Spy Op-ed: A Hood Over the Head by Peter Newlin


Reading about our Mayor’s parking meter “experiment” downtown raises troubling questions about whether our Mayor has a clear vision of what our community really needs from local government to thrive.  See: www.chestertownspy.com/2009/09/park-on-park

Experiments are good, of course, if they are well thought through.  In this “experiment” she is putting a hood over the head of the parking meters on Park Row, but what is it our Mayor seeking to learn?  The meters don’t generate significant revenue; she’s risking nothing there.

Park Row lacking Chestertown's signature brick sidewalks

The brick sidewalk stops at Park Row, a signal there's not much going on

These meters are only to prevent long-term parkers from hogging the spaces customers need. So, how will it help Park Row’s businesses to turn Park Row into Long Term Parking?

Author ponders the collapsing Park Row building he just bought

Author ponders the collapsing Park Row building he just bought

I’m told the real problem this Mayor wants to address is making sure the employees in the shops of High Street and Cross don’t need to pump quarters all day long.  Their cars are taking up the parking that other stores want for their customers.  If so, talk of helping Park Row businesses is pretense.

Is Mayor Bailey willing to stick Park Row with the Town’s employee parking?  That will truly undermine Park Row’s businesses, already the step children of downtown commerce.  More to the point, Chestertown’s mayor should know that the Park Row area needs much more serious Town intervention than a month of free parking.

In the 1980s Mayor Horsey hired Landscape Architect John Gutting to design High Street’s brick sidewalks and elegant tree wells.  Then Mayor Horsey assembled Town funding to construct, as designed, the pedestrian friendly, shopping environment we now all enjoy on High Street.

Horsey then followed that up with streetscape improvements to Cross Street.  High and Cross are the product of Town investment in professional design and enacted funding.  Those investments from the 1980s have been paying dividends ever since.  They are helping Chestertown’s downtown compete as a pedestrian oriented marketplace and as a wonderful place to live.  They attract visitors and retirees, both of whom enrich our economy.

Creating employee parking on Park Row does the opposite – it undermines the economy there.  And Park Row’s economy is already in terrible shape.  I know because we recently purchased one of its most prominent buildings for only $125,000 – the value of the land alone.

County invested in pedestrian walkways for Cross Street in the 1990s.

In the 1990s our County Commissioners enhanced Cross Street's environment

Why so cheap?  All previous owners invested nothing in its upkeep.  For decades this building has been deteriorating.  Now it is collapsing, worthless.  Could this be the future of Park Row’s other historic structures?

Two other Park Row buildings have structural trouble, and the Town Arts Building on Spring Street, (across from the Post Office) is struggling, too.  Why?  Well for one reason, the Town has never invested in the streetscape for Park Row or for Spring Street.  The pedestrian-friendly brickwork of Cross Street stops at the corner.  Narrow concrete walkways along Park Row signal to shoppers, there is not much of promise to be found here, Spring Street included.

Mayor Horsey nurtured High and Cross over two decades ago.  Our County Commissioners did likewise with the Courthouse campus in the 1990s.  They invested in a landscaped parking lot, and along Cross Street, in a fence, broad brick sidewalks, a beautiful alee of trees – carefully planned by an accomplished designer – another example of local government investing with vision, in design and construction for the long term.

Our downtown parking issues do need to be thought about, but globally, so any changes made will achieve benefits for everyone – the merchants, the shoppers, the tourists and our residential neighborhoods, too.  Where is our Town’s effort for doing this planning?  Has our Mayor ever asked staff to draft a proposal?

Park Row lies at the heart of the downtown business district.  It is one of the most public faces of Chestertown our visitors see, and even so, suffering from Town neglect.  Worse yet, Park Row stands as a microcosm of the troubles that are plaguing our downtown generally.

Are our Mayor and Council satisfied to “live dangerously” on small-potato “experiments” which predictably make selected citizens’ bad situations still worse?  Where are their strategies for investing in the pedestrian environment that our downtown businesses sorely need to thrive?

As a community, we have been trading on assets, wrought by the leadership of our past, but times are much tougher now.  We need our leaders to be honest with us about our troubles, parking included.  We need them willing to work with us all, to shape a shared vision together.  We need leaders with courage, who are committed to shepherding our rich heritage toward an equitable and sustainable future.  Leadership that seeks to pacify us, to put a hood over our heads, so we can’t see our troubles – that just won’t work for us any more.

