Friday, February 26, 2010

Rethinking the Behemoth, Preserving the Banal, Part III: Mundane microbuildings have a place in contemporary urban life.

This post concludes a three-part series on a high-profile new development in the southern Indiana city of Evansville. The city’s Mayor and Council have approved (and now completed) the demolition of a block of century-old commercial buildings on the historic Main Street to make way from a new sports arena, after negotiations floundered for buying out a car dealership nearby. I explored the background behind this decision—an obvious attempt at revitalizing the city’s long stagnant downtown—in Part I of this series. Though the D-Patrick Ford Dealership was originally the preferred site, Mayor Jonathan Weinzapfel announced that the site where the historic buildings stand (or stood) is ultimately better because the arena will now front Evansville’s Main Street, allowing the activity generated from major sporting events to spill onto the neighboring blocks, thereby helping to revive the long-slumping retail activity on this commercial corridor. The rendering below, available on the Evansville Courier-Press website, reveals the configuration.

I have outlined Main Street in red, while the blue square traces the footprints of the old commercial buildings that the City has sacrificed to build the arena. As demonstrated by the rending, this region captures where the front of the arena will soon stand. And the green square represents the faded Executive Inn, half of which is being demolished for the back side of the arena, while the other portion that I have outlined will be repurposed, ideally into a major national chain hotel. An older Google Streetview shows that the old commercial buildings (in the red outlined square) look like this:

Those buildings outlined in orange in the photo above no longer exist, and soon the arena below will replace them:

The rendering shows the new Main Street frontage. I commend Populous, the architectural firm, for providing windows and natural light to side that will face Evansville’s historic commercial street, but I remain unconvinced that this was still the best decision for locating this arena. It’s a great site for the sake of integrating the arena with downtown, but not so great in terms of what has been lost in Evansville’s older built environment. But the decision seems predicated upon the assumption that a giant sports venue—and all the foot traffic it creates for its events—will help breathe life into the other blocks of Evansville’s old commercial corridor. That’s false assumption number one, which I analyzed at length in Part II of this three-part post. The City had to sacrifice one full block of the older architecture to free up the space for the arena, and this economic development strategy rests on the second and final false assumption: that small historic commercial buildings are stranded without a purpose or niche unless visually integrated with a larger attraction upon which they depend, almost parasitically.

If Memphis and New Orleans—the two cities mentioned in the previous post—are any indication, the Evansville arena will have a limited impact on other downtown development. While it won’t likely hurt the downtown’s activity level, it also won’t contribute the catalyzing effect that the city leaders desire. As far as the scale and pace of downtowns go, it’s an oddity. It doesn’t really fit in with the rhythms of commuting workers, servers at the lunch counters, or the few who claim downtown as their home. It operates on a different scale and schedule completely. So do the city’s other main attractions, such as the casino and its cluster of hotels/restaurants that sit on the opposite end of Main Street, along the Ohio River. Let’s review one of those other mega-destinations briefly.

Casino Aztar has graced the city’s waterfront for over a decade, yet it’s largely an entertainment compound, divorced from the city. People come for an evening of gaming, food, drinks, maybe spend the night at the hotel—they have everything they need crammed within a 1000 foot radius. It has induced little to no tenant activity in the old commercial corridor of the city’s downtown. What’s to say this arena will be any different? Clearly the more traditional buildings do not automatically thrive when a hot attraction enters the downtown landscape—neither the Casino Aztar, nor a children’s museum or convention center had much of an impact in Evansville. Even though Casino Aztar has the ability to draw patrons from well outside the Evansville metro, it has done little to improve the heart of downtown.

So what works? What will help bring businesses back to the old commercial buildings along Main Street? More often than not, those same aging structures will find tenants organically, regardless of public intervention. The solution and the problem are one and the same. Let’s look at one of the historic other blocks along Main Street which, to this day (at least to my knowledge) remains intact:
This stretch of Main Street between 5th and 6th doesn’t show a lot of retail life, if this Google Street View screenshot is any indication. I have often heard quoted about old urban architecture that “it has good bones.” Clearly these bones on Evansville’s Main Street could use some meat, but that’s the essence of the concern here—the existing physical form is solid. When it comes to the adaptive re-use of old architecture, it’s not a matter of form following function; out of necessity, function follows form. This is a static, immobile object awaiting an individual who can find a purpose for its dimension and configuration, which fell out of favor long ago but still holds promise for a reawakening.

But instead seeking a means to breathe new life those buildings in the first Main Street photo (outlined in orange), the City tears them down. From the perspective of bolstering tax revenue through leisure and tourism expenditures, this makes sense: the economic activity generated by an arena no doubt far surpasses that row of old buildings, most of which were vacant. But an arena could have generated revenue in a number of other locations that wouldn’t have required demolition of existing structures. Does the smallness of those existing buildings on Main Street make them seem expendable? Would there be more of a protest if they were six or seven stories, thus having a higher floor-area-ratio and the potential for a greater return on the investment?

The fact remains that “microbuildings” such as those have a far more versatile array of potential uses, even if they're blighted or vacant now. Historic preservationists have long known this, but their arguments have not always convinced the greater public, especially when the structures lack any empirically obvious architectural merit. A truly compelling case for preservation requires a worm’s-eye analysis of the structures and their relation to the streetscape—an intensive level of scrutiny I most recently applied to a struggling strip mall on the southside of Indianapolis.

