Small Change (Makes Us Richer)

Above: Shops along Walden Parkway south of 99th Street.

 

The other day, I hopped on the train at a different station than my usual one, and I spotted signs of subtle but positive change taking place.

A vacant building on Wood Street appears to have been renovated, and a sign in the window indicates that it will become the new home of Sweet Freaks, currently located on Hale Avenue, just on the other side of the tracks.

This would be good news on its own, but the fact that this improvement comes on the heels of another building upgrade in the area — Tranquility Salon’s renovation of a different building on Hale — seems to suggest signs of a trend in the works.

These two renovations stand out to me, because they are shining examples of how neighborhood change is supposed to work: incrementally, and driven by locals. The 99th and Hale area, like most older business districts across the country, is made up of a mixture of structures, typically built on small lots, that feature storefronts of modest sizes that open out to the sidewalk.

For centuries, this development pattern served communities well. The smallest spaces served as incubators for new businesses, which could then upgrade to a larger storefront in the same area as they grew, making way for new upstarts in their former spaces.

This is what we are seeing now with Sweet Freaks and Tranquility, and it probably couldn’t happen if the 99th and Hale district had met the fate of similar business districts both locally and nationally.

A shift in thinking

In the past several decades, the traditional American business district — which, remember, also included a mixture of residences and civic institutions — has been decimated by top-down planning decisions (often heavily subsidized by governments at all levels). Such decisions have resulted in parking lots where buildings once stood, wide roadways unsuitable for valuable foot traffic, and larger retail spaces more suited to national chains, which move farther away to newer and cheaper land after a generation or so, leaving massive “X-Mart”-shaped voids that most entrepreneurs can only dream of filling.

As many communities are now realizing, they can get a lot more out of the traditional development pattern than the more recent suburban sprawl model. Not only does it boost the tax base, but it is also perfect for fostering small, homegrown business activity — establishments that put down roots in and form ties with a community.

In addition, I’d be remiss if I didn’t note that the “invisible” forces of banks and the government don’t make this type of development — or redevelopment — easy. Since World War II, America has streamlined a sprawling, suburban development pattern, with government entities at all levels essentially codifying it into law through measures like parking minimums, building setbacks, and strict separation of uses.

I’ve also written in the past about how getting a loan to fund traditional, mixed-use development is exceedingly difficult. Federal restrictions on lending for mixed-use development signal to the private market that this type of development is overly risky, despite evidence to the contrary. As a result, it’s often easy to approve a new subdivision of McMansions in a cornfield than a single, small storefront with apartments in an existing business district.

Needless to say, with so many archaic ideas about development that have been made into law, the process of renovating an older building or constructing something new in a traditional style can be long and expensive. So, I look at developments like Sweet Freaks and Tranquility as minor miracles.

It’s important to remember, too, that the developments that have captured our community’s attention in recent years are not of the cookie-cutter, national chain variety. They are establishments like Open Outcry, Pizzeria Deepo, Quilter’s Trunk, and Ain’t She Sweet Café — businesses that make use of existing buildings with smaller spaces built, to varying degrees, in a more traditional style.

And existing businesses that have stood the test of time — from Top Notch Beefburgers to your accountant’s office — have largely succeeded within the context of traditional development.

Change, from the bottom up

Let’s also not forget that at a time when the narrative of mega-projects driving economic development continues to exert a significant amount of power over leaders in many American communities, the work of grassroots organizations play an immense role in bringing traditional neighborhoods back to life.

In the case of Sweet Freaks, the work of the Beverly Arts Alliance has been invaluable. The last time I went on the annual Beverly Art Walk, I spent some time in the building that will become Sweet Freaks’ new home. While the art on display was impressive, it was the image of the building and the possibilities it offered that lingered in my mind. It had the ambiance of a loft building in a quaint, neighborhood atmosphere. I loved it and knew it could become something special.

That’s a long way of saying that the Arts Alliance has been incredibly instrumental in drawing attention to the forgotten corners of our neighborhood and offering a vision for what the community could be. When incremental development like this occurs, the community becomes richer not just through the money invested in the project, but also through the social capital.

Over the years, we’ve done out best (worst?) to shape our neighborhood into something it’s not by demolishing buildings for parking lots; subsidizing low-value developments; and accepting wide and dangerous roadways as the norm.

Fortunately, though, we have people and organizations that understand where our neighborhood’s strengths lie and actively work to engage the community around those strengths, driving change and creating long-term value.

That’s something that can’t be written into a zoning code.

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