Environment and Government and Economic Development

Small towns with a heart: Spurning sprawl, more towns upbeat on downtown

August 18, 2008

From Andy Griffith's Mayberry, the small town evolved into the likes of Avon, Ind.

The tree-shaded bungalow on Oak Street within walking distance of the town center became the vinyl-clad, single-family home planted in a former cornfield with a contrived name ending in "creek" or "woods" or "farms."

Residents have to jump in the car if they want to buy a cup of coffee or to patronize the predictable chain restaurants and bigbox retailers. The Best Buy on Avon's main drag, Rockville Road, might as well be the Best Buy on Center Road in Avon, Ohio.

And don't bother looking for a "downtown," unless you mean the car-clogged intersection of Rockville Road and State Road 267.

"That area is probably as close as we have to a downtown," said Avon Planning Director Christine Owens.

But even "new" towns like Avon, incorporated in 1995, are revisiting the concept of an urban core where people not only shop and dine but also live and maybe even work.

The Hendricks County town of 10,000-plus has been looking at a sort of "town center" to be located near the existing town hall, which has already become a gathering place, of sorts. The center, close to town government buildings, might someday include a high-density residential and retail development designed to be pedestrian-friendly.

Cities and towns are not deaf to the economic development and tax revenue potential of having a downtown. Some, like Avon, see a downtown as a way to manage their sprawl. High-density development that mixes residential, retail and office development can reduce the need for commuting by car. That means fewer roads to build and sewers to install, and less of all the other costly infrastructure that's hard on the environment.

For a new generation of urban planners, downtown revitalization is a holy application of "environmental sustainability"; for seasoned planners, it's redemption from past sins of ripping down historic sections of downtown.

The recent jump in gasoline prices can't but help the downtown development trend. So does an aging demographic. Many of the 78 million baby boomers no longer have children at home and are looking to downsize, oftentimes preferring the convenience of an urban setting.

And an urban center for diffusive towns like Avon could provide an opportunity to showcase culture unique to the area that's otherwise obscured in the uniformity of parking lots and strip retail centers.

"This vision will really give a sense of place, a sense of identity," said Owens, who hopes Avon's town council might approve yet this summer hiring a consultant to help plan a town center.

Downtown fever

"It's going around all over the country. You're starting to see a formula: Walkability plus identity equals profitability," said Ed McMahon, a senior fellow at the Urban Land Institute.

It's a distinct departure from land planning over the last 40 years that was based on auto mobility, one that has matured into ubiquitous urban sprawl.

"If you can't differentiate your community from anyplace else," added McMahon, "you have no competitive advantage."

West of Avon, in the county seat of Danville, town leaders are trying to make their downtown competitive.

Late last year, they formed Downtown Danville Partnership, a not-for-profit charged with revitalizing the downtown and scaring up grant money for things such as historically correct windows and awnings.

Among the findings of that process was that locals want more restaurants and shopping in the courthouse square area. Despite attractions such as the Mayberry Café, many of the prime window spaces are occupied by title companies and law firms and other utilitarian offerings that urban planners say are better suited for the upper floors of buildings.

U n f o r t u n a t e l y, when it comes to historical bragging rights, many of Danville's buildings are not on the National Register of Historic Places, a situation town official Laura Parker would like to change.

"We could market ourselves with a 'capital H' instead of a 'small H,'" she said.

"People want small-town American character," said Danville Town Manager Gary Eakin. "[Downtown] could become our open-air mall, like Metropolis, in Plainfield."

Though the latter looks somewhat like a downtown, it more closely resembles a Disneyland of name-brand stores, and it lacks the history and culture of a small town.

Danville officials know better than to try to compete with the same kind of stores found at Metropolis. Instead, they're looking at landing more momand-pop businesses, stores whose local owners pride themselves in providing good service. Civic leaders think retailers that offer distinctive and high-quality products are a potentially winning niche. For example, one is unlikely to find at a strip center a store like Wiggles, on the courthouse square, which specializes in fair food favorites such as funnel cakes.

Another goal is to make downtown Danville a hub of social activity. The operators of Royal Theater recently launched an outdoor concert series that draws hundreds to the streets after business hours.

Challenges vary

Turning what's left of its once-bustling downtown into a gathering place is one of the recommendations consulting firm HNTB made for the town of Brownsburg.

"Many of the residents feel that the downtown is no longer the activity center it once was. It has lost most of its historic character. There are [only] a few historic buildings located in Downtown," the report said.

It added that, with the exception of drugstores built there in recent years, many of downtown's existing tenants are "not daily service providers and therefore there is nothing there that stimulates the need for activity" downtown.

Rather than trying to re-create the downtown as a service provider of yesteryear, HNTB recommended turning it into a gathering place for the community, perhaps linked to nearby Arbuckle Acres park.

Brownsburg is on solid footing when it comes to a government presence downtown, having recently completed a new city government complex there.

Some towns are being especially ambitious about their downtown.

A vision plan prepared for Greenwood by Ball State University's College of Architecture and Planning looked at the potential of not only a government center anchoring its old town area, but also shops, arts and recreational facilities and mixed-use development such as "liveover-work" buildings. Everything would be accessible on foot.

"I felt we had to be broad-based with a lot of options," said Greenwood Mayor Charles Henderson of the community whose small-town intimacy was swallowed decades ago by endless retail strips and Greenwood Park Mall.

But might these budding efforts result in downtowns that in a few decades are as generic in theme and offerings as are the monotonous strip centers that now dominate the landscape?

There is some risk of that, said David Schoen, interim chairman of Ball State University's Department of Urban Planning.

But, Schoen said, "every community has a [unique] history" to exploit. "It depends on how they spin it.

"We're all interested in history, even though we might not think so."
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