Sunday, June 29, 2014

Making Ground-Level Retail Work for Cities


Over the past few years, ground floor retail businesses have slowly returned to downtown Flint. It may not be the bustling shopping district of the fifties, but it's a vast improvement over the ghostly Saginaw Street of the nineties.

Writing in the June issue of The Urbanist, Benjamin Grant tackles the nuances, history, and challenges of street-level retail.
Ground floor retail has its origins in the homes of urban artisans in medieval and Roman cities. Where fortifications put space at a premium, the family home was often above the family workshop, and business was conducted through an opening onto the street. 
By the late 18th century, workshops were giving way to factories, and, in Paris and London, plate glass and gaslight helped create the urban storefront as we know it — a space for shopping, not making. In the 19th century, the era of the flaneur, the street itself was reinvented as a genteel public space, and grand treelined boulevards played host to a fashionable parade of shopping, self-presentation and spectacle. 
Modernist architects like Le Corbusier were suspicious of commerce, and found the tight, clamorous spaces of the 19th-century city oppressively filthy and congested. They sought to “free the ground plane” by raising their towers on stilt-like pilotis, so that citizens might wander through a new species of park-like city at their ease, never channeled into something as vulgar as a street. These architects peeled apart the city’s mixture, and in doing so they created separate sectors for offices, factories and homes, and built pedestrian sky bridges over sweeping expressways. The intended spaces of discovery became spaces of desolation. 
In the mid-to-late 20th century, the car was king. In subdivisions, shopping malls, housing projects and office complexes, inward looking, single-use environments were the norm. For nearly half a century, urban development in the U.S. got an almost total pass from pedestrian considerations. leaving a legacy of blank walls, narrow or non-existent sidewalks and dead spaces. 
In the 1960s, critics like Jane Jacobs and architects like Oscar Newman and Jan Gehl began investigating exactly what it was that made traditional urbanism (then under attack) work so well. They zeroed in on the interaction of building edges, public streets, and social interaction, creating some of the classic analyses in urban design. Their efforts revolutionized urban design, and their emphasis on the human scale — once dismissed as quaint and unscientific — has become planning orthodoxy. 
Today, walkable streets enlivened by active uses are a widely shared priority, critical to supporting transit, reducing carbon emissions and tackling chronic diseases. But bringing streets to life – especially outside city centers – can be quite a challenge.
Flint's economic situation poses daunting obstacles to retail development, but the city is not alone in facing numerous struggles to help street-level stores, restaurants, and other businesses gain a foothold. Grant presents a good overview of the challenges and successes of street-level retail in the San Francisco Bay Area. Obviously, a very different scenario than Flint, but there are many similarities. Ground-level retail isn't the easiest enterprise to pull off, even in a booming economy:
Just because planners allow, or even require, ground floor retail spaces, does not mean there will be ground-floor retail. Retailers, who live and die according to foot traffic, visibility and neighboring stores, are very sensitive to both location and quality of their spaces and they are well aware that if you build it, customers won’t automatically come.
Planners don’t create cafes (or restaurants or grocery stores) and for the most part, neither do developers. Entrepreneurs do. It is true that a building without a storefront will never contain a store. On the other hand, the world is full of empty storefronts. The weakness of ground-floor retail in mixed-use construction is so notorious that developers routinely write it off, assuming no revenue at all.
But it's clear that making downtown Flint a welcoming gathering place is a key part of improving the city, along with helping the city's neighborhoods rebound from abandonment and decay.
Public life is the essence of urbanism. The city’s ability to facilitate movement, commerce, democracy, innovation and creativity resides in the currents and eddies of human beings at the boundary of public and private space, where homes, jobs, shops and civic buildings touch streets, parks and plazas. 
In a good urban neighborhood, the ground floors of the buildings work symbiotically with the surrounding sidewalks and public spaces. Together they provide a continuous network of pathways and experiences that are active, safe, comfortable and engaging. The ground-floor café (and retail more generally) is but one of many good ways for buildings to meet the street. After all, even a coffee-crazed town like San Francisco can’t have a café — or even retail — in every building. A good city requires solutions as varied as its fabric and its people and must constantly invent new ones.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Al Moten, R.I.P.

