Leveraging your Town Center for Economic Development
So far, this series has taken on three of the essential components of a healthy walkable town center: hotels, retail and multi-family residential. But, traditionally, our town centers were not simply a collection of residences and shops. They formed the commercial and civic centers of our towns and cities — an economic development engine that attracted the industries that gave all those homes and shops a reason (and means) for existing in the first place. Of course — and you know the story — as we moved into the suburbs in the post WWII era, we placed our offices into “office parks” in our campaign to separate the activities of our daily lives and reconnect them through compulsory car trips.
Residences: An Obvious Ingredient
One obvious yet undervalued ingredient of an effective mixed-use town center is the residential component. To emphasize its importance, I would go as far as to say that it is actually the substrate on which a healthy mixed-use environment is based. In a healthy, balanced region, with the exception of noxious uses, no land uses are set aside as a single use and all are integrated into a walkable neighborhood.
Shops: Everybody Wants ‘Em
Last week we started this series off with Hotels, a sometimes overlooked, value-adding addition to a walkable town center. This week we are looking at one of the essential ingredients of a town center: the retail shops. The retail component of a town center is the most visible component, often defining the character and pedigree of a place. It is also the biggest generator of traffic, an attractor of street life and pedestrian activity, and value-adding convenience for neighboring office workers and residents. But where it gets into trouble is the fact that successful retail spells m-o-n-e-y. It makes bucks for the developers and operators, it is often a key line item on municipal tax roles, and it can bring great value to surrounding neighborhoods. But the problem is that while everybody wants ’em, there is only so much to go around.
While walkable mixed use town centers may not be the *easy* choice for the asphalt guy, the engineer, or even the developer who has to attract tenants to an environment they may not be as used to… they are certainly becoming best practices for sustainable community development. More importantly, they are quickly becoming a market favorite and a valuable amenity to their adjacent (and integrated) residential neighborhoods. Too often, however, municipalities and developers choose only to commit to this model halfway, viewing it as a niche market with limited potential where quaint mom and pops struggle away (you know, that one-off new urbanist development at the edge of town), while the “real stuff” happens in large conventional single-use centers down the street.
This lack of commitment allows many of the essential ingredients of a successful walkable town center to get sucked into car-focused single-use centers (the easy place to put them) so that everyone can make excuses as to why the poor mixed use village struggles and we still have to do the conventional stuff until oil hits $10 a gallon.
By the early to mid 1970s, something was wrong with rock and roll.
It no longer fought the system. Worse than that, it had become the system. Bloated. Detached. Pretentious.
Performer and audience, once fused in a mutual quest to stick it to the man, now existed on separate planes — an increasingly complacent generation sucked into the service of pomp and circumstance. And the shared experience of joyful rebellion? Replaced by pompous, weed-soaked, middle-earth mysticism.
Rock and roll needed to get back to basics. What country pioneer Harlan Howard characterized as “three chords and the truth.” Enter punk rock.