Rethinking the Behemoth, Preserving the Banal, Part III: Mundane microbuildings have a place in contemporary urban life.

This post concludes a three-part series on a high-profile new development in the southern Indiana city of Evansville. The city’s Mayor and Council have approved (and now completed) the demolition of a block of century-old commercial buildings on the historic Main Street to make way from a new sports arena, after negotiations floundered for buying out a car dealership nearby. I explored the background behind this decision—an obvious attempt at revitalizing the city’s long stagnant downtown—in Part I of this series. Though the D-Patrick Ford Dealership was originally the preferred site, Mayor Jonathan Weinzapfel announced that the site where the historic buildings stand (or stood) is ultimately better because the arena will now front Evansville’s Main Street, allowing the activity generated from major sporting events to spill onto the neighboring blocks, thereby helping to revive the long-slumping retail activity on this commercial corridor. The rendering below, available on the Evansville Courier-Press website, reveals the configuration.

I have outlined Main Street in red, while the blue square traces the footprints of the old commercial microbuildings that the City has sacrificed to build the arena. As demonstrated by the rending, this region captures where the front of the arena will soon stand. And the green square represents the faded Executive Inn, half of which is being demolished for the back side of the arena, while the other portion that I have outlined will be repurposed, ideally into a major national chain hotel. An older Google Streetview shows that the old commercial buildings (in the red outlined square) look like this:
demolished microbuildings on the left side of the street
Those buildings outlined in orange in the photo above no longer exist, and soon the arena below will replace them:

The rendering shows the new Main Street frontage. I commend Populous, the architectural firm, for providing windows and natural light to side that will face Evansville’s historic commercial street, but I remain unconvinced that this was still the best decision for locating this arena. It’s a great site for the sake of integrating the arena with downtown, but not so great in terms of what has been lost in Evansville’s older built environment. But the decision seems predicated upon the assumption that a giant sports venue—and all the foot traffic it creates for its events—will help breathe life into the other blocks of Evansville’s old commercial corridor, with those long dormant 19th century microbuildings. That’s false assumption number one, which I analyzed at length in Part II of this three-part post. The City had to sacrifice one full block of the older architecture to free up the space for the arena, and this economic development strategy rests on the second and final false assumption: that historic commercial buildings (the microbuildings in question) are stranded without a purpose or niche unless visually integrated with a larger attraction upon which they depend, almost parasitically.

If Memphis and New Orleans—the two cities mentioned in the previous post—are any indication, the Evansville arena will have a limited impact on other downtown development. While it won’t likely hurt the downtown’s activity level, it also won’t contribute the catalyzing effect that the city leaders desire. As far as the scale and pace of downtowns go, it’s an oddity. It doesn’t really fit in with the rhythms of commuting workers, servers at the lunch counters, or the few who claim downtown as their home. It operates on a different scale and schedule completely. So do the city’s other main attractions, such as the casino and its cluster of hotels/restaurants that sit on the opposite end of Main Street, along the Ohio River. Let’s review one of those other mega-destinations briefly.

Casino Aztar has graced the city’s waterfront for over a decade, yet it’s largely an entertainment compound, divorced from the city. People come for an evening of gaming, food, drinks, maybe spend the night at the hotel—they have everything they need crammed within a 1000 foot radius. It has induced little to no tenant activity in the old commercial corridor of the city’s downtown. What’s to say this arena will be any different? Clearly the more traditional buildings do not automatically thrive when a hot attraction enters the downtown landscape—neither the Casino Aztar, nor a children’s museum or convention center had much of an impact in Evansville. Even though Casino Aztar has the ability to draw patrons from well outside the Evansville metro, it has done little to improve the heart of downtown.

So what works? What will help bring businesses back to the old commercial microbuildings along Main Street? More often than not, those same aging structures will find tenants organically, regardless of public intervention. The solution and the problem are one and the same. Let’s look at one of the other historic blocks along Main Street which, to this day (at least to my knowledge) remains intact:
surviving microbuildings in Evansville, INThis stretch of Main Street between 5th and 6th doesn’t show a lot of retail life, if this Google Street View screenshot is any indication. I have often heard quoted about old urban architecture that “it has good bones.” Clearly these bones on Evansville’s Main Street could use some meat, but that’s the essence of the concern here—the existing physical form is solid with those microbuildings. When it comes to the adaptive re-use of old architecture, it’s not a matter of form following function; out of necessity, function follows form. This is a static, immobile object that fell out of favor long ago but still holds promise for a reawakening, awaiting an individual who can find a purpose for its dimension and configuration.