Fundamentally, these sort of humble structures are most amenable to pioneering urban retail. On a row of seemingly puny 1- to 3-story buildings on Evansville’s Main Street, the rents are cheap, gross leasable area is small, and tenants will often have heavy bargaining rights if a landlord thinks he/she can secure a lease. Thus, the low cost allows those equity-starved entrepreneurs the opportunity to experiment, offering exactly the sort of distinctive, non-chain specialty goods or services that city leaders are looking for when promoting their downtown as "revitalized". Think of where those hip coffeehouses go, the eclectic new restaurant, the vintage/antique shops, or a quirky used record store. These small buildings may have heavy turnaround, with businesses coming and going every 6-9 months at first, but they are still the stuff that a good retail corridor is made of. Through an accretion-based change in occupancy—moving from 20% to 30% to 50% to 75% occupancy over the course of several years—a commercial corridor such as Main Street can improve the image of downtown far more than arena will. And while big-ticket attraction can bring attention to the smaller urban architecture in the vicinity, the microbuildings hardly depend on mega-destinations for their prosperity: after all, as I indicated in Part II of this post, Beale Street in Memphis re-awakened long before the construction of the giant stadia nearby. It doesn’t always depend on the arena as an impetus.

But investors don’t open their wallets as willingly to a long-term, incremental benefit. Arenas equal results, and a much higher wow factor: just look those sleek renderings! (From Evansville arena project website )

And the interior suites! (From the Populous website)

It’s a shame this blog post is built on a retrospective development decision: on “what could have been” rather than “what could be”. But, of course, this still offers an opportunity to learn from mistakes, so that these ideally will not occur again in the future, and Evansville can be the best city possible with the resources it still has. The City needs to be patient with the surviving commercial buildings or nudge them forward by treating it more like an isolated business incubator program—it does not need to tear any more of them down.

Conclusion: A New Rationale for Site Selection

By no means is the City of Evansville’s decision to build a downtown arena a mistake. But all of the arena’s spin-off development (parking garages, tailgating lots) is hostile to pedestrians. Across the country, when making decisions for the location of mega-destinations, leadership should spend less energy on site selection in terms of how it relates to the buildings around it, and more should be spent on the architectural value and long-term utility of the structures that might otherwise be sacrificed.

Populous Architects (designers of the arena) and the City’s leaders did some of the right research in making an arena that at least will have basic streetfront appeal.

How wise of them to include windows along Main Street, considering the alternatives. Many arenas built in the 1980s were solid, blank concrete walls on all four sides—sterile and uninviting to pedestrians. But how much interest does an arena have when a game or event is not in session? During the 70-80% of the time that nothing will be going on in that arena, people aren't going to peer in those windows the same way they would with a retail storefront. If anything, sports arenas have one distinctive value in smaller cities that have long suffered from moribund downtowns: they are a guaranteed draw for their events, and they might get people walking around the downtown area (for the first time in years for some Evansvillians) precisely to discover those other long forgotten two-story buildings that are worth taking a risk for some small business. But in this case, the City already destroyed eight of the structures that that could spur a truly sustainable downtown revitalization. Those buildings have stood over a century; how long will the arena last?

The arena will draw crowds on event days regardless of where it's least until it becomes dated or old-fashioned in 20 years. Main Street Evansville will wake up on its own terms, and it will happen through the accretion induced by small buildings such as those in the photo. To conclude, I will make a series of highly unrealistic “ideal world” recommended alternatives for what the City should have done, in order of desirability. At the very least, even if none of these recommendations are feasible in this case, they can serve as the heuristics for any future site selection decisions. Let’s use another graphic—the master plan featured on the website to help make these recommendations more vivid:

1) Reconfigure the site of the arena to the D-Patrick Ford site (circled in blue)
. This should have been the premier location, and for many months, it was. The D-Patrick Ford car dealership was the original top choice, recommended by Populous and preferred by the City, largely because it was only a block away from downtown. If the dealership seemed good to the decision makers from an activity standpoint, I can almost guarantee it was also better from a building expendability standpoint. It would have been cheap to demolish. But the owners of the Ford dealership were unwilling to sell at $4.1 million and are committed to downtown. Too bad. Car dealerships have generally shown a strong locational elasticity of demand—not too different from arenas, actually. It’s rare that a dealership has had to close simply because it wasn’t in the right neighborhood. Prior to Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans had a Saab dealership on Tulane Avenue, one of the most economically downtrodden corridors in the city. People still bought cars there, even if the ‘hood was bad. The one thing dealerships depend on is large quantities of developable land, and if it’s cheap, that’s even better, which explains their ability to survive in otherwise unlucrative parts of town. It’s more a testament to the depressed economy of downtown Evansville and the cheapness of its real estate that a car dealership would choose to remain there. Should the city center ever become a vibrant place again, I have no doubt D-Patrick would be happy to sell. The owners are probably hoping the arena will improve downtown’s image, giving them the opportunity ask for a far higher price than $4.1 million in several years. But it’s too late now. The deal is settled, and less than two blocks away from the arena, the city’s visitors get this site:

2) Purchase those aging commercial buildings on Main Street, save them, and ride out the economic downturn until a private buyer comes along. Sacrifice the Executive Inn at the back of the arena site instead. Since the City has already put the kibosh on Plan 1, we move to this option—also an impossibility by now. Again, what a shame. But I remain confident that it is a matter of only a few years (maybe only months) before those structures would have aroused enough curiosity from entrepreneurs who would give them a try. Given their current low level of desirability, the eminent domain costs could have been relatively cheap. It would have comprised a sort of “land banking” in an urban setting that I observed in an earlier post. The rendering below, complete with my chicken scratches, illustrates what should have happened:

Basically just shift the structure. Instead of demolishing the main street frontage (what would have been where the blue outline stood), the leaders should have sacrificed the tired, low-end Executive Inn (outlined in green and pictured below).

