American cities shouldn't ignore the simple, low-risk ways of growing, an expert in guiding their development says.

Charles Marohn, the founder and president of the Minnesota-based nonprofit Strong Towns, spoke at a conference in Decatur last week and advocated making small investments in projects over decades and basing them on the needs and struggles of people in the community.

“This incremental way of building over time is adaptable and flexible and incredibly productive,” Marohn said during his "Curbside Chat" at Main Street Alabama’s annual Alabama Downtown Laboratory. “That’s how we build wealth and make places successful.”

He said that instead of pursuing large-scale transformative projects to build strong towns, “we need to invert this process and turn it on its head."

Marohn shared a simple storefront initiative that was used in Muskegon, Michigan, where "the downtown was struggling with empty storefronts."

The city secured donations from the local chamber of commerce, a community foundation and other organizations to build on a vacant block a dozen wooden "chalets." Ranging from 90 to 150 square feet, at a cost of about $5,000 per building, the units were rented to startup entrepreneurs selling clothes, gifts, crafts and food. 

“Downtown is now full of businesses,” he said.

Marohn, a professional engineer licensed in the State of Minnesota and a land use planner with 20 years of experience, spent a couple of days in downtown Decatur last week.

“I saw a lot of good building blocks to build on,” Marohn said. “The surrounding neighborhoods are nice.”

The challenge: “It’s all designed around driving everywhere,” he said. “It puts a huge burden on downtown to park everybody.

“If I was to give one bit of advice it would be to reconnect downtown to the surrounding neighborhoods so the default way to get around is by walking,” Marohn said. “Success from that follows immediately.”

Marohn described America's modern development pattern — with suburban malls, big-box stores and subdivisions with winding streets and the infrastructure to accommodate the growth that becomes, over time, a financial drain for a city — a “growth Ponzi scheme.”

“All this growth creates the illusion of wealth,” he said.

“What we’re used to is pop-up, instant success,” but success is the result of “an incremental process over decades,” he said.

Marohn, author of the book “Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity,” which will be released Oct. 1, showed an example of what it means to build incrementally, with photos taken in his own hometown, Brainerd, Minnesota, starting from its early days.

The first photo shows the town, circa 1870, with a series of what Marohn called “popup shacks.” The second photo shows the same street in 1904, with the shacks replaced by more substantial structures and a third photo, from around 1945, in which the two- and three-story wood structures were replaced with buildings of brick and granite.

“This type of development (process) allows for people to start with nothing and end up with something,” he said.

Next for Decatur

Rick Paler, the executive director of Decatur Downtown Redevelopment Authority, had his own before-and-after photos to show during the event and they displayed Decatur redevelopment efforts that started a decade ago with streetscape improvements along Second Avenue, Bank Street and Lee Street.

“Before we could do anything we had to make it appealing, we had to do the streetscape,” Paler said. “Why would somebody want to come (downtown) if you’re not willing to invest in the aesthetics of downtown to begin with?”

The downtown’s redevelopment has moved pretty quickly since then, considering the amount of money invested by public and private sources and how drastic the changes have been, Paler said.

“I think it’s been successful,” he said.

Among the mix of projects that followed: an historic depot was transformed into a public railroad museum and satellite police station, an empty lot became Walden Oaks Park, the Cook Museum of Natural Science was built at the former location of an auto parts store, the Daikin Amphitheater was built at Founders Park, and a residential/mixed-use development, 307 Second Avenue, put a mix of lofts and retail into a renovated building.

One of the next steps for Decatur's downtown in Paler's view is to have more people live there.

“Residential is a critical component for downtown,” said Paler. He'd also like to see some smaller specialty food shops, specialty groceries, hardware and drug stores, and a mercantile store move into the downtown area.

"Those are the things that serve the needs in a walkable, city center residential area, which is what we want our downtown to be," he said.

Grassroots development

Marohn believes that simple grassroots projects can pay off for a community.

“Innovation that happens from the top down tends to be orderly but dumb,” he said, while “innovation that happens from the bottom up tends to be chaotic but smart.”

An example of a “bottom up” initiative, called “A New Face for an Old Broad,” involved volunteers, property owners and area business leaders who transformed a block of vacant stores on Broad Avenue in Memphis for a weekend in November 2010.

Bike lanes and crosswalks were painted on the streets, street lights and benches were added and temporary businesses like a taco shop, ice cream store and bike shop were set up.

There was no public investment in the project, Marohn said, and eventually every storefront along that stretch was occupied.

The traditional development pattern, even when the area is in a rundown condition, can “financially outperform the stuff we’re building today," Marohn said.

Marohn compared two blocks in his hometown to demonstrate that point: an “old and blighted block, built in the 1920s when neighborhoods were built incrementally over time, and the other, a “shiny and new” block where the buildings were torn down and replaced with a new drive-through taco restaurant. Both are the same size and are located in the same neighborhood and on the same thoroughfare with the same amount of public infrastructure.

The “old and blighted” block, with its restaurant, barber shop, liquor stores, Army surplus store, pawn shop and bankruptcy attorney’s office, has a total annual taxation value of just over $1.1 million, while the “shiny and new” block has a total taxation value of $618,000, according to Marohn.

“Even the dilapidated piece of property is more valuable,” he said. or 256-340-2438. Twitter @DD_MAccardi.
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