Peter Newlin, President
Chesapeake Architects

Letters to Editor

  1. This message paid for by the Elmer-or-Possibly-Joan-Horsey-for-Mayor-Once-Again-Get-Off-My-Lawn Committee.

    Look, I am no blind worshipper of Mayor Bailey’s policies, but you’ve gotta have your head in the sand in a serious way to think it’s not a radical improvement over the old days. Chestertown in the 80’s and early 90’s might as well been named Cambridge North. I shudder to think what this town would be like if Mayor Bailey hadn’t stepped up to the plate when she did. This entire community suffers from the problem of thinking it’s far more important and attractive than it really is thanks to a little national exposure. Chestertown is strangled by it’s fundamental reverence for nostalgia.

    As to the analysis of what ails Park Row: well, unless people are interested in woodworking knickknacks, co-op artwork, cheese, tv repairs, or extremely uneven quality “antiques”, there isn’t much to draw them to that side of the street. That’s the problem. It’s a difficult recession and people aren’t spending money on discretionary things like what that entire block consists of. You can put brick sidewalks in front of any place you want, but if they’re selling what people aren’t interested in, it doesn’t matter.

    Ultimately, the problem is that downtown Chestertown has very little that everyday people are really all that interested in buying. Just my opinion. I can’t afford an $8 lunch sandwich, thanks. The fact that Chestertown businesses and their prices are geared towards out-of-towners in search of precious little trinkets is the fundamental issue.

    Yes, our local government (and our local real estate community) seem to be in in the dark about Chestertowns’ problems… but you can’t make businesses that are out of touch with local needs “whole” with a mythical master plan idea. Too many people locally are still chasing the brass ring that magical people from elsewhere are going to drop buckets of money on this community. But, people of means who have economic mobility aren’t going to pay a million bucks to buy townhouses overlooking Wilmer Park where they have a scenic view of homeless people camping out in the gazebo next to them.

    The reality is, we’re a county that’s drowning in poverty. There is little to no opportunity for young people. Drugs are a serious problem (and realistically the sole income source) for too many. This community still continues to have severe divisions among race lines that are in fact along income lines first and foremost. Don’t think those wounds don’t fester over time. A community that’s either extremely wealthy or extremely poor is not a healthy one. We are very unhealthy.

    I don’t know what the answer is, but it is certainly not trying to project some Mayberry RFD past that never really existed onto the problems of today. Maybe Chestertown really needs to hit bottom before people wise up. We certainly seem headed on that path, don’t we?

  2. You make many very good points, Spunkmeyer,

    Including that back then we needed Margo Bailey to break the stranglehold of Horsey’s imperial power. As someone on Mayor Horsey’s hate list – an honor, I think – I’m certainly no defender of that approach to government.

    On the other hand, there’s no denying that Mayor Horsey and his administration (Town Manager, Bill Nickelson, and the Council) had the insight to go after grants for long-term planning, and to hire design professionals to come up with master plans for district-wide public investment in our Town.

    For example, the Horsey Administration got a grant in 1980 to study what could be done for the (blighted) Scott’s Point District – the area south of High Street, from the Chester River to Cross Street. Our architecture firm partnered with a Landscape Architect from Church Hill, John Gutting, to compete for that study. At its conclusion, we recommended 1) Closing off Queen Street to Quaker Neck thru traffic, 2) Moving the Railroad Station at the end of Cross Street, and 3) Reconnecting Quaker Neck traffic to Cross Street.

    Adding local traffic to Cross Street would nourish downtown commerce. Taking it off residential Queen Street would give that neighborhood the quiet it needed to revive. Moving the Railroad Station – that was necessary if the other two were to be possible.

    But to re-route a state highway (Quaker Neck Road)? To move the Railroad station? These are profound structural changes not readily agreed to or funded. Not only do they require town-planning (vision), they also require political consensus-building capabilities (leadership). How easy it would have been for the Mayor to put the study on the shelf and say: “It’s just too expensive.”

    I have to give the Horsey Administration their due. Maybe it was Bill Nickelson’s vision; I don’t know. Someone had the vision and several the political courage to make these proposed long-term improvements reality.
    And as a consequence of their resolve, both the Queen Street neighborhood and the Cross Street commerce have much revived.