The fact that most of the inn will be spared the wrecking ball, to be transformed to a new major-chain hotel, undoubtedly constitutes a portion of a larger deal which the City has not broadly disclosed to the public. But of all the structures listed above, which is most worthy of saving? A squat car dealership, a struggling mid-century hotel, or what we see below—

--the historic buildings on the city’s original commercial street. Even saving just the façades for later use (perhaps as a hotel) would have been preferable. Clearly I’m biased, but the latter buildings offer the best opportunity for the lively pedestrian atmosphere that virtually every city, large and small, would kill to have. Too late—those buildings are gone. For the City’s sake, I hope the deal with a major hotel chain works out; they’ve lost a lot of other buildings and pinned a lot of hopes on such a deal materializing.

3) Renovate the Roberts Stadium. The original stadium in Evansville was built in 1956 in an area about 3 miles east of downtown.

(From the Roberts Stadium website)
It’s quite a testament to the city’s resiliency that the stadium has endured this long; many contemporary stadia survive little more than 20 years. (Indianapolis’ Hoosier/RCA Dome and Market Square Arena offer proof of their brief life spans.) Roberts’ last extensive renovation was in 1990; it is no doubt due for another if it wants to remain a viable sporting and entertainment venue. What makes the new Evansville Arena decision a bit more baffling is the fact that it will actually be smaller than Roberts: only 11,000 seats, compared to Roberts’ 12,700. No doubt the new arena will hold more amenities, such as the much-coveted executive suites. But it’s a lot for a City to ask its taxpayers to fund a new stadium that will actually have a reduced capacity. And no word is out yet as to what will happen to Roberts Stadium once the new arena is complete. Renovation is a political near-impossibility amidst a culture that seeks shiny new attractions in a revitalized downtown; Roberts’ decommissioning is inevitable. Let’s hope the civic leaders come up with something better than the sorry fate of Indianapolis’ shuttered Bush Stadium, which the Parks Department now leases for a junkyard.

4) Find a site elsewhere in metro Evansville that will be less destructive to historic architecture. This could involve one of the other five or six sites originally under consideration; it could be just about anywhere. A depressed older neighborhood with high amounts of vacant land could use the infusion of construction jobs. A brownfield site could elicit federal grants for remediation. The Ohio riverfront might benefit from another attraction. Put it out the suburbs to guarantee the population won’t be turned off by narrow streets or the scarcity of easy parking. Anything. Just don’t let the allure of something new and shiny cloud the ability to perceive a future for something old and irreplaceable.

I hope the Evansville arena succeeds and helps foment the long-term prosperity of this picturesque, often overlooked river city. But I remain confident that there will be at least a brief moment where the leaders will kick themselves for having sacrificed part of the historic foundation that helped launch the city’s riparian commerce. Although older than Indianapolis, Evansville has remained a slow-and-steady growth region for decades, which to a certain degree has helped stall a lot of the hasty development, demolition, and re-development proposals that have annihilated much of Indianapolis’ historic downtown. My suspicion is a city such as Evansville, which isn't trying to attract or retain the big-ticket sports teams, will get to see its arena last quite a bit longer than a city like Indy. But, as fellow blogger Dig-B said, “All the more reason to make this one perfect!”

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Rethinking the Behemoth; Preserving the Banal, Part II: Why downtowns cannot feast on behemoths alone.

In the Part I of this post, I looked at a troubling example of the intersection of economic development, site selection, and historic preservation. The Mayor and City Council of Evansville, Indiana, have decided to demolish a block of century-old commercial buildings to make way from a new sports arena, after negotiations for the previous site, a car dealership, fell through. The Mayor announced that the site where the historic buildings stand (or stood) is ultimately better because the arena will now front Evansville’s Main Street, allowing the activity generated from major sporting events to spill onto the neighboring blocks, thereby helping to revive the long-slumping retail activity on this commercial corridor.

He could be right; I hope he is. But the car dealership site was only a block further from Main Street, and in choosing this location the City is sacrificing some of its oldest surviving structures. Regardless of whether this block of faded two and three-story buildings was architecturally significant, they had the patina that gives a downtown its perceived “character” and could have proven pivotal for a sustainable revitalization of the downtown’s commercial core. Now they are gone. While the arena may nonetheless help bring pedestrian traffic to a part of downtown that has sorely lacked it, the City’s favoritism toward a historic Main Street site instead of a car dealership seems based on two specious assumptions which I previously mentioned: 1) that big-ticket destinations revitalize downtowns because the foot traffic they induce will “spread” to the struggling surrounding area; and 2) that small historic commercial buildings lack merit without some larger attraction upon which they depend, almost parasitically.

Now let’s dissect the first of these two assumptions a bit more.

The Indianapolis blogger, Dig-B raised terrific initial observations when the new site for the arena was announced on the Skyscraper City forum. What’s the biggest problem with an arena as a catalyst for downtown revitalization? As Dig-B recognizes, its usage is sporadic at best. Though it is likely to pack in the crowds for Evansville Purple Aces basketball or the Evansville IceMen hockey, it will remain unused most other days, with the exception of the occasional music concert. If the arena is bustling with activity for 120 days each year—and that’s an ambitious number—that still leaves two-thirds of the year where it will have no activity whatsoever. All too often, downtown revitalization strategies seem (often unconsciously) to import the suburban mall typology where the existing old vacant commercial buildings are perceived as the homes for the small in-line tenants, and what is missing is the giant anchor or department store. If that paradigm were valid, then how would an arena equate to a department store, when a Macy’s or Nordstrom has just as long (if not longer) hours in a mall as the in-line tenants? Many of the arena’s biggest attractions occur at nights and on weekends, whereas these small commercial buildings often attract small businesses that operate during a standard M-F 9-5.

Memphis offers a good example of where a giant sports venue has failed to engage the neighborhood that surrounds it—actually two venues.

