With GM set to close 1,100 or more dealerships today, a day after Chrysler announced plans to close 789 of its own car dealerships across the U.S., communities big and (mostly) small will be reeling from the loss of a local business. For many communities, this loss is just the latest in a string of losses, as the recession has taken its toll on the economy.
While there's no telling what's in store for each individual dealership -- most of them locally owned and operated, some by the same family for more than a generation -- The Daily Green got to thinking about how communities might deal with the loss proactively.
What's green about that? Everything. Finding ways to productively reuse urban and suburban land that's already been developed is one of the best ways to protect outlying open spaces, wildlife habitat and farmland. Finding ways to re-orient communities around urban centers and public transportation hubs likewise reins in suburban sprawl that for decades has tended to gobble up land for strip malls, highways and other car-dependent destinations.
Finding productive uses of these properties won't necessarily be easy, according to June Williamson, one of the authors of Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs. These "underperforming asphalt" properties likely have three strikes against them:
That said, she suggested several ways to redevelop those dealerships that are in the "inner suburbs" -- those neighborhoods closest to cities, generally built in the post-WWII period:
A car dealership is perhaps the greatest symbol of the car-dominated strip mall culture that has defined (and one could say decimated) American neighborhoods for a half century, and which is only slowly losing favor as communities see the value of new urbanism -- the clustering of development around new and existing town centers, where housing, shopping, schools and workplaces are integrated in walkable downtowns served by public transit options.
So can a car dealership really turn into a community center? Emphatically yes -- assuming the conditions are right. Witness Downtown Dadeland, a 7.5-acre former Cadillac dealership in Kendall, Fla., which is now a housing complex with 415 apartments and 125,000 square feet of retail space on 7 urban blocks, complete with arcades, walkways and other public spaces. And it's connected to other communities by an elevated metro line along busy Route 1.
Some of what made this renaissance possible: 10 years of planning work by local officials, public subsidies, the building of that public transit line ... and the site's location near other development. The silver lining is that local planning boards have some time on their hands, now that the real estate market has taken the steam out of many development proposals, so local officials have time to plan for the next generation of development in their communities. "Instead of being reactive," Williamson said, "they can be proactive."
(Image: The Cadillac dealership was part of the land re-imagined as Downtown Dadeland, shown in this image from the Miami-Dade Master Plan.)
While in the past, a defunct car dealership might be replaced by a viable car dealership, it's hard to imagine any car-maker expanding its retail sales base at this point in time. That doesn't mean these properties can't serve some functions. While not an ideal candidate for development -- given that most of the car dealerships are on strips that typify suburban sprawl, they at least have the benefit of being already paved. If you're going to build anew, Williamson pointed out, it's better to use land that's already degraded rather than a pristine property.
The Daily Green came up with a few ideas, each with varying degrees of viability depending on local communities:
A visitor center: What exurban communities lack in public transportation they often gain in scenic beauty. What attracts second home owners into the countryside is often a mix of scenery and proximity to historic sites, pick-your-own farms and other tourist destinations. Why not cater to visitors, boost the local economy and provide a place for out-of-towners to park their cars and get on a tour bus than a centrally located, easy to find parking lot with a small building ... like an old car lot. Scenic Hudson, the environmental group directed by The Daily Green's Backyard Matters blogger, Ned Sullivan, has performed a similar transformation with a still-active drive-in theater that will serve simultaneously as a visitor center, parking area and farmers market in Hyde Park, N.Y., home of the Franklin D. Roosevelt (and don't forget Eleanor!) and Vanderbilt estates.
A public art gallery: The International Fiber Collaborative (which provided the photo at right) produced the innovative public art project to highlight society's dependence on oil. That's a gas station under all that yarn ... Why not a car dealership?
"Dubbed the World Reclamation Art Project (W.R.A.P.), participants crocheted, knitted, stitched, patched, or collaged 3-foot square fiber panels, with each unique one expressing concern about the topic," as The Daily Green's Brian Clark Howard wrote in his 38 Extraordinary Knit Designs feature. "The panels were then sewed together, to completely cover an abandoned gas station in central New York. It an example of the people remaking an ugly industrial legacy into something softer, gentler and more beautiful."
A Make It America Craft Factory: The Daily Green recently had a great conversation with Adina Levin, who founded Make It America, which is in the first phase of a mission to re-imagine the U.S. economy. Now, it's connecting businesses holding events to U.S.-made, sustainable producers. Next, it aims to open workshops in cities across the U.S., where local artisans will have access to the tools they need to scale up their creations for local or national markets. It's a great vision. Why not make it happen in an old strip mall?
A Solar Power Sub Station: Hey, we can dream, right? A few acres of sunny parking lot could be reborn as a nifty little solar power electric-generating station to serve the needs of some local businesses.
Think it's unlikely? Witness New Jersey, where the state's largest utility plans to install 200,000 solar panels on utility poles.
If permanent reuse isn't in the cards for a particular property, there are still options, according to Williamson.
Communities can stage flea markets, craft shows, farmers markets or other "opportunistic events," making temporary use of all that asphalt for gatherings that knit a community together and benefit local businesses and artisans.
A little-appreciated truth about the modern strip mall is this: It was often built exactly where housing could not be built, because the land was too wet, Williamson said. Today, most states have rules against draining or filling wetlands, which act as natural (and cost-effective) systems of flood control, pollution filtration and wildlife habitat. Restoring a more natural landscape to a paved area increases rainwater infiltration, produces wildlife habitat for birds, bees and other beneficial insects, and helps to restore the water quality and ecological function of local watersheds.
"Re-greening is certainly something that should be considered," Williamson said, though she warned that even this apparently simple idea is not inexpensive. "You can't just let it go. You have to break up asphalt."
A wildflower, native plant or similar garden is probably the best garden use for an old car dealership (assuming it is going to seed) since contaminants in the soil would make vegetable gardening potentially unwise.(Photo credit: Douglas Knight / Fotolia )
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