Many people are nervous about development in our area—and perhaps rightfully so, says Historic Kennett Square Executive Director Bo Wright.
“We haven’t always built in great ways in our towns and cities over the last 50 years,” Wright said in his opening remarks at the first KSQ Speaker Series event on September 28. He showed a series of photos tracking the growth of a typical American downtown from 1870, when it consisted of a collection of pop-up shacks lined up near a train stop, through a few iterations of its growth over time. In its heyday, this town’s beautiful facades and vibrant streetscape looked very much like State Street. When Wright showed a photo of the same street as it looks today, there was an audible gasp from the audience. The fine old buildings had disappeared and been replaced by some half-empty parking lots and soulless single-story boxes. Wright acknowledged the tragedy of this loss in both historical and aesthetic terms.
“But that’s not the point I want to make tonight,” he continued. “The point I want to make is that these kinds of developments require millions of dollars of public investment in infrastructure—streets, sidewalks, sewer, and so on—and they don’t bring in enough in taxes to cover the high, and always increasing, costs of maintaining this infrastructure.”
In other words, how we build matters for the long-term financial sustainability of our communities. “While we desperately need growth to provide more housing opportunities for all, our current development pattern—built primarily around the automobile and with buildings constructed all at once to a finished state that aren’t designed to change and adapt over time—doesn’t produce enough wealth to cover the maintenance obligations these buildings create,” Wright explained. “As a result, communities around the country are struggling to keep up and infrastructure liabilities, environmental impacts, and debt obligations are being passed on to our kids and future generations.”
“This isn’t right,” Wright said. “Our cities and towns should have sufficient resources to address basic services and infrastructure. We should be building places where everyone can prosper—both now and in the future.”
The good news is that beautifully designed, walkable places—the kind of places where we enjoy spending time—produce wealth for the community in addition to feeding our souls. “So, walkable neighborhoods are not simply nice to have—they’re essential,” Wright says. A helpful way of looking at this to determine the long-term feasibility of any building project is to calculate its taxable value per acre.
While Wright reiterated that he’s not singling out any particular business or area, emphasizing that big-box stores and others are simply benefitting from the ways that development is zoned and financed everywhere today, he illustrated with a few local examples. While the taxable value per acre of the Kennett Walmart is about $460,000, the 100 block of East State Street, with its densely packed mixed-use and multi-story buildings, generates $7,000,000 per acre in taxable income. Excluding the Genesis buildings, the value of that block is still just over $2,000,000—five times more productive than Walmart. And that block has been generating that kind of wealth, as it has adapted to many different uses and contributed to a sense of place and identity for the community, for 200 years. In another local example, the terraced homes on South Union Street, historic buildings that share common walls, generate just over $1,000,000 per acre, while a $3,000,000 home in a development out on the edge of town generates $416,000 per acre.
The prevailing development pattern that favors sprawl over walkable communities isn’t only draining municipal funds. It also raises fundamental questions of equity. Value-per-acre analyses in towns and cities across the country often reveal that the tax revenue collected from poorer, low-income neighborhoods is subsidizing wealthy neighborhoods and sprawling commercial districts.
Information that Leads to Transformation
The hope for Historic Kennett Square’s KSQ Speaker Series, and for the community conversations, engagement, and action that result, is that community members will have a growing awareness that how we build matters—for the fiscal, social, and cultural health of our towns and cities, for future generations, for our environment, and for the quality of our lives today. Wright suggests three key responses to his introduction to the series for community members to consider.
First, we need to legalize walkable places and champion incremental growth. Developers often end up constructing large-scale buildings that no one loves because zoning, parking minimums, and other restrictions make smaller or more creative projects impossible. “Great places are built incrementally and are oriented at a human scale, as opposed to being built for cars,” Wright says. “In order to build great places we need to allow for incremental development and missing middle housing.” At the next KSQ Speaker Series event on Thursday, November 11th, Detroit-based architect, urban designer, and small-scale developer Marques King will dive deeper into this critical concept of incrementalism as well as equally critical questions of equity. “Oftentimes our approach to zoning creates an environment where only well-connected and wealthy developers can participate,” Wright says.
Second, Wright says, it’s important to plan and build contextually. The key here is understanding the built environment according to something called the rural to urban transect. Transect is a term borrowed from ecology. At the seashore, where there’s a natural progression from sea to sandy beach to dunes, then to shrubs and trees beyond, trees would look out of place, and wouldn’t thrive, between the tidemarks.