Beale Street—at least four blocks of it—remains mostly intact as a testament to the city's blues heritage. (I say "mostly" because it is dotted with none-too-subtle infill and facadectomies, including some where just the facade is standing through careful bracework, while the rest of the building opens to a courtyard or parking lot, as the photo above reveals. I blogged about this peculiar approach to façade preservation in the past.) The map below outlines the heart of Beale Street in red; it is one of the few consistently successful pedestrianized commercial corridors in the country, even if only for three blocks. However, the area that surrounds it demonstrates the potential damage incurred on an urban landscape when a City introduces mega-destinations.
The aerial above makes it clear: all around this nerve center of classic rock ‘n roll are bulky structures—not a home or apartment building to be seen. Within a few blocks on either side sit FedEx Forum and AutoZone Park, circled in purple. No doubt it appeared a wise decision in terms of helping Beale Street to surge with activity after major events, and the street clearly offers a great number of options for a beer and live music after the game. But did the sports venues really need to be located so close to the commercial district?

Beale Street was extraordinarily depressed in the 1970s, despite being declared a National Historic Landmark. Only in the 1980s did entrepreneurial interest take hold and reinvigorate the corridor. Yet the two sports venues listed above were completed in the early 2000s, long after Beale Street had re-established its foothold. My suspicion is that tourists will continue to patronize Beale Street because it boasts a legendary history, and at least some Memphis Grizzlies fans would have trudged over to Beale Street—those who aren’t turned off by the fact that it’s extremely touristy—even if the Grizzlies arena were quite some distance away, because it remains a hub of activity. I’m not sure if the City of Memphis killed a viable neighborhood to the north and south of Beale Street to make room for these stadia, or if the residential community that helped Beale Street to thrive in its blues heyday was eliminated long ago through urban renewal. Regardless, the areas on either side of Beale are pedestrian dead zones today, offering vistas like this one at Fernando Street, looking southward toward Gayoso.

This is what most of the “neighborhood” that birthed Beale Street Blues looks like, sacrificed to make way for enormous structures such as AutoZone Park, FedEx Forum, and the parking garages to serve these two sports pavilions. Could something more compatible have occupied this land, like (wild idea I know) housing? Meanwhile, AutoZone Park also sits just blocks away from the historic Main Street of downtown Memphis (also pedestrianized like Beale Street and Evansville used to be). Main Street Memphis is filled with beautiful commercial buildings that are struggling to find tenants, if this 2007 photo is any evidence.
Beale Street, just south of downtown, feels more like a linear theme park foisted into a no-man's-land—a classic neighborhood corridor in search of its neighborhood.

Compare this to Bourbon Street in New Orleans, perhaps even tawdrier than Beale Street but generally one of the most vibrant Main Streets in America for its surging nightlife—and it’s still open to cars! (At least during the day.)

Granted, it’s much longer than Beale Street, or at least that part of Beale Street that hasn't been ripped apart for urban redevelopment. No major redevelopment has taken place along Bourbon because it serves as the historic commercial artery of the French Quarter, and the neighborhood around it is almost completely intact. See how the street fits in as the spine of the tightly ordered grid that comprises the French Quarter.

And here are some obliquely angled vistas of the streets surrounding Bourbon, elsewhere in the French Quarter neighborhood. One at Burgundy and Bienville Streets shows a number of tightly grouped residences and commercial buildings within the frame of the picture.

Another at Dauphine and Governor Nichols Streets shows some of the classic double shotguns that comprise a preponderance of the housing in this portion of the Vieux Carre.
I could muse endlessly about notions of authenticity and how Bourbon feels a bit more "real" (however commercialized and utterly touristy) because it's still part of a neighborhood, but that is just my own personal taste. The truth is, people go to Bourbon Street regardless of the distance from major event; they'll walk the 4 blocks from the convention center or the 12 blocks from the Superdome. You can see the distance between the two in the photo below, where the Superdome is circled in purple to the lower left.

To the west of the Superdome, just outside of the aerial photo’s left edge, are more big blocky buildings and parking lots—another no man’s land. So is this stadium stimulating economic development? The fact that these “forgotten corners” of downtown Memphis and New Orleans sit so close to the arenas suggests that their impact may be minimal. The crowds that surge around the Louisiana Superdome during major events aren’t enough to spur demand for the real estate that surrounds it. Nothing is pedestrian-oriented nearby; there’s no housing, but no one cares. The crowds cluster for tailgating before the game, then they finish the night off at bars or restaurants in another part of town. (Meanwhile, the Big Easy’s minor league ballpark, Zephyr Field, sits way out in Metairie, the heart of suburbia, in a completely unwalkable area.) Perhaps a century ago, the land around the Superdome comprised a viable neighborhood. But prior to the dome’s construction, the area was little more than a cluster of warehouses, already largely bereft of its traditional mix of commercial and residential architecture, after the mass demolition that was required for the construction of the adjacent interstate highway. No historic artifacts were harmed in the making of this stadium.

I don’t mean to denigrate stadia through this post. Both professional and amateur sports have the capacity to foster collective support of a community like few other major events. But I question whether the decision makers behind site selection for sports venues need to be so choosy. An art gallery or coffee shop often depends tremendously on the viability of its location; a stadium does not. (Just look at the less-than-convenient homes of the Green Bay Packers or New England Patriots, far from the population center of their fan base.) The new Evansville arena will attract its crowds, even if they plopped it across the Ohio River in Kentucky. One can only hope the city’s leadership doesn’t have such a cavalier attitude toward the rest of Main Street—however few blocks remain.

I will conclude this lengthy post with a final look at those demolished buildings on Evansville’s Main Street. What makes them so much more critical to downtown revitalization than an arena, even if they lack any true architectural merit? City leaders were right in thinking that the goal should be to attract pedestrians to the downtown, but perhaps they need to apply the worm’s-eye-view to what’s already on that urban stage, rather than investing everything into how it might play out with a new unfinished script.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Rethinking the Behemoth; Preserving the Banal, Part I: Understanding the reasoning behind locating new sports venues.

