The Problem with Pears


As I was walking the dog, I was reminded once again that Bradford Pears were planted for people in cars, not for people on foot. Once one of the most popular landscaping trees in America, most now bemoan the weak branch structure or the invasive nature of the Bradford. Any pedestrian though can tell you the beauty of its white flowers is only eclipsed by its terrible smell.

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Activating Alleyways

My former downtown office was adjacent to a pedestrian alley known throughout the city as Alley A. Shops, restaurants, and apartments open up onto the walkway and it’s become a lively pedestrian thoroughfare.

54218d28e95aa.imageIt wasn’t always this appealing. Drainage was a huge problem and the alley became a skating rink during the height of winter. Prior to the historic renovation of the adjacent buildings, the back doors doors were designed for employees only and cars often double parked in the alley for hours at a time.

The property owners came together to commit funds to improving the alley and I gave an impassioned speech to the city council about the benefits of a public-private partnership. The city came on board and alley improvements began. Interestingly enough, one of the main obstacles was that the alley was unnamed and thus no building permits could be issued. “Alley A” was intended as a stop gap but by now the name is far too embedded in the community to change.

On a recent visit to Detroit I was absolutely blown away by an alley lined with art. Not just what you normally consider public art—murals, statues, and so forth—but large canvases suitable for a galley.



Now of course, alleys need to remain fairly utilitarian to handle the necessary city services that simply aren’t appropriate for the front-facing part of the building. Trash containers, recycling bins, telephone and electric wires, and even parking are all better suited outside the back door than the front. On a trip to New York, one of the most surprising sites was the pile of trash blocking the sidewalk outside the restaurant we visited.


The question then becomes how we can make even basic alleys more interesting, even though they are being used for these run-of-the-mill purposes. The goal shouldn’t be a glossed-over, Disneyland version of an alley. The goal should be to create spaces that are both interesting and utilitarian.

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Are national chains still the key to success?

Like many who work in downtown economic development, people often approach me asking, “Why don’t we get a Gap? (or Banana Republic, Ann Taylor, Loft, or H & M.)” It’s a legitimate question. These stores are usually found down the road at the mall and the demographic of the customers often fits well with a particular downtown.

Still, any downtown that’s asking this is asking the wrong question.

To begin with, many of these larger retailers are still struggling––often because the economic downturn blindsided them in a moment of expansion. Gap is closing 175 of its 675 stores, and that’s on top of the stores they closed just a few years ago. Even retail stalwart J. Crew has seen same-store sales drop and according to the New York Times:

J. Crew has lots of company. Abercrombie & Fitch has been hit by slumping sales and its stock is trading at six-year lows. Same-store sales are down at Gap Inc. Aéropostale is fighting for its survival.

Combine this with the well publicized slump in traditional malls—where shiny new malls built a little further out from the center simply steal customers from the older ones—and you’ve got some chains struggling to rethink their strategy as a result.


In contrast, outlet malls seem to be growing in popularity. According to a recent article in Next City, “40 new outlet centers opened from 2006 to 2014 and over 150 retail chains plan to open outlet stores in 2015.” Again, they chalk this up to the economy and the desire of consumers to find a bargain (even if it’s really not that much of one.)

Outlet malls used to be a place customers travelled to. In fact, in many areas they were legally required to be a certain distance away from regular “full-price” malls. In Missouri at least, those far away outlet malls are now empty hulks in the middle of fields as the newer outlet malls move closer in. In a small bright spot, Next City highlights the story of a downtown mall circa 1970 that’s getting a complete makeover as a downtown-based outlet mall and suggests this may be the new option for many other urban downtowns.


Is that now the future of downtowns? Perhaps, but it’s probably more complicated than that. National chains, particularly the successful ones, are opening so many locations, they don’t have time to fuss with historic buildings, unreachable landlords, and expensive build outs. They want a white box ready to go. If a downtown has the investment capabilities to rebuild a dying mall into a workable outlet mall, certainly.

