In 2004, I attended an early meeting of the Fort Worth Avenue Development group. In the meeting strong neighborhood leaders stood up and passionately discussed why we should organize and start asking the city to re-analyze the corridor and help create a more walkable, livable street. Since its inception, the group has done incredible work at changing development codes, promoting the street as a boulevard, pushing through TIF’s, and bringing awareness to the need for redeveloping form. Renderings of redesigned streetscapes have been made, national urban design experts have been brought to the corridor to discuss next steps, developers have laid out water color visions of West Village like buildings, and planning charrettes involving the community have been carried out in earnest.
Given the above, it’s no surprise that Andrew and others would be speechless to find out that the small walkable village they envisioned would become a standard auto-centric, suburban formed grocery store.
So what was the problem? Two things: Lengthy Planning, and Waiting for Superman.
The Better Block projects we first created were our attempts at doing away with both of those elements. I’d sit in community meetings and hear neighbors stand up and say, “We need a Whole Foods!” or “We need a Starbucks!”, and then try and work to entice these groups into the area. They worked for years to change zoning, clear restrictive ordinances, and move derelict businesses out of the area. But still, no heroes came to save the day and build what everyone wanted. Countless fundraisers occurred, beautification initatives were launched, and city leaders expressed their desire to help. In the meantime, on a few streets to the South, a curious thing happened…a group of neighbors banded together and decided to form their own food co-op. They drove out to the countryside on weekends, gathered up veggies, breads, and eggs, then brought them back to the community on their own. They stopped waiting for Superman and became the super heroes themselves. Do they have everything you can find a large national organic chain? No. But they have quite a bit, they’re local, and they care about the community. Plus, they’ve created a “Third Place”…or a community gathering space. On any given day, you’ll see locals sitting on the raw wood benches at the store’s entrance while they casually talk about the weather, community issues, and more.
In our first Better Block, friends who had a small art gallery on Tyler Street talked about the lack of people on their street, vacant storefronts next door, and fast dangerous streets surrounding their doors. The historical approach would have been to develop photoshopped renderings of the area, head to City Hall and fight for form changes and zoning remediations, and start an active campaign of wooing developers/businesses to the area from far away places. The problem is that the energy and money it takes to maintain this type of campaign takes years, and it’s hard to sustain momentum as people’s interest changes, political winds shift, and various leaders move away. The better option is much more accessible. Simply roll up our sleeves, redesign the street ourselves, setup businesses with our friends (several of whom are unemployed and could use the work), and make the kind of block filled with the kind of businesses that we always dreamed of. No more waiting, no more debating, no more charrettes, and no more lengthy planning processes. We all know what’s broken in our communities…no one needs an international urban planner to tell you that “your street needs more trees, more sidewalks, more small businesses, more public spaces, less focus on automobiles, a greater sense of community”.
So after all of this time, was the the Fort Worth Avenue Development Group consulted on this new development? No. When I think back to the meeting I attended seven years ago, someone from the group said their vision was to one day ”walk out the door over to Ft. Worth Ave., find a place to sit down and order a cup of coffee and read the New York Times.” Knowing what we do now about how development can disregard years worth of work, we should have spent our time more productively…
…we should have built a coffee shop.