Mixed use” was once a dirty word in the rural and semi-rural South, where land is plentiful and cheap, and we like our large single-residence lots and drive just about everywhere we go.

No more.

Sure, land here is still plentiful and cheap, at least compared to on the coasts, but it’s not as much of either as it used to be. Cities and towns that once annexed their way to growth now weep for there are no new lands to annex. And while we still drive just about everywhere we go, who wants to put up with the traffic for each and every errand?

So, even here cities are embracing smaller lot sizes and flexible, mixed-use zoning. While Decatur seems finally to be emerging from its residential malaise, with several new housing developments in various stages of development, the growth allowed by the city leaders’ decision to allow more leeway in zoning has a head start.

We see the results in new businesses along Sixth Avenue, replacing old, abandoned and sometimes dilapidated buildings. And we see it downtown, where “mixed use” not only is no longer a dirty word, it’s the main draw — restaurants, retail, entertainment, education, arts and offices all within walking distance of each other.

A new hotel and parking garage on Second Avenue will continue to reshape downtown into a more diverse, pedestrian-oriented environment.

Another developer is looking at another portion of Second Avenue, where there is currently a small, city-owned parking area just north of Grant Street, for a mixed residential-retail development.

Kelly Thomas, the new director of the Decatur Downtown Redevelopment Authority, wants to extend that philosophy to the city’s riverfront area, where Libby Sims Patrick is already working to convert the historic McEntire House site into a destination site that includes a boutique hotel, upscale restaurant and café.

“We’d like to see some development come in there, apartments, restaurants, entertainment in our five-year plan. That is one of our goals,” Thomas said. “Libby’s development is going to be huge for that piece of the puzzle. We’re so thankful that she has taken that investment on, and she’s preserving a piece of our history. We want to see the river become more accessible to pedestrians with walkways, bike trials. A kayak ramp is in the five-year plan. We want to make the riverfront a place where people want to spend time.”

These changes come as the larger economy is changing. Working remotely from home, with only occasional trips into the office, was rare. The COVID pandemic, however, gave the practice a significant boost. Even as things go back to normal, remote work will remain a significant part of the landscape, and people who work out of their homes, especially, appreciate living in walkable environments where everything they need is within just a few city blocks.

These changes are here to stay, and unlike in past decades, Decatur seems poised to take advantage of them.

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