A Different Approach

22 thoughts on “A Different Approach”

  1. That professional building in pictures 11 thru 13 similar to one next to my aunt’s house in Albuquerque. It was residential area, but had this ugly commercial building on corner lot, hosting an insurance company. A creative purchaser converted it into a home with a workshop, office, two bedrooms, ample living, dining, kitchen and loft areas. The parking lot became a large yard (after removing asphalt). Outside still ugly as hell, but fantastic interior.

  2. Even the most liberal boomers like my dad consider density and street life as evil. This is rational based on their experience of said “street life” in the 1960s/70s. Fill in the blanks with a story of that great concert, then being robbed, then moving the burbs, etc. Their argument is valid in 2016, even if the correlation/causation is complicated and fraught with biases.

    So the only hope for your scenario (reinventing failing inner strips, at scale, nationwide) is 10-20 years down the road at best. To be clear, my dad’s a stand up guy who would drive cross country to jump start your car. The problem is that “jump start your car” is his frame of reference for being a stand up guy. He will show up at the council meeting to protest anything that will increase “traffic.” Boomers of all stripes idolize physical isolation because it equals freedom in their mind.

    1. We’re in agreement. Notice how I end this post? Let things fail. Failure fixes itself. So be it. Also notice my “ten or fifteen years” timeframe for things to potentially get bad enough that people might be interested in trying something new. That’s when today’s 65 year old Boomers will be 80…

      1. Enjoy reading your thoughts. I am a boomer and don’t fit into this view. Creative people make a difference usually with little money and tons of hard work. Keep posting your ideas. Life is not black and white.

        1. Yes.. individuals are like snowflakes. Each one is unique. But as a demographic cohort Baby Boomers have a very clear profile. They are overwhelmingly suburban and don’t want anything even remotely “urban” anywhere near them.

  3. Well done. You know the ways these things are done better than most today, and far better than they did a long time ago, sometime between when SoHo was transformed and Williamsburg and Long Island City.

    Yet, I get the sense that the primary problem (I could be wrong about this) is not the muni offices and noisy neighbors but rather the lack of people like you say, or someone who is creative but knows less just DOING it, and I think the reason for that is that there is too mch low hanging fruit, often, elsewhere.

    I live in a lovely street car suburb a bike ride away from a small historic down town (Petersburg, VA) and we have just adjacent some degraded ugly areas like in your description, many of the strip malls are underused, business fail and the buildings become available, etc…

    I don’t think this part of town with all the ugly one story commercial stuff will transform until sometime after the downtown gets fully regentrified.

    I see it in nearby Richmond, VA — every ugly part of that city near the downtown and lovely old urban neighborhoods is all bought up and either being redeveloped or already been redeveloped except for ONE neighborhood on the north side, which has started looking perky.

    Meanwhile, Richmond and the neighboring counties have no shortage of these ugly neighbohoods — a mind-numbing amount of them. “Things” are going on in these places; they are generally being used, but they are not very livable or fun neighborhoods yet, and the population will have to expand more.

    What I have seen in Richmond and some other places is the redevelopment of these ugly places into denser development. You wouldn’t like these places, there is no “Main Street” but they are generally in a decent location, often anchored by a new Kroger supermarket or something and have chainish restaurants across the parking lot, etc.

    They generally look a lot nicer, and better use the space, than what came before. It is the urbanization of the inner rings of the suburbs, and that has happened in the USA for a long time.

  4. These are all real things happening in other places…obviously you know that. But most of the time they don’t just spring up organically. There is something behind it.

    What’s often missing in a place such as you highlight is an organizer, an agent provocateur. In recent years, in neighborhoods like these, it’s been a “merchants association”, “neighborhood organization”, or “community development organization”. They key is organization and programming at some level. The group can be dedicated volunteers who are personally invested in improvements (perhaps because they buy or rent property), or staffed part/full time by someone like you with a passion for the work. The small-town “Main Street” concept can be adapted to failing urban neighborhoods, but that takes a consistent (10-20 year) funding source.

    What can be done is obvious. The story of how Bryant Park in NYC was turned around, as told by the Project for Public Spaces, is informative. But you are discussing private spaces, and because there are often many players and many interests, it gets pretty complicated pretty fast. Showing consistent results and real change is not easy, and not fast.