While I have made risky assertions in the past (and justifiably been raked through the coals for a few of them), this particular post may take the cake. I hoped to solicit family members to take the photos I needed of a cluster of buildings in the city of Evansville, Indiana, but at this point it appears too late. To my knowledge, those buildings have been demolished. Thus, I must rely on press releases and the imagery provided by Google Streetview to develop this assertion. I haven’t been to Evansville for at least fifteen years, so I welcome any chances to disprove the argument I make in the paragraphs below, particularly if my understanding of the space of which I am writing is completely flawed. The spirit of my argument should shine through.

[All arena images courtesy of the architectural firm, Populous, and available at through the Evansville Courier-Press.]

The City of Evansville has long discussed proposals for a new multi-use arena to replace the faded Roberts Stadium on the near east side of town, originally constructed in 1956. In December of 2008, after deliberating quite some time on whether to renovate Roberts or build a new arena downtown, the Council approved a proposal to begin plans for the latter of the two options. Civic leaders immediately began determining the ideal site for a new sports venue and announced a decision that it would rest in the blocks between Main Street and Walnut Street, where they intersect 7th Street/Martin Luther King Blvd directly across from the Civic Center, as indicated by the red box in the map below.

This downtown arena decision merits a quick overview on the development history of Evansville’s center. Like every other city in America, downtown Evansville lost its primacy in the post-war suburbanization period, suffering an exodus of businesses and prominent retail. The city’s most high-profile efforts at revitalization stem from the development of the prominent Casino Aztar on the Ohio River in 1995, the first riverboat casino in the state of Indiana, and the only significant one in the tri-state region (Indiana-Illinois-Kentucky). Its success along the Riverfront Pavilion spawned an Aztar Hotel, an additional boutique hotel, dining, and space for live concerts or major events. Other high-profile downtown features include The Centre, which is a convention center and auditorium, and the recent Children’s Museum of Evansville, inside the historic Central Library. These destinations have helped breathe life into the city’s center, but it has yet to invigorate the historic commercial Main Street, or attract any other trickle-down privately led development. As in many other cities of its size, Evansville’s leadership decided in the past to transform the artery into a pedestrian zone, installing narrow rights-of-way, benches, lighting, restricted automobile access, and slight curves to the road between each block, a la Nicollet Mall in Minneapolis. It failed to invigorate Main Street and in fact most likely reduced economic activity there. The City reintroduced cars after a few years, while the streetscape amenities have generally remained intact.

Mayor Jonathan Weinzapfel and the Council have indicated their full intention inserting a new destination into downtown through this arena, ideally surpassing the aforementioned Roberts Field in its ability to attract large crowds. Clearly the goal is revitalization of the Main Street, so it behooves the leadership to find a site where the large crowds generated from events at the arena can spill out onto the adjacent streetscape. In that capacity, the location for the new Evansville Arena appears to be a wise decision.

But in downtowns, when something new goes up, in most cases something else must come down, even if it’s just a parking lot. Here’s what the City has decided to demolish to make way for the arena, also available for scrolling around through Google Streetview:

The two- and three-story buildings to the left of the street will face the wrecking ball. In fact, in all likelihood it’s too late, and they already no longer exist. A local company, Architectural Renovators, responded to a bid to extract the most historically significant features from the façades, but the structures themselves are gone.

Lest I seem like a fuddy-duddy who gets sentimental about each and every old building, I will concede a few things. The length of Evansville’s Main Street offers plenty of other historic commercial structures, many of which are in better shape than these; only two of the eight storefronts on this demolished block were occupied; the principal strategy in selecting this site for the arena was to help generate pedestrian traffic that could enliven the blocks of Main Street between the Civic Center and the Riverfront, ideally creating a vibrant commercial corridor between two nodes of activity. City leaders clearly applied some thought to their decision, but did they think it all the way through? This site on Main and Martin Luther King was not even among the original three contenders; the top previous choice was just a few blocks away (indicated by the blue box in the Evansville downtown map above), at the lot of D-Patrick Ford Dealership. Here is a Google vista of the original preferred site:

D-Patrick Ford was nixed because the City and D-Patrick couldn’t agree on a price; however, over time, the car dealership’s desirability waned because the site was not immediately adjacent to Main Street. In addition, the owners of the neighboring Executive Inn agreed to participate in the arena proposal that fronts Main Street, so that a major brand such as Marriott or Hilton could demolish part of the aging hotel and improved the other section, resulting in a comprehensive development that would have this configuration:
If one attempts to aggregate the values of all assets in the Winning Site (the red box on the map) versus the Losing Site (the blue box), the City's decision makes sense. The Winning Site, consisting of a series of blighted and largely vacant old commercial buildings, probably costs far less in compensating the landowner than an active auto dealership. But that doesn’t necessarily mean those old buildings are more expendable.

The decision to sacrifice these old buildings for the sake of a new arena in Evansville seems predicated on two false assumptions: 1) that big-ticket destinations revitalize downtowns because the foot traffic they induce will “spread” to the struggling surrounding area; and 2) that small historic commercial buildings cannot find their niche without some larger attraction upon which they depend, almost parasitically. From these assumptions, we witness eight small buildings and part of a hotel demolished for the sake of a new arena, which ideally will stimulate life in the remaining blocks of the Main Street upon which the arena will sit. Those now-extinct buildings most likely sat there for a century. Will the arena that is about to replace them have the same life span?

In the second half of this post, I will delve further into these two assumptions, exploring how they might play out in Evansville from a worm’s-eye view, as well as comparing this approach to sports venue locations in other cities.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Extreme makeover—small business edition.