But instead seeking a means to breathe new life into those microbuildings in the first Main Street photo (outlined in orange), the City tears them down. From the perspective of bolstering tax revenue through leisure and tourism expenditures, this makes sense: the economic activity generated by an arena no doubt far surpasses that row of old buildings, most of which were vacant. But an arena could have generated revenue in a number of other locations that wouldn’t have required demolition of existing structures. Does the smallness of those existing buildings on Main Street make them seem expendable? Would there be more of a protest if they were six or seven stories, thus having a higher floor-area-ratio and the potential for a greater return on the investment?

The fact remains that microbuildings such as those have a far more versatile array of potential uses, even if they’re blighted or vacant now. Historic preservationists have long known this, but their arguments have not always convinced the greater public, especially when the structures lack any empirically obvious architectural merit. A truly compelling case for preservation requires a worm’s-eye analysis of the structures and their relation to the streetscape—an intensive level of scrutiny I most recently applied to a struggling strip mall on the south side of Indianapolis.

Fundamentally, these sort of humble structures are most amenable to pioneering urban retail. On a row of seemingly puny 1- to 3-story buildings on Evansville’s Main Street, the rents are cheap, gross leasable area is small, and tenants will often have heavy bargaining rights if a landlord thinks he/she can secure a lease. Thus, the low cost allows those equity-starved entrepreneurs the opportunity to experiment, offering exactly the sort of distinctive, non-chain specialty goods or services that city leaders are looking for when promoting their downtown as “revitalized”. Think of where those hip coffeehouses go, the eclectic new restaurant, the vintage/antique shops, or a quirky used record store. These small buildings may have heavy turnaround, with businesses coming and going every 6-9 months at first, but they are still the stuff that a good retail corridor is made of. Through an accretion-based change in occupancy—moving from 20% to 30% to 50% to 75% occupancy over the course of several years—a commercial corridor such as Main Street can improve the image of downtown far more than arena will. And while big-ticket attraction can bring attention to the smaller urban architecture in the vicinity, the microbuildings hardly depend on mega-destinations for their prosperity: after all, as I indicated in Part II of this post, Beale Street in Memphis re-awakened long before the construction of the giant stadia nearby. It doesn’t always depend on the arena as an impetus.

But investors don’t open their wallets as willingly to a long-term, incremental benefit. Arenas equal results, and a much higher wow factor: just look those sleek renderings! (From Evansville arena project website )

And the interior suites! (From the Populous website)

It’s a shame this blog post is built on a retrospective development decision: on “what could have been” rather than “what could be”. But, of course, this still offers an opportunity to learn from mistakes, so that these ideally will not occur again in the future, and Evansville can be the best city possible with the resources it still has. The City needs to be patient with the surviving commercial microbuildings or nudge them forward by treating it more like an isolated business incubator program—it does not need to tear any more of them down.

Conclusion: A New Rationale for Site Selection

By no means is the City of Evansville’s decision to build a downtown arena a mistake. But all of the arena’s spin-off development (parking garages, tailgating lots) is hostile to pedestrians. Across the country, when making decisions for the location of mega-destinations, leadership should spend less energy on site selection in terms of how it relates to the buildings around it, and more should be spent on the architectural value and long-term utility of the structures that might otherwise be sacrificed.

Populous Architects (designers of the arena) and the City’s leaders did some of the right research in making an arena that at least will have basic streetfront appeal.