    Sure it took decades, but Town investments must be made for the long haul. It problem is, we haven’t had that kind of investment any time recently. Centreville has.

    Other areas of our Town have needed in-depth design, political vision, and broad-based, consensus-building, leadership. Park Row is just an example. Our downtown continues to be one of Chestertown’s most valuable economic assets. It is a high quality, pedestrian-oriented, marketplace. But it won’t stay that way if we don’t sustain and enhance its competitive advantages.

    Peter Newlin, FAIA

  3. “I’m told the real problem this Mayor wants to address is making sure the employees in the shops of High Street and Cross don’t need to pump quarters all day long. Their cars are taking up the parking that other stores want for their customers. If so, talk of helping Park Row businesses is pretense.”

    Why don’t you ask the Mayor her thoughts instead of relying on the mind-reading abilities of nameless informants.

    Until the recession eases its grip on all of us, businesses will suffer. But I do like the idea of using this down time to start the process of planning for the recovery and the revitalization of the town’s business district.

    “Leadership that seeks to pacify us, to put a hood over our heads, so we can’t see our troubles – that just won’t work for us any more.”

    Oh please – hoods over our heads?

  4. Interesting Op-Ed and Comment…
    Would it be possible for downtown employees to buy parking permits (in monthly/yearly increments)?
    Maybe the town could buy one or two deteriorating buildings, clear them and create a simple parking area?…for those w/ parking permits…
    Why do store owners park in the most prime spots – the ones directly in front of their own stores? I find it a bit insulting – “I would like you to shop in My store BUT you will have to drive around the block a few times ’cause I need to park Right in front of my own store”.

  5. Sounds very much like a pitch for work.

  6. I am in agreement with the comment on “the Town Arts Building on Spring Street, (across from the Post Office)” . Why you ask? Not only is the street scape not carried through but it is virtually impossible to locate the building from the park due to the overgrowth of bamboo. Another issue being faced by their potential patrons is access to parking. The only option is to enter from Cross Street and there is a private parking sign the is enough to discourage anyone from entering from that direction. Is that through-way really “private” or is it an easement that can be signed in a different manner? It seems to me that we should be working together to support ALL merchants of our small town, especially in times where they are suffering the hardships of budgetary constraint.

    It seems to me that there are a number of considerations that have been missed in the “hooded meters” decision.

  7. I’ll offer my own personal “Park Row” experience into the mix:

    My wife Heather volunteers at Artworks usually one Saturday a month. My understanding is that there is parking behind the building specific to that building. I drove down one day to pick her up after her shift, as we were headed out of town.

    In the time that it took me to get out of the car, go to the Farmer’s Market, pick her up, and get back to the car, someone had left a nasty typewritten note on my windshield saying I wasn’t supposed to park there, my license plate had been taken down, and if I parked there again I would receive a ticket. The typewritten aspect of the note tells me that’s not an isolated experience.

    If I were a weekend tourist, and received that sort of welcoming reception, would I really be all that eager to visit downtown Chestertown again?

  8. Some of the rhetorical flourishes are a little over-the-top, but I agree fully on the fundamental need for planning. Now is definitely the time to step back and think things through before the next wave of residential and commercial development occurs. But, I think government can only do so much of the heavy lifting. Businesses need to re-evaluate their own business plans in this climate.

    A couple of observations — some of them admittedly very obvious ones – I have as a self-employed individual and full-time Chestertown resident who does not have a business presence in downtown Chestertown:

    1. Downtown Chestertown is not really the modern day-to-day commercial center of the community, even though it still has a very strong infrastructure and strong potential to do so. Kent Plaza and Washington Square are. This is why you see the new Walgreens where it is, why Village Bakery opened where it did, and why all the other construction is taking place outside of the downtown core. Personally, I loathe strip mall centers… but, if I need to fix a leaky faucet, it means I have to travel up Route 213 to one of our two hardware stores located that way.

    2. I don’t know that I would say whatever investments have been made in Centreville translate into it growing in a planned way: most of the growth I see there is the strip mall and office complex to the south of town.

