A few weeks ago, I saw of picture of downtown Harrisonburg taken in 1962. I have to admit, despite being born in 1979, I had a bit of nostalgia for what seemed to be a straightforward and vibrant center of commerce and social activity. History suggests that wasn’t actually true at the time for most downtowns, and even if it still was for Harrisonburg, it wouldn’t be so for long, at least not the way it once was.
Truth is—by this point in American history downtowns were no longer a hub where commercial and social activity merged. No—when this picture of Harrisonburg was taken, America was well into the second industrial revolution, the middle class was moving to the suburbs, and urban renewal (which wasn’t nearly as pleasant as it may sound) was implemented in downtowns as businesses left.
Still—it hasn’t stopped us from longing for that picture of a simpler life. Around the country, planners and other government officials have responded with mixed use zoning designations, mandates for walkable/bikeable communities, special taxation districts, and various incentives. In response, the development community has constructed town centers and implemented pedestrian oriented development and transit oriented development plans in an effort to create a singular place to live, work, and play. All of this to recreate what we once had—or at least think we did.
At its worst, nostalgia paints the past as an idealized version of something we want it to be, not what we know as reality. At its best, nostalgia draws inspiration from the greatest the past had to offer while allowing for continued evolution.
So which is it? Are mixed-use town center developments nothing more than a very expensive false façade with very little substance or an opportunity to build on the best of the past for a better future? It’s a question for which I don’t have an answer, but I do have other questions.
There have been some attempts at creating a new urbanist, pedestrian oriented, mixed-use communities along the I-81. As such, they were designed to appeal to a diverse demographic of age, income, and lifestyle. Sometimes they were designed to include a “Main Street” with residential lofts above in addition to townhouse and single-family residential options. But, given the realities of construction costs—isn’t there a limit to the amount of diversity (certainly within income levels) that can be obtained? Wouldn’t the same be true for commercial endeavors and isn’t this economic reality the reason there are fewer independent small businesses on primary corridors like East Market Street? Instead, haven’t these small businesses elected to open downtown?
Isn’t one of the greatest attributes of a downtown the eclectic mix of both businesses and people? Aren’t the variety of price points a traditional downtown affords and entrepreneurs it attracts one of the reasons that downtown Harrisonburg has been so successful in attracting new businesses and reinvestment over the last decade and a half? Can governments (and developers for that matter) successfully engage in this type of centralized planning? Can some of these new urbanist principles be injected into land use regulations and planning guides without undermining free market activity? Does a car-dependent metro area like Harrisonburg or others along the I-81 corridor really have the critical mass to create a town center with a pedestrian orientation outside of downtown?
I think it would be fair to say that I am certainly not an enemy of new development—the projects I represent would suggest otherwise. I am also not necessarily a critic of new urbanism (or whatever name it will be known by in the future) and some of the principles for which it stands. Quite candidly, the parties that are most regularly excited by the concept and can afford it are often my national retail clients—even if that isn’t the intent.
Even so, I am concerned that this short-term benefit is not worthwhile. Often, even when the intent is noble, these types of regulations force developers to ignore consumer preference in favor of ideology. Developers aren’t ideologues—they are capitalists that aim to deliver what a consumer demands.
Tim Reamer provides commercial real estate brokerage and consulting services with Cottonwood Commercial and specializes in retail representation, investment property (multifamily | commercial | NNN), and development projects. Learn more at www.timreamer.com.SHARE