Sometimes I really struggle to figure out how people come to their conclusions. Some of the widely accepted solutions to combat community decline are fascinating. Often they have little to no relation with the actual challenges they are facing. The idea that creating additional parking will bring additional people downtown is a good example of this “magical” thinking.
It’s like believing Fast and Furious 17 was snubbed at the Oscars because there weren’t enough seats in local theaters or that Arby’s missed out on a Michelin star due to a lack of tables. I feel the same about an over emphasis on downtown events. Events are time consuming and expensive, and while highly visible, do very little to change the underlying dynamics that keep a downtown economically depressed. I can invite everyone to the bar, but if it doesn’t have booze, they aren’t going to stay or come back and they will probably hate me.
Revitalization is a simple enough proposition. The buildings that make up a downtown must be economically productive. Economically productive = buildings in good shape, and occupied by successful commercial tenants. This is it. This is the ultimate goal of any revitalization effort and if this is accomplished, you’ve succeeded. Any initiative that works towards this end is positive and any initiative that doesn’t impact this area is unproductive and needs reconsidered. Reason being, at the end of the day, a downtown must be economically viable, which means the buildings must be economically viable. What is downtown after-all, but an area of public space defined on its edges by buildings. The public space can and should be highly inviting, attractive and walkable, but will never be the true draw of its own. This space must be encompassed by attractive, productive buildings. It is the buildings people use and visit. A healthy commercial district might be full of beautiful civic buildings and have perfect sidewalks and lush hanging baskets, but unless it is also composed of privately owned buildings and businesses, it will never function properly.
Revitalization efforts must be directed towards real estate. This is the greatest concern. Dilapidated and vacant buildings are the single greatest problem. If every other facet of a downtown is absolutely perfect, it would still be dead if all the buildings were empty. Events can be fun, but they don’t address the real estate issue. Parking is a useful utility and has a bearing on real estate, but not nearly as much as people think. Beautification can have an impact on real estate, but is not a stand alone strategy. If we aim to be successful at restoring downtown to its rightful place as the heart of the community, we have to address real estate ownership.
I keep threatening to write a book on the concept of Old Urbanism and one of these days I am going to do it, damn it. Just you wait. The idea being we do not need to seek out new solutions on how to improve our downtowns, when in fact, all of the solutions are behind us. Every downtown was once the viable, healthy commercial center of a community. We don’t need new answers to understand what happened, we just have to look at what changed over the course of time. In looking back at when our communities were functioning at their best we can learn what needs to be done to restore them. Downtowns were the common marketplace and people enjoyed a shared sense of community by convening together in this shared place. There is no longer a common marketplace in most cities and what once was centralized now is spread out over miles and requires car trips. There is no chance to convene with friends and neighbors in this new, dumber, more expensive, wasteful, ugly landscape. At the greatest expense possible, we replaced something ideal, with something terrible.
The most significant change has been the proliferation of sprawl and ceding local ownership of the economy to outside interests. When our communities operated at their best, they were primarily owned by people in the community. This has been a drastic change and much for the worse. So little of what comprises the assets of a city today is owned by people that live there. National chains don’t arrive with the hopes of making a place any better, they are in the extraction industry and are mining communities for money. They aren’t concerned with the appearance of their building, they will build exactly what the community will allow them to build and no more. They don’t have any interest in the local t-ball team or the parks system or any social, charitable or quality of life organizations and issues. They are publicly traded companies and the bottom line is what dictates all their decision making.
As you can imagine, when our cities were populated with locally owned businesses and buildings, there was a pretty different level of commitment to the community. The health and viability of these were dependent on the overall health of the their location. The income derived by these owners went back into these buildings and businesses and into the hands of the people that owned them and eventually back into their enterprises and into the hands of other community members. It was also the place where owners called home, so of course they had a large stake in taking care of their community, because they had an interest in living in a nice place. In facilitating the transfer of ownership from locals to national developers and chains, we have taken all the money out of the hands of the people that care about the community. To not give consideration of the impact this would have on towns is one of the greatest mistakes we’ve ever made. Of course it is going to be devastating. How were we not paying more attention? The question isn’t “who took our jobs,” but why did we give away our ownership. There is still someone selling groceries, but they aren’t local. There is still a butcher and a baker and candlestick maker, but none of them are local. All of the business on the edge of town used to be local. Hell, every department at Wal-Mart used to be a locally owned business, possibly multiple locally owned businesses, but those are all under one flat depressing shitty blue roof now. So yes, those are still jobs, but there isn’t any ownership and therefore there isn’t any sense of investment in the community. We have to stop chasing commerce and start restoring ownership.