    3. Many of the recent development patterns in Kent County are what I experienced growing up in Cecil County in the 1970’s and 1980’s: cookie cutter houses in cornfields. And just as my parents commuted out of the county to their work, I think there’s probably a fair number of residents of those communities who do the same.

    4. The county and town has a very large number of non-owner occupied properties for its size. This affects not only the viability of businesses that rely on foot traffic but also the nature of the businesses that can be sustained. It remains to be seen how many people will retire to those properties, or find economic circumstances require them to remain elsewhere longer than anticipated, or sell their Chestertown properties outright.

    5. Compared to other regional communities, such as Easton, I find the commercial rental rates in Chestertown (the ones I see listed in the paper, anyway) to be remarkably expensive. This isn’t the primary reason I do not have an office downtown, but it’s definitely a factor in that business decision. It’s very difficult for me to justify an overhead cost like that when I operate on an appointment-only business model.

    6. Maybe this is due to my life for many years in urban areas, but I don’t find parking in downtown to be difficult. Granted, you may need to park around the block of where you want to be, but it’s not very tough to find a spot somewhere, unless there’s a really substantial event going on downtown. And, compared to parking meters elsewhere, the cost of parking is very cheap.

    7. I mentioned earlier how government can only do so much: I say this for the political reality of 2009-2010. Budgets everywhere are being slashed. We currently have a Town Council that abolished a tree ordinance that was originally based on empirical data of our underdeveloped tree canopy, and comparable statutes in other communities. There does not seem to be the political will to take on planning issues, especially if they are perceived in any way (real or imagined) to infringe on individual property rights. Mayor Bailey was for the amendment, but was in the minority on the matter. A mayor can only do so much. Anything that requires Council approval is likely to be difficult to accomplish, particularly if it changes the status quo.

    8. I would like to see Chestertown get past the “come here” and “from here” labels that get thrown about too frequently. The one that matters in my opinion is “live here.” We don’t choose where we are born, but we do choose where to live. To survive (and ultimately thrive) in the coming years as a community is going to require the each and every resident to support their local businesses community. I say this as a reminder to myself as well…

  9. I would like to add that I have kept a close eye on the parking situation on Park Row since the bags went over the meter. There has not been any “hogging” of those parking spaces. As of 10 am Wednesday morning, there was one car there. Earlier this week when the DMV bus was on High St, there were always spaces vacant. I have not seen anyone abuse the free-parking. I do not see what the big fuss is about this experiment. The mayor is trying something for a month, I have no problem with that. I work down town and I know a lot of the business owners and I have heard their stories of how bad business has been in the last year or more. Why is this matter about the parking meters even a discussion?
    As for the streetscape on Park Row, I have heard from several people that it is up to the owners of those buildings to determine whether they all want brick sidewalks, and that the decision has to be unanimous. The town cannot force brick sidewalks on anyone.

  10. Parking problems, What parking problems?
    In the past 35 years, I have had eight business locations in the downtown and lived on Park Row for six years. In all those years and locations, I have never known parking to be an issue. Only on the rarest occasions, am I not able to park within one block of the establishment I wanted to patronize. In reality, parking is not a problem in Chestertown. Truth be told, we are somewhat spoiled. I watch people park in front of Paul’s for a pair of shoes, then get back into their car and drive up to the Finishing Touch. There are public parking areas in the downtown, but many store owners and employees do not choose to take advantage of them. If merchants really felt parking was a problem, they and their employees would not be parking in front of their own businesses.
    Beware people promoting issues that do not exist.

  11. Arthur is right to question “focusing on issues that do not exist.”

    Parking is not Park Row’s problem. The blood flow of commerce has nearly ceased there. None of its retail establishments are open on the usual basis. We just purchased a prominent Park Row building, that is collapsing from neglect. Its apartment hasn’t been occupied for years. Its one retail business is only open Saturday morning. This structure will only need parking after we have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars.

    But, as Kevin says (above): “Businesses need to re-evaluate their own business plans in this climate.” Is it really wise to invest in Park Row? Largely that depends, as it does elsewhere downtown, on whether our Town has a vision for how we are going to nurture our downtown pedestrian marketplace.

    For example, Russell says: “it is up to the owners to determine whether they all want brick sidewalks, and that the decision has to be unanimous.” But any administration that asks for unanimous agreement before it is willing to act, doesn’t provide leadership. When the plan was made to remove the concrete sidewalks on High Street, do we imagine there was no dissent?

