April 24, 2012
Part One of a Three Part Series – By Donald Powers, AIA, LEED AP, CNU
Note: This piece is written about Main Street in East Greenwich, RI, however we believe that many of the general issues and recommendations discussed in this series can be applied to main streets everywhere.
Like parents of a gifted but underachieving teenager, many residents of East Greenwich, this one included, want Main Street to rise to its own potential, to stop just getting by, and to take advantage of its God-given opportunities which so many less fortunate main streets would die to have. We shake our heads and ask ourselves why Main Street can’t be more like Wickford. And we suspect that we are somehow to blame for not being nurturing or firm enough as a community to raise a truly thriving downtown of galleries, restaurants, boutiques, hardware stores, groceries and café’s with the self-esteem of say, Bristol.
The good news: Main Street is largely intact and, though not exactly thriving, it has an undeniable appeal that can be built on. Moreover, there are proven techniques which can and have transformed many moribund main streets with far less going for them than ours. The bad news: These techniques largely require political will, community consensus, and a unified group of merchants to be successful, all of which are remarkably elusive in a town and state which was founded on principles of individual freedom and political dissent. So our Main Street is a mixed bag; full of opportunity, beset by obstacles…
In the third part of this series, I’ll offer some specific recommendations on what can be done to overcome those obstacles and improve Main Street. For now, it would be useful to look more closely at what we really have on our little section of the Post Road through the lens of my understanding of what makes a successful retail street.
What kind of grade would I give Main Street? At the moment no more than a high C or a B-minus. There are pedestrians, but not many, and not consistently. There are sections which “feel” much better than others and which verge on being attractive. Limited sections of store frontage present disjointed evidence that a vibrant, people-filled place with good sales numbers is possible. But far too much of our Main Street is unkempt, unlovable, and unprofitable, by all appearances. The lack of pedestrians and the quality and performance of much of the retail prove the point. And where the excellent retail exists, created by smart, creative owners, its contrast with the background of dim storefronts, painted plywood signs, and faded displays proves the point that, on average, Main Street is just getting by.
Frequent comparisons are made to Wickford’s main street – it’s a useful comparison. A recent stroll around Wickford revealed something telling: Of the many people I saw on the sidewalk, most were couples and most were ambling, in a relaxed and recreational way. As an architect and urban designer who has spent his professional life observing the way places and buildings function, or simply as a human being with working eyes, I can tell you that this behavior is not typical of the retail places we have built since World War II. Very few Rhode Islanders, I would venture, make a day trip to the shopping plaza at Division Street and Route 2 to window shop and grab an ice cream cone. The reason they do travel to Wickford on a Saturday in June is because upon arriving they find themselves – in architect’s jargon – at a “place.” Folks perceive Wickford Village as a place worth being in its own right, for the sheer pleasure of it, and not solely for its function as a retail machine providing goods and services.
This is the distinguishing characteristic of all successful, traditional main streets (and the opportunity for ours): They have succeeded in maintaining or recreating a traditional urban space which is fun, as well as being functional. The enjoyment may come from the visual interest of interesting store-front displays, the social pleasure of chance meetings with friends, or the undeniable voyeuristic pleasure of people-watching. It even provides a “stage” – as anyone who has lived in a real downtown can attest – for those who wish to be seen. This is the fundamental difference and opportunity between the experience of Route 2 and that of Main Street. The former solves a single problem efficiently- the procurement of cheap goods and services for those with a car. The latter is a complex organism, needing to work in terms of the basic mechanics of retail, but, to do so, needing to balance that function with its social, cultural, and aesthetic functions. Ironically traditional main streets in the 21st century work for retail precisely in proportion to how well they solve those other “functions” and create a place worth being for folks not necessarily bent on buying something. Sure, there are basic functional requirements of parking and trash pick up that need to be solved, but if a place is great, people want to be there. If people are there – and they can see what you’re selling- they will buy it, not only because of its convenience, but often in spite of it. This is not an opinion. It’s an established and accepted fact of retail. Retailers and advertisers want “eyes”. More eyes equal more sales. As individuals we may be unfathomable; as a species we are depressingly predictable.
In respect to this need for main streets to create a pleasant and interesting “place” if they are to survive against the Route 2’s of the world, our Main Street is far better positioned than most. We have a reasonably intact inventory of traditional buildings, the architectural detail and scale of which creates visual interest. Relative to the average height of the buildings, the street is narrow enough. This is important for two reasons: First, it creates a comfortable proportion and a sense of enclosure which is necessary in any kind of urban space if pedestrians are to feel at ease. Secondly, it allows a pedestrian to view both sides of the street at once, effectively doubling the number of “eyes” on retail store-front display. The happy accident of an uphill side and a downhill side creates great opportunities for varied vistas and scales with views up to a looming Town Hall or a soaring Episcopal steeple, or glimpses down to Greenwich Cove over cottagey rooftops. In the third part of this series I’ll describe in more detail how our Main Street’s physical characteristics help to create the sense of place critical to good urban spaces. For now its enough to confirm that we are not far off. It already has many of the pieces in place that would allow it to acquire that charm that out-of-towners would travel to see and which would make East Greenwich residents, cranky as we are, tolerate, indeed enjoy a 2 block walk from their parking space.
Stay tuned for Part Two of this series in which I will address the issues of parking, both real and perceived.