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Shovel Ready: Razing Hopes, History, and a Sense of Place:
Chapter 8: A Tale of Two Downtowns

Go back to: Shovel Ready Home | Other Projects to Learn From | ahead to: Understanding Downtown's Direction

[This information is from pp. 95-101 of Shovel Ready: Razing Hopes, History, and a Sense of Place: Rethinking Schenectady's Downtown Strategies, a master's thesis in city planning by Christopher Patrick Spencer (MIT, 2001), and is reproduced with his permission. It is in the Schenectady Collection of the Schenectady County Public Library at Schdy R 711 Spe.]

Convention Centers, stadiums, aquariums, cultural centers, enclosed malls — these are about politics and development profitable for a few, not about developing local economies, enlivening downtowns, or stimulating revitalization. Downtowns compete for these headline-grabbing, budget-straining projects but overlook the actual, complex cities in which they sit.

Roberta Brandes Gratz, Cities Back from the Edge

A fine-grain place is made up of small buildings, small open spaces, and small enterprises. These smaller parts can be more closely fitted to the varying activities of occupants, more completely under their control, and more easily sensed as connected to individual values and experiences, than are the larger features of a coarser grain.

Kevin Lynch, A Theory of Good City Form

The ability of a downtown to fit the many needs of a diverse group of people is dependent on scale, activity, and time not overpowering place. "Coarse grain" as Lynch explains, "contributes to the prevalent fragmentation of life." (1) Larger scale, single-use buildings create zones of predictability and control where the vital mix of activity and people required for lively cities is dampened. One of the conditions for generating diversity as Jane Jacobs explains, is that the place must "insure the presence of people who go outdoors on different schedules and are in the place for different purposes, but who are able to use many facilities in common." (2) An older downtown with its varying widths of shop fronts and apartments or offices above is perfectly suited to this. It creates opportunities for a variety of enterprises and offers a constantly changing scene for the slow passing pedestrian. Larger scale buildings can offer this constant change of scenery as well, but to experience it requires one to be driving rather than walking by. For a downtown to be a lively and exciting place that offers opportunities for residents and visitors alike, appropriate scale and use are paramount to its success. As scale increases and use becomes less diverse, the downtown is transformed into a different type — perhaps catering to one or two uses or a less diverse group of people. The decisions that cities make about the buildings, spaces, and uses in their downtown has a direct impact on the type of downtown they will likely become. By understanding the implications that every decision has on both the form and function of their downtown, cities can begin to revisit their objectives and determine if the path they are on is likely to meet the needs and fulfill the goals of the community.

Downtowns in Transition

Fig 8.01 [enlarge]

Postcard of lower State Street in Schenectady showing narrow buildings.

Fig 8.02 [enlarge]

Paterson, New Jersey, example of low road but high-intensity.

For every story of a downtown that seems tired, empty, and on its way out, there is a story of a downtown that was once lively and full of people, activities, and promise. For every story of a downtown that was near dead and somehow came back, there is a story of a downtown that people said never could. Many downtowns lie somewhere in between — not down and out, but not yet back either. These downtowns in transition are not always filled with landmark quality, unique, or high style building specimens, but are comprised of a building stock that is collectively one-of-a kind. Many of these buildings might be described in their current condition as Low Road. In How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They're Built, author Stuart Brand says of Low Road buildings that "Nobody cares what you do there" implying that these types of buildings offer more freedom than the High Road buildings. (3) In some ways, the high road buildings might be seen as the more high-style classical examples while the low road might include a number of variants, and more of a vernacular style. Unfortunately, the low road buildings are also seen as more expendable by many. The uses and stores in these downtowns tend to be low-end or bargain-type stores. The intensity of these low-end uses can also vary, with some considered low-intensity, others high-intensity.

For those downtowns that are described as having low-end, but high-intensity uses, they tend to have storefronts that are occupied, streets that are often crowded, and rents that are low. The uses range from Dollar Stores, to check cashing establishments to fast food joints — but typically not any franchises. The buildings have not been restored, but are maintained at a level that usually does not invite further decay. The upper floors are a mix of transitional housing, some offices, and a number of vacant spaces. There is little middle- or upper-income investment in these areas other than absentee landlords. The building stock itself is usually stable, because each building is producing some income and has a use. But overall, the area only serves those at the lower-income levels. For other members of the larger community, it is not a place where they feel any sense of ownership and in fact tend to avoid, preferring to spend their time and money at the malls. But the current use of the downtown and its intensity remind people that the downtown is not obsolete. It is not a far stretch for many to imagine a mix of some new, more upscale uses being added — expanding the cross section of people being served. Despite their poor condition, these areas have retained more of their fine grain which is vital if they are to become a lively mix of people and uses, all benefiting one another.

Fig 8.03 [enlarge]

Buildings in Schenectady showing low road, low-intensity.

The low-use, low-intensity downtowns face more of an uphill battle in their transition to becoming lively active places than the high-intensity ones. The uses are often similar, but there are fewer of them that create interaction. In addition to the bargain basement collection of shops, these downtowns have streets lined with a combination of low-intensity uses or ones that do not create interaction, and storefronts that have no uses. The low-intensity uses include social service departments and outreach programs for the region, drug rehab centers, lawyers, accountants, as well as a number of other professional offices which have no need for store-front exposure. The upper floors are marginally utilized, with a few offices, storage spaces, transitional housing, and many vacancies. The low-level of use and many vacancies provides no incentive for restoration or even basic maintenance of many of the structures. This deferred maintenance causes many buildings to deteriorate to the point where they must be torn down. For others, the low income generated by these properties often leads the owners to default on their property taxes or prompts them to employ bulldozers to lower their assessments. After the building is gone, and if there is a need, they may use the site for parking. This demolition by neglect produces many holes in the street wall and begins to break down the fine grain of buildings, the natural enclosure of spaces, and makes it impossible for a number of uses and interactions to occur.

