Wednesday, July 14, 2010

More on downtown redevelopment

Allow me to be serious a moment about downtown redevelopment. It’s apparent that some people still don’t get it, and I will allow myself to turn blue in the face saying the same things over and over again until people understand the issue at hand.
First of all, let’s get this clear: A city’s downtown is its identity. It holds the city’s history and is often the only unique thing about its city that differentiates itself from any other town. If a city were to build row after row of fast food joints, chain restaurants and drugstores, you would not be able to tell whether you were living in, say, Meridian or Kuna.
Why is that important? Because we increasingly live in a world of detachment, decreasing civic engagement in which people do not care what town they live in, do not get involved in that town’s civic life, don’t know how much they pay in taxes and are not aware of — let alone participate in — their local organizations, such as Lions, Grange, Kiwanis, etc., that make their community better.
Does a vibrant downtown solve all those problems? No, but it helps. I absolutely believe that. A city that has a common gathering place where neighbors come together and walk among each other and say hello and commit commerce create a greater sense of cohesion and community. No doubt about it. A better downtown equals a better community. Forget nostalgia for a moment. This is a practical argument about making this community better.
Next, let’s get to this issue of improving downtown, as some people will try to argue that the property owners should make the improvements. Many point to the old argument that downtown Kuna is a mess to begin with, with dirty, vomit-encrusted sidewalks and falling-apart, unpainted facades. So this just shows that the downtown businesses aren’t responsible to begin with, so we shouldn’t help them. While some of the charges are definitely true, it doesn’t hold for everyone. See Jennifer Schmeckpepper and her business Consign & Design. Look at Harry Knox and what he’s done with the Edward Jones building. Witness Behind the Chair Salon. So shall we hold them accountable for the dereliction of their neighbors? Further, how is that an argument that we should continue to do nothing for our downtown? It’s already ugly, so we should continue to let it get worse? That doesn’t make sense to me. That said, I firmly believe that the city should hold accountable businesses that don’t take care of their environment, requiring businesses to clean the sidewalks, for example, in front of their establishments.
Next, again we have to dispel this foolish and oft-repeated myth that there’s nothing but a bunch of bars downtown. Perhaps that’s the perception of people who have never been downtown, but it’s not true. There are many, many other businesses working hard to eke out a living downtown. But the vast majority of the 15,000 people who live here erroneously believe that there’s nothing but bars, so they stay as far away as possible.
Next, let me detail some of the improvements I’m talking about and tell you why the city must get involved. I do not expect downtown building owner Lucio Prado to alter the parking pattern in front of El Gallo Giro. I do not expect Harry Knox to narrow Main Street to two lanes and double the width of the sidewalks in front of his building so that we may accommodate sidewalk seating for restaurants and cafes. I do not expect Sheri Russell to put up new streetlights along Main Street. I do not expect Larry and Arlene O’Leary to dig up and relocate trees in the public right-of-way. I do not expect Mike Fisher to go over to the Old 4th Street Gym and tear out the school district’s chain-link fence that is ever-so-nicely accented with barbed wire (although I’d like him to) and put up a village green.
Yes, I expect downtown business owners to pull up weeds, clean windows, power wash sidewalks, and paint and maintain facades. But there are some things that need to be done that individual business owners cannot and should not do. It is necessary for the city to make these improvements. Whatever form it takes, a business improvement district, a local improvement district, an urban renewal agency, I really don’t care. Just something that will get it done.
Next, to be successful and popular, downtown is experiential. Going downtown is an experience. It’s where you window-shop. It’s where you stroll, run into friends, chit-chat as you pass by on the sidewalk. It’s where you hang out and people-watch. Bars, restaurants, cafes, antique shops, real estate offices are all part of the equation.
Next, in order to convince free-market, entrepreneurial private investors to make an investment in downtown, as some of you suggest, the investor needs to know that he or she will get support and assistance from the city in which the investment is made. Yes, that includes making sure the city holds neighboring businesses responsible for maintaining their property. But it also means that the investor needs to be assured that the city itself will make the investment in necessary public improvements that will assure success for the individual investor over the course of the next 20 years.
Otherwise, it’s easier to just buy something new that has plenty of parking and lighting and healthy landscape elsewhere. And so, that’s what happens.
A city official once posited to me, somewhat in jest, whether the city should pay to fix sidewalks downtown just so some drunk wouldn’t fall down and crack his head open.
Is that what this is all about? We don’t like the bars downtown? Well, I’ve got news for everyone. By not fixing downtown, all you’re going to get are bars. And here’s a little secret that I’ll give away for free: If you want to get rid of the bars downtown, the way you do it is by making downtown so incredibly nice and attractive, some developer comes along and buys out the bar and puts in a nice restaurant or some other commercial venture.
Cities all over the country are going back to their downtowns to figure how to make them better and to figure out why they let them get to be such a mess to begin with. One need not look any farther than Nampa and Meridian to see cities now going back to fix what they broke.
Finally, we can bicker and argue the fine points all we want and we can complain and we can point fingers for the next 20 years. Fine, that’s what we’ve been doing for the past 10 years, and look where it’s gotten us. We’ll get what we deserve as a community, good or bad. I am suggesting we knock it off and get moving. Otherwise, I’m promising you, we will be here 20 years from now wondering, how did they let their downtown get to be that way? You need only look in Kuna Melba News to find out.
One more point: I’m still waiting for someone else to come up with another solution. Like I said, we can point fingers and complain about the other side all we want, but the only thing we’ll get in the end is what we’ve already got. It’s our choice. It’s up to us.

1 comment:

Scott McIntosh said...

Support much — very instructive.