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The Worst Main Street Revitalization Ideas

August 19, 2009 Pedestrian Mall, Suburban Sprawl, Urban Renewal 16 Comments

Main streets across this country, from big cities to suburbs to small towns, have been abused by urban planners over the second half of the 20th Century trying to find the right formula to reverse the exit to the edge.

In big cities you had white flight and schools as explanations for flight but in many small towns these reasons didn’t exist.  They didn’t have the mall on the edge of town drawing customers away from main street.  They had only the single school district.  However, many had Wal-Mart pulling customers out of the existing downtown’s.

The “solutions” were almost universal from big city CBD‘s to suburban areas to small towns.  With some exceptions these all failed:

  • One-way traffic – charming main streets were turned into high speed roads to get through town.  See Collinsville IL and many others.
  • Elimination of on-street parking – Saw this in Springfield MO.  A street where you could drive through but you couldn’t stop and shop.
  • Pedestrian mall – a few have done well but most separated remaining customers from remaining stores.
  • Indoor mall – an alternative to the open-air pedestrian mall is the enclosed indoor mall.
  • Removal of projecting signs – main streets were cleansed of unique signs.  Projections were viewed as a bad thing.
  • Uniform signage – uniformity was considered an asset. All businesses were encouraged to have the same font & size.
  • Concrete canopies – numerous towns were sold the idea of uniform concrete canopies over the sidewalks.  Beautiful facades were bisected.
  • Modernize facades – cheap modern materials covered detailed old storefronts.  Sometimes the original facade can be restored but often they are damaged beyond repair.
  • Structures over roadway – Salina KS has 4-5 open grid structures over their main street.  Adds nothing but a dated look.
  • Parking in rear – Many towns built excessive parking behind main street buildings.  With new rear entrances the street out front became useless.

Visuals of some of the above, all coincidentally from Kansas towns:

Atchison KS
Atchison KS
Parsons KS
Coffeyville KS
Salina KS
Salina KS

Agree?  Disagree?  Have additional “solutions” to add to the list?  If so, use the comments below.

– Steve Patterson

 

Currently there are "16 comments" on this Article:

  1. bev says:

    I think parking in the rear can actually be helpful if done right. I’m not sure what “right” is, though – I just have a gut feel. It seems to be done correctly on the Loop and in Maplewood. Maybe that’s because there’s still parking on the street in both cases and maybe because there are few back entrances in both cases.

    There may be other reasons rear parking works in the Loop and Maplewood, like the fact that the streets are still pedestrian friendly, there are enough retail establishments and enough of a variety that walking down the street (even if you came by car) just makes more sense.

    It does occur to me that *adding* rear parking to a town or streetscape that was already in the throes of death for other reasons (a “mall,” oneway traffic,) might be the final blow – especially if rear entrances become the standard.

     
  2. Brian S. says:

    Sadly, most of these ideas have been implemented in downtown St. Louis at one point or another. Instead of concrete canopies, we have the awful St. Louis Centre parking garage that hangs over the sidewalk on Broadway, Locust and 6th Street. The garage built across from the Security Building has the same thing.

     
  3. Jimmy Z says:

    Supplementing the existing asphalt or concrete with concrete, brick or stone pavers, usually at intersections. While good in theory, the reality is that most small towns didn’t buy into the added maintenance and after a few years they look(ed) worse than the original “boring” paving.

    But the real biggie that’s missing from the list is the by-pass. Back in the day, the federal or state highway usually followed Main Street. But in the ’50’s and ’60’s, and on into the ’70’s, the congestion on Main Street was viewed as an impediment to non-local traffic so pretty much every small town that wasn’t being bypassed by a new interstate highway lobbied their legislators and the Highway Department to build a by-pass around downtown (http://maps.google.com/maps?f=q&source=s_q&hl=en&geocode=&q=Danville+KY&sll=37.0625,-95.677068&sspn=49.71116,78.662109&ie=UTF8&z=13 ) Guess what – the Law of Unintended Consequences, big time! The cars left Main Street and the businesses followed! The “solutions” you’ve listed are all a direct result of changing traffic patterns and changing tastes – adapt or die, and these band-aids were attempts to draw shoppers back downtown. And remember, unlike today, back in the mid-century, post WW II, new was “good” and old was “bad”, especially when it came to retail.

