Saturday, January 14, 2017

a few thoughts for the new year

The new year inspired me to revisit a neighborhood blog that I've missed recently. I know that life can get in the way of writing and other pursuits. I've missed Jeff's thoughtful posts on his Main Street Beverly blog.

The auto parts store mentioned in his most recent blog post opened a while back. Barraco's new banquet and catering location a few blocks west is under construction. We've seen a few changes on 95th St., but not a lot that's worth noting.

A recent conversation with a friend on related issues inspired me to revisit Jane Jacobs' The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Though it was originally published in the 1960s, many of the observations she made about urban life and urban planning are as relevant today as they were 50+ years ago.

The long-term trend of car-centric planning, widening streets and highways and segregating residential and retail has been disastrous for the vitality of many neighborhood business districts.  Loss of old commercial buildings, as we've seen on 95th St. recently, creates additional barriers to the creation of new small businesses. The following passage from Jane Jacobs' book is as true now as it was in the 1960s.

"If a city area has only new buildings, the enterprises that can exist there are automatically limited to those that can support the high costs of new construction. These high costs of occupying new buildings may be levied in the form of rent, or they may be levied in the form of an owner’s interest and amortization payments on the capital costs of the construction. However the costs are paid off, they have to be paid off. And for this reason, enterprises that support the cost of new construction must be capable of paying a relatively high overhead.

Chain stores, chain restaurants and banks go into new construction. But neighborhood bars, foreign restaurants and pawn go into older buildings. Supermarkets and shoe stores often go into new buildings; good bookstores and antique dealers seldom do. Well-subsidized opera and art museums often go into new buildings. But the unformalized feeders of the arts – studios, galleries, stores for musical instruments and art supplies, backrooms where the low earning power of a seat and a table can absorb uneconomic discussions – these go into old buildings. Perhaps more significant, hundreds of ordinary enterprises, necessary to the safety and public life of streets and neighborhoods, and appreciate for the convenience and personal quality, can make out successfully in old buildings, but are inexorably slain by the high overhead of new construction."

The old pedestrian-centric practice of integrating small retail spaces into residential blocks makes a neighborhood more vibrant. Having small businesses adjacent to homes can make a block much more lively than nearby residential areas that are isolated from small businesses.

The Pullman Cafe in Pullman, Ellie's Cafe in Morgan Park, Kusanya Cafe in Englewood and Ain't She Sweet and Sip and Savor in Bronzeville are good examples of these kinds of spaces.

Conversations about expanding the Divvy Bikes service area further south inspire questions about where we might be able to put stations in between our major business streets and Metra stations in order to effectively service each new neighborhood. Neighborhood small businesses are natural destination for bike share, as well as being more suitable locations than in front of single family homes.

Independent neighborhood businesses can add a special vitality that isn't usually created by chain businesses. Well maintained vintage buildings add to the character of a neighborhood in ways that new construction rarely does. Let's not waste the resources we've got.


For more info on the businesses above, click here:
Pullman Cafe
Ellie's Cafe
Kusanya Cafe
Ain't She Sweet
Sip and Savor


Jane H. said...

I had never thought of the cost of creating new construction being a barrier to small business. From what I have observed in Blue Island (which has had ups and downs in recent years with keeping small businesses alive), the overhead in some of these small buildings can be prohibitively expensive. I wonder if that is from years of deferred upgrades, wear and tear, or something else entirely.

A terrible blow to Blue Island's uptown occurred when the local bank was bought out by a larger bank chain that already had a building in Blue Island's north end. First Midwest closed the existing main bank--which had been there for over 100 years-- and ALSO closed the nearby walk up/drive through branch. Now there is no banking available south of 120th Street, where there once were TWO banks. Not even an ATM drive up. And a weekly reason to go to uptown Blue Island for a large portion of the city was removed in the process. I know that I used to go uptown at least once every two weeks to do my banking, and in the process I would stop at the local Italian grocery store to get some deli meats and cheeses, hit up the little Fruit and Veggie store for greens, then stop at the bakery for bread. Now, except for restaurant visits, I rarely go to Uptown. There just isn't much for me to do there...

Fargo said...

I'd like to see reinvestment in Blue Island. I know the loss of retail (groceries, drug stores) hasn't helped.

I've noticed the pattern for a long time of new construction almost always being occupied by chain businesses. I've asked people with small businesses if they looked at those spaces and they told me what the rents were compared to nearby vintage buildings. The new construction rents were always MUCH higher.

When I lived in Rogers Park, I saw a big negative effect with new construction. Several acres were cleared of old buildings and redeveloped in a location adjacent to the Howard transit terminal. Some of the old buildings were very run down, but many still housed viable businesses. A deal was made to accommodate 2 existing independent businesses in the new construction, but all the other businesses were chains.

Most of the new storefronts stayed vacant for years before they were ever rented. Aside from the Dominick's and Marshalls stores that were anchors for the new development, businesses that opened there usually haven't lasted long. People who hoped to open new businesses there were deterred by very high rents, and discouraged by the condition of some available spaces in vintage buildings nearby. A self storage business ended up taking over a large portion of the previously unoccupied retail space.

Several of the storefronts in the Howard St. development has NEVER been occupied since they were built over 12 years ago. The developer also missed a major opportunity by not getting a connection between the new CTA station and the adjacent park and ride garage, which would have allowed CTA passengers to use the pedestrian bridge to make a direct connection from the station to the main shopping area.