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.

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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.

Goldilocks and the Two Bears

There are at least 92 Wal-Mart’s and 51 Lowe’s in New York State. Yet, as far as I have been able to determine, there are only three communities similar in size and circumstances to Geneseo which host both of these Big Boxes.

Many places host both a Wal-Mart and a Lowe’s, often across the street from one another. They go together, the latter following the former as part of the sprawling homogenization of the American landscape. However, most of these places are large suburbs, such as Henrietta, Greece, Victor, or Amherst, or medium-sized cities, from Ithaca to Canandaigua to Elmira, Binghamton, and Schenectady.

The three New York communities most comparable to Geneseo – Norwich, Oneida, and Oneonta – represent the best opportunity to look into our future and see what a Lowe’s in Geneseo might mean for future retail development. What happens to a small town when a Wal-Mart is joined by a Lowe’s?

Does this combination satisfy the market, creating just the right amount of retail development (the Goldilocks scenario) or does the opening of the Big Box home improvement retailer near a Wal-Mart contribute to a new wave of chain stores that gobble up open space and small business (the two bears)?

Armed with Google Maps, Wikipedia, and other handy search tools, I have set out to answer these questions.

My criteria for communities comparable to Geneseo is that they be located in a primarily rural county, that they be more than 20 miles away from any city or any community that might be described as a suburb of a larger city, that they be the “market center” of their county, and that the county be comparable in size to ours.

By these criteria, communities somewhat similar to ours (and communities from which we can still learn something), such as Glen Falls, Ogdensburg, Oswego, Canandaigua, and Auburn did not make the cut, mostly because their home counties have multiple market towns or are far larger than Livingston County.

Norwich, a city of 7,500 and a town of an additional 4,000, is the county seat of Chenango County. There are no other large town or villages in the county, which has 52,000 residents, and no other communities that host a big box. The nearest city is Binghamton, 40 miles to the southwest.

Despite its small size, Norwich hosts an array of chain retailers comparable to Geneseo’s, including Super Wal-Mart, Lowe’s, Sears, Peebles, Tractor Supply, Fashion Bug, Sherwin Williams, Eckerd, and Rite Aid, as well as a full complement of chain fast food and auto parts stores. Its Lowe’s, a smaller 122,000 square foot (compared to the 170,000 store proposed here), opened in fall, 2006.

According to a local official with whom I spoke, the opening of the Super Wal-Mart forced the closing of grocery stores in two neighboring towns. The opening of Lowe’s was followed by the closing of a long-time hardware store, a local institution in Norwich.

A local lumber yard is hanging in there, though business is down and its closing “would not come as a surprise.” On top of all this, rumors are flying that Target is interested in the large parcel adjacent to Lowe’s. New, smaller chain businesses have already opened.

Oneida, which was discussed last year, is a city of 11,000 in Madison County, which has a population of 69,000. Though Wampsville is the county seat, Oneida is the undisputed market center and home to the only Big Boxes in the county. It is a former manufacturing center, whose principal industries now are gambling and retail.

The Turning Stone Casino is located north of the mostly hollow town center, just off the Thruway, while retail sprawls to the west. The Five Corners area hosts Super Wal-Mart, Lowe’s, Sears, Tractor Supply, and numerous smaller chains. Big Lots, Dollar Tree, Fashion Bug, and Rite Aid are also found in Oneida. Their Lowe’s, which opened just over a year ago, is 147,000 square feet, including the garden center.

Though it is too soon to know the full effect Lowe’s will have on subsequent retail development in Oneida, an article in this Tuesday’s Syracuse Post-Standard provides an early clue. The developer of the Lowe’s is now proposing a five-store retail plaza right next to it, to host national chain stores.

Oneonta is a city of 13,000 and a town of 5,000 in Otsego County, which has a population of 62,000. It is home to a SUNY campus, Hartwick College, and all of the county’s big boxes. It is located halfway between Binghamton and Schenectady, the largest cities in the area. There are no other large communities in the county, whose seat is Cooperstown.

For a community of its size and circumstances, Oneonta is host to a truly staggering range of chain retailers, including Wal-Mart, Lowe’s, Home Depot, Kmart (now closed), Steve & Barry’s (an 82,000 square foot chain clothing store that replaced Kmart), JC Penney, Sears, Tractor Supply, Bath & Body Works, Bed Bath & Beyond, Foot Locker, Office Max, Fashion Bug, Radio Shack, FYE, GNC, Borders, Waldenbooks, Sherwin Williams, Rite Aid, and Eckerd. More chains are on the way in this very active retail market.

What do we learn from this exercise? Most importantly, that there are few New York communities like Geneseo with a Wal-Mart and a Lowe’s. We also learn that Lowe’s sets a precedent that attracts more chain retail development to host communities, even in small towns and small counties.

