Category Archives: Smart Growth

To the Table, Reluctantly

I don’t like the Gateway Town Center proposal. I don’t like anything about it.

I don’t think we need another big box and we surely don’t need another pharmacy. I don’t like the effects a Lowe’s will have on locally-owned hardware, lumber, appliance, kitchen and bath, and garden stores throughout the county. I am concerned that even more retail for Geneseo will mean even less business for every other surrounding burgh.

I don’t like the effects of another huge retail plaza on already congested roads. 20A is already overcapacity, as indicated by all the Geneseoans who refuse to use it. More traffic and more sprawl will do more damage to our community’s character and our Historic Landmark status.

I don’t think large-scale retail in small towns and rural counties is viable in the long term. Rising fuel prices and the slowly dawning reality that a nation cannot continually spend more than it earns will soon leave us with far more retail space that we can fill.

I particularly don’t like the tactics that have been used by Newman and others to see this project built. The Planned Development District (PDD) law was enacted to subvert local planning and zoning, no two ways about it. The Gateway was never intended for large-scale retail development. Good people on the defunct master plan committee, the Planning Board, and in the public have been treated badly due to their opposition to this project.

For all these reasons and others, I’d like nothing more than for Newman to pack it up and leave. I believe that’s what’s best for the community and I believe that’s what the law requires.

For all these reasons and others, it’s hard for me to – I’m having troubling finding and typing the words – say that I support the Planning Board’s efforts to find a compromise.

Their effort to minimize the worst effects of the proposed Lowe’s by requiring a smaller building facing Volunteer Road with only limited access to 20A is noble. They have breathed some life back into the zoning for the Gateway. They have tried to use the PDD law as it should be used – to allow “flexibility” in development – rather than to eviscerate local zoning. They have tried to limit the sprawl to the east by directing development down Volunteer Road.

In the process, they have helped to bring this matter closer to a much-needed conclusion and to avoid protracted litigation.

I have my concerns with their proposed compromise. I think the proposed Lowe’s should be required to be the 94,000 square foot model that Lowe’s advertises as its small town model. (It’s crazy how what was once huge – the size of our first Wal-Mart – is now “small”.) I think every effort should be made to ensure that the 20A access being permitted for trucks and emergency vehicles doesn’t become the entrance to the next big plaza to the east.

Most of all, I think the Planning Board and the Town Board must resist any effort to undo the compromise that has been reached.

Finally, I also think it would be a good idea for the Planning Board to direct the Town Board to scrap the PDD law, or at least modify it to limit how much proposals can deviate from the existing zoning. Let this be the last time the community goes through such an ordeal.

The Full Value of Main Street

The Business section of last Sunday’s (March 23) Democrat & Chronicle included a front page article on the problems faced by Main Street businesses in a retail economy dominated by Big Boxes and other chains.

I was pleased to see it. As the article pointed out, with some choice quotes from Geneseo’s Louise Wadsworth, Main Streets are struggling to find their place, their market niche, as centers of value, service, and specialization, in a shopping landscape of malls, strip malls, plazas, and power centers.

Yet, I came away from the article with a sense that it was a story only half told. While we all recognize the appeal – nostalgic, quaint, attractive, authentic, human-scaled – of Main Streets, and while we all root for their success, their value is far more than just to our senses. Main Streets and locally-owned businesses are a critical cog in a healthy and sustainable local economy.

To draw some attention to this other half of the story, I wrote the following letter to the editor:

Sunday’s article, “Village stores struggling,” was a welcome reminder of the costs that Big Boxes and retail sprawl have on Main Streets and locally-owned businesses. I’m sure many of us feel a sense of loss at the closing of these businesses.

Missing from the article, however, was a consideration of just how great an economic loss this represents. The value of Main Streets is not simply the authentic alternative they provide to chain stores or the nostalgic longing that they satisfy.

Money spent in local businesses is more likely to stay in the community, to pay local workers and suppliers, earn interest in local banks, pay for local advertising, be counted by local accountants, and support local charities. This “local premium” pays significant dividends not paid by chain businesses.

Local businesses deserve our patronage. They also deserve the support of lawmakers. Zoning that limits store sizes and discourages sprawl, limits on subsidies to retailers, and efforts to insure that developers bear the costs they impose on infrastructure are a good place to start.

The “local premium” that I refer to is real and quantifiable, though rarely do we go to the trouble. Research by Civic Economics, the state of the art practitioners of economic impact analyses, has found that local businesses “generate more than three times the local economic activity of their competitor chain stores on equal revenue.” I expect to hear more about this at next week’s APOG conference on economic development.

Though the economic impact analysis that has been conducted for the proposed Geneseo Lowe’s is a great step forward in the thorough local review of development proposals, it does not consider the local premium. Rather, it includes only the most easily quantified impacts: on jobs and taxes.

Even there, it tends to favor positive impacts, measuring the new property and sales taxes that will be provided by the Lowe’s store, but not measuring the property taxes that will be lost by residential properties devalued by traffic and commercial properties – throughout the county – devalued by excess capacity. Likewise for jobs, with new jobs and wages easily measured, while jobs and hours worked that are lost and wages that are held down are harder to measure.

Patronizing Main Streets is not simply an exercise in nostalgia or a way to find that hard-to-find item. It is an investment in our communities. Without that investment, the community, in the many senses of the word, will be lost.