    We listen to leadership when it speaks with vision. We agree with leadership when it builds consensus. We believe in leadership when it has courage.

    So why is Park Row suffering? Here are three reasons, only government can solve:

    1. Town Zoning won’t let its historic buildings be occupied as their builders intended. Their unsuitability for the occupancy zoning requires denies them the income necessary for upkeep.

    2. The Town requires suburban quantities of off-street parking for any rehabilitation or new construction. This blocks improvements that would adapt an older structure to our downtown marketplace. Investment plans are stopped at the Town’s permitting gate.

    3. Despite the fact the Park Row is one of the faces of Chestertown that our visitors most see, our town’s leaders have chosen not to invest in its streetscape as they did for High Street and Cross.

    Our town government can fix these three causes of decline. Anyone who tries to tell you otherwise, is trying to put a hood over your head.

    More to the point, these three causes of Park Row’s decline are prevalent elsewhere downtown (on Spring Street, Calvert Street, High Street extended, and Cannon). Where is our Town’s leadership to remedy that?

    As Spumkmeyer observes: “our local government … seems to be in in the dark about Chestertowns’ problems.” To which Kevin adds: “[We have a] fundamental need for Planning.” I would like to add: “and Leadership in this area”. Chestertown’s fate, as a competitive pedestrian marketplace, depends on all three.

    Peter Newlin, FAIA

  12. deep thought says

    if previous owners “invested nothing in upkeep” how is that the towns fault? brick sidewalks happened where owners helped pay for it. sounds like buyers remorse to me. good luck getting the mayor and town to lift a finger to help you now.

  13. Of course it’s not the town’s fault that previous owners let a building go to ruin. In fact, I know that the immediate previous owner did what he could. My point is, a building going to ruin is a symptom of a failing neighborhood, and if any part of that is a consequence of town policy, one would think the town would want to address that. You seem to be suggesting otherwise in your last sentence, Deep Thought.

    As to High Street’s brick sidewalks, I’m told Mayor Horsey used town funds to pay for these improvements out right, and then assessed each store a small fee annually over ten years to recoup their share. You can see how the town’s leadership back then helped make that investment in our downtown’s competitiveness happen. Reportedly, the legal ability to provide such leadership is still on Chestertown’s books.

    Peter Newlin, FAIA

  14. Peter,

    To clarify, I was not talking about the Mayor. I was talking about those who have a significant self interest who are driving this issue. Don’t you remember Peter, it was you who started the whole issue of parking problems on Park Row.

  15. It seems to me, Arthur, parking troubles are damaging our downtown in two very different ways:

    First and most destructive: Chestertown’s Zoning Ordinance has a 1950’s mind set. It requires suburban quantities of off-street parking for any improvements, whether new construction, change of use, or substantial rehabilitation. For example, the new lawyer’s office on Cross Street had to lay down paving for 8 private parking spaces in order to get a building permit, even though the new building only houses two lawyers. For decades these two ran their practice on Lawyers Row, where they had (you guest it) no private parking. Why does our zoning code require so much private parking in the historic district? Such requirements only pressure owners to remove gardens and historic structures. Do we really want to convert our historic district into an automobile dominated environment? Or do we want our Town’s ordinances changed to nurture downtown as a fundamentally pedestrian environment?

    Secondly: Our government uses an out-dated mechanism to regulate parking – the meters. Shoppers find them unfriendly and irritating. Shop employees defeat their purpose by pumping quarters. Meters are too crude to regulate efficaciously.

    In the Lawyers Row area, where there are no meters, we have businesses that own private parking behind their offices, but choose to occupy public parking spaces on the street because it’s easier. Now they are renting out their private parking to the neighbors who could have used the public parking if the owners of the private parking would have the courtesy to use what they own. The Town’s regulatory methods are yielding counterproductive results.

    A more sophisticated approach is over due. For example, would it work to:

    >> Limit most public parking to two hours. No meters. That would seem to suffice for most clients, most visitors, and most shoppers. Longer term parking can be available at remote sites.

    >> Residents of properties without sufficient off-street parking get two stickers per dwelling, granting them full-time use of non-metered public parking anywhere downtown.