How wise of them to include windows along Main Street, considering the alternatives. Many arenas built in the 1980s were solid, blank concrete walls on all four sides—sterile and uninviting to pedestrians. But how much interest does an arena have when a game or event is not in session? During the 70-80% of the time that nothing will be going on in that arena, people aren’t going to peer in those windows the same way they would with a retail storefront. If anything, sports arenas have one distinctive value in smaller cities that have long suffered from moribund downtowns: they are a guaranteed draw for their events, and they might get people walking around the downtown area (for the first time in years for some Evansvillians) precisely to discover those other long forgotten two-story buildings that are worth taking a risk for some small business. But in this case, the City already destroyed eight of the structures that that could spur a truly sustainable downtown revitalization. Those microbuildings have stood over a century; how long will the arena last?

The arena will draw crowds on event days regardless of where it’s located…at least until it becomes dated or old-fashioned in 20 years. Main Street Evansville will wake up on its own terms, and it will happen through the accretion induced by small buildings such as those in the photo. To conclude, I will make a series of highly unrealistic “ideal world” recommended alternatives for what the City should have done, in order of desirability. At the very least, even if none of these recommendations are feasible in this case, they can serve as the heuristics for any future site selection decisions, with the attempt to salvage microbuildings that energized Evansville’s original main street. Let’s use another graphic—the master plan featured on the website to help make these recommendations more vivid:
arena master plan corrected 2, replacing microbuildings on Main Street
1) Reconfigure the site of the arena to the D-Patrick Ford site (circled in blue)
. This should have been the premier location, and for many months, it was. The D-Patrick Ford car dealership was the original top choice, recommended by Populous and preferred by the City, largely because it was only a block away from downtown. If the dealership seemed good to the decision makers from an activity standpoint, I can almost guarantee it was also better from a building expendability standpoint. It would have been cheap to demolish. But the owners of the Ford dealership were unwilling to sell at $4.1 million and are committed to downtown. Too bad. Car dealerships have generally shown a strong locational elasticity of demand—not too different from arenas, actually. It’s rare that a dealership has had to close simply because it wasn’t in the right neighborhood. Prior to Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans had a Saab dealership on Tulane Avenue, one of the most economically downtrodden corridors in the city. People still bought cars there, even if the ‘hood was bad. The one thing dealerships depend on is large quantities of developable land, and if it’s cheap, that’s even better, which explains their ability to survive in otherwise non-lucrative parts of town. It’s more a testament to the depressed economy of downtown Evansville and the cheapness of its real estate that a car dealership would choose to remain there. Should the city center ever become a vibrant place again, I have no doubt D-Patrick would be happy to sell. The owners are probably hoping the arena will improve downtown’s image, giving them the opportunity ask for a far higher price than $4.1 million in several years. But it’s too late now. The deal is settled, and less than two blocks away from the arena, the city’s visitors get this site:

2) Purchase those aging commercial microbuildings on Main Street, save them, and ride out the economic downturn until a private buyer comes along. Sacrifice the Executive Inn at the back of the arena site instead. Since the City has already put the kibosh on Plan 1, we move to this option—also an impossibility by now. Again, what a shame. But I remain confident that it is a matter of only a few years (maybe only months) before those structures would have aroused enough curiosity from entrepreneurs who would give them a try. Each structure in a group of microbuildings is far easier for an equity-starved investor to snag and reuse.  Given their current low level of desirability, the eminent domain costs could have been relatively cheap. It would have comprised a sort of “land banking” in an urban setting that I observed in an earlier post. The rendering below, complete with my chicken scratches, illustrates what should have happened:

Basically just shift the structure. Instead of demolishing the main street frontage (what would have been where the blue outline stood), the leaders should have sacrificed the tired, low-end Executive Inn (outlined in green and pictured below).

The fact that most of the inn will be spared the wrecking ball, to be transformed to a new major-chain hotel, undoubtedly constitutes a portion of a larger deal which the City has not broadly disclosed to the public. But of all the structures listed above, which is most worthy of saving? A squat car dealership, a struggling mid-century hotel, or what we see below—
demolished microbuildings in Evansville
–the historic buildings on the city’s original commercial street. Even saving just the façades for later use (perhaps as a hotel) would have been preferable. Clearly I’m biased, but the latter buildings offer the best opportunity for the lively pedestrian atmosphere that virtually every city, large and small, would kill to have. Too late—those buildings are gone. For the City’s sake, I hope the deal with a major hotel chain works out; they’ve lost a lot of other microbuildings and pinned a lot of hopes on such a deal materializing.