A friend once proposed that Flint's official motto should be "Flint: Too Much Reality." Well, you can't get more real than this obituary. To Al Moten, who went out in style, at the age of 74 on Wednesday, June 18, 2014 at Hurley Medical Center:
George Alvin Moten a.k.a. "AL," was born in Flint, MI on November 25, 1939 and deceased on June 18, 2014. The Moten estate has suffered significant losses and devastating embarrassments. To reserve what little dignity our family was allowed to have, we decided not to have a funeral or a memorial service. For all who wish to send condolences, please address them to Estate of George Moten, P.O. Box 815, Mt. Morris, MI 48458. For many years our dad has suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD); we don't know whether it was the result of witnessing his foster mom decease from a diabetic stroke at age 4 and laying with her for 8 hours until his foster dad returned home from work and told him that she had passed and would never wake up again. Or from being in the Army when the military was extremely segregated or a combination of both. 
Dad was not perfect, and he knew that but he tried his best to be perfect as he could; when he fell short, he spent a great deal of his time pointing out the unfair imperfections of others at anytime and anywhere. This personality flaw rubbed a lot of people the wrong way and turned a lot of former friends and family alike into enemies and now his children have inherited his enemies. Dad usually meant well but did not know how to convey the difference between constructive criticism and destructive criticism. It takes a very resilient person to survive our dad's environment. Speaking from experience, as a son, I took his criticism as a challenge and did my best to prove it wrong. 
For those who know our dad, know that he was truthful in what he said but it was painful. Those of us who were resilient, appreciated dad's critiquing of our flaws and his truthfulness after we learned not to take it personal. It takes a great deal of time to recover from our dad's arsenal of insults and many never did recover. We as his children don't have a clue as to who or how many people our dad has offended; all that we know is that we have paid a steep price for it. 
As we ask God to forgive us for our trespasses as we forgive those who have trespassed against us; we personally want to apologize to the greater Flint community for our father's inconsiderate insults and any that we may have committed. "We send our greatest sympathy." The new generation of Motens "understands that the best offense is to never offend at all." Thanks to all of my dad's friends and family who showed support in our times of need. Please pray for us in our time of healing.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Flint Artifacts: Flint Journal Paper Carrier's Bag


Morrissey as popular as Roger Smith in Flint


Oh Morrissey, so much to answer for. 
Another cold, another cancelled tour. The former leader of The Smiths has now bailed on three straight gigs at Flint's Whiting Auditorium, despite claiming "I am determined to play Flint if it kills me." As this defaced poster illustrates, fans in The Vehicle City were not pleased.

Friday, June 6, 2014

A Fifth Grader's Take on Flint

Katie Lapham is teaching her fifth-grade class in New York about Flint. And the kids get the picture.


Sunday, June 1, 2014

Flint Artifacts: 1953-54 Central HIgh School I.D.


A Highway With a View

David Carr has a brief reflection in today's New York Times about the disappearance of an inspiring view from a less-than inspiring stretch of highway in New Jersey leading to the Lincoln Tunnel. It's a compelling piece of writing that reminds us of what is lost and what is gained as cities inevitably change.
"But something glorious, a view held in common by thousands of people who come to New York for the same reasons people always have, will now belong to a precious few. It’s not only a perfect metaphor for our times, but a cold fact that I stare at every day. I often mutter oaths, not at the men and women building it — everyone has to work at something — but at the people who decided that a view that is the visual equivalent of Wagnerian opera was something to be auctioned off. 
"There’s still a brief interlude of New York cityscape I can see from my bus or car seat if I pay attention, but I don’t look that way so much anymore. When I look toward the city, I don’t see the glorious handiwork of human hands — I see what happens when those hands don’t know when to quit."