save us from the malls :

Through the DCist links section, I discovered Richard Layman's blog about planning.

Richard is a DC-based community activist and planner, who I know from name only.

He is a frequent contributor to the Columbia Heights Yahoo! Group. (A group who's underlying banter is so full of bile, that I actually had to unsubscribe, it was angering me so much. But that's a topic for later, or a Washington City Paper Article [$].)

Richard weighs in on the loss of locally-owned businesses in Ferndale (a Detroit suburb) and Dupont Circle.

As someone who grew up in a far Western suburb of Chicago that had and continues to have a thriving downtown of almost exclusively locally-owned businesses, my interest in planning issues has often surrounded this very topic: how do you beat the Wal-Marts of the world at their own game? Geneva’: marketing.

I also lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for many years. San Francisco politics, such as they are, offers another option: ban everything.

San Francisco has banned coffee shops in certain neighborhoods, attempted to keep out Home Depot and continued to ban chain stores from specific neighborhoods.

This works well, in some twisted way, in San Francisco, which has a distinct distaste for all things chained (while at the same time being the home of The Gap, Levi Strauss, Williams Sonoma and their spawn).

This course approach doesn't mean that people don't shop at chain stores. Heck you can head down 680 or take BART to Colma and find all the chain stores you're missing in SF. And people do, Colma would be just the city of the dead, if it weren't for the exodus of San Francisco shoppers and their tax dollars.

The marketing option, as mentioned by Richard. Geneva, IL, which now sports such chain stores at Home Depot, Old Navy and Applebee’s, is also considered the granddaddy of all Illinois summer festivals, Swedish Days.

The annual “Midsommer” festival (now more upscale with the addition of foreign words!) which draws hundreds of thousands to the city of only about 20,000 has led to the creation of seasonal festivals for fall (Festival of the Vine) and the Winter (Christmas Walk and House Tour).

Festivals are common draw in the Illinois to get people out of their homes and cars, but Geneva is unique for being one of the first (Swedish Days is over 50 years old) and for the size of the city (Geneva until the mid-90s had less than 10,000 residents).

Many of the same stores that I worked in as high schooler are still downtown. In fact, sometimes I feel like I grew up in the 1950s (and not the equally banal 1980s) as my childhood was spent riding my bike downtown to shop in the toy section of the five and dime. Or get ice cream at the local ice cream parlor.

Other ideas that have only killed the small downtowns of the America — pedestrian malls, covered sidewalks, out-of-scale malls — forget the basic tenant of marketing: play to your strengths.

In Geneva’s case that was unique stores, a unique experience and the open air environment that is ideal for festivals. The Chamber and Third Street Merchants associations were smart enough early on to realize that people weren’t going to the mall for the air-conditing. The were going because of marketing, common store hours and free parking.

Saving the independent businesses doesn’t require crazy redevelopment schemes. Just old fashioned chutzpah.

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