Learning from Rouse’s Talbottown by Doug Davies

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Planning isn’t like riding a bike; apparently.

I recently read about a joke about two fish having a conversation. The first fish say the other fish: “Hey, how’s the water?” To which the second fish replies: “What the hell is water?” This joke will hopefully resonate with you after this article, but the basic point here is that most of our environment — the design, construction, rules, and physical objects that define our lives — is, from our perspective, so encompassing, as to be rendered invisible.

For most residents, or Americans for the sake of this argument, the town’s urban fabric is our water. The styles, types, densities, and scales of the buildings and infrastructure that surround us every day go by unnoticed and uncontemplated. It is obvious to us all that where you live matters, however the ways in which specific communities or areas of a town can create opportunity differ significantly. What becomes even more disparate is our ability to recreate successful communities, even right next to each other.

Indulge me for the next 15 minutes, and I will show you just how the water is. There is so much more to say on each of these topics, but let’s go on the 5-cent tour. Let’s talk about Easton.

History in Brief

Since the earliest conception of Easton, the downtown, more specifically the courthouse, had always been the center of commerce, life, and libation. It should be no surprise that shortly after the courthouse was constructed, so too was a Tavern for employees. For many years, up until WWII, things continued in much the same fashion, the town grew incrementally to afford its greater population the necessary services and housing it needed. However, sometime in the 1950s, development began to become rampant along the highways going through town. This move was unprecedented from the rest of Easton’s near 250-year history. What was happening?

The automobile, FHA lending, and babies. The combination of troops coming home, a housing shortage, and kids compounded and pushed development to heights not seen in many small communities ever before. Even famed developer Jim Rouse, an Easton native, was trying to deter such behavior when in 1954 he opened the Talbottown Shopping Center. In the book “Wye Island: Insiders, Outsiders, and Change in a Chesapeake Community,” Rouse is quoted as saying “There is no place where a shopping center is worse, than on the outskirts of a town. Walking down the streets, meeting people — that’s what a small town is all about. When you lose that, you lose everything.”[1] Throughout the rest of Rouse’s career, he seemed unable to decipher the difference of downtown shopping and outlying neighborhood shopping, though his first effort in Easton was a noble one.[2]

Ultimately what continued was a development pattern not unlike Talbottown, but larger, and farther away from downtown at each turn, sacrificing density and proximity for parking and convince. Rather than consolidating, these strip centers (See: Wal-Mart Shoppes at Easton, Easton Plaza Shopping Center, Waterside Village, The Lowes — Khols Strip, and even the Acme — Movie Theatre Strip) went decidedly against everything the last 250 years of Easton had been working towards. These strip centers are devoid what is called “placemaking.” Placemaking is the secret sauce, or the 11th KFC spice, or the origin of “genius-loci” of towns. Placemaking was subtracted for the benefit of parking, convenience, and speed. This after all was the era of the car.

Placemaking

1. This is Place. This is the face of Easton we all celebrate and share with visitors.
2. Can you imagine this as a postcard you would send to a friend? is this even the Easton Wal-Mart? Maybe?

Much was lost during this building boom for communities, but most importantly we lost places worth caring about. No longer were, as Rouse put it, residents “Walking down the streets, meeting people,” the new Easton was about driving and chasing the American dream. Suburban development was king. Communities like Beechwood, Corbin, Easton Village, Easton Club, Cookes Hope, and others spread into the countryside eating farms for single-use, single-family development. As these developments grew, so too did their strip mall counterparts. What we were left with was a development pattern nothing like Easton had ever seen. Single-use residential is residential and single-use commercial is commercial, never the twain shall meet.

3. Placemaking personified. It is easy to imagine caring about this place. This place is an engine of its own success.
4. Entropy personified. Much like the heat death of the universe, this place will degrade until nothing remains. Is this place rich enough socially that we should care about it? The unequivocal answer is no.