If it’s built to last, the conventional middle class American home may be a far more versatile structure than we credit it. As homes age, if their interior layout falls out of fashion, or the neighborhood around them declines economically, all too often they eventually face neglect, abandonment, and, eventually, the bulldozer. What a shame, since much of the time they can adapt to completely different uses far more easily than, say, a strip mall. I’ve written about a home on the Near Southside of Indianapolis that basically became engulfed by a storefront, so that retail fronts the street level, while a steeped roof pokes out from above the rear of the new structure. It’s strangely unobtrusive, since the clear focal point is now the protuberant retail that faces the sidewalk and street.

But it’s not alone. Other respondents to that particular blog post recognized similar oddities elsewhere in the city, where the owner essentially built around an old residence with a storefront that conceals much of the original home. And since then I have found additional examples in the outlying areas of the city’s southern suburban reaches. One of the home/storefront hybrids adopts an almost identical character to the one featured in the past, so you don’t have to dig back to my old blog link; just take a look at the photo below and you’ll get the idea. Here’s the façade of what was until recently a barber shop on Madison Avenue:
Notice the gable poking out in the back? Here are some side views.
It turns out Chad’s Barber Shop just moved a door down, to a different storefront that is blocking what used to be the main entrance to this house.

And a rear view reveals that this strip mall most likely comprises two separate private residences that have, to a certain extent, merged their identities under the shared storefront space.

There’s little more to analyze about this quirky structure that I didn’t mention back in November. But another residential-to-commercial conversion proves particularly savvy at employing design to improve the streetscape. Southport, Indiana is an enclave, completely surrounded by Indianapolis but claiming its own mayor, police force, and municipal ordinances. Parts of it retain the character of a separate old municipality, with a handful of commercial buildings clustered around an old rail stop.

Trust me: for those who like small-town streetscapes, this is really fairly attractive most of the time, and would certainly look better if the business owners shoveled the sidewalks. But look closely at the structure to the far left—here’s another picture:

Again, a steeped roof and gable poke out from the cement/brick storefront to the Southport Antique Mall. Now, observe as I have walked past the front of the store to the other side and haven taken a picture of the structure from that angle:

The house is plainly visible from this side. If I recall correctly, the owners of this sprawling antique mall have converted the entire first floor of the home and merged it with the store. The stairway up to the second floor suggests a quick access to the residential portion. If I veer to the right slightly from the previous photo, you can see how this large establishment has adapted to a narrow but deep parcel:

It’s an effective example of the classic home-upstairs-store-below combination, and it extends the streetscape to this brief main-street element of Southport Road. Walking directly in front of the Southport Antique Mall’s main window offers the best perspective:

My hat is off to owners of the Southport Antique Mall for their serendipity. I can only imagine that part of the mall’s continued success has something to do with their shrewd adaptation to the main street culture, and antique malls themselves have become a quintessential tenant of old commercial corridors. Even better: they took the time to shovel their portion of the sidewalk!

The other example of a residential-to-commercial conversion is so ubiquitous that almost everyone will recognize the re-use depicted in these photos, even if we hardly bother to notice it. Further south of Southport, on the busy six-lane highway US 31, sit a number of houses that have adapted to the heavy traffic that they must face:

These homes look perfectly normal, but nobody lives in them any more.

This one has a sign out front that says it’s the law office of Aline Anderson. Here are a few others down the street:
A dentist’s office, accounting, insurance, realtors—that type of thing. Directly across the street sits a generally booming conventional suburban strip mall.

What happened here? Judging from the appearance, most of the homes date from the 1960s, when this area comprised the farthest exurbs of Indianapolis. US 31 was still no doubt a busy highway, but it was only partially developed with limited commercial presence. As population settlement thickened in this area, particularly in Greenwood to the south of where these photos are taken, this major arterial became increasingly desirable for commercial development, further reinforced by the fact that the area featured is now zoned C1. At about the same time, people’s tastes began shifting away from having private residences front major streets. Notice how subdivisions built today nearly always turn inward from the arterial and collector; a neighborhood built after 1990 will typically only have back yards facing the busy street. Thus, the homeowners along the highway found it increasingly hard to sell their properties as conventional single family homes.

Thankfully, one person’s trash is another person’s treasure. For all the reasons that these homes made undesirable private residences, they made excellent potential offices for small business owners—busy commuter traffic, high visibility, most likely far cheaper to buy than space in an office complex. A lawyer could start a private practice by purchasing one and converting it. The public approval process would be painless, since the parcels are zoned in favor of offices. And unlike the more pedestrian-scaled Southport Antique Mall, these homes require very little new construction to make them suitable for law/accounting/insurance/dentistry.

Pave over the front yard, build a ramp for wheelchair access, and bingo! Maybe they punched out a few walls in the interior, but it required little to no extension to make the home suitable for commercial use. After all, these are offices in the automobile age, not storefront retail—who needs big prominent windows? Judging from the pile-up of snow, the new owner may not even use the garage for vehicles.

Instead, it could very well be an extension of the offices. Residential garages make great rooms to house the server or IT staff, since it’s a universally acknowledged truth that IT workers have little need for windows or sunlight.

A few of the houses down the road remain occupied by families, but they’re dropping like flies. Twenty years ago nearly all of them were private residences, and in a few more years, none of them will be. We could bemoan the fact that, as these structures become part of a larger commercial corridor, few of the alterations help improve the pedestrian environment, but this is not likely ever to be a desirable area for pedestrians, and at least these sturdy houses are enjoying second lives. The subtle adaptive reuse of the Southport Antique Mall may win the award for creativity in “going green” as it claims on its side wall, but all of these examples are more environmentally suitable initiatives than tearing down a perfectly good home, office, or barber shop.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Lifestyle main streets.