    And I know that Walmart gets blamed for the death of many small-town downtowns. I’m pretty sure that they’re not the only culprit. Prior to 1988, when they opened their first Supercenter in Washington, MO, I’d place equal blame on the other discounters (K-Mart, Woolco, Venture, Target etc. – who all grew out of local roots), the local groceries (IGA, etc.), farm-supply co-ops, car dealers, strip-mall developers and even the local high school, who all usually moved out to the new highway, into new buildings, with lots of free parking. When the first Walmart opened in 1962, in Rogers, AR, it was only a few blocks outside of downtown (719 W. Walnut); the difference is they did a better job on marketing and attracting customers than their more-established local competitors. Remember, too, before Walmart, the Sears and JC Penney catalog stores were also giving the local department stores some serious competition.

    [slp — the bypass highway is debatable as being bad. I’ve seen towns where the highway ripped through the center destroying everything in its path and others where the bypass was used. In some cases the bypass was necessary because Main Street became a mall. If we accept that new auto-centric shopping options would have happened regardless of what happened on Main Street and without a highway bypass then the less destruction is better.]

     
  4. Brian says:

    Off-street parking in the rear works when you have interesting outdoor pathways directing foot traffic back to the storefront-lined street. For example, the largest parking lot behind buildings in the Delmar Loop can be accessed via Kingsland, Leland, and most interestingly, the Market in the Loop.

     
  5. a.torch says:

    Agreed Steve, you have covered about 95% of the poor ‘solutions’; I also concur that interesting pavers at the end of blocks or at crosswalks is okay BUT if the town/city does little or no maintance of them, they do turn out worse for the wear. (almost like we saw with the zipper-blocks on Wash Ave)

    When viewing Main/Market streets and business districts at the turn of the century (1899 not 1999) you will see interesting, unique signage, mostly different from their neighbors but with equal eye appeal and many stores that had roll-up canopies or awnings which sheltered the customers during inclimate weather but maintained the high craftsmanship facades. I see the need for regulation of signage but some municipalities have gone so overboard with restrictions that what you end up with is dead looking streets, unifom, too small, mono-toned milquetoast signage that bores the customer not stimulates the customer; we would be served well to revisit advertising signage from the 1900 – 1950’s.

     
  6. J says:

    It’s nice to have a list of the bad, but how about following up with a list/photos of the good?

    I would suggest you visit downtown Belleville for a look at the parking-in-the-rear issue. Some blocks do it well, other don’t. Be sure to check out the Mexican restaurant. Until last year it was only accessed from the rear parking lot. Then the owners bought the adjoining storefront and turned it into a bar that connects to the restuarant so they could have a front door presence on Main.

     
  7. Matt B says:

    Steve, you might be familiar with this one…

    Miami, OK on old Route 66 created a serpentine path through downtown on its main street by adding alternating parking and bump-outs complete with concrete barriers/planters. It really takes away from the otherwise attractive small downtown with the historic Coleman Theater.

    Also those small towns that have demolished historic courthouses/city halls on main street or the towns square and replaced them with 60s/70s era government buildings. This irreversable change immediately gives you a sense that a small downtown is “tired” instead of “quaint”. Carlyle, IL comes to mind, but I am sure there are plenty of other examples.

     
  8. Dennis says:

    a.torch, I’m with you on the signage issue. I think the only restriction should be the size. As far as colors, content, ect. the sky should be the limit. Matt B, It’s been about 10 years since I’ve been in Carlyle, IL and I don’t remember how it impressed me, but back this way a little closer in Trenton, IL they have 45 degree angle parking along the main street, which is old US Rt 50, and everything sits way back off the path of traffic. You can back out of your parking spot without even getting into traffic. IN otherwords the street is wide enough for 4 lanes of traffic but only 2 are used. So you have traffic, then this dead/no-mans-land sort of space, and then the 45 angle parking. I think it’s all because the town was laid out back in the 1850’s when a horse and wagon needed a lot of room to turn around. Nashville, IL is another town that comes to my mind with a nice old “main street” of store fronts. I remember parking in lots behind stores there as a kid but there were skinny little gangways that everyone used to walk between the stores to get to the front. There is still NO Walmart in Nashville so they still have a thriving dime store, Lee’s Variety, among others.

