Authenticity crucial for development, land expert says
Communities will get the quality of development they demand, said a smart growth and historic preservation expert Wednesday.
Ed McMahon, the Charles E. Fraser Chair on Sustainable Development at the Urban Land Institute, gave a presentation at Town Hall that encouraged planners and town officials to encourage development that fits into the character of Summerville, rather than generic development that could be found anywhere in America.
Not only does such development look better, but it helps tourism and economic development by improving the visitor’s overall experience, he said.
McMahon used Lancaster County, Penn., -- Amish country -- as an example.
People go to Lancaster expecting bucolic countryside, he said, showing a picture of an Amish man driving a horse-drawn buggy down a rural road.
Then he showed what the area actually looks like – a wide, busy road with not a tree in sight and signs sprouting atop each other advertising such attractions as the “Dutch Wonderland theme park.”
“People go to Lancaster County and they don’t come back,” he said.
As a result, despite extensive advertising, Lancaster County has seen a slow but steady decline in tourism, McMahon said.
McMahon’s presentation was filled with such “marketed image vs. reality” photos. He showed a photo of a historic columned house as it would appear in an advertisement, and then the view from the house itself: of a convenience store and a billboard advertising cigarettes.
The visual image of a community also factors into people’s decisions when they decide to move somewhere or move a company somewhere, he said.
The more Summerville starts to look like anywhere America, the less reason there is to visit, he said.
Summerville is actually starting with a lot of assets, he said, including beautiful houses, nature, and a downtown that’s more than just one street.
“You’ve got more assets than a lot of places in South Carolina,” he said.
New construction should enhance community character, he said.
Chain stores have a Plan A, Plan B and Plan C for the way their stores look, and they’ll always propose the Plan A – the universal design associated with their brand, whether it’s McDonald’s, CVS, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut or any other chain.
Often officials in small towns think they have to accept Plan A or the development will go elsewhere, he said. Not so, he said.
“What gets built depends on you. … They may complain, they may carry on, they may even threaten to move away,” he said.
But, McMahon said, the company has already concluded it can make money by locating on that particular lot. They want to stay.
“The mere act of talking about what a new building will look like can improve it 75 percent of the time,” he said.
Plan B is an alternative plan the company has that makes a fairly simple aesthetic change: for example, a Pizza Hut’s Plan B was to offer a brown roof instead of the standard red roof. But the real changes come when a community gets Plan C – when the company adapts completely to the community.
And McMahon had photos to show what he meant: a gas station that copied the Adirondacks architecture of its locale, McDonald’s restaurants that occupied New England-style houses or adobe-esque buildings in New Mexico or brick two-story buildings close to the sidewalk in historic Richmond, Va., hotels that abandoned their standard looks to occupy and expand upon historic buildings and a Taco Bell that restored and occupied a historic home rather than tearing it down to make way for a generic Taco Bell.
“You have the power, ladies and gentlemen,” he said.
Summervillians wouldn’t accept the federal government telling them how buildings must look, he said; why should they accept dictates from multi-national corporations?
For existing development, McMahon said the key is to make changes one project at a time.
Incentives are good for this, he said.
Twenty years ago, he said, Staunton, Va., tried and failed to establish an historic district. Building owners didn’t want anyone telling them what to do with their property.
Instead, the town offered an incentive – it would give free design assistance to anyone interested in restoring a building façade.
One property owner took the town up on its offer, he said. Once his project was complete and people saw what it looked like, a handful of others followed.
Today, Staunton has not the original one historic district it attempted to establish but five historic districts, he said.
For Summerville, McMahon advised, “Pick the easiest thing you could do on that street and then do that thing.”
Councilman Bob Jackson, who wanted McMahon to speak in Summerville after hearing him at the National Heritage Corridor meeting in Columbia, said Summerville is at a crossroads.
Development will occur in Oakbrook, but the type of development and how the Ashley River will fit in is still up in the air.
“That river’s just too vital for us to just let it go without some planning and cooperation,” he said.
McMahon’s visit is particularly timely because the town is holding a planning workshop Friday, Jackson said.
The workshop is from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Town Hall.