I’ve been involved in downtown issues for 30 years now. Walking through the various districts of the metro center on an unusually warm Thursday last week I saw just how well so much of the infrastructure that I had been involved in seeing put into place was wearing, and I was also able to identify the older buildings which had been repurposed and renovated 45 years ago and just how perfectly they were suited for use or adaptive reuse now despite many of them being vacant on the ground floor at least.
So much of what was done then was spot-on in terms of aesthetics, but it still failed almost completely as far as revitalizing the city’s center. Blame is any easy thing to cast about: This administration didn’t do this, that administration didn’t do that, one powerful decision maker chose X instead of Y. We are full of it around here, but it isn’t helpful. Look around at most mid size cities north of D.C. and east of Denver and they haven’t faired too well over the last 60-75 years. If they’re not too close to a major hub like New York, Chicago, or The Hub then they’ve probably developed a pseudo-city-boutique-faux “downtown” nearby that has managed to thrive with an urban-but-without-too-much-melanin mojo rendering them(the mid size city) redundant.
I’ve enjoyed listening to idiotic soothsayers engage in post hoc ergo propter hoc reasoning for why this or that city is bucking the trend. If there’s any causal relationship, it’s usually the reverse of what they’re claiming: the “beds” portion of the the “Eds, Meds, and Beds” formula for example. Perhaps hotels are a symptom created by a city center people want to visit, not magical constructs which make the surrounding neighborhoods “more visitable”?
Repurposing some old Main Street buildings in Northampton (our faux urban carbuncle) turned it into a retailing Mecca; doing the same thing on Main Street in Springfield, but with much nicer buildings and with one of the city’s best retailers (Johnson’s Bookstore) as an anchor, failed utterly. The lesson here is that larger forces are at work, not destiny in some woo-woo sense, but most certainly destiny in the sense of larger cycles of politics, demographics, economics, and history.
So many things were done so right here. I remember an architecture critic from the New York Times saying that we have one of the best agglomerations of older buildings in North America and a great sense of how to use them; for all the good it has done us. Whatever mini-trend toward urbanism is being detected among millenials it won’t be that which will revitalize most traditional city centers, it will be the fact that reality in the form of energy scarcity and the non-viability of the suburban Ponzi scheme will obligate us to live differently. When that happens it will be better for us to have preserved as much as possible of what is viable and what really can serve as human habitat in a low energy system.
In his Taco John’s versus Old and Blighted presentation Chuck Marohn shows how well “even the worst” of traditional development ages. Walking down Lyman Street, Worthington Street, and Bridge Street I was able to see how well some of the best retains its value and it is stunning. Century old buildings ignored for most of that time and, slap a new coat of paint on the window frames, and they are good to go…or to remain…for a century or two more. That was literally what I saw. I don’t know what the plans are or why that man was painting around those doors and windows but whether those plans come to fruition or not that building will be able to produce value for someone at some point in the future. The ubiquitous Taco John’s pop up? Not so much.