     
  9. Chris says:

    I like the parking in the rear as long as it is done right. Look at Kirkwood. Within two blocks what a difference. Down by where Bar Louie is there are always people walking, bikes, people with dogs, places to just sit. It is always busy. Up by Dewey’s it is terrible. The parking on the street is actually hurting the block. Would it be great if the sidewalk was wider and the crosswalks were better. There could be places to lock your bike and sit outside. trees on the street. The parking on the street just makes the more dangerous. Improve the parking behind the stores and open up the sidewalks.

     
  10. Jimmy Z says:

    I’m not sure if we’re discussing historic or economic preservation. The challenges most small-town downtowns face, on the design side, are a direct result of retail flight of many “core” retailers to more-economically viable, auto-centric locations, “out on the four-lane” highway (that have their own litany of design sins). “Good” design only goes so far, especially in smaller towns, when it comes to procuring the basics of daily life. Most towns have no public transit, so most shoppers are auto-dependent. Most also end up working hard, either on the farm or commuting long distances into “the city”, so their time for shopping is also limited. Convenient parking is more than just an attractive amenity. The cute downtown, with or without concrete canopies or parking in back, is simply saddled with a building type that doesn’t work as well as a box plopped in a parking lot, for too many “core” retail users AND shoppers.

    I don’t follow “If we accept that new auto-centric shopping options would have happened regardless of what happened on Main Street, and without a highway bypass . . .” In many cases, the major local businesses that were located on Main Street before WW II (grocery, car dealer, restaurant, high school, etc.) led the charge to relocate out of downtown into newer, auto-centric locations in the ’50’s and ’60’s – they left and were replaced by much-less-intensive (and less-profitable) uses – gift shops, galleries, etc. Yes, the turn-of-the-century structures remained downtown, but they failed, in too many cases, to generate enough revenue to cover their maintenance costs, which resulted in the sins you listed, the band-aids applied to try and draw the core retail business back downtown.

    Remember, too, that marketing has changed radically over the past 75 (even the past 25) years. Show windows displaying merchandise to passing pedestrians play a minor role, if any, in attracting sales in the 21st century. These days, it’s all about branding and advertising in the various forms of media – on TV, the radio, the internet, and to a lesser degree, in print. Retail structures have become signs, trying to attract the attention of passing drivers (see Learning from Las Vegas). Yes, there will always be a limited market for “cute” and “quaint” shops in any downtown. But what has gone away, and won’t be returning any time soon, is the market for core retail uses – the grocer, the department store, etc. The only small-town downtowns that are thriving are the ones in tourist, resort and retirement areas, where a large number of customers have the time to stroll and the disposable income to support cute and quaint. In “real”, non-tourist towns, Walmart remains the big draw, out on the bypass, because it’s cheap, quick, convenient and comprehensive. It may not be the best decision for many academic reasons, but it is a very rational decision for the people spending their paychecks . . .

     
  11. Tim E says:

    This is line with an interesting conversation that I had with my Dad over the weekend while he was visiting. My dad still lives in a small Minnesota farm town where my parents raised me. Breckenridge, MN acutally sits on the North Dakota border and has a sister city in Wahpeton, ND. I asked him how the towns were holding up considering Wahpeton got a new Super Walmart on the edge of town and how Breckenridge got to keep the hospital that was rebuilt (the old hospital sitting along the Red River of the North was subject to a good bit of flooding). My dad believes it was deal on the side that was made between the two towns on what would be built where.

    He stated that Wahpeton’s main street has taken a beating. More importantly, Wahpeton had lost two local grocery stores after Walmart moved in. Both of them located in or near the older central business district. Grocery stores are considerable amount of shopping traffic for a small town. Their is also a bit of the zero sum game in small towns just as any metro area not expanding in population. The new hospital is doing well and the old hospital site is new housing (parts above the flood plain). My Dad figured that Breckenridge came out in the deal. I would agree, usually only Walmart comes out ahead in the long run. Then the lease expires.

     
  12. Mitch says:

    I visited Atchison, KS a few years ago and spent some time on the downtown mall. It was pretty dead; practically nobody was walking around (granted, I was there during a heat wave), and a lot of the stores were empty.