In the built environment, a farmhouse with its own well and septic system on a narrow road in the middle of fields makes sense and has a good return on investment because, while it may have a low value per acre, it requires almost no public investment. A housing development in the middle of fields, which requires building and maintaining miles of roads and pipes for sewer and water will, eventually if not immediately, cost more in public investment than it generates in tax revenue. In other words, Wright says, “Let rural be rural and urban be urban. Not only is this aesthetically pleasing, it’s also financially productive.”
Third, Wright says, “We need to embrace placemaking and create lovable places. If a place isn’t lovable, we won’t care for it.” Historic Kennett Square has introduced placemaking to Kennett through its parklets and other initiatives like Third Thursdays, Kennett Blooms, and Christmas in Kennett. The key to successful placemaking, Wright says, “is to humbly observe where people struggle and address that struggle.”
The 2020 West State Street parklet is a helpful local example. The sidewalks outside Lily’s and Grain are too narrow to accommodate outdoor tables and pedestrians, which meant these restaurants had no outdoor dining options during the height of the pandemic. Wright, observing the struggles of both restauranteurs and pedestrians one evening, collaborated with the police and Borough Department of Public Works to create a temporary dining area in two parking spots with traffic cones. It worked, and the proof of concept paved the way for the parklet, which offered safe outdoor seating for customers of Talula’s Table and Philter in the mornings and for diners eating lunch and dinner at Lily’s and Grain. The parklet served an important purpose for these businesses, but lights and beautifully designed planters also created a place that people loved.
The most practical, immediate, and fun way to begin putting some of these ideas to work is through Historic Kennett Square’s Kennett Placemakers competition. “We think probably everyone who lives, works, or goes to school here in Kennett has thought at one time or another, ‘I wish Kennett Square had, did, or provided . . .’ and we’re excited to hear these ideas and help to implement two of them through this competition,” Wright says.
Square Roots Collective has sponsored the Kennett Placemakers competition with two prizes of $1,000 each. One prize will be awarded to the adult individual or team with the best small-scale project to make Kennett more livable and lovable, and another will be awarded to someone between the ages of 12 and 18. “We know that youth have a very different perspective of place, and we know that they’ll come up with some fantastic ideas to make Kennett an even better place,” Wright says. “We’re encouraging everyone to check out the competition here and brainstorm and submit their ideas.”
Building Momentum with the KSQ Speaker Series
“Nearly two hundred community members have engaged with this presentation over the past week,” Wright says, “between our in-person attendance of over 60 people, our livestream audience that evening, and those who have since watched the presentation on YouTube. What’s immediately clear to us at HKS is that there’s growing community concern and a real appetite for making sure that Kennett Square maintains its unique sense of place and that growth is sustainable and financially responsible.”
HKS also hired Hector Nuñez to interpret the presentation in Spanish. “It’s very important that we provide access for everyone in our community to engage in these conversations,” Wright says, “and it was a joy to see several individuals use that option. At HKS we’re working very hard to make sure that we’re not leaving half of our community members out—which we do when we don’t provide these kinds of services.” Wright was also encouraged that community leaders, Borough staff, and incoming elected officials have engaged with the presentation. Wright is leading monthly conversations at the Market at Liberty Place with those who want to dig deeper into these issues and take action. About a dozen community members gathered this week, he says, and he’s looking forward to the kinds of actions and initiatives that will grow out of these discussions.
The title of the bi-monthly KSQ Speaker Series is “How We Build Matters”—because, Wright says, it matters very much. “If I were a more motivational speaker,” Wright said during last week’s presentation, “I’d have you all turn to your neighbor right now and say, ‘We can build good buildings. We are capable of it. We can do it.’” To prove his point, he showed a slide with a variety of beautiful buildings, most of them affordable housing, all built within the last five years to provide density in different walkable communities. But the beauty of these kinds of buildings is more than skin deep. These kinds of lovable, human-scale projects developed incrementally are economically sustainable and build wealth in our communities.
We can build good buildings. We are capable of it. We can do it.
If you’re interested in learning more, you can check out this book:
Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity by Charles L. Marohn, Jr. It’s available at the Kennett Library, or you can order a copy from the Kennett Bookhouse.