By Dom Nozzi
September 26, 2002
A very common misconception about city government is that it can have a lot of control over what sorts of retail occur in various locations. In nearly all cases (in a capitalist economy such as ours), it is the private sector (business owners and property owners) who decide what sorts of businesses go in. City government plays the reactive role of having regulations in place to control how those businesses are built and operate, but really doesn’t have any say as to what businesses locate along a street. Yes, it would be wonderful if we had more interesting shops, cafes, etc. along certain streets. But government has no real ability to pick and choose what sorts of shops emerge on a street.
That being said, let me hasten to add that government DOES have a VERY powerful tool — albeit an indirect one — with regard to what occurs along a street. As I say over and over again in my speeches and books, transportation drives land use. When countless cities widened their main street in their town center, they locked those streets into having a great many low-value, auto-oriented places and a lot of vacancies.
Because big, high-speed roads are hostile for pedestrians and shoppers. Add to that the fact that it is relatively inconvenient to drive and park along town center streets compared to, say, a shopping center parking lot. What happens is completely predictable: EVERYONE shops at the shopping center and no one shops in the town center. Instead, downtown gets vacancies, low property values, pawn shops, gas stations, deadening offices, fringe activities, tattoo parlors, etc.
There is a way to turn this around, nearly overnight: If the town center builds on its strengths, it can successfully compete with the shopping center. Its strengths are a walkable, romantic ambience, sociability, and human scale. The shopping center cannot compete with such attributes, and there is a surprisingly large segment of our communities that is quite willing to patronize such walkable places — even if they are more expensive and less convenient.
The historical push by so many American cities to widen main street, and to build a bunch of town center parking lots, killed town centers because town centers were trying to compete on the auto-oriented terms of the shopping center. The shopping center will ALWAYS win such competitions with the town center on those terms – the terms that are the strength of the shopping center.
No, town center must build on its unique strengths. That is why I am completely convinced that when/if a community engages in a main street road diet (by removing ill-advised travel lanes), government will INDIRECTLY be bringing in those shops and places we desire. A walkable, human-scaled town center main street will inevitably deliver small, interesting, vibrant, sociable shops, cafes, etc. Businesspeople and property owners will suddenly see a healthy market that will encourage them to build such things on their property. As it is on the widened main streets, the high-speed car sewers chase such shops and experiences away. Car sewers create a very poor market for the kinds of businesses we desire.
Cities need to leverage their strength and the strength of their town center by returning their main streets to their former walkable glory.