The top photo here is sexy, there is atmosphere, mood, character. It is dynamic, it’s active, exciting, and full of life. This did not happen by chance. This place was made. It was made through the act of placemaking which, now that you can see what it is, you can begin to understand how to look for it. Placemaking is a process, it’s never complete, never finished, continually evolving to stay relevant. It listens deeply to its community and morphs to accommodate the needs and will of the people.

If it’s not evident in these photos alone, the Project for Public Spaces list four major criteria for placemaking: sociability, uses and activity, access and linkages, and comfort and image. There are literally hundreds of things that fill out these categories from sanitation to volunteerism, the fact is we don’t design spaces like this anymore, as evidenced by this asphalt wasteland of the Supercenter, in the name of economic development. But is this economical?

Economic Development

The following two images depict the same amount of space, roughly 110 acres. Image 5 shows downtown Easton, with its mix of residential, office, commercial, civic space, medical offices, infrastructure, and open space. Image 6 shows what appears to be largely parking with stores sprinkled almost evenly apart from each other. Which of the two would you think generates a greater tax revenue for the town?

5. Downtown Easton.
6. Strip Center Easton

At first glance it might seem as though Target, Lowe’s, and Acme Shopping Centers would be tax revenue powerhouses — but when looked at as Value per Acre (Tax Revenue divided by Lot Acres) the story becomes rather abysmal for these large shopping centers. The graphic below indicates the Value per Acre (VpA) of much of Downtown Easton. When measuring VpA, places downtown like the Washington Street Pub outperform Target 100 to 1. If downtown were designed today — and were to produce the same tax revenue it would encompass over a thousand acres of development — most of which would be parking lots and road infrastructure.

7. Value per Acre Downtown Easton. Blue indicates a larger value in tax revenue.

It turns out those huge empty parking lots would be better utilized as retail. What is evidenced here is what is commonly called the “park-once strategy” of development. The downtown boasts over 1,000 parking spaces, each capable of reaching tens if not hundreds of businesses and services. Target however is a largely a single-use parking strategy focused. By dividing up the parcels as such, each business requires a parking space and trip, nobody is walking back from BJ’s to the Target parking lot with the metric ton of dog food available for purchase there, not to mention the near half mile walk (seriously, I measured it). This is designed to discourage visiting multiple stores, rather purchasing everything at one store. So much for competition.

The chart below shows just how large this gap is. Target or Wal-Mart generate $7.00/acre versus somewhere like the Washington Street Pub that can generate near $105/acre. And before you ask, yes, the Pub and much of Washington Street is 3–4 stories. What does this mean? Mixed use and density equals revenue.

Again, this is just an overview, but some other topics that you should be curious about here are employment density, salaries, and public infrastructure costs. It should be evident however, that the sheer lack of density does not bode well for these places.

8. Value Per Acre from Urban-Three.com

Alternate Reality

What if we course corrected? This idea is one that has occupied much of my time. How do we turn strip centers into places worth caring about? Though Waterside Village does a great job of trying to mimic the attributes of community with fake brick sidewalks, a clock tower, and buildings that abut the street, they fall short of creating place. Heck they even have a mix of uses (somewhat) with some office functions above the two buildings along Route 33. But they are decidedly lacking in the vibrancy of downtown Easton. There is no confusing the two.

9. Where more buildings, parks, residences, and businesses should be, here we get parking, and a lot of it.

This is because our definition of space is being manipulated. Much like our front lawns, these vestiges of “public space” are so far removed from their function that they are mere ornament. We have taken the physical attributes that we associate with great places and have created a facsimile, losing all understanding of the delicate recipe that make them. Placemaking is like baking, and Waterside Village is an ingredients list without measurements. Instead of 12 oz. of flower and a tablespoon of salt, we got 12 oz. of parking and a tablespoon of public space.

