It was an idyllic downtown, its streets lined by mom-and-pop shops, dotted with chatty neighbors walking to and from their quaint homes, leading even quainter lives.
It was how they liked it — an escape from the doldrums of mainstream suburbia, shaped by counter-culture and creativity. Cradled by nature, the town was virtually undiscovered.
Until it wasn’t.
Incoming landlords and rising rents pushed out longtime tenants, replacing them with generic chain stores. Main Street felt more commonplace, its uniqueness watered down by new investment and higher property values, driving residential sales to upwards of $40 million and out of the realm of possibility for prospective homeowners.
If this scenario sounds familiar, it should. But this particular case began nearly 30 years ago and 2,000 miles from Sag Harbor, New York, in Aspen, Colorado — though countless other small towns and villages across the United States have felt these same truths.
Though perhaps on a less dramatic scale, this story that has ripped through main streets nationwide, one fraught with exorbitant commercial property sales and outlandish rents to match, subsequent vacancies and, eventually, a less populated year-round community — a domino effect that further perpetuates the mounting problem, while posing a threat to any integrity and authenticity that’s left.
At the rate of development and change in Sag Harbor — namely, the $9-million sale of assembled storefronts on Main, Washington and Division streets to real estate mogul Donald Zucker, as well as a slew of recently shuttered businesses, including Harbor Books, Adornments and Country Lane — some local civic groups fear the village may be headed down that path, soon be another statistic and a ghost of what it once was, if the proper measures aren’t taken to prevent it.
“You’re right to be concerned about it. You’re right on, and I’m sure you’re hearing a lot of concern in the community. No surprise there,” said Chris Bendon, who worked in the City of Aspen planning office for 19 years — 11 as its director — before leaving to start a private land-use consulting firm, BendonAdams.
“But the sense that there’s some magic set of regulations out there that makes a town or city an amazing place that everyone wants to be in, with a ton of mom-and-pop shops, where you can buy a home with a nice backyard that’s $100,000 and be able to walk to work, that just doesn’t exist. That’s a myth,” he added. “You can draw the unicorn, you can describe the unicorn, you can have all kinds of conversations about the unicorn, but the unicorn doesn’t actually exist.”
History Under Siege, When It’s Actually Key
In 2010, the U.S. Census revealed that an estimated 19 million properties had been abandoned throughout the nation as a result of the 2008 economic downturn — leaving many buildings, particularly the older and historic, vacant and depreciating.
While Sag Harbor escaped the near-complete erosion of its main street almost a decade ago, other historic villages and hamlets did not. Chief among them was farther up island in Oyster Bay, according to Meredith Maus, executive director of the Oyster Bay Main Street Association.
“In the ’80s and ’90s, when all the strip malls were coming up, our downtown took a really big hit,” she recalled. “We had high vacancy rates, which led to buildings being abandoned and deteriorating. We looked to historic preservation as a means to really drive economic development in our downtown. It was really a major focus of ours, to take care of the history we had in our downtown, to really highlight what made our downtown special. It gave us historic assets. And we’ve seen, recently, actual community revitalization.”
With vacancies practically nonexistent and a reinvigorated sense of civic pride, Oyster Bay is flourishing, Ms. Maus said, and she attributes the hamlet’s success to its sheer history adding value to Main Street. The intrinsic tie of history to the economic welfare of any location inspired the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation to adopt “A Policy Statement on Historic Preservation and Community Revitalization” in 2016, which encourages the use of historic preservation to stabilize and enhance communities nationwide.
“Although historic preservation is often ignored by stakeholders who express a desire for new construction, decades of successful historic preservation projects affirm that renewed historic assets can meet community expectations for modern uses while maintaining the character that traditionally defined the area,” the statement reads.
The driving force of the policy revolves around building a community plan, Ms. Haus explained, which in Oyster Bay, includes input from hamlet residents, business and building owners, and the local government, all deciding on a vision for the downtown’s future.
“Ultimately, what it comes down to is this: Your businesses are being run by your friends, your neighbors. These are people that you deal with on an everyday basis,” she said. “There is no anonymous face behind a logo. It’s your community, it’s people who come out and care about one another. It’s a sense of belonging that isn’t as common anymore. To invest in your downtown and take pride in where you live, it sets you apart. And it’s grounding, in a way.”
