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VOL. 3, NO. 2 -- FEBRUARY/MARCH 2001

One Small Town That Got It Right

By Jim Kunstler

I travel around the country a lot, and things have gotten to the point where just about every place I go in the United States is such a horrifying mess that I practically fall to my knees and kiss the ground when I get home to Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

This classic main street town isn't perfect, but it has gone through a singular transformation the past several years. While the rest of America keeps repeating the blunders of sub-urbanization, our town is truly going in the opposite direction. For instance, in the past 36 months, we've gotten three, brand new main street buildings (actually, our main street is called Broadway). A fourth one is under construction across the street from my office as I type. Not only will it be the biggest of the new ones (five stories), but also the upper floors will be composed completely of rental apartments -- a miracle. This crop of good, multi-story, urban buildings follows the traditional pattern of our main street -- something that was somehow impossible for the previous generation to accomplish.

The action started in 1997, when a heroic local developer named Jeff Pfeil filled in a Broadway lot that had been vacant since the 1960s. Of course, the project completely bamboozled the city planning apparatus. They hadn't seen a traditional downtown building in generations, and naturally all the inane regulations compiled through the years of modernism and urban renewal made it necessary for Mr. Pfeil to get variances on practically every aspect of his building. But he hung in there, got it built and found a national retail tenant, Eddie Bauer, to move into the ground floor.

By the way, I hasten to add that I believe the nationwide battle against chain retail in the downtown setting is a misguided one. The true mission for new urbanists should be to make sure the buildings are appropriate and of the highest quality. In 12 years, Eddie Bauer will probably be gone -- but the Pfeil building will still be there. And, if my predictions are correct that national chain retail is entering its terminal stage, then we can expect to see more local businesses take over these spaces.

Another transformative event occurred in 1998, when Bob Israel, a local historic building rehabber, decided to put up a new, 16-unit apartment building in a neglected part of town a few blocks from Broadway. The entire local establishment -- developers, public officials -- laughed at the idea, saying that Israel would never find buyers for these condos. He had purchase agreements on all of them before the foundation of the building was finished.

Now, usually new ideas like this are greeted in three stages. First: ridicule. Next: violent opposition. Finally: they're accepted as self-evident. With Israel's project, we skipped the second stage. It went from one to three overnight. One moment the rest of the town was making fun of him; then they all turned around and wanted to do apartments themselves. Hence, when two other local guys, Tom Roohan and Sonny Bonacio, partnered on another four-story Broadway building in 1999, they put apartments on the top two floors. Then Bonacio moved his family into one of the units -- instant urbanist.

The third building was a Border's bookstore, which replaced an absolutely disgraceful piece of '60s crap that had started out as a Red Barn burger joint and ended its career as a crummy pizza parlor. I know what you're thinking: Borders. Big Box. Yecchhh. Well, we had some special problems here, not the least being that there hadn't been any bookstore in Saratoga since an independent bookseller closed up in the '80s (well, we had a good used-book store, but that's different). We desperately needed one.

The planning board beat the living tar out of Borders in the application process and made them put in a pretty good and completely traditional two-story building. And now we have a bookstore, thank God. Who knows how long they'll be there? But the building is a good one, well suited to adaptive reuse. If national chain retail goes down, independent booksellers will come back, so at least we've reestablished the precedent of having a bookstore here. By the way, an interesting secondary effect is that the presence of Borders -- which stays open until 11 p.m. -- has completely reactivated what formerly was the lesser side of our main drag.

One other great thing happened during this three-year period that had a certain bearing, I'm sure, on the collective imagination of the town: We voted out of office two evil City Council members (including a mayor) who were cheerleaders (and probably grifters, too) for every suburban-style project that came down the pike in recent years (projects that were defeated by citizen uprisings, incidentally). You could say that political consensus was not being adequately represented by these old pols. But the remarkable thing is that the consensus shifted to a set of higher urban standards at all. I say that because I visit towns of comparable size and wealth around the country, and they have not been able to accomplish what we have. They're still shooting themselves in the head. Perhaps we just got lucky. There was enough residue of the prewar town remaining so that the pattern had never been completely forgotten -- though it had been ignored and defiled in practice.

This shift in collective consciousness of the town has been self-reinforcing. The more good new urban projects we get, the more people like the result, the more confidence developers show in going forward with further infill, and the more the public officials get it -- and we still have a hell of a lot of underdeveloped real estate at the core here. Just before Christmas, Misters Roohan and Bonacio proposed another great mixed-use project, including more than a dozen apartments.

I'm a little concerned about the health of the U.S. economy and where it is headed. I do believe that the period ahead will be characterized, among other things, by a fantastic meltdown in conventional suburban real estate values. The places most likely to do best in a period of austerity, I believe, will be the small minority that are walkable, traditional and provide some armature for real civic life. I feel very lucky to live here in Saratoga Springs.

Oh yeah, last September we moved my 81-year-old mother -- a lifelong resident of Manhattan Island -- into the fourth floor of Bob Israel's new condo building.

Jim Kunstler is the author of "Home From Nowhere" and "The Geography of Nowhere," both published by Simon and Schuster. His next one, "The City in Mind: Notes on the Urban Condition," will be published in December 2001.