Fig 8.04 [enlarge]

Paterson, New Jersey; current conditions.

Fig 8.05 [enlarge]

Paterson, New Jersey; envisioned with new life.

Downtowns that are not intensely used and exist within a community that has a poor preservation attitude or nonexistent track record for adaptive reuse are easy targets for the wrecking ball. Further land assemblage, speculation, and large-scale single-use developments will continue to break down the fine grain. For the cities that exhibit these characteristics, there is often a tendency to look towards large-scale solutions to these incremental problems that plague their communities and threaten their downtowns. The big-money, quick-fix solutions, however tempting, often contribute more to the problems and do little to help strengthen the small-scale existing businesses that these projects are often portrayed as helping. The huge investments that are required for many of these large projects are not justified by their low returns.

Office buildings are often touted as "saviors" to the existing downtown businesses. But many of them are isolated and self-sufficient, despite their sometimes close proximity to the street. Their limited engagement with the street or surrounding buildings, lack of interaction with the public, and isolation from other businesses add little benefit to justify their presence. The new model of office building often has its own cafeteria or lunch area, ATM, postal service or mail room, and its own attached parking garage. There is little need for employees to leave the building and therefore they contribute little to the customer base of downtown businesses. The scale of these buildings often overpowers anything else along the street. There is no reason for anyone who is not an employee to interact with the buildings; yet they often take up thousands of linear feet of street frontage. For pedestrians, there is little of interest in passing them, and their length ensures a monotonous scene. At night, these buildings and the streets that border them become "dead zones", creating unsafe areas that have none of self-policing dynamics of lively mixed-use areas.

When these buildings are occupied by a single company, the situation can be even less attractive for the surrounding businesses and the downtown in general. At lunch time, if the employees leave the buildings, they often have so little time available that the only types of businesses they can support are those that can serve them in short order. For many of these companies, their presence and commitment to the community is ephemeral, as they are subject to mergers, buyouts, and bankruptcy, as well as sporadic venue shifts. When they do leave, the city has a much larger building and much larger problem on their hands than when a number of smaller companies leave. A single company in one large building is also much less beneficial to the downtown than a number of small companies spread throughout for a number of other reasons as well. Smaller businesses tend to form networks and be more supportive of other downtown businesses. Large-scale corporations are not likely to hire local accountants, buy office supplies from a local store, or use the services of local businesses in general.

Convention centers are often cited as one answer to the "urban ills and the key to economic transformation." The promise of thousands of hotel-room nights and millions of dollars poured into the local economy by conventioneers, especially in the smaller markets, has many mayors salivating.

Yet for all of the public dollars spent, few cities appear to have been saved by larger convention centers. For all the persistent rhetoric of new jobs, new spending, and 'economic multipliers,' much of the evidence suggests that convention centers deliver far less than promised. Indeed, in a number of cases, the expenditure of hundreds of millions of public dollars appears to have had almost no economic impact on individual communities. (4)

Fig 8.06 [enlarge]

From Allan B. Jacobs' book, "Great Streets." Narrow buildings and many doors that are close together.

A February 2000 study conducted by Quantum Dynamics for Schenectady's Metroplex Development Authority also pointed to the marginal returns on other big-ticket development projects. "Analysis shows that while large-scale development projects are beneficially regionally, local host communities give more than they get back in return. Further, given the invariably limited budgets available to localities for economic development expenditure, a dollar spent on an unproductive economic development project, is a dollar less than might otherwise be available for productive use." (5) In many cases, communities also waste millions in taxpayer money trying to lure these big development projects into their communities and fail in the end to attract them. Sometimes, however, not getting them, proves to be a better deal. Each one of these big-ticket projects typically requires additional public subsidies, infrastructure improvements, the demolition of existing buildings and the further loss of the fine grain that makes lively downtowns possible. Convention centers, aquariums, sports stadiums, civic centers are all uses that are introverted by nature. Once inside these buildings, there is little opportunity or reason for its users to face the street. For those on the street, these buildings provide few amenities or reasons for interaction. These facilities and their uses, when stretched out along the main commercial street destroy it. They have no need for such expanses of street level exposure other than to make a political or corporate marketing statement.

Traditionally, few buildings or single stores in the downtown occupied expansive stretches along the street. The exception was probably the department store. But it was broken into smaller segments, with multiple store windows displaying goods from any number of its departments. Along the street, these stores often had multiple entrances into the different departments. In effect, they provided a number of visual opportunities, and acted as a collection of many stores. Other large single uses such as theaters, occupied only short distances of the street front. Their marquees, however, provided information and excitement, the crowds provided activity, but the building's actual use, provided no opportunity to enhance the liveliness of the street, and was therefore located away from the street, leaving just the narrow exposure of the entrance to connect with the public realm. Allan Jacobs in Great Streets points out that many doorways close together are one of the qualities of a great street. "The more doorways the better. The best streets," he says, "are replete with entryways, as little as 12 feet apart." (6)

The design, scale, and uses of buildings in the downtown and the uses that they border on can enhance or detract from the liveliness of streets and health of the downtown. Large-scale, single-use buildings are antithetical to providing an environment that encourages interaction and pedestrian activity. Large-scale developments are costly for smaller cities, and when they fail, become costly mistakes. Whether a city will become a downtown filled with a lively mix of people spread throughout the day or one with just a noontime rush with complete emptiness after the workday depends largely on the types of buildings they design and the uses they allow. Large-scale buildings only serve to destroy the fine grain of a downtown. Their limited uses destroy the ability for people and activities to come together in vibrant spaces and in such a way that each person or use adds value to the other.

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