What if I told you that there was a way to revitalize downtown Tullahoma in a way that was better for social equity, created more jobs, strengthened the local economy, improved the health of residents, and benefited the environment, all while attracting investors and developers by ensuring profitable economic returns?
If all of the above sound good to you, then you are in luck. Prioritizing walkable urbanism in our town can accomplish all of those things and more, and not just in the downtown. According to Smart Growth America, the demand is high for real estate in sustainable, walkable places across the country, and not just in the coastal cities, but across the sunbelt, the rust belt, and in metros and rural communities of all sizes. Studies prove that walkable places – the kinds of places that people built for hundreds of years before the emergence of the automobile era - are not only the economic powerhouses of the United States, but they’re also more socially equitable, healthier, safer, and better for the environment. Unfortunately, public policy continues to hinder developers’ ability to build or revitalize the places that would meet this demand. Outdated zoning and decades of misguided incentives and regulations continue to promote more sprawl instead of focusing on creating highly productive, connected, walkable places. Meeting this pent-up demand in Tullahoma while further enhancing the quality of life here could give us a huge economic advantage over some of our larger neighbors.
Where are we walking or biking to?
Most of you with an interest in planning issues are no doubt familiar with the concept of the pedestrian shed or ped shed. The idea is simple. Experience has shown us that the average person will walk to destinations that they can reach in under five minutes – in practical terms, about a quarter-mile – beyond which they will probably just choose to take their car. Of course, younger generations are prone to walk greater distances and many planners suggest that a half-mile standard, around a 10-minute walk, to be an acceptable metric. There is also the bike shed to consider, which is generally estimated to be around three miles. I’ve even worked with developers who evaluate the pub shed during site analysis, jokingly referred to as the stagger home test. The concept of the pedestrian shed is applicable for any area of commercial activity or other type of destination, such as the mall, greenway, SJCC, schools, or D.W. Wilson, and it can and should be an important planning tool for our entire community. It should come as no surprise to my readers, however, that I will focus on the downtown area for the purpose of this article. The downtown is a vital center of commercial activity in our town, contains a significant number of historic and cultural resources, provides many opportunities for interaction among residents, and also serves as an important draw for regional tourism.
Where are we walking or biking from? Although the greater downtown area is actually quite large and contains five distinct historic districts, as defined by the Tullahoma Historic District, let’s look at the central business district that contains the historic mercantile buildings with Lincoln Street at its center. If you drop a pin right in the middle of the downtown and draw a circle with a radius of about half-mile, you will find that there are some challenges in terms of the walkability of this area. The walkability score would be higher if there were more opportunities to live in many of the underutilized spaces above the ground floor retail, but that is a topic for another article. There are beautiful historic neighborhoods laid out in a traditional street grid pattern within the downtown’s pedestrian shed. To access the central business district, residents of these neighborhoods must at some point first cross either a major highway or the railroad tracks. There are many relatively inexpensive safety-features and traffic calming measures that could be installed within a short-time frame to improve the pedestrian experience at these intersections and crossings until more substantial investments can be made. The good news is that much of the infrastructure needed for a walkable community, including sidewalks and alleys are already in place in the majority of the area. Focusing on the greenway as a major connector and important community feature with the potential to facilitate walkability and economic development is paramount.
We need more options for housing in downtown neighborhoods. Within the historic neighborhoods surrounding the downtown, you will find many beautiful, older homes. While many homes have been lovingly restored, there are just as many that remain in a state of disrepair. Take a stroll or bike ride through these neighborhoods this weekend and count the number of vacant lots. Additionally, outside of the historic residential areas and within the downtown’s pedestrian shed, huge swaths of underutilized parking lots and other brownfield sites are ideal locations for townhomes or multifamily development. An increase in residential density in the downtown area creates a built-in market for retailers and restaurant owners, can boost economic activity, and greatly enhance the vitality of the area. There just aren’t a lot of different options for housing downtown. I won’t go into the reasons for the shortage, but I would like to introduce a concept that I will discuss in more detail in my column here next week.
The lack of housing options in Tullahoma is another example of a larger issue that isn’t particularly unique to our community, hence the recent rise of national interest in what has been dubbed as Missing Middle Housing. Located on the real estate spectrum between large apartment complexes and single-family housing, Missing Middle Housing types include a diverse range of housing options, such as duplexes, fourplexes, and bungalow courts that fit seamlessly into historic single-family neighborhoods and support walkability, cycling, local retail and dining establishments.
According to Ellen Dunham-Jones, Professor at Georgia Tech and co-author of Retrofitting Suburbia, “Well-designed ‘Missing Middle’ buildings unify the walkable streetscape as they greatly diversify the choices available for households of different age, size, and income. Smaller households tend to eat out more, helping our neighborhoods attract wonderful restaurants. Diverse households keep diverse hours, meaning we have more people out walking our streets at more varied hours-keeping them safer.” Pocket neighborhoods are also a potential viable solution for the downtown. To learn more about how we can strengthen our neighborhoods through these types of small-scale real estate projects, look for my article here next week, or visit incrementaldevelopment.org for a sneak peek. As always, look for this article on the Tullahoma News Facebook page to post questions or comments.