Just as Lowe’s follows Wal-Mart, the communities whose Lowe’s have been opened the longest host the most retail sprawl and experience a second wave of retail development. That the Lowe’s proposed for Geneseo is significantly larger than in comparable communities suggests a stronger possible pull for follow-on retailers.

I should also point out that median family income in Livingston County is $50,513, considerably higher than in Chenango County ($39,711), Madison County ($47,889), or Otsego County ($41,110).

Considered in conjunction with the prominent presence of chain retailers in Geneseo and the availability of land in the Gateway, approving Newman’s PDD application promises plenty of sprawl in our future.

A final note: I think that understanding the precedent that would be set by the opening of a Lowe’s is the most important issue Geneseo faces in deciding whether or not to approve Lowe’s. It is that precedent that will determine how much additional traffic and sprawl we will face.

I invite readers to scrutinize the communities I have identified as comparable and the conclusions I have drawn from those communities and to suggest alternative communities and conclusions. Feel free to post a comment or send me an e-mail.

Stormy Weather in the Forecast

Clouds are building on the horizon. Beyond the horizon, there are reports of quite a storm. Though forecasts vary, in both the timing and the intensity of the storm, forecasters are coming into the agreement that we are in for some unpleasantness.

The elements of this storm are not wind, snow, and frigid temperatures, though all of those are also in the local forecast. The storm I’m concerned about is caused by the combination of increasing inflation, flat incomes, declining home values, and increasing gas prices.

Headlines about foreclosures, a credit crunch, weak holiday sales reports, and $3.00 gas are abundant. Read deeper than the headlines and you find forecasts of $100/barrel oil and $4/gallon gas in 2008. There are predictions that foreclosures will surge, the housing recession will deepen, and house prices will fall 20-30% before the market hits bottom in a few years.

All of this leads to talk of a recession, even a serious recession. Some forecasters think it has already begun. Others think it will begin by spring. More and more think it is unavoidable, a view few shared even a month or two ago.

As we all know, sometimes the forecasters are wrong. Sometimes the storm fizzles and we get an inch instead of a foot or rain instead of snow or it misses us entirely. The old joke goes that economists have predicted nine of the last five recessions.

Only time will tell. A few points are worth noting, however. The recent surge in retail development – in Geneseo and across the American landscape – happened because of an extended period of really favorable weather, a kind of economic global warming. As I’ve written about before, cheap gas and cheap money conspired to give us cheap prices in cheap buildings.

Those sunny days are over. Now we get to see just how much too much retail sprawl occurred. Expect slower retail growth and more vacancies. There are early signs of this in Geneseo, and the retail bubble has only started to deflate.

A more important point is that it is conditions like these that should remind us the value of smart growth. Growth that is planned, that provides for a mix of development, and that respects the character of the community in which it occurs is growth that is sustainable. No economy is recession-proof. However, an economy that supports local businesses, that understands that not every day is sunny, and that understands that people need places to make money and not just spend it, is an economy that will withstand the storm.

Past and future

(Amsterdam, NL) With the benefit of a generous per diem from Corrin – but no relief from my duties as a columnist – your intrepid smart growth reporter has traveled to Holland and England this week to check out how the Dutch and British live, work, shop, and get around.

I’ve never been to Europe. As a social scientist with a professional interest in the social policies and social arrangements of industrialized nations, I have read plenty about it and felt a real need to see it myself. Now that I am here, I can see just how different the States are even from those countries most like us and from which many of us came.

As I write this, I am on a bus traveling from Amsterdam to Delft and the Hague for a day of sightseeing. I’m happy to report that one site I haven’t seen is a Big Box (check that: there is an IKEA just outside of Delft, next to the highway).

As I understand it, the preciousness of space in such a small nation, strong environmental sensibilities, and lower levels of emphasis on shopping and consumption as activities, conspire against the development of the vast retail complexes so common to the United States. As evidence, I offer a statistic I saw recently: the U.S. has approximately 20 square feet of retail space person, while European nations average approximately 2 square feet.

That’s a big difference, and it isn’t attributable to differences in income.

What I have seen in huge numbers are bikes. They are used by everyone: men in suits, older women in dresses, mothers and children. In the rain they open umbrellas; when the cell phone rings they answer it.

To accommodate these bikes there are bike lanes everywhere, special bike signals on stop lights, and a well-developed set of rules to coordinate the street cars, buses, cars, bikes, and pedestrians found on many roads. It all works remarkably well, though you need to be careful not to steer into the street car tracks.

Just outside the central train station in the heart of the city is a three-tiered bike parking garage with thousands of bikes. Groups of dozens or hundreds of bikes are found outside offices. Bikes are parked along the length of every sidewalk.

This emphasis on bikes is related to the same space and environmental concerns that limit sprawl. Gas at 1.45 Euros a litre, which translates to approximately $7 or $8 a gallon, is the result of the same concerns. High gas taxes encourage modes of transportation other than cars, fund environmental initiatives, support compact social arrangements, and contribute to healthier children and adults.

