What It Looks Like When A Local Business Owner Understands Her Urban Environment

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When I first started writing about Utica, New York, the city was just beginning to pop the champagne cork on fledgling but determined revitalization effort.  The excitement was palpable, as citizen after citizen spoke of the new energy in the city, in part fueled by a growing small business presence.

In just 4 years, this city of 60,000 appears to be on the upswing after decades of economic insolvency.  The city’s downtown continues to grow, with small businesses continuing to take the lead.  And now that the champagne has been opened and fully enjoyed, the hard work is just beginning.  Debates about development, traffic patterns, and the placement of hospitals and entertainment districts have made their way into the everyday community conversation.  While the energy is still high, Utica has officially entered that awkward adolescent phase of urban revitalization, filled with plenty of growing pains.

In this time where cities are trying to reach critical mass, finding balance between large scale development, job production and entertainment, while still keeping the “soul” of the city in mind is difficult at best.  And in this time when balance is still being realized, it’s easy for people to jump to conclusions about what their city or neighborhood really needs to enable a healthy environment for residents, visitors and businesses. 

Utica’s primary print news outlet, The Observer-Dispatch, recently featured a perspective piece titled “Our View: Downtown Parking Must Be Addressed,” a call for the prioritization of more parking in the city’s downtown area.  This sentiment is often shared by downtown business owners across the country who believe that parking will inevitably lead to more foot traffic in their businesses.  Studies, of course, show it’s not that simple.  While suburban malls might be places where parking is necessary, excessive parking decreases urban density, creates financial liabilities, tears at the urban fabric that is so vital to a city’s progress.  Basically, if you build cities with too many wide roads and parking lots, they lose what makes them great places of social and economic productivity and efficiency.  Not an easy concept to convey to people who aren’t well versed in urban design, but nevertheless, it’s the truth.

While I don’t expect the average downtown small business owner to know and understand the incredibly complex set of city variables the need to be addressed before the scapegoat that is a lack of parking, I am amazed at how often they hyper-focus on car access, even when presented with data-backed models of smarter urban growth.  I get it, thinking about everything you need to make your business work day-to-day doesn’t leave much time to really look at what makes a strong small business friendly environment in a city setting.  Picking on one that seems obvious but is often incorrect, is sometimes by default.

Over the weekend, I got into a “Twitter-sation” about parking in Utica, when Katie Martin, owner of Character Coffee on Genesee Street in the city chimed in with a twitter thread that made me smile…



This is what it looks like when someone who has a vested interest in the growth of their business takes the time to truly understand what makes a successful downtown environment.  Far greater than simply suggesting parking is a limiting factor is the awareness of a series of problems that might be inhibiting further patronization.

Our cities are complex beasts… simple, one-dimensional answers and solutions to complex problems are usually not what actually works.  To create a fertile soil for small business growth in any downtown, it takes a tremendous amount of knowledge, awareness and perspective to lasso all the variables that help determine whether or not people will visit, and more importantly, come back.  The more business owners and people in general work to understand the real complexities that affect their urban environments, the better our cities will become as a result.