Monday, 30 January 2017

Landscapes of Local Business, Microclimates of Reinvestment

By Jennifer Minner

Churn and change along commercial strips: Spatial analysis of patterns in remodelling activity and landscapes of local business 

Figure 1. Photo of South Congress Avenue, in Austin, Texas by Todd Dwyer (cc) on Flickr.

Small, independent businesses are integral to the cultural landscapes and spirit of entrepreneurialism that are integral to the identity of Austin, Texas. A mix of restaurant, retail, and leisure businesses creates destinations along ordinary commercial strips within the capital city of Texas. Commercial strips, which are long linear stretches of commercial development oriented to the road, have long been a ubiquitous part of the North American landscape. Commercial strips offer goods and services, opportunities for social interaction and public life, and opportunities for entrepreneurialism.

I was first drawn to neon lit leisure zones in Austin while studying for a PhD in community and regional planning. My dissertation Landscapes of Thrift and Choreographies of Change: Reinvestment and Adaptation along Austin’s Commercial Strips focused on the rapid change along commercial strips during a continuing construction boom as well as an economic recession that barely stalled redevelopment activity. I was fascinated by the way that ordinary, existing commercial buildings were modified in creative ways to attract tourists and residents. Gas stations were being converted into bars with outdoor seating (figures 2A-C). Auto repair shops became new restaurants. It seemed that new microclimates of small business were emerging along Austin’s commercial strips. I also noted longstanding businesses that I dubbed ‘landmarks of thrift,’ which retained a sense of history through informal acts of preservation.

Figure 2A. Sinclair Service Station on South Lamar. Image ND-55-395-01, Austin History Center,
Austin Public Library.

Figure 2B. Former Sinclair Service Station stripped for conversion to bar. Photo by Jennifer Minner.

Figure C. Former Sinclair Service Station as the Corner Bar in 2011. Photo by Jennifer Minner.
Variety in the types of businesses, neighborhoods, and urban forms along Austin's commercial strips and the pace of change along them, made for an ideal laboratory to study commercial landscapes, and the dynamic interactions between urban planning, real estate and development, and small business development. While my dissertation used mostly qualitative methods to understand the role of a multitude of actors -- merchants, developers, property owners, public officials, artists and neighborhood residents -- who were shaping the commercial strip. 

I wanted to develop spatial analysis methods to probe deeper into patterns of change. I began collaborating with Xiao Shi, then a dual master’s student in City and Regional Planning and Landscape Architecture at Cornell University. She had never been to Austin, but she soon became fascinated by it through our conversations, Google Streetview, building permits, and GIS data. We began to devise new ways to both qualitative and quantitatively measure the relationship between landscapes of local business and redevelopment along Austin’s commercial strips. 

In the article “Churn and change along commercial strips: Spatial analysis of patterns in remodeling activity and landscapes of local business,” we outline both the spatial analysis methods we employed and a new way to categorize investments in the landscapes of local business. We found some evidence to support the hypothesis that new zones of restaurant, retail, and leisure oriented businesses created a new sense of place that attracts additional investment. The methods we share are intended to advance conversations about how commercial strips change over time. 

Figure 3. A new upscale upholstery shop next to auto insurance business. Photos depicts businesses that market to different customers along N. Lamar Boulevard in Austin, Texas. Photo by Jennifer Minner

This research focused on the relationship between small urban remodels and larger scale redevelopment. An important question that remains unanswered in this research: What are means to ensure that the unique sense of place and a diverse commercial ecology within which longstanding and new merchants can thrive in the long term. Does the unique sense of places created through landscapes of local business necessarily lead to chain stores and luxury boutiques and the loss of Austin’s treasured, everyday small businesses? While new, higher density, mixed use development is in many ways desirable, equally as important is the question of how to maintain landscapes of local business in the face of economic pressures such as rising rents, and threats of gentrification and displacement. 

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