a rented apartment in the city when it comes time to settle down. These homes can gradually be improved and expanded as needed. While this town isn’t exactly in the heart of the city it’s actually much closer than most of the new far flung hopscotch suburbs that have been built in recent years.
But here’s the problem. The public realm is miserable. This is what passes for Main Street. It’s a grim thoughtless auto dominant environment that’s functional yet completely without charm. This is what’s holding back the residential portion of town. People of humble means may live here begrudgingly if that’s all they can afford. But anyone with a choice in the matter will find a more appealing place to call home.
A local developer (a native son and current resident) identified the problem and successfully built a two story mixed use infill building that attempts to nudge the town toward something resembling a traditional Main Street. This isn’t anything radical. Most of the land is still a surface parking lot. The building itself is essentially an L-shaped strip mall with one apartment above each shop. These sorts of buildings provide a place for restaurants, hairdressers, ice cream parlors, and small shops that give nearby residents a pleasant place to participate in commerce and public life with their neighbors. These apartments rent for a premium because there’s pent up market demand for this kind of living arrangement.
The developer shifted to smaller projects that could be built with less political drama. This was once a one story 1950’s commercial building. He added a second story to it which contains two apartments. He runs his office on the ground floor space and rents the upstairs units to locals who prefer this arrangement to a garden apartment complex on the side of the highway.
This spot used to contain a dilapidated commercial space with dirt floors and crumbling walls. The developer tore it down and attempted to build a three story building with two ground floor shops and apartments upstairs. The fire marshal wasn’t having any of it. Three stories was just too much for this town. So a one story building was constructed instead. There’s 1,800 square feet of retail space in the front and two 450 square foot studio apartments in the back. It isn’t exactly what the developer had hoped to build. It doesn’t quite reach the Norman Rockwell standard he aspires to. But this is what was legal and politically acceptable. The town preferred a smaller less noble building because it feared density, a lack of parking, traffic congestion, and the prospect of a town whose character might change. Baby steps.
The same developer worked with the municipal government and local Department of Transportation to convert a few blocks of Main Street from an oversized highway to a more manageable human scaled environment. This initial road diet narrowed the travel lanes and used the saved space for additional parking and landscaping. The sidewalks in front of the shops were widened and street trees and greenery were introduced. This is all still profoundly suburban and auto-oriented. But at least there’s a physical distinction between the road and the parking lots. Another baby step.