According to Save Sag Harbor co-founder Barbara Roberts, who formerly sat on the Suffolk County Planning Commission representing Southampton Town, the village does not have a comprehensive plan in place for the central business district.
“We have a very unique problem here. My number-one thing that I feel very strongly about — which we may, at Save Sag Harbor, do — is to fund a vision exercise and really hire people to come in and do this properly,” she said. “We do not have a long-term comprehensive plan. The waterfront plan was updated in the ’90s. We are a very different village than we were then, but in some ways, we’re the exact same village.
“The fact that the cinema sold for $8 million and we now have the park going for $10 million, that automatically makes every building on Main Street worth at least $8 million to $10 million,” she continued, “which means a landlord has to charge a business probably $13,000 to $15,000 a month to make those numbers work.”
From an investment standpoint, this price-gouging strategy is “so counter-intuitive” to the success of any village, according to Matt Wagner, vice president of revitalization programs at the National Main Street Center, but that doesn’t stop it from occurring across the country.
“If you’re looking at it from a pure real estate play, big box or nationals can afford more rent,” he said. “But that’s a short-term play, versus a long-term sustainable play of what we would encourage: Why not help to strengthen unique local retail, be patient with the market and, over time, those businesses will be able to afford more rent because the market will be enhanced. That is a sustainable approach, versus just a short-term real estate profit grab.”
Gentrification Coming for Mom-and-Pops
The phenomenon Mr. Wagner described is known as commercial gentrification, or “hot markets,” which is felt on many Main Streets — including Sag Harbor — the same way residential gentrification is felt in neighborhoods.
“Normally, you see property values going up and the locals that were originally there can no longer afford their taxes, or afford to live there anymore,” he said. “Same exact thing, but happening in commercial districts. And you’re not alone.”
There are two forms of hot markets: the first in larger, urban environments — the New Yorks and Chicagos of the world, he said — and, on the flip side, in smaller towns with high quality of life, which is less talked about.
“That influx of new investment is looking for, in some cases, those similar shopping attributes you may find in an urban environment, like name-brand things, national retailers,” he said. “What gets lost — because of the rising rents and the pressures that apply to the market — is actually the thing that made it attractive in the first place. We all want a downtown that’s thriving, but not at the expense of those that truly made it, and helped to define the community, and played a significant role in being part of the community.”
In Aspen, mom-and-pop stores were once a key part of the character and authenticity of the city, and positively influencing its attractiveness, Mr. Bendon said. The increasing price points are reflective of that and the downtown’s success, he said, even though many of those shops are no longer. The key is to examine the long-term, macro-economic benefit, he said, which may alienate landlords who have specific tenants in mind.
“There’s been an attempt to prohibit new chain stores from coming in,” he said. “There is a set of regulations that’s new — it’s only within the last two years — that identifies chain stores by a formula-based concept. That has some success in satisfying the drumbeat, the community thirst; it quenches that thirst to do something. It’s not clear whether it has any effect on the character. A lot of these things take decades to really unfold.
“The originality and the funky character of a place, those things are usually born out of creativity and innovation. They’re not born out of regulation,” he continued. “You can manage the pace of growth, you can do some things with zoning, like trying to keep banks or high-end offices off of the prime retail spaces, so they’re not outcompeting unique retail experience. But it’s just inherently not a great tool to use. It may be our best one, but it’s not a great tool because it’s counter to what created that great place originally.”
In the face of a depressed downtown in Nantucket, regulation was the answer for the small island off the coast of Massachusetts. A series of zoning and planning ordinances, as well as the work of not-for-profit group ReMain Nantucket — founded by Wendy Schmidt, president of the Schmidt Family Foundation — helped reestablish Main Street as a destination, one that had long been lost, according to Executive Director of Community Foundation for Nantucket Margaretta Andrews, who has watched changes to the island for the last four decades.
“We haven’t had a mom-and-pop store here for 20 years,” she said. “Wendy Schmidt saw the downtown deteriorating: rising rents, stores turning over year after year after year, no continuity, restaurants closing early, just a lot of change. She made it her mission to revitalize downtown.”
