Saturday, October 29, 2016

Community Allies: the virtue of locally-owned businesses

Ellen Shepard of Community Allies
As Cedar Rapids prepares to welcome two more strip malls on the edge of town, and one of our malls announces a new franchise tenant, it's instructive and inspiring to hear evidence that the most potent tax-gathering areas in towns of any size are downtowns and Main Streets, and that locally-owned businesses contribute far above their weight when it comes to developing strong communities. Those messages were crisply presented by Ellen Shepard in a talk Friday at Loyola University's Center for Urban Research and Learning. Ms. Shepard is the founder and CEO of Community Allies, which works with communities to develop organizations and leadership, facilitate community engagement, and "to grow stronger from within." Prior to that she headed the chamber of commerce in Andersonville, a neighborhood on the north side of Chicago.

I said in an early piece for this blog that I believed local businesses like Brewed Awakenings Coffeehouse were more valuable to the city than national chains like the Caribou Coffee a block away. But I didn't have the evidence to tell me whether that was intuition or prejudice. Shepard presented a plethora of evidence from recent studies to back up that intuition:
  • A 2005 study in Andersonville by Civic Economics found of every $100 spent at locally-owned businesses, $68 stays in the area, while $32 buys supplies that must be imported from elsewhere. Of every $100 spent at a non-local business, $43 stays, $57 leaves. She used the example of Starbucks, "a pretty good chain" in terms of how they treat their employees, and one that doesn't demand subsidies or infrastructure, but the corporation uses one firm for accounting and one law firm, and one graphic artist, and those are probably not located in the town where you're patronizing Starbucks.
  • A study of businesses in Lane County, Oregon, found the cost to government of a job produced is many times larger for non-local than for local businesses.
  • Old Pasadena, California (local businesses, traditional development pattern) outperforms New Pasadena (national chains, suburban development pattern) 2-1 in sales tax revenues.
  • A relatively high ratio of firms-to-workers in a town correlates with better economic growth (Harvard Business Review, 2010) and per capita income growth (Economic Development Quarterly, 2011).
  • A study by the University of Leeds found increased imports of consumer goods in Britain had created a 38 percent increase in greenhouse gas emissions during the period studied.
Shepard spoke on the eve of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, but didn't refer to it at all; in fact, she argues, "the solutions to many of our most entrenched problems are likely to come from the bottom up not the top down." She urged people to "go to our communities, to our local elected officials, and to our landlords to champion locally-owned small businesses." In practical terms this means having:
  • access to capital
  • a level playing field i.e. governments should stop favoring big corporations through subsidies, infrastructure and awarding contracts
  • laws against monopolies enforced
  • laws that allow cooperative ownership of real estate and community investments. While somewhat off topic, she also suggested the effects of gentrification also could be mitigated by community land trusts which, if formed early enough, could buy up properties to control the rise in rents
  • easing business licensing, permitting and zoning, which are nearly impossible in Chicago due to the strong effect of political influence
I would add that citizens need to insist on more long-term thinking from their governments and less emphasis on instant results (see Kobos 2016Our craving for “new” tax dollars combined with cheap land has resulted in a misguided 50-year habit of continuous greenfield development), and in their capacity as consumers to consider the destructive impacts on their communities of choices based on price, habit and convenience.

I'm not opposed to national policies like minimum wage laws, and I am not opposed to seeing Donald J. Trump's bilious campaign get decisively defeated, but I think this community-based approach could go much farther to develop strong, inclusive local economies that would in turn help us face other seemingly intractable 21st century issues like climate, energy, diversity and government finance.

The Coffee Shop near Loyola's campus.
Within a block are a Starbucks and two Dunkin Donuts.

Civic Economics,
Community Allies,
Democracy Collaborative,
Institute for Local Self-Reliance,
Strong Towns, "The Wal-Mart Index: Results of Our Big Box Data Collection Are In," Strong Towns, 3 August 2016,

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Snout houses? In Oakhill-Jackson??

Oak Hill Jackson is a historic neighborhood located south of downtown Cedar Rapids. Through most of the 20th century it was home to many of our town's African-American citizens and several thriving congregations. It's in a low-lying area near the river, and suffered considerable damage in the 2008 flood.

Now Oak Hill Jackson stands to benefit from its proximity to the burgeoning New Bohemia commercial and residential district. How the process of gentrification will play out here remains to be seen, but some infill housing construction has begun. I was rather shocked to see two houses going up on 9th Avenue, next to the historic church that now houses New Jerusalem Church of God, with garages in front. This anti-social design has been widely derided. Andres Duany and his co-authors, in Suburban Nation (North Point Press, 2000) say garage-front houses work against traditional neighborhoods in two ways: removing the "eyes on the street" that make streets feel safe to walk, and removing the signs of human presence and activity that make neighborhoods interesting and thus desirable to walk.

So why is this style of house still being built? And why in this historic neighborhood? Could a form-based code prevent this?

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

One successful triangle

A recent PBS News Hour story examined the development in three cities--Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco--of triangular spaces created by streets (like Broadway in New York City) angling across the city's grid pattern. These odd little patches have been transformed into pedestrian-friendly plazas including places to sit as well as walk.

The Japanese American Memorial to Patriotism During World War II in Washington, D.C., is another creative use of triangular space. Installed in 2000, it is located in a triangle created by New Jersey and Louisiana Avenues and D Street NW.
This 1960s plan located at the National Building Museum
shows the triangle (at left) and its relationship to the U.S. Capitol
Open on two sides, it presents an oasis to passers-by in the form of a water feature with continuous flow, creating visual interest as well as white noise against the din of the surrounding city.

Once within the memorial a person definitely feels enclosed within sacred space, apart from the street just a few feet away.

There is a soft bell to ring, albeit appeared to be tricky to operate.

Those who wish to stay awhile have the option of benches, though on this rainy day no one was using them.

Unfortunately some of the engraving is wearing away, or at least is hard to read.

Despite that unfortunate glitch, this memorial uses the irregular space in the street layout in a way that soothes passersby, offers a place apart, and is a fitting tribute to a resilient and worthy group.

Cedar Rapids, too, has successfully developed some odd patches created by diagonal streets. Anderson Park, in a triangle created by 5th Avenue, 21st Street and Knollwood Drive, was creatively enhanced about 20 years ago with the addition of playground equipment.

Whatever the histories behind streets that slash across urban grids, a number of cities have shown the potential for creative and productive transformations of the odd spaces they create.


"Urban Images in Art: Gustave Caillebotte," 7 October 2015
"In Search of Old 45s" (Adams Morgan), 7 October 2014
"Shutdowns and Sillypants (and the Statler Brothers)," 8 October 2013

Do bicycle boulevards need a purpose?

I was surprised last weekend to find the place where we were staying was on a bicycle boulevard. A bicycle boulevard is "a street ...