Recipe for Renewal

I was a first hand witness (and involved) in Elmwood’s renewal. I have many ideas to pass along if you are willing to read further.


 

First: understand that change is cyclical. Despite your best efforts and all of the resources in the world, if an area is not ready to change, it won’t.

Second: The support of the city or town is essential, but this can be a deceptive concept. Most of us will interpret this statement to mean monetary support. There are more important elements to nail down:

 

  1.      Safety first – residents will move away from an unsafe area. End of story. More people on the streets (ie. more commerce) leaves fewer places for crime to hide.

  2.      The town has to be seamless. You can’t have a fancy streetscape in the rich area and a dilapidated one in the less affluent area. Similarly, police coverage, fire coverage and schools have to be consistent within a town

  3.      Zoning rules, design review and enforcement have to be in place. The town doesn’t have to become a police state when enforcing its rules, but it has to be firm. Health ordinances can also serve as an adjunctive means to clean up garbage and unkempt lots.

  4.      The commercial area is the showpiece of any town. There may be plenty of mansions on cul de sacs and beautiful gated communities, but when you drive through a town, the commercial area is your first introduction. Similarly, the borders of the town influence your perception of the town. Again, no one area should be that much different than another (or treated differently). Like all of us, a town needs to put its best foot forward.

    If the town doesn’t have its house in order, it will not be ready to guide development when the next cycle occurs. That can lead to several major problems:

    • National chains driving out the locals

    • Irate residents and massive legal battles

    • Lawsuits from developers who feel that their property rights have been infringed upon

Between boom cycles, a constant nudging has to take place on each little property. There has to be a long-term plan that the community and the town staff is vested in. When state and federal funds need to be pursued, understand that it will usually take several years to get them into place. Then it will take several more years for legal, engineering and the build-out (in Elmwood’s case, it took ten years to pass, design, fund and complete the state highway project through the center!).

 

About Commerce

 

Every town has its own mix of industry, business and commerce. Of course, these components reduce the tax burden of the homeowner. A locally based and supportive business community is a tremendous asset to any town. Business owners frequently live within the town, are active in civic organizations and contribute to community causes. The same cannot be said of national chains. Plus, nationally based retail chains will keep inventory in the locale with the lowest taxes so as not to have an increased tax burden in the town where the store is located. The big-box infrastructure has a low assessment and generally designed with a twenty year lifespan in mind.

Restricting the size of commercial buildings is one way to address the issue of large retail stores. The impact of a large store on traffic and infrastructure has to also be considered. When Wal-Mart comes to town, It is rarely a panacea. Again, if zoning codes are in place in advance, a town’s problems will be lessened.

Development needs to be welcomed, but no red carpet is necessary! If there is a buck to be made and you have an attractive community, they will come. Court the local and regional businesses – the national chains will contribute little to the community. In our town, a Business Development Officer (BDO) is in place to help businesses navigate town ordinances and procedures and serve as an interface between the town, the chamber of commerce, developers, and interested parties. The BDO also can be a screener for new businesses and the “canary in the coal mine” for the town.

 

The SDD

 

In West Hartford, a useful tool has been the “special development district”(SDD) which is an ordinance that allows for spot zoning. The SDD is a zoning overlay and can allow extra freedom or extra restrictions on developing property that has a high value, traffic impact or central location. Each SDD is individually vetted by the zoning body of the town and usually involves a public notification and hearing. Some developers may consider this an onerous process, but the SDD can often make the difference in how a project is perceived by the community. It’s a strong tool for a zoning body to wield and it promotes accountability.

 

Cosmetics

 

Architectural trends come and go. IMHO, façade improvement can be a good thing, but it has to be maintained and speak quality in terms of design and materials. Also, don’t underestimate the power of plantings and traditional amenities. Sidewalk and asphalt are easy to maintain, but on the whole, an ugly alternative to planters and flowers. Planters are an inexpensive investment in an area that add color and life. Trees are even better.

You’ve probably read about the “broken window theory”. That is, one broken window left alone will lead to another and soon, the area will look like a war zone. Well the opposite is also true: one improved property leads to the next and the next. In Elmwood, we’ve seen this with the facades and signs. All of this was privately funded as the business owners wanted to make their businesses attractive and appropriate to the area.

 

The Cycle

 

Oh, if we were only prescient enough to figure out “the cycle”. West Hartford has a strong school system and sense of community. Because of this, many of our residents have lived here through multiple generations; children often live in the same house that their parents or even grandparents owned.

We have a long cycle length.

In the Elmwood neighborhood, many of the small houses built in the 1950s and 1960s are just turning over. They have been occupied by residents who moved in during their twenties and now 50-60 years later are finally being sold to new residents.

 

For traditional neighborhoods, you want the generational change and commercial changes to be in sync. It’s possible with the following elements:

  • Strict zoning enforcement

  • Engagement of the residents

  • Engagement of the Businesses

  • Seamless infrastructure, schools and public safety.

The more that residents and businesses feel involved in the process, the more likely that they will direct the process. Involvement hardly decreases conflict (it likely increases it), but there is accountability and participation which leads to a sense of community.

Dr. Rick Liftig – 2014


 

Postscript:

The term and concept “Seamless City” is taken from a 2011 book of the same name. it was written by Rick Baker, former Mayor of St Petersburg , Fl. Many of the concepts that have been incorporated in Elmwood’s revival are espoused by the American Planning Association and organizations/websites such as: newurbanism.org, sustainablecitiescollective.com and planetizen.com.

Close Comments