When visiting cities around the US, we are regularly asked, “Where do you like to develop Better Block projects?” Our answer is always the same…pull out your old streetcar maps, hop on a bicycle and begin re-tracing the routes. Along the former rail lines in those inner city suburbs, you should see clusters of historic buildings nestled nicely into neighborhoods. These were built to house supportive local businesses that provided daily necessities, and acted as community gathering spaces for residents in places as far away as New Orleans to New York City. The beauty of these small clusters were that they were typically only a block or two in size, and fairly small in square footage, which allowed them to be affordable enough for someone to create a manageable and solvent bakery, deli, market, tavern, flower shop, beautician 0r any multitude of neighborhood supportive retail. They were small, but they had powers of numbers to create a “sense of place” or destination, and could use collective buying power for bringing in goods, managing public spaces, and programming street activities. These places housed the local butcher that knew your favorite cut of meat, the pharmacist who knew your kids by name, and provided community gathering places where you and your neighbors could meet after a hard day at work and talk about life, love, hardships, while sharing a beer.
Size was key…keeping it small made it manageable and instead of having to load up with 8 rolls of toilet paper, 10 cans of tomato sauce, and 3 loaves of bread (that strangely never seem to mold) at a single big box store, you simply bought fresher things on bi-weekly basis, stored less, had fresher goods, received regular exercise by simply walking 3 or 4 blocks to acquire your goods, and saw and interacted with your neighbors regularly. Also, the merchants knew and loved their products and focused on become artisans in their crafts (from breads, to meats, to flowers, to cheeses…not one “super center”, but multiple “specialized” individuals shops in close proximity). For some reason, we’ve made our “normal” routine of getting simple things like eggs or mayonnaise, something which requires the use of a two ton vehicle, a quarter tank of gas, very little muscle use, and the potential to put ourselves in harms way with hundreds of other people doing the exact same thing.
And with the recent revitalization of inner city neighborhoods occurring around the nation, we’re seeing saturation of these small blocks because they aren’t coming on line fast enough. We have a supply and demand issue which is suffocating and potentially destabilizing the potential for small blocks to return to their mainstay.
Our hope is to see a return to daylighting as many of these streetcar stops as possible, and linking them with IRRESISTIBLE pedestrian, bicycle, and public transit options. Allow cars in the mix too, of course, but create parity and give people a reason to want to select other (read: healthier) options. If one mode of transit is given priority beyond any other, then people will naturally revert to what’s given to them which will stress the land use surrounding the businesses (read: lack of parking).
This is a very fragile development to create, because it requires property owners who are mindful of a blocks long term legacy. The tendency to want to “cash out” with the big chain while enticing, can quickly undo all of the work developed to make the place unique and special. Compare a block in the Bishop Arts District to the West End Marketplace in Dallas. The former is filled with dozens of small, unique, locally owned businesses, the other is filled with national chains like TGI Friday’s, Corner Bakery, and Chipotle. And while the chains might serve quality food, there’s nothing unique, All of it could be easily found in dozens of shopping strips throughout the city, the country, or conveniently, even at the airport on your way in and out of the city.
So how do you keep the big chains from over running an area? Keep the buildings small. So small, that the locals can afford to run and manage their operations in the spaces. Small enough that the local neighborhood can support them. But, in large enough numbers that the businesses have collective power to create a destination and become a natural, supportive extension of the neighborhood.
Our tendency in large/mid-sized US cities is to try and replicate ideas found in New York or San Francisco, but the reality is that places like St. Louis, Dallas, and Duluth are too spread out, and lack the density to look like Manhattan. BUT, their strength exists when you get outside of the center city and go to that first inner city neighborhood “streetcar suburb” ring. Where homes and commercial edge together and create community gathering places that house local businesses, offer jobs, and promote the identity of the places and people that surround them.
The key is to “Think Small,” daylight as many of the streetcar stops as possible, and connect them with amazing multi-modal transportation. Beyond this, we must work quickly, and increment up these places. Otherwise, we could destabilizing the few that exist since their are so few available and the demand is so high for them.