Sunday, September 27, 2009

What downtowns are supposed to look like

This morning I woke up to Liane Hansen talking about small business survival in downtown Marquette, Michigan.

She observes that the success of these businesses is a surprising contrast to what you find in many other small towns around the country. "In so many cities where the commerce has moved out to the highway and the big box stores, it's rare to see a department store in business in a small town," she remarks about Getz's Department Store downtown.

Getz's marketing manager John Spigarelli attributes this to "a lot of loyalty," but I honestly have difficulty believing that there's something exceptional about the amount of loyalty that Yoopers show their local downtowns. I suspected that there was a more basic explanation.

It turns out that this loyalty is pretty fickle. Marquette has big box stores out by the highway: Google Maps shows that there's a Target, a Kohl's, a Wal-Mart Supercenter and a J.C. Penney's on Route 41 west of town, and even a Marquette Bypass, built in the 1960s, that allows people to drive around the downtown. In fact, one local observer tells us that there is a "trend" for Yoopers to drive three hours to Wisconsin for shopping.

But clearly, enough people are shopping in downtown Marquette to enable these businesses to thrive. For at least some of their errands, they don't drive right by the downtown stores on their way to the Target and Green Bay. Why not? My guess is that the bypass doesn't actually save them that much time: it starts just five blocks south of Getz's. So if you're driving from the south or east, or even the rural areas to the north, downtown is still closer than any of the big-box stores. If you're coming from the west, Getz's is only eight minutes further than Target. It's still more or less on the way.

Everything I've ever heard about the UP has involved driving, driving, driving and maybe a long-distance bike tour or two. I wouldn't be surprised if transit's mode share were minuscule here, but I think this story shows that it's possible to have walkable, small-business-friendly "transit-oriented development," even in an area where almost everyone drives. There are two criteria: streets that were built before widespread car ownership, and not a lot of bypasses.

There are many cities around the country that are concerned about their failed downtowns. Most of them have plenty of pedestrian-friendly streets, but some, like poor downtown Belvidere, Illinois with its triple bypass, would require a gargantuan political effort to be on the way to anywhere again.


Ben Ross said...

The Purple Line in Maryland was originally proposed by the Action Committee for Transit as an additional transit alternative in a study aimed at adding lanes to the Washington Beltway. Eventually, the highway and transit parts of the study were separated and we now have a light rail line moving forward as a locally preferred alternative.

We have now made a similar proposal for a study of widening I-270, and are gaining significant support.

In both cases, the price tags of proposed highway projects were so high that transit alternatives that had never been taken seriously due to cost suddenly seemed reasonable. This is an approach that advocates in other cities might consider using.

Jonathan said...


Check out Roberta Brandes Gratz's book Cities Back from the Edge: New Life for Downtown, ISBN no. 0471361240. She covers this issue about how to encourage development downtown in great detail.

The issue, according to Gratz, is not that a downtown has to be on the way to anywhere, but that it has to be a destination in itself, and that local authorities have to support downtown enterprises.