That’s not the only way forward though. We tend to forget that every business district has its own niche where it performs best. The downtown I managed did well with local shops, farm-to-table restaurants, art galleries, and a lively bar and music scene. The business district I’m managing now is a mix of educational uses and Saturday morning retail focusing on home and auto—an improvement district in every sense of the word. In either location, I would have welcomed a national chain but I never saw one as a silver bullet.

Nationals certainly have their place and that place can certainly be in a downtown. But let’s not look at them as the saviors of a business district. Instead, why not take a look successful local businesses in your area and figure out a way to do more of that?

City Mouse and Country Mouse

In Caught in the Middle, Richard C. Longworth paints a grim picture of the future of the Midwest, what with declining populations, ever-shrinking job markets, and small towns dying on the vine.

As Longworth puts it:

The rural Midwest, in truth, existed for one era, and that era has passed. It responded to the economic demands of a single century, from 1850 to 1950, and has been withering ever since. Globalization only finishes the work of earlier decades. There is no place in a globalized world for the small town and the family farm.

He finds fault with Midwesterners, in particular their nostalgia for the bygone era of the small prairie town. Not the most flattering portrayal but his premise is certainly worth discussion.

How true is this here in Missouri? Are we, too, holding onto a past that’s no longer viable?

According the to the 2000 census, out of the 972 “places” in Missouri, fully 62% or 607 of them had populations less than 1,000. In fact, 103 or 11% had populations below 100. Only 9 cities had populations that top 50,000. That’s a mere .9%. In 2010, the numbers aren’t that much different. Out of 1059 places, 63% or 667 have populations under 1000. 947 or 89% have less than 10,000 residents. While 13 places (1.2%) now boast populations topping 50,000, only 5 places, or .5% have populations over 100,000.

Patrick J. Carr and Maria J. Kefalas describe this hollowing-out of rural America and the subsequent brain drain in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

In just over two decades, more than 700 rural counties, from the Plains to the Texas Panhandle through to Appalachia, lost 10 percent or more of their population. Nationally, there are more deaths than births in one of two rural counties.

With well over half the towns in our state easily classified as “small,” how is this not tipping the political balance in favor of policies directed at saving areas that Longworth and others would consider unsaveable? And is this resulting in a redirection of limited resources away from growing cities?

While large cities may not be everyone’s cup of tea, cities by their very nature open up more possibilities for the people who live and work there. In Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier, Edward Glaeser argues that “cities magnify humanity’s strengths.” As Diana Silver at the New York Times put it, cities “spur innovation by facilitating face-to-face interaction, they attract talent and sharpen it through competition, they encourage entrepreneurship, and they allow for social and economic mobility.” By setting aside the “big city” for the dream of a pastoral past, we’re not just limited what we can accomplish, we’re flying in the face of major worldwide trends that show significant increases in urban population.

To exacerbate this problem, Missouri has 34 state senators and a dizzying number of state representatives—163, each representing only about 31,000 constituents. (In contrast, California has 80 assembly members, representing about 420,000 people each, one of the largest ratios.) In fact, Missouri has the 4th largest number of house members even though the state only ranks 18th in population.

Perhaps because of this, past initiatives have focused on small communities, often to the detriment of emerging metro areas or established cities such as St. Louis or Kansas City. MODOT’s unrealistic promise to build four-lane highways into small, rural towns. An incomprehensible reluctance to fully support the state’s flagship university in Columbia. State programs to help small towns rebuild without asking the difficult question of whether or not anyone will still live in the town in the coming years.

Whether or not a small town has a viable future is an important distinction to make. Case in point—Cape Girardeau was just awarded the 2015 Great American Main Street Award. Clearly, this is a town that has taken positive action to ensure that it will survive into the coming decades. This isn’t a question of city v. country or urban v. rural. It’s a question of where to turn our focus for the future. In tough economic times, we’re forced to think in terms of what is possible and what can realistically be funded. Here in Missouri, we need to focus on the Cape Girardeaus who are clearly working towards a more prosperous future but we also need to make sure that St. Louis and Kansas City don’t become empty husks that are an economic drag on the state.