In this widely suburbanizing nation, it is enough that our historic urban centers must continually seek assert their viability through new methods of socioeconomic or political re-branding in order not to implode. But what about the small towns, far removed from metro areas? In many cases they imploded long ago, devoid of a raison d'être, yet still inhabited. In some cases, they may even have a higher per capita crime rate than large cities. What are their selling points? Some are a hair’s breadth away from becoming ghost towns—a term we often unconsciously relegate to the Old West, even though there’s nothing embedded within our hyper-mobile living patterns that preclude it from happening today. Other towns come to terms with their diminished employment base but survive as bedroom communities, hosting a population that tolerates long commutes because the town itself offers intrinsic qualities: low cost of living, an appealing atmosphere, family tradition, opportunity to have a strong political voice.

Other towns survive by incorporating a larger institution or corporation within their economic purview—sometimes literally, through municipal annexation. Edinburgh, Indiana, a town of 4,500 about 35 miles southeast of Indianapolis, straddles three counties. Two of these counties (Johnson and Shelby) fall clearly in the Indianapolis metro area, while the third (Bartholomew) falls in the Columbus, IN metro. However, Edinburgh is far enough from either parent city that it only marginally falls into their spheres of influence. Judging from sign on the front of one of the buildings—

--the town was a discernible outer satellite from the days when Indianapolis was “the interurban capital of the world”. But 35 miles even today remains quite a distance from the edges of Indianapolis’ decentralizing urban growth patterns. While it is likely that some Edinburgh residents commute to either Indy or Columbus for work, the town hardly assumes the character of a suburb—vast stretches of gently rolling cornfields surround it in all directions.

But Edinburgh has a few aces up its sleeve. Perhaps the one of broadest national significance is Camp Atterbury, stretched out across 30,000 acres west of the city. Originally an Army infantry training center when constructed shortly after the US entry to World War II, it has housed the Indiana National Guard since the mid 1950s. Obviously this vast institution isn’t on the tax rolls: it is a public entity and divorced from Edinburgh’s city limits. But even the crudest application of the multiplier effect should demonstrate the economic windfall it generates for the town next door, both through ancillary jobs on the base, the Atterbury Job Corps training center, as well as patronage of the local establishments by men and women in the Guard.

In addition to Camp Atterbury, Edinburgh can also claim the Edinburgh Premium Outlets, sitting at the juncture of Interstate 65 and US Highway 31. Unlike other outlet malls in Indiana—specifically the dying one in Seymour, about 30 miles south of Edinburgh—Edinburgh outlets are booming, having expanded in recent years to 85 stores, including major names such as Banana Republic, Calvin Klein, and Bose—a solidly upper-middle demographic attraction. (It no doubt helps that Edinburgh Outlets’ owner, Chelsea Property Group, was bough by Indianapolis’ own retail management giant Simon Property Group in 2004.) Though the outlet mall is situated about two miles south of the heart of Edinburgh, the Town undoubtedly voraciously annexed the land around it in order to tax it, giving this community an abnormally large tax base for its humble size. How has it used this extra property tax revenue? A closer observation of the main street offers a clue.

The requisite streetscape improvements spread across its 2.5 block commercial corridor. This tried-and-true approach to main street revitalization stretches across old commercial districts in all corners of our country. Typically, civic leaders’ first goal, when endowed with cash reserves dedicated to economic development, is to find a way to “spruce up” the downtown. It’s understandable, really: even as communities both large and small abandoned their pedestrian-scaled commercial centers to make room for automobile-based convenience on the periphery, the main street or downtown remains the implicit front yard. It usually hosts some of the oldest architecture in the community, and a well-kept patina frequently contributes a certain aesthetic character that people in recent years have often found charmingly vintage. But we want the whole part and parcel to remind us of 1920s Americana—not just the buildings. This is easier said than done.

The need for a consistent image inadvertently creates a disharmony for most streetscape improvement initiatives. If a century-old building looks weathered but well-maintained, that’s a good thing. Most late 19th century commercial buildings were built to last at least that long. But century-old sidewalks, streets, signs, lights, benches, and so forth need far more than maintenance after one hundred years. Since these generally rank low in the public consciousness, it’s hard for these fundamentals of the urban landscape to arouse enough excitement or demand ever to appreciate in value. They lack the centrality of an edifice or prominent landmark. And because most if not all streetscape falls under the care of a Department of Public Works, it suffers further from a diffuse stewardship: it belongs to the public, so it only endures to the extent that the public cares about it. In general, most people just don’t care enough—streetscape features are often the first to suffer graffiti or other vandalism, and the last to get it treated/addressed. Street trees in heavily paved downtown settings seldom live to maturity. We only think about a bad streetscape when it directly impinges on our ability to consume the ambiance, usually if its so far degraded that sidewalks are crumbling, vandalized beyond recognition, or lights have been smashed out. And at that point, can it be preserved? Not if the manufacture of that bench/lantern/streetpost went out of business 20 years ago. They must be replaced.

The result much of the time is what you see in Edinburgh: aging buildings and squeaky clean new infrastructure.

I like what the city has done in general. The planters and seasonal decorations on the streetlights add a distinction, like a baroque ornamentation in an otherwise perfunctory musical passage. It’s enduringly small-town wholesome—very suitable for a Midwestern community of this size.

The prominently bricked “E” in two of the intersections adds a bold touch that may linger in the memory.

Most of the intersections also have “bulb-outs” for pedestrians, a form of traffic calming that shortens the trip which they have to cross the street by extending the sidewalk and curb, tapering the street as seen in the bricked crosswalk below.

Edinburgh’s improvements appear carefully thought out, and its clear the town shelled out a great deal of money for this, most likely only within the past few years. I hope it works out for the people in this community, because, at this point, it hasn’t fully coalesced into a bona fide revitalization. Edinburgh’s main street is hardly moribund, as judged from the full parking spaces around lunch-time on a weekday. But the result may only serve to justify why people in the design field are so skeptical about streetscape improvements. Has a streetscape improvement ever singlehandedly brought a commercial district back to life? Think back, if you can, on all the commercial streets that were transformed to pedestrian zones back in the 1970s and 1980s—nearly all of them were removed after the only deterred people from visiting the area to a greater degree. The goal from these upgrades is to attract people to the sidewalks, but so few cities in the US are pedestrian oriented as a whole that repelling cars resulted in staving off the only method by which most pedestrians would get to these urban commercial districts.

