Tuesday, April 24, 2012

If we rezone it, they will come: about Salemtown's Field of Dreams myth

The Salemtown officers have been holding meetings during the first quarter of this year with developers and real estate people to leverage a mixed use plan for sections of our neighborhood. Recently, they decided to open the question to the membership and to other neighbors at the back-end of the process. Their survey is not the most objective information-seeker and members have not been prepared to respond with open consideration of all the facts--good, bad, and indifferent--before taking the survey.

For the record, in the half-a-dozen or mixed use requests that I have encountered in the 8 years I've lived here, I have supported some and opposed some, but I have never dismissed the idea of mixed use.

However, I have to say that I have never seen such enthusiastic, blind faith in mixed use as recently expressed by the Salemtown association's Executive Board. They seem prepared to embrace any and all mixed use around the neighborhood regardless of consequences that are clearly observable in other North End neighborhoods.

They sent out a survey that misleads about what will go into mixed use in Salemtown and that double loads mixed use with a conservation overlay, which itself opens a host of other problems and questions before the mixed use issue is even resolved. Here is the first 2/3rd's of the survey with some of my responses written in:

Yep. I called the survey exactly the way I see it: push-polling (a poll that does not really poll but instead biases people's responses).

Even the small amount of space for comments limits feedback. A couple of sentences in the comment section can barely express the empirical evidence around us weighted against claims that mixed use without businesses-at-hand will enhance our quality of life.

But I have this chronicle on Salemtown with all the space I require to cite the plain evidence that weighs against blind rezoning efforts.

Boarded- up retail space in mixed-use development, corner of
4th Av N & Monroe St.,  Germantown (Google Maps, 2009)
In the first place, you can plan mixed use--absent business demand for mixed use in Salemtown--but simply rezoning is a leap of faith that does not guarantee takers. In fact, even building mixed use ahead of time does not guarantee that a business will respond to the empty space. Germantown is often mentioned as a model of mixed use for Salemtown. And yet, not all of their mixed use is thriving as hoped. A corner shop at 4th Avenue North and Monroe Street constructed 4-5 years ago sat boarded up for years after completion. Only this year does it look like interior work is being done by the property owner, but there are still "for lease" signs up in the windows. I am aware of no demand for the space.

Given that a mixed use property can sit idle and boarded for years in Germantown (very near very popular City House restaurant), why should we assume that Salemtown would fare any better? In fact, I would assume that it would take us even longer than renowned Germantown to attract clients for any mixed use built here. Other small businesses in Germantown in mixed use properties (including a coffeeshop) have cut back their business hours for lack of customers. Why would we assume that Salemtown would provide enough foot traffic to keep such businesses open if Germantown cannot? It seems to me we should be supporting and patronizing struggling Germantown businesses, within walking distance of our homes, rather hoping that demand for businesses will pop up simply because we rezone properties here.

Bail bonds business will be mixed use
less than 5 blocks from Salemtown.
In the second place, there are no guarantees that when we set aside mixed use absent demand for it, we will get the kind of stores we want: the ones that enhance the overall quality of life beyond the simplistic calculus of property values. Hope Gardens is a cautionary tale for Salemtown. They have dense mixed use coming to the vacant corner of 10th Avenue North and Jefferson Street. The problem: the anchor of the development is a party-busing bail bonds business which profanes a noble idea of Martin Luther King, Jr. in its name. It's not the kind of small business I would feel a connection to if I lived in Hope Gardens regardless of the mixed use mantra. We can dream all we want to about building to attract "coffeehouses and nail salons" but then be slapped by the reality that it attracted payday loan merchants and tattoo parlors. If we rezone it, anyone can come.

Let's consider mixed use. But let's consider the merits of each request as they come from developers rather than putting the cart before the horse, as this "Salemtown Survey" does. And for Pete's sake, let's hope that our association officers can send us more objective and neutral future surveys to live up to the appearance of gathering information.


  1. Mike - A friend was interested in the retail space at 4th and Monroe. The primiary factor in his decision not to lease the space was a prohibitively high rental rate. Granted, he wanted to use that space as an office and perhaps the rate is geared more toward another use. As a Hope Gardens resident, I hope the strip-center retail 'plaza' never materializes at 10th and Jefferson. It's embarrassing and no the kind of mixed-use I want in my neighborhood, especially in such a prominent location.

  2. Actually I just looked at the Free at Last Plaza website, and the new design is actually not bad. The older rendering on the site's billboards is completely different. The name must go, though.