It has become fashionable within the increasingly go it alone, our way or the highway, United States to refer to Europe as “old Europe” and to regard it as quaint, old-fashioned, and inefficient, as a tourist destination, a sort of non-plastic Disneyland.

I see it differently. Europe is a long way from perfect and the open spaces and individualism of the United States suit my sensibilities. At the same time, in being here, I think I have traveled into the future. With gas prices headed up as oil supplies begin what appears to be long term tightness and a reality-based policy on climate change inevitable at some point in our future, there are good reasons for us to think about how we might drive and shop and sprawl less.

Fortunately, we won’t need to look too hard or too far to figure out what to do. We don’t even have to look to Europe, really. We could just look to the Main Streets and neighborhoods our ancestors built when they first emigrated from the shores I am visiting.

Grading Geneseo

Bad news, folks. As I mentioned in last week’s column (below), the site selection folks from Applebee’s have identified Geneseo as a “C” community. They gave Henrietta an “A” and Canandaigua a “B.” We got a C, barely passing in this era of rampant grade inflation.

According to the standards established by the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE), Geneseo’s Route 20A gets a “C” level of service grade between intersections and a C, D, E, or F at most intersections.

Though the National Park Service does not give grades, it is concerned enough about the health of our National Historic Landmark District that we have been placed on its “watch” list. Likewise for the Environmental Protection Agency, which has identified Conesus Lake as an impaired body of water.

Add to these evaluations the County’s rejection of the Village’s proposed master plan and the strong opposition and open threats of litigation toward that plan by commercial developers, all resulting from that plan’s effort to rein in large scale retail development.

Running through these different evaluations is a clear pattern: retail developers and their supporters evaluate Geneseo based on its ability to deliver traffic (customers, dollars, sales tax revenue) to them. The consequences of this – for the quality of life of Geneseo residents, for the capacity of our infrastructure and the downstream costs of repairing it, for our historic heritage, for the health of our environment and our drinking water – are not their concern.

Retail developers want us to be Henrietta. Their vision of our future is a new big box replacing the Ames Plaza, a new big box between there and the Super Wal-Mart, and a new big box or two in the Gateway District. Their promise to us is that it will look nice. Miles of aisles, acres of free parking, gridlocked roads, but attractive facades and nice landscaping.

It was said again at Tuesday’s public hearing on the master plan that we needn’t worry, that Geneseo’s limits of growth had been reached, that the market had found its level, that there would be no more big boxes. I don’t believe it.

If Applebee’s thinks we’re a C market, it must also believe we’re on our way to earning a B or better. The vehement opposition of developers to our master plan suggests the same. They see a big “upside” to Geneseo, and they are willing to threaten and sue to realize that upside.

Sprawl begets sprawl. Sprawl chases cars, cars chase sprawl, and before you know it you’re in Henrietta. Read the road signs; we’re getting closer.

A new anchor for Main Street

The pending relocation of Swain Sports, the locally grown and popular sporting goods store, from Chain St. to Main St. is a great development for Geneseo’s Downtown. Its new home in the now vacant Scoville Building represents the ideal marriage of a large, landmark storefront with an active local business. The result, I believe, will be a new anchor for Main Street.

Swain is a great business for Main St. It is locally-owned and locally grown. It is large and successful. It is equally appealing to college students and full-time residents. It will be far more accessible to children than is the present location. It will serve to draw people to neighboring businesses.

Also, as a retail business with a broad range of goods and services, I think it will improve the mix of businesses on Main St. In recent years, Main St. has seemed to tip away from the vibrant mix of retail, professional offices, and food and beverage establishments that is critical to drawing a broad range of people to Main Street throughout the year. Frequently heard comments about too much pizza and too many tattoo parlors express a concern that the street doesn’t provide enough places for people to go to meet their needs.

On top of this, having a sports store, a store that encourages people to walk and run and bike, in a location on Route 20A to which you could not safely walk or run or bike, never seemed right. It’s like taking the elevator to the fitness center, buying a double cheeseburger and a diet Coke, or placing the Town Center shopping plaza on the edge of town.

Moving from 20A to Main Street is a great way of unifying theory and practice. Now more people, particularly kids, will be able to walk and ride to the store to check out bikes and skates and bats and balls. This is precisely the type of community-building business a Main Street needs.

Though you may think this nostalgic or exaggerated, when you consider the broad range of modern ailments that flow from our overreliance on cars – from health problems related to physical inactivity to social isolation to climate change to loss of open space – you understand the smart in smart growth.

Every step in that direction, and Swain’s move to Main St. is one small step, strengthens our community. Let’s hope it is a sign of more to come, perhaps a theatre, a hardware store, a corner store….