Great, sustainable places adapt and change over time. The history of Kennett Square bears out this truth. Long before the terms “adaptive reuse” and “incremental development” were coined, many of the buildings and spaces the community loves today were being thoughtfully and creatively expanded and repurposed. One of the town’s first residences, built in 1768, was extended to include a store and post office. Decades later it was added onto again and, for over a century, served as a hotel and stagecoach shop. After a fire, J.J. Newberry’s built a department store on the site—and that renovated and expanded building is now home to La Verona, Portabellos, Candle Studio 1422, the Kennett Flash, and upstairs offices for many other businesses and organizations.
Part of the challenge is that this kind of incremental development is easier to see and appreciate in hindsight. But it makes sense that a town that has evolved in this way while maintaining its social fabric and unique sense of place be allowed to continue to adapt to new growth in this way. In most towns and cities today, zoning ordinances don’t permit these kinds of incremental changes. Even a project as small as building an accessory dwelling unit (ADU) for an elderly family member often involves cost-prohibitive and time-intensive processes.
“Our current approach to zoning prevents our community from adapting and changing as is needed,” says Historic Kennett Square Executive Director Bo Wright. “While Kennett’s early citizens were able to adapt buildings for residential, retail, and commercial use, those kinds of incremental changes are often difficult, if not impossible, today. Allowing our community to adapt is the only way to achieve affordable and mixed-price-point housing and provide the kind of access to opportunity that will build and retain wealth locally.”
At the first KSQ Speaker Series event in September, Wright introduced the series and the theme, “How We Build Matters,” by delving into issues of financial sustainability and the wealth generated by walkable communities built to a human scale. Development decisions that stand the test of time, he says, are made by an educated citizenry that appreciates the wisdom inherent in making small bets and building trust and relationships before buildings. The goal of the KSQ Speaker Series is to inform, enrich, and spark these community conversations. At the next event on November 11th, award-winning designer Marques King will build on the ideas Wright presented by sharing from his experiences as an architect and small-scale developer making great places for people in his hometown of Detroit.
Bringing a New Perspective to Kennett
As Pablo Picasso said, “There is only one way to see things, until someone shows us how to look at them with different eyes.” King, who has been recognized for his work around the country in urban planning and design, will bring a wealth of experience and an intimate understanding of the built environment at every scale his presentation on November 11th. In addition to his work as an architect, urban designer, and developer, over the years he’s held positions in a cabinet making shop and a structural steel foundry and has served as an electrician’s apprentice. King is a faculty member of the Incremental Development Alliance, a contributing partner of the Proud Places Collective, and is on the adjunct faculty at the University of Maryland, School of Architecture, Planning & Preservation. “As an architect, I’ve designed projects as small as residential roof repairs to 50+ unit mixed-use apartment buildings with multi-million dollar budgets,” he says. He’s also done urban design work with teams that have produced award-winning masterplans for cities like Atlanta, Savannah, and Nanjing, China.
King’s presentation as part of the KSQ Speaker Series on November 11th, “Getting out of the Comfort ‘Zone’: Why Sustainable Places Need Flexible and Adaptable Zoning,” will focus on the restrictions that modern-day zoning places on cities and explore how loosening these restrictions on zoning can produce flexible and adaptable places that can potentially sustain themselves. King will also present a brief history of the origins of zoning and some of the racial implications that helped create it. The connection he wants to help make for people in our context here in Kennett is the importance of building and retaining wealth locally through land ownership.
Why Zoning Matters
A municipality’s zoning code is a bit like a list of ingredients for creating a town. Zoning regulations prescribe what kind of structures can be built, and where, as well as how high they can be, the setback (how far from the property line the building can be), its use (residential, commercial, etc.), and lot coverage (how much of the land can be used for buildings). The zoning code that regulates the built environment is both good and necessary for all sorts of reasons—including safety, quality, and consistency. But zoning codes that no longer serve a community can also stand in the way of building places that prioritize people.
In many North American cities today, the ingredients available to builders and developers yield something more like a fast-food meal deal (choose building A or B, then add a super-sized parking lot and a patch of grass or some mulched shrubs) than a creative dining experience tailored to the tastes of the community (which, depending on the community context, might include a mix of small retail units for neighborhood amenities, varied housing options at different price points, live-work spaces, and recreational facilities). Post-World War II zoning regulations have led, in many places, to buildings and streetscapes that are spread out, unwalkable, soulless.
As Wright explained in his introduction to the KSQ Speaker Series, these places often demand more investment over time to sustain the infrastructure they require than the income they generate from taxes. One way of thinking about this approach to development is that it values efficiency over resilience. It’s efficient to build a shopping plaza all at once to a finished state, but it’s not resilient, because that shopping center is not adaptable like, for instance, a traditional main street. It’s also more efficient to finance a single large development through bond markets than it is for dozens of local builders to deal with a few local banks. This kind of development is not sustainable; neither is it equitable. “In the end, efficiency doesn’t create places people love,” Wright says. “And people only take of places they love. Kennett Square has many examples of these kinds of well-loved buildings that have stood the test of time because they’re worth preserving.”
“We’re very much looking forward to welcoming Marques here to Kennett Square and to learning from him and picking his brain about the kinds of issues and growth pangs we’re experiencing here,” says Wright. “Marques is someone whose work and career have embodied our ‘How We Build Matters’ theme, and he’s excited to come here and to be part of these conversations as we continue to develop these discussions as a community. We’re grateful to Square Roots Collective for their generous sponsorship, which enables us to bring Marques here as part of the KSQ Speaker Series. One of the additional things we’re excited about with the Speaker Series is being able to bring in Hector Nunez to interpret these presentations for our Spanish-speaking community members, and I know Marques, who has been teaching himself Spanish, is also looking forward to greeting our entire community in their respective native tongues.”
Click here to RSVP for the KSQ Speaker Series event on November 11th with Marques King.