Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Downtowns I Have Known

Collingswood, NJ 
I've been thinking about how downtowns work, or don't, ever since the Better Block Workshop two weeks ago. Back when my knees were in decent shape, I went to a lot of book and music conventions in different cities. Granted, you can't compare Norristown to cities that are much larger, but downtown dynamics tend to be similar everywhere and we can learn from others' mistakes.

Phoenix - deserted streets downtown
My first convention was in Phoenix, in July. The high each day was around 115 F. Still, much of the architecture was designed with desert living in mind. On many office buildings and hotels, the 2nd floor projected out over the first, shading the sidewalk. Trees lined some of the streets. Storefronts had awnings shading the windows to keep the hot sun out. One cafe even had mist blowing out from beneath its awning. The evaporation lowered the temperature of the outdoor seating area 10-15 degrees. But there were few people on the streets. Too many walls and windows, too few doors. Not an inviting atmosphere. Most businesses closed up at 3 pm on weekdays and weren't opened on weekends at all, because no one lived downtown. And I got the impression that I was more acclimated to a hot climate than the natives--they were all too A/C dependent.

Minneapolis--more people on street than up in the skyways
I went to conventions in both Minneapolis and St. Paul. Both cities, with such short nice weather seasons, had built skyways--that is, the 2nd floor of downtown buildings were converted into indoor malls and connected with pedestrian bridges over the streets. The few blocks that I walked through the skyway in Minneapolis, it was like a ghost town (I think it was late afternoon on a Thursday). Few if any stores were open. Yet, there were plenty of people out on the streets in Minneapolis all that weekend. In St. Paul, my hotel was 3 blocks from the convention hotel so I used the skyway to go back and forth. This part of the skyway went through office buildings, closed at night when I was coming back from events. They had a security station at about the halfway point, but the skyway itself wasn't patrolled. One night I had to walk back by myself, and it was lonely and creepy and not always well-lighted. I would have felt safer out on the street. I've always felt safer than that in Norristown.

Collingswood, NJ has a book festival every year right in their downtown on Haddon Avenue, which is probably as many blocks, or longer, than our Main Street. Also like us, they've got public transportation close by. One of the big differences is that Collingswood's downtown doesn't have vacant lots, just block after block of cute small shops, most of which seem to be occupied, plus their public library is there, too. It looks a bit like our West Marshall district only longer. One thing I have noticed is that their downtown seems to be very family-friendly. Their eateries and stores aren't all aimed at adults. Collingswood is about half the size of N-town in population, but they have people living above the stores downtown, and residential areas within two or three blocks of Haddon Avenue. Much of the street is tree-lined, and some of the cafes have outdoor seating. There always seems to be people strolling down Haddon Avenue. Collingswood is a downtown that works.

Providence Town Center - a poor imitation
Providence Town Center outside of Collegeville, near 422, is sort of an artificial downtown, built out in the middle of nowhere. It's essentially an outdoor mall built to look like a downtown. Town Centers are all the rage right now. King of Prussia is getting one soon, out on the other side of Gulph Road near Wegmans. I've done book signings at Providence Town Center and my observations are that many of the small and inner stores are still vacant. Most of the parking is around the outside and that's where you find occupied stores. Those are mostly chains--very few nice small mom and pop shops (like  Town Center Books, where I did my signings). The problem with Town Centers is that they take away the biggest advantage of malls--the fact that you can get in out of the weather to shop at different stores. The Town Center concepts was born of the fact that people love "Main Street"--downtowns like Collingswood and Phoenixville--but one thing that makes real downtowns work (unlike Town Centers) is that they have people living in and close to them.

Our downtown has a lot of potential. Sure, we've got vacant stores, but at least they're buildings and not more empty lots. We've got great looking architecture on the first couple blocks of West Main and on the 100 and 200 blocks of East Main. Most importantly, we have residents living downtown, and probably 1/4 of our population can walk to Main Street fairly easily. Every other block is within biking distance, if we'd only allow ourselves to become bicycle-friendly. For people like me, unable to walk or bike, well, I still manage to get downtown when something's going on there that I want to go to. That's the key--we need to give people a reason to come downtown.

More on that in a future Diary entry about Better Block.

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