Neighborhood revitalization: “Our city streets should be designed as a platform for wealth creation, not to speed traffic along.”

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I’ve italicized two sections below. The first serves as post header and states broad goals.

The second indirectly points to the disconnect amid New Albany’s faux leadership cadres, in that Jeff Speck’s original outline for street grid reform in New Albany addressed walking and biking infrastructure to help connect nearby neighborhoods to downtown. These were precisely the bits stripped away by the forever car-centric Team Gahan, which did not fathom what Speck was saying and will gaze upon Marohn’s words as tantamount to impenetrable Swahili.

It is unfortunate that elected officials like Greg Phipps sanctioned the gutting of Speck. Maybe Phipps should be reading Strong Towns.

So, You’d Like a Neighborhood Grocery Store…, by Charles Marohn (Strong Towns)

 … So, what would it take to make a grocery store viable in this location? If we wanted that to happen, what would it take? As with all complex systems, the answer to that question prompts an endless succession of questions, but let’s follow a couple because they illustrate how much power we have at the local level.

First, to be viable, a neighborhood grocery would need plenty of patrons. There are thousands of people living within a few blocks of this location, but I suspect that few would get their groceries here. Most would get in their car and, once driving, travel the extra mile to the big box store. So, to convert enough residents of the neighborhood into patrons, we’d need to get more people out of their cars and get them walking.

There’s a push/pull strategy to making this shift. The push is that we need to stop equating local mobility with economic development. In short, while it needs to be easy to get to the next regional center on a road, it doesn’t need to be quick and easy to take city streets to get to the edge of town. Our city streets should be designed as a platform for wealth creation, not to speed traffic along.

This push would also help with the pull strategy of making it easier to walk. Right now, we have a working definition for “walkable” as “able to be walked.” If one can physically walk from one place to another, we tend to consider that walkable, despite the relative safety, comfort or utility of the walk. If we want a grocery here to be viable, we must have a deeper commitment to walkability.

In his book, The Walkable City, architect and planner Jeff Speck explains that great streets have four essential elements. Great streets are useful, safe, comfortable and interesting.

Useful. There must be places to go that are worth going to.
Safe. People need to feel safe visiting the street.
Comfortable. Time spent in the street needs to be pleasant and enjoyable.
Interesting. The street can’t be monotonous but instead needs to have some life to it.

Going to the grocery would make the walk useful, but going to an accountant’s office, a coffee shop, a bakery and then the grocery would make it even more useful. A grocery store in isolation might be a pull, but a grocery has a better change of thriving within an ecosystem of other enterprises. Converting the parking lots to other neighborhood-scaled businesses, and inviting more in throughout the neighborhood, would not only improve the tax base at little cost, it would go a long way towards creating that ecosystem.

Slowing traffic on our streets and shifting our emphasis from traffic flow to wealth creation would not only cost less, it would make walking safer and—in time—even comfortable. Not allowing more surface lots—especially when on street parking is barely used—would also help a lot, eventually making a walk interesting as well. The more people that walk, the more inviting walking will become, a self-reinforcing feedback loop.

If we really want to accelerate things, we need more people living in the neighborhood. Today, the neighborhood experiences stagnation and—along Kingwood—even decline. That makes investment more of the slum-lord version than the “convert a single-family home to a duplex” version. To make the latter a reality, we not only need to update our codes, we need underlying land values—the driver of positive redevelopment—to gradually increase.

What would make the land in this neighborhood gradually increase in value? One obvious answer is to improve the experience of living in the neighborhood and to do it in a way that gives the neighborhood some kind of exclusivity not available to the edge of town. For example, improvements to the neighborhood park add to the quality of life, but expanding parking in the park —converting greenspace to asphalt—shifts the value of those improvements from the neighborhood to the region, diluting that value in the process.

Another example would be to not build a multi-million-dollar parking ramp in the downtown but to instead focus on improving walkability between the neighborhood and the downtown. Game-changing walkability improvements can be done for pennies on the dollar compared to the cost of a ramp. Without an excess supply of parking, and with easy walking access, the land within ten blocks of downtown is going to become dramatically more valuable simply because of its exclusivity.

I could go on here and iterate like this for a long time, but there is one overriding insight that should be obvious by now: The more this neighborhood—and the more this city—evolves to function like it did prior to the Suburban Experiment, the more successful it will be …

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