I’m hardly a naysayer to streetscape improvements, and clearly at some point the infrastructure here would have to be replaced. But the return on investment is difficult to measure, especially when the invasive surgery required can deter visitors to the point of starving the remaining businesses of their clientele. I don’t know if Edinburgh was more vibrant ten years ago before all these upgrades. But I can recall one example in Jackson, Mississippi where the general consensus was that the improvements have elicited a negative result, at least over the short term. Farish Street, just outside of downtown Jackson, is the oldest commercial hub for the local African American community, but the City’s aesthetic enhancements to try to draw businesses back to the area only impeded anyone because the re-construction was lengthy and obstructive. By the time the improvements were complete when I first visited around 2004, Farish Street boasted attractive benches, pavers, lights, and trash cans—and virtually no enterprise. I wish I had photos, but this Google Streetview gets the point across pretty well. Take a look around. Hopefully the improvements will attract tenants back someday—I wouldn’t rule it out, because I try never to make blanket assertions about certain interventions being positive or negative. But at this point those public dollars for streetscape improvements in Jackson seem to have been flushed down the drain.

The pictures indicate that Edinburgh is hardly suffering from such extensive blight and vacancy. Its commercial building architecture is incredibly intact and little if any appears abandoned.

But, judging from the various levels of upkeep on the façades, it may be quite some time before the main street character catches up with the infrastructure. None of the façades seem dilapidated, but clearly many still seem to be “hibernating”. And by that point, much of this infrastructure may again need replacement. These last two photos demonstrate why Edinburgh’s Public Works may have been a bit ahead of itself:

Establishments such as these are clearly attuned to the spirit of a revitalized downtown, with leisurely specialty stores and restaurants intended to attract a recreational shopper. Such is the fate of our main streets: their buildings frequently no longer meet our ordinary shopping routines, so their ability to evoke a nostalgic character transforms them to specialty shopping and restaurants, often for a clientele with sufficient disposable income. As such, the minds behind Edinburgh’s streetscape improvement recognized that brick sidewalks are fashionable and attractive. But brick is time consuming to install and quick to decay—with all those extra interstices, a few dislodged bricks can become unsightly or even dangerous to pedestrians. Is it time to find a new paving material that might be cheaper to maintain and install but converses creatively with the architecture that it hugs? I’m confident that vintage turn-of-the-century main streets didn’t consist solely of brick. Many may not have been paved at all, but even workaday concrete with brick accents on the margins is cheaper, safer, and still evokes a higher level of care than a standard sidewalk.

The last concern is the street itself.

Clearly it’s older than the brick sidewalks, but I don’t want to carp on a few cracks—they will be resurfaced in due time. The concern should be obvious the orientation of the on-street parking, at a 45 degree angle flaring in one direction on either side of the street. Edinburgh’s main street is one way. For many urban designers, this is a definite no-no. Being the relativist that I am, I never want to assert that one-way streets in commercial areas are always worse at encouraging visitors than two-way, but this map reveals why it could be problematic here.

The commercial strip, as is often the case, is a block or two offset from the principal arterials and highways that intersect in the city, on E Main Cross Street, within the blue ellipse. The commercial street’s traffic flow moves one way to the east, indicated by the purple arrow. The closest highway with access to I-65 just a mile to the east is State Road 252, but if a motorist takes this exit to visit downtown Edinburgh, he or she will find that the closest access point, a left, southbound turn down S Holland Street (just past the rail road tracks—indicated by the red arrow), actually places cars going counter to the direction of the one-way main street. Instead of taking what may seem the most logical route, drivers will have to drive a few blocks further on State Road 252, turn on S Main Street (the green arrow) and then backtrack. I will concede that this is little more than a minor inconvenience, but sometimes a minor inconvenience is all it takes to repel a traveler who may hope to visit a main street while passing by. Would reversing the direction of a one-way street improve the situation? Possibly, but a far better decision would be to simply allow it to return to two-way traffic flow. The street is undeniably narrow, and two-way traffic will have to crawl, but that’s precisely what the proprietors of these main street businesses would want. Virtually no American communities began with one-way streets—the idea of directional street travel arrived through goals of managing and improving traffic flow. Perhaps this makes sense in some areas if the only other means of mitigating congestion is a street widening, but not in a main street town of less than 5,000 people. The town is undermining what could be its biggest selling point, or, at the very least, its most prominent vista—a fully intact old main street—by restricting vehicle access to one direction.

Edinburgh’s leadership still seems attuned to many of the smartest gestures for promoting economic development that could eventually trickle down to a vibrant main street. For as long as the Edinburgh Premium Outlets remain a powerhouse just south of the old town, its historic town center will never be able to compete in terms of major brands, so it should strive to offer a different retail and consumer experience. Continued improvement to the commercial façades will help, as will active dialogue with the captive employment base at nearby Camp Atterbury. The big letter E in the intersection could offer glimpses of a great logo or brand, perhaps echoing something at the Edinburgh Premium Outlets.

As of yet, the community has not found its "hook". I’m certain that the outlet mall offers a property tax revenue bonanza out of proportion for such a small town, helping to keep rates low for the homeowners while funding adequate if not good schools. These streetscape improvements may give the main street a nudge forward in revitalization if Edinburgh ever falls into the purview as a bona fide bedroom community of Indianapolis. Then again, if that ever occurs and Edinburgh is an indisputable suburb, have no doubt that the storefront façades will be spruced up impeccably by entrepreneurs who have discovered the town—regardless of what the sidewalks, lamps, and street trees look like.