As part of this year's Strongest Town Contest, we've invited Strong Towns members and activists to provide guest commentary on each of the towns in our first round based on Strong Towns principles. While these commentators have not had the chance to visit each town themselves, they read the town's application to the contest, as well as conducted additional background research on the community.
Today, we've got two commentaries on the contest's next match-up: Niagara Falls, NY vs. Westmont, IL. Visit this page to see each town's submission, then read on below to hear a Strong Towns member perspective on these communities. Contest voting closes at 12pm CT on Friday, March 9.
Niagara Falls, New York
Commentary by Jennifer Smith, a Strong Towns member from Rockford, Illinois.
Land Use and Transportation
At first glance, I was really impressed by the expanse of dense neighborhoods arranged in a uniform, tight grid in Niagara Falls. These neighborhoods are on the whole not intersected by arterials and on the whole, from a Google maps birdseye view, appear fairly intact. The city is, however, intersected by a wide swath of land that appears to be (or have been) largely industrial use. Along the eastern border of that swath runs an interstate, with the ubiquitous big-box developments and an outlet mall.
Most notably, while the city is bordered on the west and south by the amazing asset of the Niagara River, the neighborhoods are separated from the river and the many parks all along this border by the Niagara Scenic Parkway, as well as the surface parking lots of the hotels and various other amenities located near Niagara Falls themselves. Google indicates there is a bike trail traversing the entire length of the river on the edge of town, and hopefully the city has made strides to make safe and convenient crossings of that Scenic Parkway so residents and visitors alike can enjoy the natural amenities.
The city self-reports that 36% of residents walk as their primary form of travel. This is an impressive metric that appears to be realistic based on the tight grid of the bulk of the city. The city has made strides to improve pedestrian safety particularly near schools and, parks, and around tourist sites. In addition to traditional mass transit service (which connects the city to other regional cities including Buffalo, only 20 minutes away), there are trolleys and shuttles that connect visitors from the Falls, the traditional downtown, and other regional amenities.
The town's contest application indicates citizens have many opportunities to be involved in the affairs of the city, including budgeting and planning, and that the barriers to entry are low for those who are interested to making a difference in their city.
Niagara Falls is building an impressive framework for citizen engagement and participation not only through participatory budgeting for HUD CDBG funds, but also for addressing one of the most pervasive issues facing the community: zombie homes. Citizens led the planning for a fully ADA accessible playground that will be constructed this spring. Citizens are also educated and engaged to report problem “zombie” properties, providing valuable information for the city and empowering them to help address problems right on their own blocks.
The city is working to become more of a destination beyond just the Falls themselves by connecting visitors with other sites in the city, and expanding amenities that will make the city a year-round destination for visitors and conventions. The city is targeting large, empty properties that were formerly not tax-producing (i.e. former schools) for development with new approaches that keep the city from holding the bill for demolition as well as holding the risk in an unbalanced public-private partnership.
While growth in the tourism industry and the retention of an Air Reserve base have proven to be job creators, the city still faces negative net migration, a depressed housing market, and the challenge of overcoming negative self-perception. The city will have to work carefully to ensure the wealth brought into the community by tourists ultimately helps to build the wealth of residents, too.
Commentary by Andrew Rodriguez, a Strong Towns member from Walnut, California.
Land Use and Transportation
One street that stands out in Westmont is Cass Avenue. A portion of corridor around the railroad tracks seems to be their Downtown area. Buildings are fronting the sidewalk, and the area is very walkable. I believe this is the original part of the village, which then grew outward as time went on. The very far northern part of the village however, is car-centric. The land use pattern is auto-oriented, and there are large big box commercial centers with acres of parking. This is probably due to a highway running through the area (Route 34). This area could be improved with infill development.
There is a train station that directly provides access to Chicago, making this a commuter town. Based on Google Maps, most of the roads land streets look decently maintained. Odgen Avenue (Route 34) is a stroad, which tries to be a street and a road simultaneously. While the area around the commuter station (Downtown) is fantastic, the area of Route 34 could use a retrofit.
Westmont is known as the "Progressive Village". Residents are known to focus on community life, and do this with the following examples: closing downtown for car shows and restaurant tastings in the summer, so that people are encouraged to get to know the town instead of just driving through it. They also reconstructed deteriorated alleys in the Downtown area with decorative brick pavers and other materials. Now, many businesses are able to use outdoor spaces to its fullest extent. It seems that the residents really care about improving what they already have, instead of building "new and glamorous" things.
Residents have worked together to improve areas of town that are underutilized. Richmond Gardens was created to beautify an area around the village's railroad tracks. This area includes a major public garden and an apiary on what was an unused 0.15-acre public road right of way. The garden and apiary promotes access to resources and community ownership of process. This is just one example of residents working together to create a more prosperous place.
Westmont has taken an efficient approach to services. Their volunteer fire department is able to access all of the benefits of a high-quality fire department at a much lower cost than if it was a full-time department. I would like to know more about their approach to financially solvent land use. The original downtown area seems solvent, but the commercial centers in the northern part of the city does not seem financially efficient. Much of the land here is dedicated to parking.
The community is really working hard to improve their downtown, which is where they get the most bang for their buck (land use wise). The community has a diverse stock of housing, from multifamily units to large mansions. Diversity is great for any community. While the village does receive much of their current revenue from the autopark in the northern part of the village, eventually they will need to address the land use pattern to maximize economic activity there.
Voting is now closed.