For some imagination assistance, let’s look at a rough conceptual reimagining of how we could start to reclaim some of these spaces throughout town. This is in no way a recommendation of specific locations for structures, but paints a picture of how we can infuse placemaking into underutilized strip centers. There’s a plethora of further information on this topic of Retrofitting Suburbia that should be referenced for further study.

10. Red — New Structure, Blue — Existing Structure, Gray — Parking Structure, Green — Park / Median

A retrofitted Marlboro Avenue instantly becomes a street worth walking down, ergo, a street worth putting a business on. Introduction of parking, street trees, wide sidewalks and reduced traffic speeds convert Marlboro from a road (defined as an improved pathway between two places) to a street (defined as a paved public path in a community — not just for cars). A median could help reduce traffic speeds while creating better accessibility and crossing for pedestrians. Fully developed, this corridor would act as a substantially better representative street for first time visitors of Easton. Parks interspersed throughout this area create places to eat lunch, meet friends, or just enjoy something besides parking. Housing introduced provides activity in a longer span than just 9–5.

A greater connected grid of streets disperses traffic over a greater footprint rather than compressing it to wide roads that are impassable and dangerous. Parking structures are not needed, and should only be included if there is a parking need. With over 2,600 spaces in the combined developments, there should be little fear that a loss of a little bit of parking would even be noticed. Have you ever seen them full? If your answer is Four of July — do you keep air mattresses inflated with linens 24/7 for when your friends visit? I know in my near 20 years of being in Easton, I have never once worried about parking. More to the point — I’d trade 5 minutes of searching for parking for more places like downtown any day.

11. Existing Marlboro Avenue.
12. Proposed Marlboro Avenue. Imagine if these were 3–4 stories like downtown Easton. ( I am being modest here, there is no reason these couldn’t be 3 or more stories.)
13. For some perspective, this is Washington Street around Goldsborough Street.

Advice from a Friend

As a good friend once told me, “Value and opportunity are things you inherit by accident from the distant past. They are not things we are empowered to create in the living present. To suggest otherwise is pure madness.” Obviously, this is not without its obvious hyperbole. We are masters of our own universe, and this shouldn’t end at our personal lives. For the past 60 years, Easton has relied on its distant past for its value and opportunity. Its high time we create some of our own; in our own image.

Doug Davies is a urban planner, designer, and landscape architect and native of Easton, Maryland.

[1] Boyd Gibbons and Professor Boyd Gibbons, Wye Island: Insiders, Outsiders, and Change in a Chesapeake Community (Washington, DC: Resources for the Future Press (RFF Press), 2007). 15.

[2] Paul Marx, Jim Rouse: Capitalist/idealist (United States: University Press of America, 2007). 79.

Letters to Editor

  1. Pat Revord says

    You had me laughing at “Is this even the Easton WalMart? Maybe?”. I think that sums up the whole argument.

  2. Terrific essay Doug! Just a great explanation about why it’s important – economically and socially – to redevelop our downtowns rather than sprawl into the countryside. And the ideas for retrofitting our suburbs are also exciting and timely. Our rivers and countryside on the Eastern Shore have been our goose laying golden eggs for a very long time. However, to sustain this beautiful place and our communities we need vibrant downtowns which are magnets for millennials and entrepreneurs of all sorts. See the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy website (www.eslc.org) for more examples of small town revitalization on the Eastern Shore. Bravo Doug!

  3. David Jeffery says

    If only. Let’s hope that the redevelopment of the Port Street corridor and flanking areas follow a walkable plan on a people scale.

    • Doug Davies says

      Certainly, this isn’t something that happens overnight, rather something that takes time, small projects, sweat, tears, winners, and some losers. It’s a dirty hard process, but with a strong vision of what the community should be – I think it can be accomplished. Port St. is a great example of a project that should be held to the highest of multimodal, mixed use, reduced parking, and placemaking standards. Nothing should be forfeit in the project that is vital to the whole – if not this project, which one, if not us, who?

