My Take on Easton

Ever since I came back to Easton in 2014 I have become increasingly concerned as to what happens to communities that continue down the path we are currently on. Anyway this is what I have been thinking about.

Currently the shopping centers that border the bypass are comprised of approximately 2,600 parking spaces spread across 110 Acres of development. The 2,600 spaces make up a majority of the acreage with another significant portion taken up by wide streets. Many of these parking spaces sit empty year round. Many of the stores have vacant holes and national chain stores. Currently almost none of the shops are within a reasonable walking distance from one another and often don’t provide places to safely walk.

Infill Development 
Red — New Building
Blue — Existing Building
Gray — Parking Structure
Green — Park / Median

Do we need to annex more land for commercial development? No, what if we didn’t? What if we kept the town the size it is currently and decided to instead infill, revitalize, and rehab the strip malls and other failing retail? What if these stores are failing because of the abundance of cheap highway commercial development sites? What lessons can we learn from our older strip centers? Well, what we have learned is that the experiment failed years ago as evidenced by the decline of the Wal-Mart shopping center. Does anyone honestly think that Target wont look that way in 10 years?

Existing Marlboro Avenue. No street frontage, pedestrian impediments, long crossing distances, extra wide lanes, and zero character.
Proposed Marlboro Avenue. Street presence, pedestrian connections, shorter crossing distances, on street parking, small town character.

What about “there’s too much traffic!?” Really? How long does it really take to get through town? If we decide to solve that problem what becomes of the town? We get Route 13 in Salisbury. Does anyone like the idyllic sidewalks and historic buildings of Route 13 in Salisbury? Probably not, unless you’re a sadist. Downtown street like Washington or Dover are the most coveted and “Eastonian” thing we have. Why don’t we want more of that? The fear mongering of traffic has scared us into a place where we think building out is better than building in. Parking? Has anyone seen these lots full? Maybe on fourth of July but otherwise would it really kill any of you to have to walk another 20 steps? Maybe in the suburban strip mall wasteland we have determined is ok, but who DOESNT want to walk an extra block or so downtown? What if these areas looked like that?! Who walks from Brasserie to the Pub? Who knew it was the same distance as Target to Acme. Shops closer together mean shorter distances to walk, which mean more interaction with the world and your neighbors, which means more people on the street and more people visiting businesses, nobody loses here. The businesses get walk ins and visibility, we get beautiful streets more in character with our town, and visitors get a better sense of who we are, not what big box retailers we have in town.

The two areas outlined in red are both approximately 110 acres in size.
Roughly the same size in acreage as the Route 33 development corridor, downtown is home to quadruple the number of businesses, includes housing, government buildings, parking lots, libraries, coffee shops, sidewalks, parks, and places of worship.
Route 33 has more parking than retail, more impervious cover than green space, wider inaccessible roads, not a single park, no housing, no character, and no charm. Between this and downtown what do you think brought more money to the town? Which brought more money to a developer?

Infill Development:
The series of maps and images attached show what could happen. Its not perfect, its not fully detailed, but it is the spirit of the Comprehensive Plan. This converts us away from a regional shopping center and back into a small town, with small streets, with small shops, with sidewalks, with interaction and with character. This doesn’t happen over night, its incremental, its organic, and it happened right here in our own town years ago. do you think Target and a developer came in and built Washington Street overnight?

Street Character:
The before and after images of Marlboro Avenue should alone be enough to make you reconsider what you drive through everyday. What does the existing Marlboro look like compared to Washington Street? Notice anything? Sidewalks, narrowed lanes to reduce traffic speeds, trees to shade the walkway and create front stoops for businesses and shops to creep out to on a summers day. Annexation should be about demand, not lending a helping hand to some property owners at the expense of the town. Its more complicated than them paying for their own sewer. Cheap commercial space bring in the types of places we don’t hold dear.

Don’t think we have tall buildings? Most of N. Washington Street has buildings that are 2–4 stories tall. Articulated, unique buildings bring the height of the buildings down to a human scale and create an urban space.

What about Target?!
Do we need larger retail stores — without a doubt. Did we ask the right questions and get what we wanted? No. Why? We didn’t even try. Target and other big box retailers work on what is called a retail market area. The Market Area is a function of the distance to another competitor store, distance and density of shoppers (that’s you) to a store. [(P + kT = P0 + k(D-T), if you want to get technical). What this means is that they WANT to be in Easton. Where else are they going to go? If they go south, they risk losing Eastonians to Annapolis or other retail markets, if they move north, they risk dwindled sales as shoppers would consider a trip to Wal-Mart before the long trek to Target. The town can and should approach this from a business perspective. 1. Will the property tax generated from this property pay for the increase in road maintenance that is generated from the new development? How can we reduce the number of roads so that number becomes more solvent? What sites around town could Target go without needing to annex an entire farm to plant pretty little parking spaces in? What would that do to other business in the area? Would other businesses benefit from the proximity?

About two years ago there was much conversation about the articulation of the facade on the new Harris Teeter, and buffering the street from the parking. Lets be real, the above image is an articulated facade, large blank windowless, door-less walls is not. To use an old adage, the articulation on the front of this Harris Teeter is to urban design what rearranging the deck chairs was to the Titanic.

Target and other big box retailers operate on slim margins and cheap construction (which also consequently often times mean little to no property tax revenues as their buildings are worth pennies) to succeed. Target, one of the more progressive of the bunch has experimented with smaller stores, smaller parking, and more compact layouts. Why should this just be for cities? The big box model works for the developer not for the town. Why don’t we strive for something more? It can be done, it just requires time, energy, and enthusiasm from a community that cares. The big box retailers are not our enemy, but we have to go to the table prepared to negotiate, not aqueous.

Another photo that shows value per acre. Areas like target are almost as valueless at empty development pads (former farmland, now sitting empty needing mowing). The areas of town we like are, unsurprisingly, the most valuable. Why would we create more valueless places. It’s certainly not jobs, taxes, or beauty, so why?

I spent more than my fare share of nights riding around the parking lots in my car gazing into empty halogen light filled lots looking for something to do. The loop consisted of Acme, the movie theater, old Lowes, the rickety road that runs through the new Lowes site, Washington Street, Dover Street, and back all the way around. NOW. Imagine, instead of those halogen filled street, I was riding by shops, sidewalks, gathering places, small open spaces, well lit parks, a movie theater with shops, bars, ice cream parlors, restaurants, and coffee shops. I might be so inclined to get out of my car and see what’s going on at eye level rather than at 40 mph. Kids in this town need community, not a skate park that closes at dusk and is gated and locked away. They need places to be, things to see, places to spend their parent’s money. I was incredibly underwhelmed with what Easton had to offer me as a kid. Sure summertime was fun when you could get out on the water, or out fishing, or play sports, but all of these things have a time and place — as a kid you always have free time, and being locked away in a suburban development 9 miles from nowhere-downtown didn’t make the experience any richer. College was a fascinating experience with places to go, things to see. The sheer fact that there were other human beings — not rushing between a store and their car — to store — to car, made the entire experience enlightening in so many ways. This truth cannot be understated.

Instead of annexing that property or building what if we moved toward a market in which infill and incremental development became a market feasibility because demand was driven up- which do you think will create more jobs, more tax revenue, and a more vibrant town.

Guidance from a Friend:
What needs to happen to make this a reality? One, Zoning changes that encourage infill and incremental development over greenfield development and big box retail outlets. Two, STOP annexing. Three, attract developers to purchase underperforming strip centers — be choosy, be mindful of what this developer needs to be successful, and what you’re willing to pay to get what you want. Four, let demand increase until infill becomes the highest and best use.

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