Wednesday, July 28, 2010

How To Destroy Your Downtown

The announcement: the first mall in the area is opening outside the city limits.

Rats like J.C. Penny and Wards quickly swim away to the new luxury liner. OK, downtown has taken a major hit from an iceberg, water is seeping in, but with some insight and foresight the old vessel can stay afloat. Gotta fix the leaks, tighten up the bolts.

So how to retain shoppers downtown? Maybe promote small niche shops that you would never find at The Mall? Compete differently? Naw, that won't work.

What draws people are one-way streets and wide sidewalks. So convert Main Street to one-way traffic -- even though it's confusing with the one-way streets already in place -- and widen the sidewalks for the throngs that never show up.

But one-way streets can be a major advantage. You're walking down Main Street, kicking tumbleweed out of the way, and a car pulls up next to you. The driver asks for directions.

You reply: "The Mall? That's simple. Follow this one-way street to the next corner, turn right and then follow that one way street until you see The Mall."

Another time a driver -- a rare event -- will ask how to get to a shop located in the downtown area. You stop and think. The easiest way would be the next turn but that's a one-way street going in the wrong direction. The next turn after that would work but that places the driver on the one-way street two blocks down from where it has to go. Maybe if he drives three blocks down, takes a left on that one-way street, then passes the next one-way street...

It would be easier to figure out a launch window for a space probe to the Bizarro World than to come up with driving directions to get someone to a downtown shop just around the corner.

They say the three top factors for a successful business are location, location, location. But not when you have to use calculation, calculation, calculation to get there.

When it comes to making decisions, the city council is great at committee work. They'll put their empty heads together -- or at least knock them together -- trying to find a solution for saving downtown. Like they say: A platypus is an eagle designed by a committee.

One reason why people like The Mall: free parking. So what should your downtown do? Leave in the parking meters for a couple of years after The Mall opens. That brings in customers. After all, it's entertaining to feed coins into a parking meter. Kids are just fascinated by the technology. Fun for the whole family.

But one day someone notices there isn't much loot being collected from the meters. How about free range parking, let people park where they want? Can't do that. Let those anarchists running The Mall engage in such chaos. The city leaders decide to rip up the meters and put in time-limited parking. A meter maid walks around and tickets cars that overstay the allotted period proscribed by municipal authority. This way someone won't park in one spot all day, making to hard for someone to find an open spot.

Does this take care of complaints about downtown parking? Does a platypus look like an eagle? It's still too hard to find an open parking spot.

Parking problem? Not so, says one businessperson and city councilor with a downtown shop. The parking problem is just a "perception." There really isn't a problem.

Then that businessperson moves the shop to an uptown plaza with a large parking lot, no time limits, plenty of convenient parking. Why did the businessperson move? The convenient parking, of course.

It's all about perception.

Like I said, insight and foresight. Ask the city leaders about a grand vision or design for downtown. They look like deer in the headlights just before impact.

That's the thing about the impending future: it has no brakes.

Maybe downtown could at least provide a small shop with everyday items at reasonable prices. Something like a dollar store. That would help people living there who don't own a car. Such a shop would take care of basic needs. But the city can't even do that.

Excuse me, I have to wrap up this essay now. I have to catch a bus to The Mall to buy some light bulbs, soap, and paper towels.


Anonymous said...

Sorry, its not the city's responsibility to installl a dollar store downtown. Its simple economics -- the sales generated downtown do not pay the cost of goods, rent and overhead, and profit needed for survival.
Burlington reacted to its malls and big box stores differently -- they created the charming Church St. marketplace, with a downtown mall, neatly tied into walking facilities to the lakefront and ferry.

Anonymous said...

The Plattsburgh-origin ferry docks in Grand Isle, VT, a rural area. The Burlington-origin ferry docks in Port Kent, NY, a rural area.
Why not change Plattsburgh's ferry dock to downtown (and use that unproductive parking lot for commuters) and establish a direct Plattsburgh / Burlington ferry service?
Its goofy that Lake Champlain Transportation does not link these two population centers so pedestrian travelers can move from city to city, and the economic benefit be realized.