Man, I was a lot busier on that plane than I remembered… After posting the first few sections of the long thing that I started writing for no objective reason except that I’ve been thinking about downtowns and entrepreneurs and economics a lot lately, I am finding that I got a little farther into the analysis of opportunties than I thought I did. You can read my earlier discussions of the challenges I’m starting to think downtowns are facing here, here, here and here. And I’m still welcoming your feedback.
Your Best Opportunity Stems from your Assets
There is a subtle counter-current in economic and community development that is often referred to as Asset Based Development. It’s a pretty straightforward premise: What do you have to work with, and what’s the best thing you can make out of what you already have?
For a moment, let’s apply that strategy to our downtowns. I probably upset some downtown supporters with that last section – pointing out all the things that being a traditional downtown prevent you from having (and that those governments thatwe want to help us, want to spend their time and money on). So now let’s turn that around: what do downtowns have, and what could we do with them?
Downtowns and other traditional commercial disticts very typically have a few common assets (yours may have some level of these, and it may have others):
Buildings that look and feel different from other places (often older buildings with different kinds of details and finishes.
Buildings that are divided into smaller floor spaces than in other parts of town.
A relatively high number of business spaces relatively close to each other, which means that you can physically move from one to another with less personal effort than it might take somewhere else (especially if you had to do it by walking).
A relatively wide mix of people, probably wider than the typical office park or cul-de-sac neighborhood. Old, young, weathy, poor, different looks, different sounds. Like you, not like you.
Public spaces – places where people can be without having to buy something or have someone’s permission to be there. Sidewalks, benches, street corners, parks.
Note that I have defined all of these, not in terms of how they’re traditional or The Way Things Used To Be, but in terms of how they differ from other, often more recently-constructed places in town.
I did that on purpose.
I did that to highlight something that we all basically know, but we don’t think of as an asset: the scale of life in a downtown is different from other types of places. Instead of
[graphic of a bunch of relatively large squares spread out]
our downtowns have
[graphic of tightly packed small squares]
Now, those of you who are already downtown/new urbanist acolytes, don’t jump ahead of me. The message here isn’t the tightly packed small squares are better!!!
The message here is that the tightly packed small squares are different.
What I’m working toward here is an economic argument: That Which Makes You Unique Makes You Valuable [I wrote about this here].
What you are willing to pay for something – anything – depends on something more sophisticated than the old Supply and Demand mantra we learned in high school. I will pay more for something if it is unique or distinctive AND it promises to meet my needs in a way that other things can’t. A price premium – the kind needed to make a real viable market when cheaper basic options are available — requires both. If it meets my needs but it’s not unique, the availabilty of cheaper, basically comparable products will push the price I am willing to pay for the unique thing lower. If it’s unique but it doesn’t meet my needs, it’s price won’t matter to me because I don’t want it.
Therefore, downtown’s new market opportunties will be those types of uses that not only like downtown spaces –that appreciate ornate moldings and access to good coffeee — but will benefit from the full range of assets the place provides in a meaningful way.
Let’s talk about an Asset: Small Space
Who would view a small space as an asset?
We’re used to thinking of space –floor space, acreage — as a if-some-is-good-more-is-better kind of resource. New house sizes have more than doubled in the past 40 years, while our households get smaller. We assume that everyone needs to be able to get away from everyone else, everyone gets their own room, their own bathroom. We want “elbow room,” which often ends up being Rooms Between Our Elbows. In the western world, among people of even pretty modest means, we want to have more room than we absolutely need.
More room means more cost. More room means more space to clean, to repair, more stuff to buy to make it look not empty, More space to monitor to make sure no one is breaking in or doing something they shouldn’t.
More space to pay rent or mortgage on, more space to heat and light and air condition.
So if you’re a business, in a world where your competitors seem to multiply every day and pressure to hold your costs in check never lets us, Elbow Room increasingly looks like money misspent.
We’ve seen this in office work for decades. When I started my first planning job in a 1960s building, I had an office with real walls and a door that locked with a click and a wall of filing cabinets and two bookcases. And I was not anything special; everyone’s office looked like that. After a few years, we moved to a 1980s building with almost no closed-off spaces. My office was enclosed by five-foot tall cubicle walls, which surrounded a desk, two side tables, a bookcase and a couple of filing cabinets. A couple of years later we moved to a newer building, and soon walls and bookcases had been reduced to a glorifed computer-holding wall and a three-foot sort of cubby. And while I personally missed the privacy (writers have to concentrate sometimes), I could collaborate with my colleagues a little more easily and it turned out that I didn’t miss the additional stuff Today, many of my colleagues work in hotelling offices, their work contained in a laptop bag and cloud files and their office for any given day consisting of whatever chair and worktable the computer system tells them is avaiable when they walk into wherever they are today. Since everyone isn’t in the building at the same time, you don’t need a separate desk for each person, and there’s no point in heating and lighting a space that’s vacant half the time. As a result, office space per employeed and total office size per establishment has been dropping since the early 2000s.
Similarly, take a visit to the new workplaces of this century – co-working spaces, coffee shops, park benches on the plaza, spare bedrooms. Look at how much space each person working actually consumes, and compare that to those Mad Men – era offices I described in the last paragraph.
The same broad trend holds for many types of retailers. If you go to the Container Park in Downtown Las Vegas today (a sort of surrogate town center for a community whose downtown isn’t very traditional, constructed mostly of shipping containers), and you go up to the third level on the west side, you’ll find the Art Box. Art Box sells jewelry, accessories, glass work — little items. They are housed in a half of a shipping container – a space that’s about 15 feet deep. They carry, incredibly, works by about 40 Las Vegas area artisans and crafters — individuals, mostly with full-time gigs doing something else, who made items and sold them at a local market, since there was apparently no other store in town that would sell locally-made crafts.
In a 15X10X10 space, Art Box is pleasantly well-stocked, with interesting things hanging or sitting everywhere you look. In a larger space — say, the conventional downtown store, 30 or 40 feet wide and 100 feet deep or more — Art Box would look half-empty, depleted, dispiriting. It’s not like most of the artisans can make that much more stuff in their non-existent additional free time. Mix that negative first impression with three or more times higher costs in a bigger space, and it’s not likely that an experiment like Art Box could have gotten off the ground.