What Does a Healthy Downtown Look Like?

This post is about defining a town’s success in terms of its small businesses and their ability to start up and then thrive. Specifically, it’s asking: how many local families is this downtown supporting? Is that number growing or declining?

It is also about the visual connection — which is not always an obvious one — between the health of small businesses and your town’s philosophy of economic development/redevelopment. After all, that’s what determines what your downtown looks like. (Partly, I’m repeating here what the great Yogi Berra once said: you can observe a lot just by watching.)

As folks here in the Region know, the city of Valparaiso has “great bones” and charm.

Meaning: the rows of older, sometimes historic buildings along our main street of Lincolnway and around the courthouse give our downtown a solid, organic look. The look of a place that is vibrant, thriving, and yet values its own history.

If a city manages these older assets wisely, it can witness, as we have in Valparaiso, a downtown renaissance in the midst of an economically distressed region.

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I sometimes tell friends, “Valpo: it’s like living on the set of the Music Man.”

Unfortunately, the trend in most places and for many years is to use a type of top-down development which appears to offer greater efficiency (so long as you ignore the long-term) and tries to borrow an “historic” look which masks its real economic assumptions.

Which assumptions are: that we can simply ignore the hopes and needs of the area’s many small businesses in order to build something more finished and corporate (i.e., more profitable for a few). Let me explain.

Here’s a little experiment to demonstrate why Valpo’s charming downtown — our core asset in many ways — is at risk if we continue with our current development philosophy.

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Exhibit A: new multi-use building at corner of Lincolnway and Michigan

Take a look at this building at 204 Lincolnway which replaced the old Thormalen building, built in 1901 and destroyed by a fire in 2013. According to the NWI Times article, the old building contained a diverse mix of tenants, including a tailor shop, a bead shop, two counselors, a barber shop, and an accountant. In other words, a number of local families.

Hmm, you might say today: the new building looks OK to me. Nice clean, modern style, etc. Where’s the prob? (I’m getting there.)

The new structure was also easy to build: one developer, one big master plan for a $2.4 million mix of ground floor businesses, rental apartments on the two floors above, and underground parking.

Now let’s compare this Lincolnway block with a very different-looking section of downtown.

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Exhibit B: Downtown Valpo’s attractive, older brick structures showing fine-grained variety

The stretch of Lincolnway facing the Courthouse square demonstrates how compelling the mix of heritage and entrepreneurship can be.

Moreover, these buildings did not come out of a master plan but rather rose up organically over time. Probably most of them had tenants in their upper floors for many years and thus contributed to the walkability and vibrancy of the downtown before the post-World War II automobile age.

How so? Because in these blocks there’s usually something interesting that generates pedestrian traffic every few dozen feet. That’s the goal here, if you’re a small business owner.

Unlike the one-half city block occupied by 204 Lincolnway, this section’s buildings were built at different times, in different styles, and not “to a finished state.”

That is, our older infrastructure always assumed a gradual, ongoing process of renovation: not that dropped-from-Mars shininess that triggers our sense of “fake”. (A better term is: “coarse-grained”. Typically in this country, older urban areas — sections of Lincoln Park/DePaul in Chicago, for example — are fine-grained.)

There’s another problem with our current development practice. You notice that the three new commercial tenants of 204 Lincolnway share something: they’re all financial services firms. They can more easily afford to locate here than your typical bead shop, tailor or barber — the kinds of mom and pop stores that previously operated at this site.

Do you see what’s happening here?

It’s not a political conspiracy: it’s simply a collection of bad ideas about what’s the “normal” way to develop your town.

What we are learning about this style of development is that it does not spread the wealth or work toward greater economic democracy. It creates fewer capitalists, not more.

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Exhibit C: A coarse-grained development (a single large bloc, rigid façade controls)

This block of Franklin Street (actually a single address) displays the same top-down, inflexible formula that was used for the Lincolnway building above. It might appear to be a row of small businesses of the usual kind (one term for this is “faux granularity”) but it’s really more like a mini-mall with tenants, mostly financial/real estate related.

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Exhibit D: The fine-grained jewel that is Washington St.

Both sides of Washington Street (north of Lincolnway) have become popular, not only because of the busy restaurants and bars. The streetscape is inviting to the eye. And there are multiple destinations here.

But Washington Street is a success for another, equally important reason: the diverse ownership of the lots and the businesses on it. We’re talking about a fine-grained local economy — with more small businesses and thus a greater resiliency if any one of them fails.

What we’re learning about how cities succeed is that our style of economic development has been killing our community’s financial sustainability. In other words, our pursuit of big projects and growth at any cost have turned out to be — very costly.

Residents of Valpo notice, for example, the relatively frequent turnover of storefront businesses along Lincolnway, suggesting the difficulties they face and their need for greater support from the city itself. (In the photo of Lincolnway above, for example, three storefronts are currently showing for lease signs.) So that’s an area where City Hall can and should do more.

Is our unconscious goal to make the barrier to entry for small businesses as high as possible? Are we fine with attracting lots of national brands downtown and watching those dollars leave the region? Do we really want to build bigger block-sized projects that enrich a few people while degrading the look and feel of our retail district?

Before Valpo starts looking “fake”: it’s time to protect our local small business community.

No more economic hunting (i.e., spending tax dollars hoping to bribe another Amazon to come here) and get back to economic gardening (growing the great businesses in our own backyard).

Civic entrepreneur

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