  4. Willard T Engelskirchen says

    How many grocery stores do we need? What about people who cannot drive due to age or desire not to drive? Commercial space with housing above means that people are around all the time making a neighborhood safer.
    We have been here 18 years. If we had wanted to move to Bowie, we would have moved to Bowie.

  5. A) Excellent! You’ve got people talking. Kudos to you and The Spy. Thank you Jody Baker.
    B) I echo Rob and agree with your follow up comment. I would add that the vision you create for Marlboro Street is eminently doable. Just from the standpoint of adding value, shopping centers with fields of unused parking area that “meets code” would surely rather convert to income producing, more vibrant and interesting space. In fact, the visionary Lehr Jackson long hoped to add a beautiful multistory mixed used building to the Talbottown parking lot in the corner of Washington and Harrison Streets. Lynn Thomas “gets it”. The Mears family is smart and capable. There are leaders in our community who can make this happen. Let’s move this conversation forward!

  6. Hugh Beebe says

    There appears to be growing momentum in favor of translating the appreciation of Talbot County’s special qualities into action to enhance it before big box mentality causes irreparable harm. Who will step up to support this idea and capture this energy? Is this a Citizens for Managed Growth opportunity to be proactive in favor of positive change? Do we need an organized effort to persuade Talbot County and Town of Easton officials?

  7. Samuel Shoge says

    Very nice article, Doug. You hit the nail right on the head regarding tax revenue of denser downtown districts versus their sprawling shopping center counterparts. Another distinction between denser, mixed use districts and sprawling shopping centers is the amount of infrastructure that is needed to service them. Water and sewer and roads are not cheap and even more expensive to maintain. Having increased tax revenue generating capacity affords towns and cities the ability to maintain the infrastructure more consistently. Your downtown buildings also recover and retain their property value far more effectively than big-box development. Your article is timely given the current state of retail. I encourage readers who enjoyed this post and found it informative to read the blog Strong Towns found here: https://www.strongtowns.org. Strong Towns discusses topics like this and more in great detail. After reading this blog, you won’t look at city planning the same again.

  8. There are many flies in the ointment of this so-called redevelopment. People who are shopping are not intent on strolling around anywhere. They came to get their supplies, take them home, then enjoy their recreational activities. The so-called development of Port Street is another pipe dream. Living across the river from this travesty puts me in a position of being adamantly opposed to this development. The occupancy of Easton business is very evident when you look around. Though Mr. Prager may be trying to turn Easton into a Hamptons of the Eastern Shore this is not going to happen. There are many empty storefronts in Easton right now. Are you trying to drive the rest of the business out of Easton? Very few locals walk around downtown Easton.

    Easton Port is a development you are pushing to put in a critical environmental area. Have you ever been at the end of the Northern Branch of the Tred Avon in the summer at low tide? Not a pleasant adventure to say the least. To even contemplate building all that infrastructure in a critical area is ridiculous. I am amazed all the green weenies are not up in arms about a 200-room hotel, shops, a brewery, housing, and anything else you can come up with to draw a non-existent group of vacationers to this less than desirable destination. The only conclusion I can draw is that someone has lots of money to force this issue. Otherwise, there is no way current residents would be be displaced and this critical area torn up.

    The Tred Avon is not deep enough to support a 200 boat marina and hotel. The Corp of Engineers are not going to dredge the Tred for recreational boaters. The County Council should never have allowed Port Street to be annexed into the City of Easton. The planners seem intent on driving out the business located on The Tred Avon. It is a vital provider of all types of stone for this area of the Eastern Shore.

    Easton had a port which it filled in. Poor planning on their part. Give it up. Eastern Port will never be an extension of downtown Easton. We already have enough roads, rivers and an airport to bring drugs into Talbot County. We do not need anymore.