    >> Stores and other businesses without sufficient off-street parking get 9-to-5 permits to use non-metered public parking – with the quantity of stickers based on the business floor area (sq. ft.) and the Town designating where long-term parking may occur.

    >> Businesses & Residents owning properties with sufficient off-street parking are not eligible for stickers. (They have their own dedicated parking spaces, which are held open for their own personal use. That’s benefit enough.) Those that have some off-street parking but not sufficient, get prorated stickers.

    >> Developers are required to provide off-street parking where not destructive to the downtown pedestrian environment, as judged by the planning commission. If that is not possible, the developer must pay into a fund (for constructing public parking). Either way, property owners can improve their downtown structures and with it, the downtown business environment.

    Will such an approach benefit (almost) everyone downtown? Certainly it needs to be vetted.

    But clearly we need the Town to start working with all of the rest of us to create a parking regulatory approach that benefits everyone downtown. It will be controversial. We need leadership and goodwill to prevail.

    Peter Newlin, FAIA

  16. sharon d'aquino says

    I think that mayor bailey is trying to evaluate what hooding meters on park row can do for our town. I don’t see a problem with this. Our town needs help to survive this economy and I feel she is trying to help that. I work in town and do not use a meter. I park in a free lot as do many others. I walk to work and feel sorry for those that need to put quarters in all day just to work in town. However, I never had this happen to me, as of yet.

    We all need the town to survive and to attract locals as well as tourist. The sheer delight of our town is better than any strip mall.

    I do agree that Park Row needs some help in it’s appearance, however hoods are actually a help for those that visit. Why?!! Did you ever go somewhere and explore a little? I love downtown, chestertown, do you?

    Look at first friday’s people all over, even park row.

  17. Peter, I realize you’re just throwing out ideas, but I still don’t see how having downtown parking meters is a problem. Many, many municipalities still use them in business districts without incident (save maintenance.) They’re self explanatory to a visitor from pretty much anywhere. And cheap for a town, versus the idea of having to maintain a permit system, put up a bunch of signs on every street, and then enforce all infractions. How you do that for a community this size — without requiring a sticker fee to subsidize it all — seems challenging without substantial new development to acquire funding revenue.

    We can agree to disagree on this… I’m totally comfortable with that.

    I wonder if any members of the Planning and Zoning Commission are reading this thread, and if they have any thoughts on any of these matters. And, if any of our Business Organizations have an opinion.

    But, if there’s a perceived need by the Town to address the issue, I would prefer first that due-diligence be performed to see how other communities address permit parking before proposing any solution. It’s a universal issue. Visit downtown Easton, Elkton, Newark, or Annapolis, and see how they address it. No reason to reinvent the wheel. I’m sure each has “lessons learned” as they’ve grown over time. And, I don’t know about Easton off the top of my head, but do know for a fact that both Newark and Annapolis have hybrid meter/zone permit systems around their business centers for residential and commercial properties.

    On “lessons learned”: the largest experiment in Chestertown with permit parking that I know of is currently in my neighborhood of Campus Avenue and Mt. Vernon – with resident parking around Washington College. I would hesitate to call it an unqualified success, necessary as it can be at times. The resident parking sticker consists of a slim white piece of sticker that fades out after about a week on your car bumper. Signage and enforcement is not consistent, and people end up getting tickets in places where a sign isn’t posted but is in the ordinance (like the area right in front of my house — makes me seem like a real swell fella I’m sure.) If you have visitors come to your house during the weekday, and the car isn’t recognized, they may get a ticket (I just park on the street so they have the option of using my driveway.) So, even at this small scale, as implemented, it’s not a perfect execution, as straightforward as the ordinance is written.

    As dysfunctional as the local government in DC was at times, the parking enforcement department was a model of efficiency there. It probably funded several departments itself. The trick in areas with permits was that they would mark your rear tire with a piece of chalk and then come back later to see if you were still there. All you had to do was pull your car back or forward a little bit and hide the mark. Didn’t always work, but often would. There are always ways to game the system with a little creativity.

