Saving Downtown

They don’t do brickwork like this anymore.

I work in an old building just off the square in Lewisburg, TN. I don’t know the exact age of the building, but it’s been here since at least the 1920’s. Before it became offices, it was a furniture store.

In the two years I’ve worked here, I’ve talked to a number of people who remember the town from the 50’s or earlier, and I’ve also talked to the local historian. There used to be a Coca-Cola bottling plant and a pencil manufacturing plant just a couple of blocks from the square. There were also two gas stations in the same area (the nearest gas station is now a mile away). There were two furniture stores, a men’s clothing store, and a department store.

Today, there is still one furniture store, but no clothing stores or department stores. Two buildings are missing completely (I assume destroyed by fire and never replaced). Several are empty. A mattress store is in the process of going out of business.

A mile from downtown, though, there is a long strip full of gas stations, fast food joints, clothing stores, and (of course) a Wal-Mart. Lovely, historic buildings traded for ugly, build-to-suit stores and strip centers. Many local businesses out of business in favor of a few chain retailers. The ability to park and walk traded for the necessity of driving everywhere.

This is hardly a new phenomenon; people have been complaining about it since at least the 1980’s. There’s nothing to be done about it, right? That’s just the march of progress.

Sam’s Club in Franklin with a stone facade.

It doesn’t have to be that way, though. Major retailers actually have some latitude when it comes to their stores. While they prefer to plunk down the standard store as cheaply as they can, they’ll compromise when cities make a stand.

For example, Franklin, TN is an enclave of Old Money outside of Nashville. They want a mall and amenities, but God-forbid their shopping centers look like cheap, middle-class crap.

Which is why the Wal-Mart and Sam’s club are clad in brick and stone. Even McDonald’s looks upscale in brick. And all signs are on the ground, in front of the store; there are no billboards or towering, glowing signs ruining the skyline.

Why? Because Franklin has ordinances, and if you want to do business in Franklin, you will comply.

So imagine this scenario: when someone approaches the city for approval of a Goody’s Clothing Store, the city planner(s) does two things. 1) He looks to see if there’s already a clothing store in town run by a local business. If so, will Goody’s be a direct competitor, or do they sell two different types of clothes? And 2) if it’s not a harm to a local business, then allow it, but only in a preexisting building.

Whoa, hold on there! A retail store or a fast food joint taking up lodging in a historic building in a downtown area? They’d never do that!

KFC in Amsterdam.

Actually, they do it all the time. In big cities, there’s nowhere to go but in a preexisting building.

I lived in Kilkenny, Ireland during the summer of 2001. The downtown is laid out on the original medieval road plan and is a slowly evolving mix of 14th-21st century buildings. Fast food joints, pubs, restaurants, pubs, Euro stores (the equivalent of the Dollar Tree), pubs, offices, pubs, a large chain store–which sells clothes, groceries, and housewares– and pubs have residency in these old buildings. And it works. Almost no storefront is vacant in Kilkenny (at least that was true before the Recession). Above the businesses are offices, B&B’s, and private apartments.

Kilkenny, Ireland. My second home.

There’s no reason why Lewisburg couldn’t look like that (well, except for the medieval buildings). Of course, having established themselves in independent buildings, the chain stores are not going to pick up and move into downtown; it’s too late for that. But for towns and small cities which are on the cusp of developing, I wish they would take a stand when it comes to protecting their downtown.

With everything in a tight-knit cluster (as opposed to strung out for a mile or two), people are encouraged to park their cars in one place and walk around to do their shopping. This is not only better for everyone’s health (I lost two dress sizes when I lived in Ireland), but it encourages shopping. People who have to park and get out of their car multiple times go to fewer stores and buy less than people who park once and walk around–hence why shopping malls are popular with both people and businesses. In fact, you can even think of your downtown area as an open-air shopping mall, because it functions in almost the exact same way.

(And yes, you can still have drive-through fast food places in this scheme. It would not be impossible for several buildings in Lewisburg to have a drive-through window installed on the side of the building or behind it.)

One comment on “Saving Downtown

  1. Great post! I have been thinking about a similar topic as I live in a city that preserves nothing and re-builds everything. There is little sense of history in my city as the downtown core is now all glass high-rises with more under construction. Such a shame. I love the “new” but there is something to be said for seeing the history of a city.

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