Sunday, July 22, 2012

Windows? We Don't Need No Stinking Windows

Right out of the gate, let me say that the store pictured above is an improvement over the abandoned filling station which used to occupy this prime spot on New Albany's State Street.

It is the addition a of general retail store closest to New Albany's downtown in a long time. Unfortunately, the orientation of the store seems to suggest it wants nothing to do with downtown. It seems to be marooned on an island, adrift from the big box stores farther out the road, and longing to join its larger brothers. It shows its hind quarters to downtown. To pedestrians it offers a not-so-friendly view of sheet metal which says, "this is a transactional place only, not part of a larger community revival. It doesn't want to be. Now get your cheap stuff and go." Come to think of it, it's really still a filling station.

New Albany's planners were most likely handed cookie-cutter plans  for this store which meet all the minimum requirements for the siting of a retail establishment. Many other communities have opened their doors to this retailer. In fact, New Albany has another location of the same store on Vincennes Street, where the old Daisy Line Car Barn stood abandoned for years. From an economic development perspective, some points are now on the scoreboard with this new store. And, with its proximity to Riverview Towers, public housing on Bono Road, and other less affluent neighborhoods, the store does serve a purpose.

It is better than an abandoned filling station. And yet, New Albany has missed an opportunity to raise the bar just a bit. We have missed the chance to broaden the footprint of downtown New Albany. We have quite visibly underscored the notion that when you want something in this town you get in your car to get it.

The corner of Oak and State Streets, charitably speaking, could use some work. While it is just a short walk from the heart of downtown, a downtown whose progress toward vitality most recognize, it is miles away in terms of being included in that revival. It is part of the frayed edge of downtown leading to blocks of a street that is not prosperous and seems to not to have prospects of reaching that distant objective. (this, notwithstanding claims by several who have claimed State Street is the most valuable land inch for inch within the Metro area--Really?) The corner is largely disheveled and houses businesses which magnify the sense of vacancy seen, in fact, on one corner.

That corner, with its proximity to the city center, should be held to a higher standard and it should be developed with an eye toward integrating into a  downtown with a larger footprint. It should serve as a bookend to the downtown (I started to use the more common term in mall building of an "anchor", as in anchor store, but in this case the literal meaning of anchor seems closer to the mark). And when development infills the space between the city center and the corner of Oak and State, a new bookend could be placed farther out the street.

But now the new store presents a bit of a wrinkle in that plan. Assuming something is finally resolved with the owner of the heavy equipment/truck business in the old Lang garage, and the corner is developed integrally with downtown, the renewed block would have a void. But unfortunately, the void will not be able to be developed because it's already filled with tangible nothingness.

New Albany sits at a crossroads, thanks to the opportunities presented by a revivified downtown and  a building trend of support for local businesses, in both goods and services. We have a chance to get this right. We must revisit building standards and undertake the difficult work of making those standards fit the needs of what is possible in New Albany today. We can ask for better than what has appeared on State Street. We can do better.