So you want to keep the Main Street growth going? You want to showcase the architecture and the businesses? You want to attract pedestrians? Well, one solution to the problem (not just on Main Street) would be to get some of the businesses to take the crap out of their windows. This market located at the corner of Summer and Main could be the worst culprit (and there are many). How can you run a business knowing that the place looks boarded up? I mean, how can this apathetic window design ethic possibly encourage someone to walk through your door? It was back in February of ’06 when Steel first posted on the building’s potential – never to be realized. And here we are almost three years later looking at the same blighted market. To top it off, this building is an architecturally significant building that should dramatically contribute to the resurgence of Main Street. I wonder what would happen if the owner of this business opened a second location in Chicago or Boston. First, would he (or she) recreate the same window eyesore? And second, if he or she did, what would happen? Maybe the owner of the building would forbid it.
Maybe the city would cite the store owner for a code violation. Either way, I have to scratch my head and wonder why we, as a city, accept this sort of behavior. You can’t see in, you can’t see out… they’ve built the product displays right up to the window. How can this not be a code violation – oh, wait… we would have to have updated codes and then we would have to enforce them, if we ever expect to see this building come back to life. Earlier today I spoke to Chuck Banas, a leader in the fight to implement new design and building codes in the city of Buffalo.
From Chuck: “We have design standards in the Elmwood District and those guidelines suggest that you can put signs up in windows, but 60% of the window must be clear. Elmwood has peer pressure enforcement – though, in the end, The City should regulate the amount of glass coverage. Downtown requires different standards than a residential neighborhood does. We need a consistent set of rules for both. Streets like Main Street should have glass storefronts, but what happened over the years is that many of them are bricked now up. Some rebuilds are nothing but blank walls. Or the bases of the windows are 5′-6′ from the sidewalk…
“Our retail streets should be meaningful, usable places. What good are windows if you can’t see in? Yes, there should be regulation that prevents this – any good code reform has included standards just like that. The problem with our current code is that it regulates some things that are completely useless. The codes are not just outdated, they have been piecemeal and politically driven. It’s dated, dysfunctional and confusing. The elements of design are completely left out – there are no design standards. The conventional code that we still have today, adapted in 1951, threw away virtually all design standards. If you read through the code, none of it is form based – there should be simple charts and guidelines explaining what can and can’t be done to buildings. It’s a situation where almost anything goes – our current system is completely out of whack. “We need to re-write the codes to make them simple to understand and legally enforceable – we want a traditional, walk-able, vibrant city and our current system can’t distinguish between good and bad design. Today we have a much more productive view of cities – in the past we widened our roads and marginalized our neighborhoods with the intention of starting over. Many other cities made the same sort of policy changes (mistakes), while others resisted those changes – Buffalo did not. Historic cities are not evil places that need to be bulldozed. Finally there are many efforts in other cities that re-enforce the positive urban qualities.
I’m in favor of SmartCodes… I believe that a code re-write requires following a template where decades of design standards are already built in. “Why reinvent the wheel? The SmartCode produces a format where communities can then roll in measurements from its successful neighborhoods. It’s a building tool used to calibrate the wants of a city. The good standards are already built in. It’s a unified code that governs the public infrastructure – things like sidewalks, trees, road widths, curb heights, lighting standards, etc. The SmartCode coordinates all the ingredients that make up a public space. The sewer dept. and the forestry dept. need to be working together to produce a successful streetscape… the same thing goes for the signs in the windows that appear on the Main/Summer building. It’s a unified code. “If you simplify the system and base it on community consensus, then the community helps to produce the code. The closest that we’ve come to this are the Elmwood Design guidelines – though they are ultimately not enforceable. Every project is mired in controversy because there are no rules. The SmartCodes would help to move these projects along. Investors don’t want to invest in unpredictable environments. Good public process can help to solve all of that.”
Chuck’s been preaching the benefits of SmartCode since at least 2006 – those of you who have been following BRO for that long might remember when he and other urban design activists held this conference. Of course we’re still talking the same talk and walking the same walk in ’09… what gives? If you want to learn more about good design standards, check out this podcast featuring urban design legend, George Grasser.