Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Massaging the main street.

I had hoped to get one more lengthy blog post published by the end of the month, but I’m unfortunately getting bogged down due to a persistent problem I have: the photos for the essay I have prepared are not sufficient, nor is the quality good enough, to get my point across.  Hopefully I will be able to submit a much more in-depth essay in the next week or so.  In the meantime, I offer an intriguing adaptive re-use in an old downtown, featuring a tenant I have never seen before in such a location:
Value City Furniture, normally a denizen of big-boxes along six-lane highways, is sitting here in a century-old building in the small waterfront city of Sandusky, Ohio.  It’s occupying a corner parcel downtown, with about as much off-street parking as one might expect:

I’m not sure if it occupies all three floors of this building, and certainly the tenants have taken some liberties with the architectural integrity of the façade’s first floor, but it impresses me nonetheless that the City of Sandusky was able to lure this national brand as a tenant.  Downtown Sandusky isn’t particularly blighted, nor is it flourishing—it’s enduring with a series of predominantly mom-and-pop establishments that are most likely attracted to the presumably affordable rents.  Most of Sandusky’s streets look pretty much like this, on the next blocks over:
It’s hanging in there.  Sandusky is a frequented destination in the summer, no doubt in part because of its position directly at the point where Sandusky Bay meets Lake Erie.
But most visitors to Sandusky skip the downtown and head immediately to Cedar Point, a hugely popular amusement park on a peninsula just east of downtown.  Sandusky itself is just a stepping-stone on the way to this colossally successful destination, the nation’s second oldest continually operating amusement park and a frequent winner of awards among seasonal parks.  No doubt Sandusky leadership would like to capitalize on some of the crowds that pass through the city, but nothing about downtown Sandusky suggests a great deal of success in that endeavor.  Even when I visited in late September, near the end of the season, it was obvious that this was just another downtown.

But the presence of Value City Furniture demonstrates sincere initiatives to stock the available retail space with prominent tenants.  I can’t find evidence of what impelled it to locate there in the downtown, but a conversation on Cyburbia reveals that it has been at this location for awhile (at least since 2005).  Why would a national chain choose to locate in a downtown with modest amounts of parking, when their business depends on people being able to purchase and load their large, heavy merchandise into cars?  It’s not comparable to an urban grocery store, where people can easily carry most of the products and continue to walk some distance by foot.  That’s just not how we buy furniture.  For that matter, wouldn’t it be logistically more difficult for Value City to restock its merchandise?  After all, a big box in the suburbs has a huge space in the back for unloading those trucks.

It seems impractical for a Value City to occupy a downtown spot, and, given our growing propensity for ordering furniture (and practically everything else) online, I can’t help but wonder how much longer bricks-and-mortar furniture retail outlets will even be that easy to find.  Clearly, though, something enticed Value City Furniture to locate in downtown Sandusky, and I suspect the answer might just be right across the street:
What on earth would a Subway have to do with this?  Nothing really, except that this Subway is clearly not historic construction, and yet it sits flush with the sidewalk on both sides. It matches the rest of the streetscape, with no parking out front.  A Subway building anew in a small downtown such as Sandusky wouldn’t typically think twice about using the suburban prototype, with abundant parking out front for passers-by to see.  Some higher power encouraged the developer or franchisee to build this Subway according to more suitable urban design standards.  Could it be the same broker who was able to encourage Value City Furniture to locate downtown several years ago?  Could it be the Sandusky Main Street Association?

Most cities of Sandusky’s size and economic health—neither struggling nor flourishing—are not likely to nitpick on urban design particulars through planning, zoning, or permitting.  I could be wrong, but Sandusky clearly isn’t experiencing some surge in tourism, judging from the dowdy appearance of its downtown.  Like many Lake Erie towns in Ohio, Sandusky is trying to assert itself as something other than the gateway to a larger, glossier attraction, such as Cedar Point or Put-in-Bay Island nearby.  The Sandusky Main Street Association hopes to stimulate activity in the city’s downtown by any means—if tourism isn’t the solution, enticing a major retail anchor like Value City Furniture shouldn’t hurt.  And improving the architectural standards for new development by encouraging zero setbacks on new construction certainly promotes a more consistent aesthetic; it worked for whoever built that Subway restaurant across the street.   Time will only tell if downtown Sandusky can eventually transform into a destination of its own; at any rate, the presence of a suburban retailer deviating from its normal location is evidence enough of a benevolent guiding hand at play. 


The Loosh said...

This is really great. Getting this store into a historic downtown was likely a herculean effort, but it appears to be well-done. The ideas in play here are what the current form-based codes movement is trying to promote, so it would be nice to think it will happen more once they catch on.

AmericanDirt said...

Thanks for your comment, Loosh. I agree with you. To the unacquainted eye, it's just a Value City in downtown Sandusky--no big deal. But you're right that it was probably an extreme challenge attracting the tenant to the space. And I wonder what would happen to Value City if DT Sandusky were truly vibrant, and most of the on-street parking spaces were filled. Would VC then leave for a conventional big-box? Would it matter at that point, since a vibrant downtown would probably mean less challenge in finding a replacement tenant? Either way, I'm impressed that this Value City has also been at this location for close to a decade at the minimum.