Here’s a familiar streetscape. You see this all over the country. This road is congested during peak morning and afternoon commutes, but pretty lifeless the rest of the time. Drivers don’t like stopping here, yet it’s an unpleasant environment to be a pedestrian. It’s too thick to be jam and too thin to be jelly. There are a few successful businesses, but the majority of the storefronts are vacant or occupied by marginal enterprises.
A couple of blocks in from the main road are homes that have perfectly good bones, but reflect the low property values and low rents. There’s no economic incentive to do expensive upgrades or maintenance. Looking out at traffic, acres of empty parking lots, and half dead shops isn’t good for these homes. People with money have migrated to newer suburban neighborhoods that offer better family friendly amenities.
So what could be done to increase the value of this little chunk of town? Well… the usual suspects would recommend things that would cost a lot of money, take years to implement, and might actually make things worse.
Traffic engineers at the DOT would suggest widening the road to ease congestion. That would involve bulldozing a number of older low value buildings that are too close to the narrow road and don’t conform to modern setback requirements. There are state and federal funds available for that kind of improvement. A road with more lanes would allow the cars to drive much faster so commuters could get to their homes more efficiently. But that’s not going to help business in this location, especially if half the buildings are removed. It’s also not going to do anything good for nearby homes. You might ask the DOT folks if they could do the opposite instead and put the road on a diet with wider sidewalks, street trees, and on street parallel parking – and they’d laugh you out of their office. What are you? A Communist?
You could go to the economic development officer at City Hall and ask for guidance. She’ll tell you that if enough of these small under performing properties could be aggregated to form one big parcel she could probably put together a business friendly package of subsidies and tax abatements for a national chain retailer or franchise restaurant to build on the site. Adequate parking is critical. That’s how the great Rite Aid and Popeyes were able to get the numbers to work at their sites. The Checkers did well for a few years, but they’re closed now. They’re working on some incentives to attract new investment on that parcel.
If you went around town and asked people what would improve this neighborhood they might say there isn’t enough parking or suggest planting grass and trees with flower beds to make everything pretty. Perhaps a park would help. But there’s actually already an immense amount of parking that isn’t being used and a generous amount of open green space. Putting park benches and play equipment in this environment isn’t going to make anything better.
Back in the 1920’s this was a thriving walkable market street composed of many small independent businesses surrounded by quiet residential side streets. But decades of suburban style retrofits have left the place an unappealing collection of left overs that commuters largely pass by. Continuing the trend of road expansions, building demolition, and increased surface parking would further reduce the number of active businesses and the amount of taxable private property. That’s a negative return on taxpayers’ money that actually diminishes employment opportunities and lowers property values even more. Keep doing that all over town for sixty years and the municipal coffers empty out. It’s time for a different approach.