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The Worst Main Street Revitalization Ideas

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


A Shift to Smaller Grocery Stores?

The new Culinaria grocery store downtown is a delight.  It is stocked with everything one needs all in 20,000SF of space — a third the size of a typical new suburban big box grocery store.  But it has been the big box suburban store we’ve been getting in urban neighborhoods in the City of St. Louis and St. Louis County.  These chains knew only one thing — bigger is better.

Loughborough Commons Schnucks Grand Opening, August 2006
Schnuck's Grand Opening at Loughborough Commons, August 2006

Finally, a different model, a smaller new store.  I’ve enjoyed smaller stores for years: Straub’s, Aldi’s, Trader Joe’s, Wild Oats/Whole Foods, Local Harvest, City Grocers, etc.  Some of these are now approaching the size of the big box stores while others are still too small to get everything you need.

The trick is being big enough to have all the items for a meal but without an motor oil, clothing or patio furniture.  The fact is the race to have the biggest store in town didn’t always mean the best place to shop for groceries.  With everything inside a third the size of a big box has me wondering if we’ll see a return to the well stocked smaller store?

Schnuck’s, family owned & privately held, got it’s start in the City of St. Louis:

Founded in north St. Louis in 1939, the family-owned grocery company has grown to include more than 100 stores in seven states: Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, Iowa, Tennessee and Mississippi.  (Source: Schnuck’s)

The early stores were the traditional corner store that was common in walkable urban neighborhoods.  But as people left walkable urban areas to driveable suburban areas the concept of a market changed.  Refrigeration made it possible to keep food longer.

In my hometown of Oklahoma City the dominate grocery chain is now Walmart Neighborhood Market.  I’m not talking about a giant Walmart with a grocery section but a dedicated grocery store selling groceries.  These stores, at 40,000SF, are between the typical new Schnuck’s (60,000+SF) and Culinaria (20,000SF).  These Walmart markets are everywhere.

I’m a foodie.  My Facebook friends can confirm the many pictures I’ve posted of meals out as well as meals I’ve prepared at home.  If you’ve seen Julie & Julia you know Julia Child’s love of eating got her interested in cooking.  As someone that enjoys cooking, I’ve visited many grocery stores in many cities.

Bring out the “foodie” in you!

Culinaria is using the term foodie in their marketing.  With a growing emphasis on fresh and local I think we will see a shift away from the massive stores pushing groceries for a month.  I like going to the grocery store but I don’t like walking through unnecessarily large stores.  With a few exceptions, since my stroke a year and a half ago, I have avoided big box grocers.

Toronto, July 2006
Toronto, July 2006

Loblaws is a big chain in Toronto.  The store above is located in their suburbs along their subway line.  You exit the subway and the grocery store is right there so you can pick up items for dinner on your way home.

New York City, 2001
New York City, 2001

A right sized market, such as the above Whole Foods, can be located in older buildings.  You need high density to eliminate the need for parking.

Under NYCs Queensboro Bridge, 2001
Under NYC's Queensboro Bridge, 2001

In New York City wasted space under the 59th Street/Queensboro Bridge was put to use for a nice market.

Vancouver market in walkable neighborhood, 2003
Vancouver market in walkable neighborhood, 2003

The above market was in new construction in a new walkable dense area of Vancouver.  I do not recall seeing any parking although it may have had a garage.  I was a pedestrian.

Seattles international district, March 2009
Seattle's international district, March 2009

These stores don’t have their own parking.  But I’ve been to plenty that do — a Whole Foods in San Diego with parking on the roof to Safeway & Trader Joe’s in Seattle with structured garage parking just for their store – in neighborhoods — not just downtown.  The idea of driving into a parking garage to go grocery shopping is not that odd.  I’d like to see it become commonplace in the core of our region.

Many of Culinara’s customers will walk there.  Others will use MetroLink which is only 2 blocks away (8th & Pine).  Many, however, will drive from within downtown or from nearby neighborhoods.  Those that do will get 1 or 2 hours of free parking, depending upon the day & time of the visit.

I’ll have to drive there one day to see how it works.  The unmetered 15-minute parking on 9th Street seems like it will become an issue with cars parked longer than 15 minutes.  Doesn’t seem right that this business would get free street parking for it’s customers.  I say put in meters and make the limit 30 minutes.

The new Culinaria is the grocery store we need not just downtown but throughout the core of the region.  A smaller footprint store for walkable neighborhoods where a big box and surface parking are out of character.  Hopefully we will see more of Culinaria here and in the other states where Schnuck’s has stores.

The above was written Tuesday after the grand opening of Culinaria.  Yesterday (Wednesday) I made a second visit.  This time I drove my car  – I wanted to see how the whole parking garage experience worked. They have a few issues to address.

Parking starts on level 3 of the garage. It seems like the first parking you get to is reserved for monthly parking permit holders who are assigned a numbered space.  When I got to 5 I crossed the middle point and headed downward to find disabled parking near the elevator.  I’m still not clear how far up the able bodied would need to go to find non-reserved parking.  I’m not sure how people will feel, on the weekend say,  about passing 2-5 levels of empty reserved parking before reaching spaces where they can park.

