In many other countries around the world, communities are far more proactive than their American counterparts when it comes to growth. In Germany, for example, if a community decides it needs to expand to accommodate population growth, the citizens and local leaders first gather to determine where they would like this development to take place.
In many cases, they choose a brownfield or infill site that is close to the city center, so as not to strengthen their downtown with more retail and restaurant customers. They then issue an RFP or RFQ, and select the private developer(s) who submit the best proposals for that site.
Here in the U.S., we have a superstitious love affair with the “magic hand” of the free market. This is a gross misinterpretation of Adam Smith‘s Wealth of Nations, perpetuated by the wishful thinking of folks who have never actually read it. As a result, American community leaders tend to sit around, passively awaiting a “white knight” developer to ride into town and save them. Occasionally, with luck and good timing, that actually works. Usually, it doesn’t.
The result is that American communities spend their time inefficiently reacting to the often-damaging proposals of real estate developers and big box chains that have little or no interest in the welfare of the community. Thousands of downtowns have been devitalized or killed outright by this lack of public leadership.
Now, with big box stores and sprawl malls going out of business by the hundreds annually, communities have a second chance to grab the reins of their future. Kate Elizabeth Queram recently wrote an article about Gadsden, Alabama, a community that didn’t want to trust their future to luck.
Here are a few excerpts from the Route Fifty article:
Late this summer, the riverside city of Gadsden, Alabama will debut its new multimillion dollar convention center, with expansive views of the Coosa River and space for retail and restaurants. The project, dubbed The Venue at Coosa Landing, will serve as the “crown jewel” for a revitalization of the city’s east riverfront.
And it all stems from the purchase and renovation of a 110,000-square-foot former Kmart store. (which closed in 2012)
The redevelopment of a vacant Kmart property is not, on its own, unusual. Cities across the country are forced to grapple with the large, empty shells as department stores and big-box companies shutter hundreds of properties in an attempt to survive a changing economy. And many of those buildings get repurposed.
But it is far rarer for a city to have a hand in the repurposing. Most projects are taken on by private firms. Hundreds of other buildings sit vacant in economically depressed areas, waiting for third-party developers who are, in many cases, hesitant to pour money into places that aren’t already flourishing.
Images courtesy of CCR Architecture.