    One final comment: it would be interesting to know the business sales and closures figures of downtown merchants, percentage-wise, relative to elsewhere. Is our downtown any worse off right now than downtown Chesapeake City, Easton, St. Michaels, or Elkton? Every business community I know of is hurting, and there were a lot of businesses in trouble elsewhere earlier than it was felt here. It could very well be there’s no difference overall, and that we just feel the same percentage drops greater in a rural community where businesses may not have the reserves of wealthier cousins elsewhere. The economy seems to be lousy everywhere. Without hard data, it’s all just conjecture. Food for thought.

  18. I have been following this thread with interest. I started with the idea that I would respond to some of the issues as they were printed. But that got unwieldy. There seem to be about three specific issues, (zoning, parking, & investment in businesses and property). But there is one overriding and interlocking one. The issue is planning.

    Some planning questions include, among others:
    • Do we want this town to flourish both culturally and economically, no matter what the economy is doing elsewhere?
    • Would it be better that this town be self-sustaining? Should it have the variety of businesses traditional to a town so that the local population can come to one stop shopping and get their basic needs met?
    • Would our town be better if it is designed and planned to favor pedestrian or vehicular mobility? [This is an either / or situation.]
    • Are there ways to join together to solve problems where all stake-holders are part of the solution?

    If I ruled the world, the answers to these would be:
    • Yes, we want Chestertown to have an enjoyable and dynamic downtown, no matter what.
    • I would want the variety of businesses so that my basic needs could be met without having to move my car.
    • I want a pedestrian oriented town both for convenience / enjoyment and for the protection of the environment.
    • There is an organization that has already started the process of bringing together stake-holders and resources. It is called Main Street Historic Chestertown. Anyone and everyone who wants to be a part of the solution might want to join us. [If you are interested, I can give you more information about what we have done so far and what we are planning.]

    Holly Geddes
    MSHC president

  19. Holly Geddes says

    The gravatar is part of our new logo. I hope you chance upon it frequently in the future. The word is to ENJOY our dynamic downtown.

  20. This is an excellent summary of how far this conversation has progressed (immediately above). Our thinking is evolving, and it has been good to pause to take that in. Now I’d like to advance our conversation by taking up the question: How can our Town Leaders help us go forward?

    This opinion string began with the question: Does our Mayor know what downtown needs from local government to thrive? As Holly Geddes points out, our: “overriding and interlocking [need] … is planning.” I passionately agree, and only want to clarify that it is planning with Vision that is missing, not surveying and engineering. Cannon Street is a case in point.

    What has happen on Cannon Street south of Cross (toward the river) is a product of the previous era. If we compare that with what is happening to on the first block of Cannon going uphill from Cross we see creeping suburban sprawl – the automobile eroding the Historic District. Acres of asphalt have been added without any overall vision of how this part of Cannon Street can be revived as an extension of our pedestrian marketplace. These parking lots dump storm runoff onto the street, then into the river. There is no effort of on-site stormwater retention, despite green-speaking.

    If an in-depth study had been done for this area by any one of our highly capable Landscape Architects, it is likely the street would be narrowed to slow traffic, giving room for generous sidewalks, an effort made to capture stormwater runoff, a pattern of trees effective at breaking up the massing of cars, shade for shoppers and trees neighboring yards.

    Above all, a Landscape Architect would have immediately recognized developing expansive parking behind High Street creates a new arrival to downtown for visitors and citizens alike. It should be dignified and welcoming – as befits a gateway to a pedestrian marketplace. We could have had a generous brick path lined with trees from Cannon thru the tunnel to High Street. What we got instead is so shabby and chaotic that it feels like the backside of a shopping center.

    I’m sure my critics are crying out by now: “But much of this is private land.” All the more reason for our leaders to create a coherent vision and work to build the consensus to implement it. Leadership! Private entities will bring resources to bear if the vision works for us all.

    In short, our Town funds could have been invested with a comprehensive vision of how to nurture our downtown economy. Instead, they were used to create sprawling blacktop, the destroyer of Chestertown’s historic character. We are eroding our competitive advantages.

    If our Town thought it was important to share with all of us a vision of how Cannon Street can be revived as an extension of Chestertown’s Commercial District, we would already have a “Cross Street Design Study” complete with the analysis of what’s causing Cross Street to struggle (in the present tense) and what can be done about that (zoning changes, parking plans, streetscape improvements) going forward.

    FIRST: Sharing the Analysis; THEN: Sharing the Vision; THEN: Vetting its Potential in Public.