After I bought my 3 items I discovered the other problem, the shopping carts can’t leave the store.  So even if you drive to the store it is purchase what you can carry.  An associate got another associate to carry my canvas bag for me.  I had only 3 items but it weighed 7 pounds — 5 lb bag of flour plus two pound bags of dried beans.  It was too much for me.  I can understand not allowing the carts out onto the sidewalk but they really need to allow the carts into the garage.

The customer base for a store this size is larger than downtown dwellers & office workers.  Residents from nearby neighborhoods will be driving here to stock up.  And with the huge selection of items it would be very easy to purchase more than you can carry.  The carts have the sensor that locks a wheel if it goes too far.  They need to move the sensor to the outside door so that someone can get to the elevators.

When the associate and I got off the elevator at level 3 I realized that floor doubles as the employee smoking lounge.  Two employees were smoking in the semi-enclosed area off the elevators while three more were smoking adjacent to the disabled spaces.

When I left I handed the parking attendant the ticket I got when I entered the garage as well as the voucher portion from my receipt.  The $2 fee was covered by Culinaria.

As has been pointed out on other posts, this Culinaria store has been heavily subsidized.  It does not represent the free market at work.  What I hope will happen is that it will perform well to the point the Schnuck’s family will question the logic of building bigger & bigger suburban box stores.  We need more frequent stores that are easier to walk to and through.

– Steve Patterson


No Overnight Parking

My brother’s subdivision, located in a far sprawling area within Oklahoma City’s huge city limits, is a curiosity to me.  No doubt we have similar subdivisions in the St. Louis region.  Every region in the US likely has a similar situation.

The subdivision is gated.  Not just to outsiders but from one part to another – wouldn’t want the Riff Raff from 3 blocks away in our part of the same subdivision.

The sidewalks don’t leave the subdivision because the major roads outside the subdivision lack sidewalks.  I can see the grocery store from his front walk but to get there requires a car trip.

Although they have plenty of room between the curbs & sidewalks, they have zero street trees.  Apparently tree-lined streets are a bad thing?  The one decorative tree in each front lawn is kept back so it can’t won’t shade the sidewalk.

The streets are not public but are privately owned & maintained by the home owners.  All houses have 3-car garages – the minimum allowed.  You can leave a non-commercial vehicle on your driveway but don’t think of leaving your car on the too wide subdivision streets overnight.  Commercial vehicles (company SUV with name on the side, for example) must be kept in the garage.

The logic goes that parked cars on the street overnight is low class and tacky.  To protect their home values, the streets must be free of vehicles.  They live in an environment where the car is a must but they don’t want to see the cars at night.

I don’t get the logic at all.

New Town at St. Charles
New Town at St. Charles, June 2005

To me the narrower tree-lined streets in older areas or New Urbanist areas like New Town at St. Charles (above) are so much more appealing, visually & functionally.

The 3-car wide driveways and the series of garage doors is much more an issue for me.  Narrow streets with parked cars help slow traffic.

Are people selecting the suburban subdivision because they is what they want or are people buying in them because they are the current perception of the ideal living environment?  Has anyone given it much thought?

Clearly the developers, in writing the rules for subdivisions, have set out guidelines that are counter to my way of thinking.  It is not like buyers have any real choice — all the new development follows the same formula – except for the New Urbanist developments which are hard to build because zoning mandates the suburban/sprawl ideal.

I’d love to buy a house in such a subdivision and plant street trees after removing the original lawn ornament tree.  I wouldn’t want to live there, just challenge their view of an ideal place to call home.  But seriously, we’ve got a major sticking issue if people don’t want cars on the street overnight.

– Steve Patterson


My Childhood Mall is Dead

It opened 8 days before my 7th birthday. Crossroads Mall was a very big deal at the time.  All the malls in Oklahoma City were on the other side of town.  Now we’d have a mall less than 2 miles from home.  I may have been in one of the other malls in town prior to the opening of Crossroads but I doubt it.

When Crossroads Mall opened in 1975 it was the 9th largest shopping mall in the United States, and the largest in Oklahoma. It is still the second largest mall in Oklahoma at 1.3 million square feet.  (source)

West County Center in the St. Louis region, rebuilt and greatly expanded in 2002, is still smaller than Crossroads Mall.

When the mall opened in 1974 my parents were in their early 40s, as I am today.  They saw downtown and retail districts die as new suburban malls took over.  They did not shed a tear, they embraced the change.

Likewise as shopping patterns I don’t mourn the death of Crossroads mall.  I should clarify that it is not totally dead – yet.

But when all four of your anchors are closed the diagnosis is not positive.  The sign, above, lists four anchors as you enter — AMC (which is in its own building outside the mall),   Waldenbooks, Bath & Body Works and Chick-fil-A.  Yes, Chick-fil-A is now listed on signage that used to list stores like Macy’s, Dillard’s, JC Penny, and Montgomery Ward.  Yeah, good luck with Chick-fil-A as an draw.

