A Different Approach to Redevelopment


As part of a thought experiment I examined one specific neighborhood in a typical small city in Georgia. I’m using this town not because it’s unique, but because it’s absolutely normative. I could do the same analysis on the town where my mom, sisters, and brother live in southern New Jersey and it would be nearly identical. This is Everytown, USA.

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This particular neighborhood is halfway between the historic town center and the newer suburbs. It’s been completely skipped over and neglected in recent decades. What might be possible given the prevailing political and economic reality? The goal here is to improve the quality of life for existing residents, attract new residents, increase employment and economic activity, raise property values, and expand the tax base. The trick is to do all these things while keeping public spending and infrastructure to an absolute minimum and not use subsidies or tax abatements. I’ve rejected all the usual suspects that take too long, cost too much, and often make things worse.

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This neighborhood can’t compete with newer suburbs for folks looking for the usual quiet leafy environment. It shouldn’t even try. Instead it could offer the one thing the new suburbs don’t – a walkable human scaled place with some modicum of vitality and street life. There’s pent up market demand for such places and almost no supply. My first suggestion is for this business district to turn its back on the main road. Call it what it is – a sewer for cars. It serves its purpose and keeps things flowing, but no one wants to sit and watch the material drift by. Ignore it.

Instead, the parallel secondary street should become the focus of attention. That’s the more appropriate Main Street location. Next, sort out local businesses that are “in” or “out.” The national chains won’t be interested. Let them continue doing what they do. Many of the independent merchants and landlords may not be so inclined either. That’s fine. Work with the folks who are. Baby steps.

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Here’s an interstitial space formed by the back of a generic aging strip mall and an adjacent one story professional building. It’s a parking lot that doesn’t appear to get much use, but it’s an excellent outdoor room with good proportions that faces a quiet side street. If the city regulators and fire marshal could see their way to make it legal this is an ideal spot for a great gathering space.

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Plants, inexpensive outdoor furniture, and simple food and drink (most likely served by existing merchants from the rear of their shops) would be a fast cheap method of making the area worth frequenting. Only the locals know exactly what would provide the best draw. Coffee? Beer? Ice cream? Barbecue? Or maybe this is the perfect spot for outdoor movies served with popcorn and lemonade on weekend nights. Total cost to the city? Some paperwork. Total cost to the property owners? Lawn furniture, plants, and Christmas lights. The “product” on offer is spontaneous conviviality. Effective management is more powerful than pouring concrete and laying asphalt.

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The professional building appears to be vacant or less productive than it could be. The property owner may be happy with the current arrangement, but if not this could be a fantastic live/work space. There are a lot of people who find this sort of place appealing since it’s a blank slate and extremely flexible. It’s no doubt illegal to live in a commercial space due to zoning regulations. But those rules could be changed or quietly ignored by the authorities. Who’s to say what happens behind those brick walls? Live/work is the perfect in-between use for a building that sits halfway between a busy road and a calm residential street.

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All the ice cream parlors, outdoor cafes, and beer gardens in the world won’t help if there aren’t enough people nearby to fill the seats. This building appears to be some kind of Class C office building. I walked around in the middle of the afternoon on a weekday and didn’t see a soul. I didn’t even hear the hum of an air conditioner. It may be a thriving hub of business activity for all I know, but it looks like a storage facility for old paperwork. I could see someone from a local neighborhood improvement organization brokering a deal between the landlord and the local orchestra, film and video school, or art museum to convert this place into studio space.

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Actually, I’d love to see it as residential space for such people. It’s probably hard to practice the French horn in a garden apartment complex without people complaining. If the building were populated with a self selecting group of folks with an established affinity it might be a value added proposition.

If you’re horrified by the idea of living in a place like this… Great! You’ve self selected out. Perfect. Now move over and make room for the people who love it. The Mad Men era architecture could be celebrated just as it is. Howard Johnson’s meets Denny’s with a hint of 1960’s car wash. A little turquoise and orange paint and some Malibu lighting would work wonders.

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There’s an abundance of commercial buildings that are simply not performing as intended. There’s no market demand for this kind of space in this location – and it’s been this way for a very long time.

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Why not make these living spaces? Again, I need to belabor the point. This isn’t about attracting suburban families. Instead, these places are perfect for a subset of the population that actually likes cheap ugly spaces. Cheap and ugly are the primary amenities for some people. They value other things and enjoy the freedom that comes with such accommodations.

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This is the secondary street that’s more suited to humans than the primary road full of vehicular traffic. It’s lifeless at the moment, but it could be transformed on the cheap with weekly pop up events organized around food trucks and a farmers market.

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Over time the empty parking lots and food trucks could mature with brick and mortar infill development that make the arrangement permanent. The food trucks are incubators for small scale entrepreneurs on a tight budget. You need a million dollars to open a franchise doughnut shop. A food truck comes at a much lower price point.

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Here’s a dead strip mall on the other side of the neighborhood that’s facing another busy commuter road. Again, the sweet spot is in the back that faces the residential side streets. Both the shops and the homes have seen better days. What can be done with this space?

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This is an example of a non profit organization that specializes in the often neglected industrial arts. Welding, glass blowing, carpentry, neon arts, enameling, stone cutting, fashion, ceramics, and so on. Thousands of people – particularly young people – are trained in useful skills each year. People rent space and pay a modest tuition for instruction. This isn’t a government facility. It was established and continues to be maintained by locals who are passionate about the place. This is the kind of thing that could draw in precisely the variety of people who might look favorably on living in one of the fantastically affordable nearby homes. And they’d actually have the skills to fix them up.

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I’m well aware of the arguments against this sort of thing. It will attract the wrong element. People will cook meth in spaces like that. People will have wild parties all night long and disturb the peace. This is just a bunch of Hipster nonsense.We can’t have people drinking beer outdoors near a church or school. I totally understand. From my perspective there are ways of managing those concerns, but I personally won’t invest ten minutes of my time attempting to change anyone’s opinion. Instead I’ll wait another ten or fifteen years for the current decline to continue. This place may not be ripe for reinvention yet. The local culture may not be receptive. Honestly, the neighborhood may not be miserable enough just yet. Let’s wait until these places start to burn down one by one. Or let them be bulldozed to make room for more parking or a heavily subsidized garden apartment complex next to the newly widened commuter road. That’s absolutely an option.

John Sanphillippo lives in San Francisco and blogs about urbanism, adaptation, and resilience at granolashotgun.com. He's a member of the Congress for New Urbanism, films videos for faircompanies.com, and is a regular contributor to Strongtowns.org. He earns his living by buying, renovating, and renting undervalued properties in places that have good long term prospects. He is a graduate of Rutgers University.