by guest Bill Flynn, Arnett Development Group (ADG) This first appeared in the December
New England consists mainly of a vast network of small rural towns connected by a web of two-lane state highways and back roads – a dispersed settlement pattern rooted deeply in an agricultural heritage. Historically, a town’s civic, cultural, and economic activities were concentrated in village centers, which in some cases, evolved into small downtown areas clustered around thriving factories and mills. It was a stable and for the most part, prosperous arrangement.
With the decline of New England’s textile industry along with rising energy and labor costs in the 1960s and 1970s, New England’s position as a major manufacturing and industrial center was undercut. By the end of the twentieth century, New England’s once bustling downtowns were deteriorating.
During the past few decades, we have made modest progress in stabilizing our failing downtowns, and now face a new challenge, the decline of the commercial strip, one of the culprits that helped contribute to the demise of downtowns, that is now itself threatened. It is imperative that we look at restructuring the commercial strip in order to help stabilize and preserve the economic gains that have been made.
The Emergence of the Strip
While it can be argued that the emergence of strip development lead to the demise of downtowns, the root cause for the decline is a great deal more complicated. It takes a profound shift in social, cultural, and economic factors to change prevailing development patterns. This occurred following WWII, when the United States experienced a period of unprecedented prosperity. Programs like the federal home mortgage program and the development of the interstate highway system, helped stimulate a mass exodus from cities to surrounding suburbs. Congress also created massive subsidies for suburban commercial development by modifying the tax code, allowing owners to depreciate new commercial buildings in seven years, in place of the long-standing 40-year requirement. This coupled with cheap land prices stimulated a frenzy of development in suburbia. Towns quickly adopted zoning regulations, encouraging commercial development in a linear arrangement along major transportation corridors, thus giving rise to the “strip,” but ultimately harming downtowns.
Winds of Change
Dominance of strip development began to erode in the late 1980s and 1990s with the development of suburban malls that thrived on the interstate system. Malls were able to accommodate nearly a hundred stores within a closed, climate-controlled environment. Growing environmental concerns and a subtle shift in lifestyle preferences have recently refocused attitudes toward suburban development. People are moving back to the cities, with urban gentrification bringing new life and economic vitality into exhausted city neighborhoods.
The Internet may be the biggest change that alters the development patterns of the 21st century. A recent survey of online shoppers reported that they now make 51% of their purchases online, up from 48% in 2015. Amazon’s e-commerce revenue rose 15.8% in the last 12 months alone, roughly the same as Walmart. However, Amazon posted $82.7 billion in sales, compared with $12.5 billion for Walmart, and that chasm keeps getting wider. Retail development, still a critical component of strip development, is undergoing profound change.
Restructuring Versus Revitalizing
Revitalization efforts are slowly beginning to bring new life into many village centers and historic downtowns. Well-built abandoned mills and storefronts provide a viable framework to work with, which is not the case with the commercial strip. The challenge may not be the revitalization of the strip, but its complete restructuring. It will be up to local governments, property owners, and informed citizens to work together to redefine the role of the commercial corridor within their communities.
One of the first challenges to address is the linear arrangement of the commercial corridor. In many cases the corridor is relatively narrow, 200-400 feet in depth, with parcels encompassing one to ten acres, limiting configuration of new buildings. In order to break this mold, communities might consider adjacent land uses. This could offer opportunities to widen or entirely reconfigure the commercial corridor.
The character and quality of the building stock is the second challenge. Very few strip buildings inspire or stir nostalgic emotions, and were not built to last. The vast majority will need to come down, significantly impacting redevelopment costs.
Another challenge communities will face is the connectivity between the restructured strip and the rest of the community. Contemporary planning practices place a premium on walkability and intermodal connections. Maintaining sidewalks, bike trails, and shared-use paths connecting community social, civic, and recreational spaces will be vital.
The most important challenge may be igniting community leadership and nurturing effective partnerships between the local government, property owners, concerned citizens, and local businesses. Preserving downtowns, along with restructuring our strips, is key to saving New England’s economic future.