3) Renovate the Roberts Stadium. The original stadium in Evansville was built in 1956 in an area about 3 miles east of downtown.

(From the Roberts Stadium website)
It’s quite a testament to the city’s resiliency that the stadium has endured this long; many contemporary stadia survive little more than 20 years. (Indianapolis’ Hoosier/RCA Dome and Market Square Arena offer proof of their brief life spans.) Roberts’ last extensive renovation was in 1990; it is no doubt due for another if it wants to remain a viable sporting and entertainment venue. What makes the new Evansville Arena decision a bit more baffling is the fact that it will actually be smaller than Roberts: only 11,000 seats, compared to Roberts’ 12,700. No doubt the new arena will hold more amenities, such as the much-coveted executive suites. But it’s a lot for a City to ask its taxpayers to fund a new stadium that will actually have a reduced capacity. And no word is out yet as to what will happen to Roberts Stadium once the new arena is complete. Renovation is a political near-impossibility amidst a culture that seeks shiny new attractions in a revitalized downtown; Roberts’ decommissioning is inevitable. Let’s hope the civic leaders come up with something better than the sorry fate of Indianapolis’ shuttered Bush Stadium, which the Parks Department now leases for a junkyard.

4) Find a site elsewhere in metro Evansville that will be less destructive to historic architecture. This could involve one of the other five or six sites originally under consideration; it could be just about anywhere. A depressed older neighborhood with high amounts of vacant land could use the infusion of construction jobs. A brownfield site could elicit federal grants for remediation. The Ohio riverfront might benefit from another attraction. Put it out the suburbs to guarantee the population won’t be turned off by narrow streets or the scarcity of easy parking. Anything. Just don’t let the allure of something new and shiny cloud the ability to perceive a future for something old and irreplaceable.  At least one block of microbuildings are forever gone, as are the opportunities for versatile and variegated uses within them.

I hope the Evansville arena succeeds and helps foment the long-term prosperity of this picturesque, often overlooked river city. But I remain confident that there will be at least a brief moment where the leaders will kick themselves for having sacrificed part of the historic foundation that helped launch the city’s riparian commerce. Although older than Indianapolis, Evansville has remained a slow-and-steady growth region for decades, which to a certain degree has helped stall a lot of the hasty development, demolition, and re-development proposals that have annihilated much of Indianapolis’ historic downtown. My suspicion is a city such as Evansville, which isn’t trying to attract or retain the big-ticket sports teams, will get to see its arena last quite a bit longer than a city like Indy. But, as fellow blogger Dig-B said, “All the more reason to make this one perfect!”

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3 thoughts on “Rethinking the Behemoth, Preserving the Banal, Part III: Mundane microbuildings have a place in contemporary urban life.

  1. Andy

    “But how much interest does an arena have when a game or event is not in session? During the 70-80% of the time that nothing will be going on in that arena, people aren’t going to peer in those windows the same way they would with a retail storefront.”

    If the planners are smart (but so fa, they haven’t shown they are), they will at least put a sports bar in the space behind those windows. A place where fans of the local team can meet during werkdays, too. This would offset the somewhat alieen appearance of an arena on mainstreet. The worst outcome would be if this really would become a dead block in the city center during days wijtout sports events. This would not only NOT help reviving main street, this would be another nail in its coffin!

  2. cdc guy

    In Indy, there’s a Starbucks at ground level on the Pennsylvania St. side of Conseco Fieldhouse in conjunction with the Pacers’ junk, er, Pro Shop.

    We’ve already integrated shopping malls and hotels into airports in the US. It’s probably time to figure out how to mesh them into sports arenas and stadia. The CNN/Omni/Phillips Arena development on Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta offers a clue.

  3. AmericanDirt

    Good ideas. Given when Evansville has already lost, the least they can do to enliven the new arena is offer some retail space with Main Street frontage, as you have suggested. This should be a standard for new arena construction, as it is with new office buildings. It might not be easy to lure a tenant right away though, considering that the surviving blocks of Main Street are pretty dead and property management company for an arena would hope to command higher rents than the landlord for those old commercial buildings. I’ll see what I can find out as more precise details for this arena development emerge.


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