    Public Investments without these steps are very likely to damage an environment as fragile and interconnected as Chestertown’s downtown – the quality of its pedestrian environment, the thriving of its retail establishments, the livability of its residential neighbors – each of these affects all of the others. As Cannon Street shows, we can easily go down the rat hole together if we aren’t cooperating to formulate a vision for how downtown is going to thrive.

    So, how might our Mayor and Council get us re-started in the right direction? It’s not too late to cure the Cannon Street cancer, but the culture of our local government must first be changed.

    How so? One suggestion: The Town can empower Main Street as a venue for processing what we know about our problems and as a venue for building a broad-based consensus about where we need to go if we want our downtown to thrive. Share what is already known.

    For example, the Town already collects information in its building permit files about the rehabilitation which used the 40% tax credits, and has a useable base map already under development. They could direct staff to produce a plan of Chestertown’s downtown that illustrates the pattern of investment by placing a big green $ on each building rehabbed with tax credits. To make the plan even more meaningful, the Mayor could ask the Town’s Building Officials to identify any structures suspected of heightened structural and/or fire (life/safety) risk. Such a plan will show us all areas of Town that are in deep trouble.

    There are a thousand excuses for why this can’t be done expeditiously, but unwillingness to share information is primarily how our town keeps its civic organizations at bay, which has weakened them. The Downtown Chestertown Association, a case in point, has atrophied to dysfunctional.

    Any government serious about our downtown’s preservation and economic competitiveness will produce at least a first draft of such a plan in weeks. The accuracy of the specifics can be vetted openly with Wikipedia-like benefits. Meanwhile our Town Commission and concerned NGO’s like Main Street can begin to see our realities. All staff has to do is plot the locations of the last decade of building permits, indicate which involved tax credits, and deliver a first draft.

    Will the Mayor and Council direct staff to furnish such a map? We can take whether they do or don’t as a litmus test of their general willingness to work openly with the rest of us.

    To restate this question: Do we have an administration willing to share information in a format that empowers our community? Not only would such a map be meaningful to Main Street, it would also help the volunteers on our Historic District, and Zoning Commissions understand the big picture. Where are people investing downtown and where are they not? Then they can really begin to ask why and why not. And how we might, for example, reshape our zoning to support historic preservation.

    Much of failure to plan with vision lies in the practices our town government has of Balkanizing what’s going on so, for example, the Planning Commission doesn’t hear what the Historic District Commission is doing or visa versa. This has led us to have zoning that undermines our historic preservation obligations, without the HDC even being aware. It also paves the way for developers to tell the HDC they are doing this, the Planning Commission they are doing that, and the Town’s enforcement official to allow them to do neither. More than once I’ve seen hard evidence of favored developers being granted special waivers unavailable to the ordinary citizen. We need sunshine to disinfect these practices.

    In truth, not only must we ask: “Does our Mayor know what downtown needs from local government to thrive?” We must also ask: “Is our Council willing to ask our town’s staff to help us question the status quo, to develop knowledge of our options, and to formulate plans cooperatively – plans that really have the power to nurture and enhance our competitive advantages so Chestertown’s downtown can thrive as pedestrian environment.” Are they (Mayor, Council & Staff) willing to collaborate openly?

  21. In yesterday’s post I missed seeing at least two key observations:

    1. When our Town invests in a design strategy for connecting High Street (via the tunnel opposite Spring Street) to Cannon by an enjoyable tree-lined, brick path, that path will as much nurture the enterprises that are seeking to take root on Cannon Street as it will help High Street to thrive.

    2. If beautifully designed, the path itself will be one more pleasurable experience beckoning shoppers downtown. How sustainable is that?

    Yesterday I didn’t even see the full power such a pedestrian path will have to help our downtown economy grow. I was focused too much on the comparatively smaller benefits it will have for High Street, and didn’t recognize how much it will really help Cannon revive. That’s why we need our plans vetted in public. Any of us, no matter the expertise, can be blind to their implications.

    I state these benefits of the landscaped Tunnel Path in the future tense because, the opportunity for biking and walking between Cannon and High (and back!) is still there. If we will acknowledge our own individual mistakes, we can embrace creative strategies for enhancing our competitiveness together.

    Peter Newlin, FAIA

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