By Steve Troskey, AICP
The first thing we notice as we enter a small town is the way the corridor looks. How does it function? What does it say about the community we are about to enter? Too often in our smaller towns, we focus development along these roads in a single direction, leading to a mix of uses, building styles, and parking areas along a corridor. The way this strip of development looks often sets expectations about the community but more importantly, it shapes the daily lives of community residents.
The reality is a long strip of commercial development, especially on a state highway, acts as a barrier between two sides of the road. Without proper pedestrian crossing or upgraded intersections, it can be dangerous for pedestrians and bicyclists to cross.
So…How do we improve our corridors to look better, function better, and provide safe crossings?
Step 1: Conduct a landscape analysis of the street.
In small towns, this can be through the entire town. In a larger town, you can start with just an important segment of the road. This is based on your timeline and budget.
To begin, ask yourself what is good about the corridor;
- Are there vistas to a water feature or pristine farmland that you want to protect?
- What do you want to change about the corridor?
- Is there a lack of landscaping, or too many parking lots, or ugly buildings?
Take note of these things. It often helps to bring people from out of town to analyze because if we drive on the road every day we often miss the good and the bad.
Remember, you don’t need to prepare answers to everything at this point. Just write down what you see and you can deal with the potential changes later. The goal here is to take a fresh look at what you have.
Step 2: Do an inventory of utilities, floodplain, traffic counts, etc. An engineer can help with these items.
Future development and redevelopment are driven by these technical items. It is much easier to change a zoning ordinance than move underground utilities, so it is a good idea to know what your constraints are.
Step 3: Identify your goals.
With technical knowledge in hand and an understanding of what you like and don’t like, you can prepare to set up some goals. This is where your entire community comes in. What does the average resident want to see? What do they think? Are there areas on the corridor that are declining or redeveloping? Does the community want to see investment in one area over another? Where are the major pedestrian crossings and are they safe? An engineer can help facilitate this public process.
Are your codes consistent with your goals? If your community has identified a need for landscaping, do you require it in your zoning ordinance? If you have too many parking lots, have you changed your code to reduce parking needs? If there are too many stormwater ponds taking up valuable street frontage, have you considered a regional detention plan to lessen the burden on developers? There are countless ways to write code to move towards your goals. It can seem overwhelming but you only need to take one step at a time.
Once you have your data ready, you can begin the process of changing zoning and subdivision codes to direct future development. In small towns, there is less pressure to redevelop, so tax incentives often work better than enforcement codes. As the saying goes, the carrot works better than the stick. You don’t need to wait for someone new to build in town to make a change. If the goal is important, and it will help improve the look and functionality of your community, it is worth an investment.