From Better Cities and Towns

If you live in a walkable neighborhood, you know the value of a neighborhood main street as the place to grab a cup of coffee, meet up with a friend, or — if you are as lucky as I am — buy produce and groceries at a local market.

Neighborhood main streets are incubators of small, local businesses, and local economies. Unfortunately, most cities’ use-based zoning, off-street parking requirements, auto-dominated thoroughfare designs — and the land use decisions that have placed large format, auto-dependent retail near or within these main streets — have all but made it impossible for these rich community assets to survive; they are a dying breed. To give an example, Cincinnati, Ohio, has approximately 34 neighborhood main streets, called Neighborhood Business Districts, and the great majority of them are struggling to survive because of these factors and because of decreasing populations in the neighborhoods.

Is there hope for the comeback of neighborhood main streets? Craig Semmelmeyer, a retail consultant with Main Street Properties, based in Lafayette, California, says there is. While power centers and Internet businesses compete against one another in a commodity-driven market where the lowest price always wins (guess who comes out on top in that battle?), main streets are providing experience of place, walkability, and unique businesses.

Because the power center has replaced many smaller auto-dependent retail centers — which in the 1980s and ‘90s were predominant and competed more directly with main streets — the door has opened for the reprogramming and revitalization of main streets. Some communities, such as Madison, Wisconsin, have made the success of main streets and locals businesses a high priority. In Cincinnati, neighborhoods like the Northside and Over-the-Rhine contain main streets that have reinvented themselves to once again be vibrant and hip.

Let’s be practical about this: We are not likely going to see the end of auto-oriented retail soon, nor will we be able to buy everything we need within our neighborhood main street. But as we study and begin to understand how existing main streets thrive and support local businesses, we can use this information in our existing neighborhoods.

Make food first

Pure retail is not typically the primary use in main streets. What is? Food. An aggregation of food-related uses not only allows locals, visitors, and those working within the neighborhood to walk to meet their daily needs, but can also provide an informal “anchor” drawing people to the area from outside the neighborhood.

In Seaside, Florida, Robert and Daryl Davis sold oysters out of the back of a truck and then incubated Modica Market as the start of Seaside’s center. Today they continually refine the food-related program. In the neighborhood main streets of Berkeley, California, such as Solano Avenue, Hopkins Street, and College Avenue, a few regionally-drawing restaurants combined with take out specialty food, such as cheeses and meats, make up a large percentage of the uses on the main streets and provide the principal draw for locals and visitors alike.

One successful programming strategy that we have seen and used ourselves is finding a successful local restaurant or market that has a location on one main street and having it open a second location — or even try a new concept — on another main street. This enables the restaurant or market to open with a solid reputation and customer base already in place and with proven management skills. The business thus has a much greater chance of success than does an untested start-up. In the Bay Area of California, a local grocery store chain, The Natural Grocery Company, follows this model and now has markets in two main street locations –– both about 10,000 square feet in size.

Madison’s main streets

Those of you who in June will be headed to the CNU 19 Conference in Madison will find vibrant neighborhood main streets throughout that city. Whether it’s the main street at the northern edge of the Marquette neighborhood at Division and Helena (featuring the Jenifer Street Market and Schoep’s Ice Cream) or William Street (known for Mother Fool’s coffee house serving organic coffees, the Willy Street Food Coop, and yes, even a local drug store, Shafer’s Pharmacy), you’ll find examples of the power of supporting local businesses. A good overview of Madison neighborhoods is available here.

In Madison, one of the programs helping these local businesses to flourish is the Dane Buy Local program, which is a coalition of local independent businesses, organizations, and citizens in and around Dane County (including Madison). Its primary objective is to keep local economies strong. They do this by providing information about the benefits of buying local to the general public (see the attached “5 reasons to buy local” image), giving members increased access to advertising, organizing informal networking as well as educational events for its members and the general public, and leading cross promotion at events and with the publication of the “Dane Buy Local Guide.” This is a model that other communities throughout the country should learn from and emulate.

As we explore main streets further, many other questions come to mind: What is the role of national tenants within neighborhood main streets? Are small local theaters on the comeback? What targeted zoning changes should be made to encourage the revitalization of a main street? At what threshold is drive-by traffic detrimental to the experience of place? What parking management strategy is best for a main street? These are all questions I hope to explore in future articles.