All of the business that went away when we invited in the national chains used to be housed in locally owned, downtown buildings. It was in those stores where we bought the same damn stuff we buy today. But we walked to those stores and we saw our friends and we chatted with the store owner because she lived on our block. We got good customer service because she knew us and our preferences and we got to spend our money with a local family. The building owner had money to maintain their building because people patronized those businesses and therefore they had money for rent. We had pride on those businesses and in those buildings because THEY WERE US.
Wal-Mart isn’t us, and neither is Target or Dick’s or JOANN Fabrics or Pay-Less or Arby’s or the real estate corporations that own the buildings that house them. They are a faceless entity owned by shareholders that are most concerned with creating a return. I am not anti-capitalistic, but I am anti-unchecked capitalism. Pure capitalism would consume itself, but when balanced with socialism we can simultaneously provide incentives for people to perform while allocating enough resources to take care of everyone in the system. This concept is nothing new, it is the system we have always had, but only recently have we stopped having rational conversations about balance. There is not a single facet of our lives that doesn’t require balance and our local economy is no different. There is enough evidence to show that these enormous corporate entities are doing real damage to our communities. The problem with struggling cities isn’t so complicated, we have simply (and sadly) reallocated the wealth of thousands of locals into the hands of a few outsiders. We didn’t lose all the money, we sent it away.
While this may be the reality for many places today, it doesn’t mean we have to embrace it. In fact, we just need to look at our most successful cities as an example. They have embraced the sprawl economy the least. The cities where the majority of business and buildings are owned locally are far outperforming their sprawl laden counterparts. It is in these cities and neighborhoods where so much more money is retained locally. It is in these cities where wages are higher, as is the standard of living and quality of life. These are the towns that have managed to maintain a sense of pride because they still have a sense of ownership. These are the places that have the highest real estate values and are experiencing the most tourism. These places are distinct and fun and unique and vibrant. It should come as no surprise that we feel a greater sense of responsibility for the things we own, this is true as an individual and as a community. Apathy has taken hold in all of the towns where everything is owned by someone else. Because why should people care about a place that the owners don’t care about, or let’s be honest, places they have never even visited.
If we are going to revitalize our cities, we have to facilitate the transfer of ownership of its assets back to its citizens. We have to get people invested in their cities once again. We have to rebuild the local business community. Sprawl development created this problem, but the solution will be found downtown. The buildings that made up downtown have passed out of local hands and simultaneously out of concerned hands. These buildings at the heart of a community are empty and deteriorating. They are no longer a source of pride, but in the worst cases, a source of shame. They no longer attract quality tenants, but tenants that don’t seek quality. They don’t attract visitors, but they do attract ridicule and have a significant impact on the way residents feel about their city. Revitalization starts with real estate and we have to restore the real estate that makes up downtown.
The question then, is how. Fortunately, it is not that hard, but it will take some political will.
Don’t incentivize sprawl. Prioritize local development through policy and incentives.
Codify design standards. Force development to adhere to local standards. This will ensure more attractive development, while pushing away bad developers.
Enforce existing building codes. There should be a no tolerance policy on building neglect. Downtown buildings are one of the most valuable assets in a community, they must be protected through legal measures. Levy heavy fines and push neglectful owners to sell or redevelop.
Pass vacancy legislation. This legislation requires owners keep their property occupied or pay a heavy fine until it is either occupied or listed for sale.
Ensure the building department is capable of working with historic buildings and is familiar with the alternative building code. Don’t deter investment through lack of knowledge at the city level.
Ensure the process of renovating a building is easily navigable, straightforward and fair.
Educate locals on becoming developers. Invite small developers from other communities in to educate potential local developers.
Create tools to assist local developers. If a project cannot make money, a developer cannot and should not do it. It is up to the city to determine how to bridge the gap. Shift existing economic development funds towards these programs.
Develop local entrepreneurs to become tenants. If your community could use a bakery, invest in training someone local to run a bakery. Shift existing economic development funds to train locals to run businesses that are wanted and needed.
The suburbs have done and will continue to do their damage, but we can start to limit this damage and we can start to compete. There is substantial evidence that a dense, walkable, multi-story, mixed-used district is significantly more valuable and impactful to a community than any sprawl type development. A healthy downtown full of productive buildings attracts more visitors, entices new residents, improves real estate values, increases commerce, enhances the quality of life and expands the tax base. It is in every cities interest and benefit to pursue these goals. When we built our cities, it was with pride, a “for us and by us” mentality, but we ceded ownership and our towns have become “for us and by them”. We have learned that they don’t care about “us” as much as we might have thought. It’s time to take care of ourselves again and it’s time we take back what is ours.