    • Hi Barbara,

      Thanks for adding to the conversation! While I fundamentally disagree with your notion of what people want from a community, that’s OK, we all deserve to be a part of this community and have our opinions heard. I agree with you too, we should be developing for all kinds of community types, however, our current iteration of development precludes my notion of community. If you develop in a pattern where strolling isn’t an option, then, of course, you will not get strollers. To your point of locals, I think it’s a bit of an exaggeration to say that very few locals walk around downtown Easton, if not false, it’s certainly a glass half empty perspective. I know plenty of locals that live, work and play downtown.

      Momentum is something hard to gain (then maintain) towards positive goals. The Port Street development, which I don’t have much of a comment on at the moment, I do somewhat agree with you on. We have plenty of development potential in the core and immediately adjacent areas that any growth in retail seems scary. But again, there is momentum there, specifically around a historically disinvested area of town – this is a big deal. Let’s be clear, however, nobody wants drugs in our town, and that conversation has nothing to do with redevelopment on Port Street. On the topic of the critical area – and living across the river – is it ok to build residential in the critical area but not commercial? From your logic, both would seem to be risky and environmentally destructive, right?

      As a local myself, and now a frequent visitor since moving away for work (unfortunately, but this is a problem I think we can solve!), I think it’s a symbiotic relationship local’s must have with visitors to our great town. They bring many positive assets, one of them being capital. Their capital fuels many service industry level jobs that are vital to the area’s success. We now need to think about how do we turn those service jobs into higher paying jobs to keep younger residents here. I think one of those ways is building more downtown and less Target and Chilis (not the stores themselves – come on in! – but we don’t need their doughnut’s of parking that surround them that are ugly and useless from a tax perspective.) While residents that have a disdain for the downtown might enjoy the Target and Wal-Marts, they are not a “win” for the town from a tax, visitor, or community perspective. These places are heavily subsidized by the higher tax producing places like downtown, and that’s a shame. A smaller Target with consolidated or shared parking with other stores (sort of like what’s going on with Kohl’s and others, though there’s still just too much parking) create a little bit better of a walking experience – with downtown providing the best example. That services BOTH locals and visitors, its a win win!

    • Jake Laureska says

      Barbara,

      I would respectfully say that you have missed the overall point of Doug’s article. Unfortunately, it sounds to me that your thoughts may very well be rooted in either a generational or cultural difference from those of us that appreciate and value a strong downtown and walk-able neighborhood. My wife and I bought our first house in December and made it our top priority to buy downtown Easton. We walk to work, to the grocery store (yes, we shop at safeway, gasp!) and to the local restaurants and bars. A simple stroll around downtown Easton on a nice day will directly contradict your idea that “very few locals walk around downtown Easton.”

      A strong argument can be made that many of the storefronts in Easton are vacant because of these sprawling developments – developments that occurred in the name of convenience. The type of planning Doug is advocating for certainly does not strive to drive business out of Easton. Its quite the contrary actually. Doug is arguing that it is better to bring these businesses back into town from a financial and quality-of-life standpoint. Sure, it might appear more convenient to drive to Target, park, and walk across the asphalt desert to pick up “supplies.” But then again, if a similar store existed in downtown Easton, how much longer would it take for you to drive into town and find a parking space and walk down a beautiful, bustling street to reach your destination? Thirty seconds? Two minutes? It’s certainly quantifiable, but either way I know its negligible.

      As for Easton Point, I’m sure the viability of the new businesses there still has yet to be determined, but we certainly can’t complain about this critical area development without mentioning that less than a mile away Target came in and literally paved over tens of thousands of square feet of critical area.

      Maybe Easton Point CAN become an extension of downtown through successful redevelopment efforts? Given the kinds of awful sprawl that this town has been subjected to in the past 20 years, Easton Point is the least of our worries. Talbot County’s waterfront might be its greatest asset and the potential economic benefits that re-development would bring is enough to at least consider it.

      The big question to me here is:
      Do we prefer the towns Doug is lobbying for (dense, walk-able, engaging communities) or do we prefer the antiquated “American dream” of shuttling back and forth from our cocoons to vapid big-box store four or five times a week?

      I’ll take Dougville any day.

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