Archeology of a Historic Corner

My hometown of Brainerd, and thousands of historic towns like it across the country, have spent their wealth over the last two generations trying to create prosperity by abandoning their traditional development pattern - which was pedestrian oriented - and converting to a vastly more expensive, auto-oriented development pattern. In doing so, they have committed themselves to long-term maintenance costs that they have no realistic expectation of meeting, with or without state and federal transfer payments.

The impact of an auto-centric approach on the cost to maintain streets is exorbitant and prohibitive, but that is only part of their impact. These misapplied street standards degrade the neighborhoods they are meant to serve, driving out investment and creating long-term deterioration and decline.

Southeast Brainerd has a prime example of this at the intersection of Oak Street and SE 13th St.

When I was a kid, this building was the butcher shop. My guess is that it had long been a butcher shop, with the possibility that people once lived above. While this is not supurb architecture, there are a couple of simple place-making features captured in this building. First, note how the structure is built right up to the edge of the sidewalk. Then also notice how the corner of the building is beveled to accent the fact that it is on the corner. This building forms a strong anchor to creating the sense-of-place that once was indicative of this neighborhood. If you lived in southeast Brainerd, you could walk to the corner butcher anytime you wanted. And it was a pretty nice neighborhood center.

Diagonal to the old butcher shop is a building that is now Lakes Printing (highly recommended - we use them all the time). Again, you are not getting phenomenal architecture here, but the few simple design features that exist are those that are essential to anchoring this neighborhood center. Here the building goes right up to the sidewalk. The windows on the Oak Street side are designed for people, not cars. There is some room above for an affordable apartment or for an owner/occupant.

Unfortunately, these two buildings are all that is left of this corner. Most tragic is the auto-centric design that has taken over corner #3. Here you find the Giant Wash Laundromat. Look at how this building addresses the public realm. A bare wall with a big sign designed for car traffic. Same with the obnoxious freestanding sign, which no pedestrian would ever see. To further separate this building from the neighborhood, it is set back from the street (I'm sure the code required this) and anyone walking through here would experience the uncomfortable feeling of walking through the parking lot. These huge gaps kill the sense-of-place. This laundromat is relatively new, low budget and sadly is on the high end of the type of investment this neighborhood now receives.

Sad in a different way is corner #4. It is just a parking lot, as if the 10,000 spaces built on the edge of the streets within walking distance of this corner were not sufficient (and as if the demand were there with these limited commercial offerings). Notice how no attempt has been made to make this more pedestrian-friendly. It is just a big, vacant space, the kind of place that destroys street life. Notice how even the curb cut is huge, like two cars would be frequently meeting here traveling in opposite directions.

Before people in Southeast Brainerd were forced to drive everywhere (mostly to neighboring Baxter, which is now fairly convenient thanks to the wide streets), this corner was an economic center that served the needs of this neighborhood. If the millions spent on making the streets wider had not been spent and these neighborhoods had retained their traditional development pattern, these places would have much greater value. If people could safely walk the neighborhood, if doing so was inviting, there would be demand locally for things they want. Coffee shops, restaurants, a butcher, professional services and even a grocery store.

The city of Brainerd has done everything it can from a design standpoint to kill this little neighborhood grocery store, which is about two blocks from the intersection described in this post. I'm not sure how long it can continue, but obviously much longer than one would have thought. When I was a kid my parents would drive us here to go trick-or-treating and sometimes we would swing through here to get milk. I don't do that with my kids, but now that I remember what we used to do, I think I'll start. 

The millions invested in making this neighborhood auto-centric has not only committed the city to long-term maintenance costs they cannot possibly afford, it has depressed investment that has caused this area to deteriorate. Misapplying a suburban development model is one of the ways thousands of cities across the country have invested in their own decline.

Unfortunately, we're not done looking at this neighborhood yet.


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