On the directory they have severed off the four vacant anchor spaces as if they didn’t exist.  I’m sure they wish they didn’t exist.

But from outside and inside it is obvious to the casual observer.  The above space was Montgomery Wards, which closed in 2001.  The East coast chain Steve & Barry’s opened in this space until they went Bankrupt in January 2009.

One by one the remaining long-term anchors all closed – JC Penny in 2007, Macy’s in March 2008, Dillard’s in December 2008.  (source).

It appears all four anchor stores are owned separately from the mall as I spotted for sale signs with different real estate companies.  If so that makes it harder to create a solution unless the mall owner sinks more money and buys all four anchor spaces.  Then what?  Raze it all?

Crossroads was so named for being at the crossroads of two interstates – I-35 and I-240. Retail centers have now developed along both so that rebuilding retail on this massive site would be a risky proposition.

Little has changed inside save for additional interior lighting.  With the exception of the Chick-fil-A, the only remaining long-term tenant may be Spencer’s Gifts:

The location is exactly where it was in 1974.  Although curious, I didn’t go inside.  I hadn’t been in that store in 30 years.

In January the mall was in foreclosure:

Officials say Crossroads Mall could be put up for bids in about 60 days and stores in the mall will remain open for now.

Price Edwards & Co. is now managing the mall and senior vice president Jim Parrack says he hopes to find a buyer who will keep the property as a mall, but some analysts say it could be taken over by a government agency, a school or a medical organization.  (source)

I’m not sure where it stands, not sure I care.  In my lifetime I’ve seen the birth & death of this mall.  Right now it is the roadside wreck you can’t help look at.  It is time to call in Dr. Kevorkian, or a demolition crew, to finish it off.

As people return to the center and flock to newer strip centers this future of this mall as a mall is long over.  Strip centers around the mall built in the last two decades are already housing offices for things like the state Department of Human Services.  A Best Buy and the Toys R Us where I worked for 5 years are hanging on.

Like my parents I will not shed a tear at the loss of the old way of doing retail.

– Steve Patterson


Community or Die!

The key to inner-city rejuvenation is the establishment and invigoration of communities. Without coherent social structures empowering, educating, and energizing individuals cities tend to fall apart. The worst aspects of modern infrastructure planning involve the isolation, division, and starvation of communities. The resulting individual atomization ends in isolation and dehumanization.

Humans need communities, they need them just as much as they need families and friends. How else do they come by these? Per chance? From the masses of strangers that surround us we select our friends, our lovers, our mates. From thence we find love, happiness, and identity. Without that, what are we? The struggle for community is a struggle for the bonds which hold all of us together. It is the basic unit upon which our country is built on. Even the family wouldn’t exist without a community to support and encourage mate selection, and what family could do without the vast educational and social support of the greater society?

Suburbia is perhaps the most horrific example of dehumanization through the lack of community. The obvious Lack of intellectually-stimulating diversity is not the most damaging consequence of moderate-density life. Suburban Americans suffer from relative detachment from the rest of the population. The immediate population! It is not unusual for someone in O’Fallon to have no idea who their neighbors are. From five houses down to next door. Television, fences, the internet, motor vehicles, and corporate malls have allowed people a relative mental detachment from everyone else.

This is far from the “good ‘ole days” complaints of our grandparents. The isolated existence of suburbanites results in sociological catastrophes. Many of our socio-economic problems arise directly from the collective choices of millions to live in a most abnormal manner. Global Warming, cultural depreciation, educational lagging, Wal-Mart, Garth Brooks, Republicans; the most daunting problems of the 21st century find their root in freshly trimmed, identical lawns.

Great men and women, great ideas, great projects; these all rise from the cities and dense villages of the world. From communities.  If we are to generate those geniuses and a culture to rally behind them we must regroup and recommit to each other on a local level.

To put it plainly, every suburban sprawl zone must be evacuated and leveled. For the sake of our people, for ourselves individually, and for the future of our country. This is not necessarily an extreme program, people must voluntarily leave their yard gnomes and three car garages behind. There must be a grand national campaign to bring the people back to the cities and town centers, leaving the razed ground to return to nature. Our cities and towns must develop in a humane and socially-oriented manner. Our cities must be welcoming places; places of peace, prosperity, ingenuity, art, and diversity. The best of the Urban must be magnified and the worst must be diminished to negligible proportions. Crime, poverty, educational atrophy, and prejudice need to go the way of the dinosaur.

What have we to lose? Should we allow catastrophe to occur? Most importantly, do we have hope and faith that such important and integral policies can be implemented successfully?

In future installments I will identify what the former suburbanites will return to, current examples of strong communities and community centers. Additionally, methods and tactics for community-building will be enumerated and left to public debate. By working together we can create an Urbia attractive and enticing to the lonely denizens of the counties. Your lowly idealist (myself) will strive to present alternatives and methods for establishing them.

This will be a series much like what Brick By Brick will become.

– Angelo Stege