The organization transformed a circa-1842 building into an educational hub, home to The Nantucket Community Music Center and Nantucket Community School, and rejuvenated Mitchell’s Book Corner, bringing new vibrancy to the downtown, while still preserving its spirit, Ms. Andrews said.
“I think downtown is still a concern, but I think the inroads have been made. There’s still a lot of turnover — rents are very high and there’s not much they can do about that,” she said. “But I do think, because ReMain has been very successful, the feeling is that they’ve got it covered. That leaves affordable housing as our number-one priority on the island. It is probably one of the most severe that I’m aware of in the country, to be honest.”
A Great Place, With Nowhere Affordable To Live
In Massachusetts, Chapter 40B requires a municipality to hit a 10-percent affordable housing benchmark, one that eight out of every 10 towns fail to meet, even 50 years since the law passed — and almost half of them fall at less than 5 percent.
Nantucket is hovering right around 3 percent, Ms. Andrews reported.
“The Community Foundation is a resource and a grant maker, but we’re never going to grant our way around the housing crisis in any way,” she said. “What we can do is support initiatives that are going to address that, such as surveys and cooperative conversations to figure out what the ‘best’ thing to do — and I use ‘best’ with big air quotes because there is no one solution. If there was, I think we would have thought of it by now. And we would have done it.”
Piecemeal and stopgap solutions have led to unstable and unhealthy housing conditions, many of which are overcrowded and home to seasonal workers who decided to stay, Ms. Andrews said.
“Some of our seasonal residents say, ‘You know what, it’s not my problem that these seasonal workers have no place to live, why should that be my concern?’ I, personally, say, ‘What kind of community do you want to live in?’” she said. “As a community foundation, we embrace all our residents, regardless of how they got here, how long they’re staying. Everybody has a voice here, and we embrace the diversity that we’re seeing now. For over 50 percent of our kindergarteners, English is not their first language, and 35 percent of them were born in our hospital.
“This is not the Nantucket I moved to 40 years ago, clearly, but it’s wonderful,” she continued. “The diversity is not challenging, it’s wonderful and needs to be embraced. We’re trying hard to continue with that message, to tell the squawkers, ‘I understand your feeling and I understand you won’t economically support this, but understand this community needs to support this. This community needs to find safe, stable housing for all of its residents.’ It’s that simple. It’s just what communities do.”
In the 1970s, Aspen officials recognized what could have been an insurmountable affordable housing issue, and met it with a robust affordable housing program. Supported by two tax sources and restricted by firm requirements, it serves all levels of the community, with most properties ranging between $50,000 and $1.2 million — a fraction of what they would normally cost, Mr. Bendon said.
Currently, more than half of Aspen’s 8,000 year-round population participates in the program, he said.
“In terms of the core, overnight population, affordable housing has played a critical role. We’d be a, fundamentally, completely different community if we didn’t have an affordable housing program,” Mr. Bendon said. “It’s for busboys all the way up to doctors and lawyers. People from outside the area look at that and say, ‘That’s completely insane, why are you doing that?’ but it serves the whole gamut of what holistic community looks like.”
As with any social policy program, Aspen’s solution to its housing crisis does not come without its share of disputes. On the surface, it is an “overwhelming success,” Mr. Bendon said, but up close, the lottery system is fiercely competitive and can leave applicants waiting years, some decades, while others get it on their first try.
“There can be a sense that there’s some sort of magic set of regulations, or set of policies, or a master plan, or even a set of elected officials — that there’s some sort of magic thing out there that somehow solves all problems, and we just need to find it,” Mr. Bendon said. “In reality, everything is a series of trade-offs. It’s not as bad as just saying you just muddle through it, but it’s a constant work in progress and stepping into challenges even if you know they create other challenges.
“You just have to continue to step into it,” he continued, “knowing that you feel good about the place you are and that it’s a place that’s worth fighting for. It’s not an easy task and the tools aren’t terrific — and there’s a lot of hand wringing and complaining that goes into that — but, eventually, the hard work is worth it.”