    1. I’ve always worked off the assumption that the vast majority of failing places will simply continue to fail. That’s the easiest thing for a place to do. No one needs to be convinced to change any of the usual rules and procedures. No one needs to take a risk by approving anything that may seem a bit funky to their constituency. No one needs to put their job on the line. Everyone can just continue to do what they’ve always done without rocking the boat. And things will slowly decline on schedule. Fine with me. I don’t have to live in any of these places…

      1. Agreed: failing places will continue to fail until someone, or a group of someones, intervenes to change the trajectory. It can happen guerilla-style (there was a viral story about an Australian town I can’t locate right now) or institutional, but there must be an intervention by a committed change agent.

        Sometimes “that guy” is a cranky old building owner, who remembers better days and wants to try something different. Sometimes it’s a young artist/artisan. Sometimes it’s a community organizer. There are examples of all of these, doing many of the things you suggest are possible.

        What doesn’t work is the “someone should do something” approach.

  5. Some interesting ideas, indeed. I wonder about the feasibility of conversion of commercial space into several residences, though, from a strict engineering standpoint. What I know is that open-plan offices often cannot withstand the extra load-bearings of many internal walls and appliances etc. The intermediate floors are often lightweight.

    Looking at how many dilapidated parking lots are there, idling in many metro areas, I wonder if creating a city-wide networks of “improved mobile commercial lots” would work. Take several of these spaces, build some support infrastructure (bathrooms, shelter) out of what is already there on surrounding unused buildings, and they facilitate the operation of food truck but also other stalls that can be easily moved around.

    Isolating arterial raods is common practice in non-central areas of several European cities, where they exist: let traffic flow as it does, but don’t put all buildings facing the busy speedy road. As long as there is decent permeability for cross-traffic of pedestrians and cyclists, that is a good compromise.

    I think, indeed, that is one of the mid-height hanging fruits on retrofitting suburban areas where a “stroad grid” exists: channel development inward, use landscaping/trees to abate noise, and set aside one or more clusters between them as walkable districts or whatever name one might give.

    1. All buildings are perfectly capable of supporting sofas, beds, and kitchen cabinets. All offices have kitchens and baths in them already, although they’re organized differently than residential spaces. Most aging commercial space (in the U.S.) is actually one (or at most two) stories tall and usually on a concrete slab. Weight is not a problem. Natural light and air are sometimes limited due to the deep floor plate arrangement, but skylights can let light and air into the center of these spaces if need be. The roofs are almost always simple flat plywood and tar. Emergency fire egress was built in to these places from the get go. None of the problems are physical. They’re administrative. The city zoning needs to get out of the way and let the market go where it may. And by the way, have you seen the compressed dust and imitation plastic new residential buildings are made of these days? Commercial buildings are made of concrete block and steel trusses.

        1. Sacramento?? are you crazy? Sacramento has some of the nicer old neighborhoods in California (Land Park, Curtis Park, East Sac Midtown, Oak Park, which is why so many from the Bay are moving here.

          1. The individual homes and some pocket neighborhoods in Sacramento can be charming. But overall – given the cost – it makes more sense to leave California altogether unless you have a compelling reason to stay like family or a particular career track.

  6. Good ideas. There is a real lack of cheap studio/artisan/light-manufacturing space in cities today. I think “maker spaces” is the current buzzword for this stuff. The city might need to buy a derelict building or two to make it happen, but that wouldn’t cost much compared to most development schemes. Insert creative people — watch neighborhood bloom.

    1. No. The city doesn’t need to buy anything. What the city needs to do is make re-using existing buildings legal with a minimum of bureaucratic armwrestling.

  7. Johnny, fascinating post as always. Here’s a question that I’m curious to get your take on: do you think it’s possible to convince young adults to take a chance on a small out of the way place like this? Right now the trend seems to be for young people to pile themselves up in the biggest and most dynamic cities, high rents be damned.

    1. First kids need to go to the big city for a few years. That’s actually an important part of growing up and making personal, educational, and career connections. Then you want to allow them to migrate to smaller places – and not necessarily the usual suburban destinations which stopped making sense for a lot of people a long time ago. The number one problem for a lot of people isn’t finding work in a smaller place – it’s just boredom. A little street life goes a long way.

      1. I’m living this right now, and I’d agree that the biggest problem of stepping down from the hot city is the quality of street life in a second tier city. Enough of us are entrepreneurial enough to figure out work. After street life it’s finding some compromise on schools that allows the “white” professionals to feel comfortable staying in the city as their kids age into the school system…

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