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.


Unknown said...

You can read the extensive history of Camp Atterbury at the official site, The site for active duty today is

Jim West

Curt said...

The interesting thing about Edinburg is that they ARE a small town with something to offer people. The outlet mall is obviously a draw. People from Indy drive down there often, and as you said, Atterbury is going to bring some economic power with its presence.

What about the TRUE ghost towns? The old factory towns that have all but dried up when automotive moved out. New Castle springs to mind. Connersville also (my hometown). These are the true forgotten small towns of the midwest. High unemployment and in most cases, no hope of attracting substantial business unless its a cold food warehouse or pallet factory.

I cannot even imagine what city planners in communities like that have on their plates.

As always, a good analysis my friend!

AmericanDirt said...

Thanks for the responses. Edinburgh's future is no doubt brighter than some of the towns you mentioned, Curt. But isn't Connersville getting a new Carbon Motors factory? While the announcement of that plant's opening gives the town a boost, I'm sure it's still a pale imitation of what it was in its heyday as the Little Detroit. I'll have to investigate those two towns further at some point.

If you want a true example of a town, much smaller than New Castle or Connersville, which has no other realistic future than to depopulate completely, I recommend you visit Paragon, in southwestern Morgan County. It's already so smaller that it would hardly register for economic development even within its own county (let alone the state) yet you can tell when visiting that it once was a community of nearly 1,000 people. Rarely if ever have I seen a community in Indiana whose fate is so close to being completely sealed.

Donovan said...

The good solution is just by improving the condition of old sidewalks, streets, and many buildings. I think all of the pictures above may make people think that staying at that place will be enjoyable. The condition is quite and clean. Am i right?