Carr and Kefalas think that part of the solution is that “residents of rural America must embrace the fact that to survive, the world they knew and cherished must change.” I’m also convinced this is not an either-or proposition. We need to be thinking about what we want our new future here in the Midwest to look like—and it shouldn’t be a replica of our past. There is a lovely nostalgia surrounding the notion of the small town and the family farm. However, there’s an equally appealing narrative surrounding emerging cities in this new century. Why not replace the family farm with the community garden? The general store with the local coffee shop? The Wells Fargo wagon with the Metrolink? The horse-drawn buggy with the commuter bike?

It’s time we stopped striving for a past that may never have existed and instead fully embrace the exciting future our cities face.

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A photo posted by Porter Hovey (@porterhovey) on

The Changing Face of Historic Renovation

When I first started as director of a downtown organization in the early aughts, my predecessor gave me one piece of advice: stay away from historic preservation. Apparently, she had once tried to establish a historic district and had been shot down by the board fairly handily.

It only took 2 years for everything to change.  In the next decade, our city saw 24 historic tax credit projects that created 392 jobs, 180 housing units and generated over $75 million for the local economy. On top of that, we saw some key adaptive reuse projects that gave new uses to aging properties—a roofing company turned into art studios, a laundry facility became a coffee shop and dance company, and a grocery warehouse was transformed into an art galley and loft apartments.

And that was just the beginning; adaptive reuse is now the norm. The artisanal production movement in particular has spawned some creative uses for buildings long ignored here in Columbia. A brewery in an abandoned packing house, a coffee roaster in an old garage, and a whiskey distillery in a former electrical warehouse. There’s definitely something about a historic, repurposed building that fits the vibe of these smaller, DIY industries.




Why the turnaround?

I think part of the problem was a lack of understanding about historic preservation—what it entailed, what it required, and what it could do for the community. I quickly realized that at the time, most people thought that a National Historic Register Listing meant that the federal government automatically placed restrictions on a building, limiting the types of changes you could make to it and even prohibiting you from tearing it down.

The reality is very different. Listing on the National Historic Register does not mean that you have to do anything to your building. You can even, heaven forbid, tear the thing down. Once we explained that federal and state renovation guidelines only applied if you were using a government incentive in the form of state and federal tax credits, property owners became much more comfortable listing their building on the Historic Register. In fact, once they realized they could use government tax credits to help fund some very pricey rehab projects, many saw no problem meeting federal guidelines for their buildings.

Education is certainly important but the real reason for the turnaround, I think, was the work of one father/son team who took on the first Historic Preservation Tax Credit project in our downtown. The building spanned half a block and had been covered with metal siding back in the era where people were trying to solve their “downtown problem” by embracing a poor version of modernity. In fact, the upper cornices had been thoughtlessly chipped away in order to install the siding. For good measure, they covered up all the windows as well.

When the first section of siding was removed and the historic brick underneath was finally exposed, I think half of downtown stood out on the sidewalk marveling. The final result was the restoration of a beautiful historic building and the reclaiming of a section of Ninth Street that had been lost when the siding went up and the windows encased.

Historic preservation is a given in our community now. It’s added some traditional beauty to our cityscape, helped our local economy, and opened up some underused sections of our downtown by adding more retail and restaurant options. It’s even paved the way for other development projects such adaptive reuse of non-historic buildings and new infill projects.  It’s even a brag point for our city with a new interactive map of all Columbia’s historic and notable properties. And probably the best indicator of our success is that historic preservation is now such second nature, we’ve almost forgotten what the city was like before.

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A little Sunday Funday with @a_granese and @drak_attak

A photo posted by John Barker (@johnbarkerr) on