    Most of the stores that were still in business had reoriented themselves so that the main entrance now faced the parking lot, while the mall-side entrance was closed or secondary.

    I’m not sure the downtown would have done much better without the mall — it seemed that most commerce had moved to the Wal-Mart at the edge of town — but it was clear that the mall had not done much good.

    Nonetheless, the city was doing a major renovation during my visit.

     
  13. Jake says:

    Parking in rear is ideal, so long as there isn’t a rear entrance to shops. People should park off-site (preferably in structures) and walk a short distance (1/3 block or less) to a main shopping street.

    Every other point you made is absolutely right. Thanks for this post!

     
  14. a.torch says:

    ‘In “real”, non-tourist towns, Walmart remains the big draw..”
    I will give you that Wal-Mart might be the draw, but I also know communities where the hatred for Wal-mart supercedes the ‘draw’. And I don’t think you have to be a ‘tourist town’ to make a downtown or shopping district work. Columbia, MO is a fine example of a working downtown or CBD, so is downtown Kirkwood, the Loop, and to some extent downtown Maplewood. Just as an example you could go to the Farmers market at Schlaflys for fresh food, walk down a couple blocks to the hardware store to get whatever you need (and find it much quicker than a Big-Box store), walk across the street to Shop n’ Save to get your milk and butter then have a cup of coffee at one of the 3 locally owned coffeehouses. (Same could be said for Soulard but no grocery store really exsists in walking distance) The trip to Target or Wal-mart or JCP might be a once or twice a month trip; I think we have gotten lazy thinking we need to stop in one of those stores every week or more (I am guilty of this sometimes too when I don’t plan ahead). We need to plan out shopping trips in advance and try to patronize the local business owners. I think St. Louis had it correct when up to the 1960’s there was a grocery or general goods store on the corner about every 6 or 7 blocks.

     
  15. Jimmy Z says:

    I look at small-town/rural downtowns differently than I look at small-town downtowns that are now a part of a larger urban area. A Washington, MO. or a Mt. Vernon, IL. or a Sterling, CO. is a completely different economic animal than a Kirkwood or a Maplewood or a Gilbert, AZ. is. In urban areas, especially growing urban areas, there will always be demand for small and cute in the old downtowns – there’s just so much bland suburban sprawl surrounding them (and both Maplewood and Kirkwood have also gone “over to the dark side”, and invested heavily in big-bax, sales-tax-generating engines).

    In discrete, static or declining, rural economies, the same doesn’t hold true – there simply aren’t enough “rooftops” to support, for example, both a Walmart and two local groceries (Tim E), plus the economics of farming, especially family farming, continue to be extremely challenging. If you don’t have much money, cheap(er) will almost always win out, no matter how loyal you want to be to the established local businesses (and for many rural residents, the Walmart IS established, having been in town now for 15, 20, 25 years).

    The challenge then becomes what do you do, this decade, to try and “revive” that small-town downtown? All of the things Steve listed were fashionable at some point in the past 50 years. Restoring historic facades and bringing back “traditional” signs is currently in vogue (a.torch). But without viable businesses to put behind the facades (“good” or “bad”), the results will continue to disappoint. While “Build it (right) and they will come” holds a deep emotional appeal to us in the design community, the reality is that the real customers are voting every day with their credit and debit cards, and, what, 90%+ are voting for name brand, bland boxes set in a sea of parking, not some smaller local guy or gal, making their customers “park off-site (preferably in structures) and walk a short distance (1/3 block or less) to a main shopping street.” (Jake)

    Yes, “People should”, but most people won’t! If retailers want to stay in business, they either give their customers what they want, or a competitor will come along and take the customers away! Bottom line, the only way to “save” downtown is to figure out which businesses will work and then support their efforts – one size doesn’t fit all. Better parking (front and/or back) might help. A focus on tourists might (Woodstock, NY). A focus on small, high-quality, maybe even ethnic restaurants might (Cherokee St.). A focus on the visual arts (Paducah, KY) or music (Gruene, TX.)might. Heck, we have that poster child we love to hate, Branson, not that far away. But until the business side gets figured out, throwing out design solutions will be of limited use.

     
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