Urban Expert Says: Restore Downtown ‘One Building, One Project at a Time’

WHEELING – Saying “it’s never too late,” urban land use expert Ed McMahon has urged community leaders to restore and revitalize Wheeling’s downtown “one building, one project, at a time.”

McMahon, senior fellow for sustainable development at the Urban Land Institute in Washington, D.C., spoke at Friends of Wheeling’s annual preservation awards dinner held at Mount St. Joseph Wednesday, May 1. Appearing under the auspices of the Wheeling National Heritage Area Corp., he called Wheeling a city with “some of the best architectural assets in the nation.”

Identifying and preserving historic buildings, neighborhoods and landscapes is essential. “Downtown is the heart and soul of any community,” he opined.

McMahon, whose work involves disseminating best practices for the real estate industry, gave a PowerPoint presentation showing photos from cities that have redeveloped – rather than demolished – existing elements to attract visitors and new residents. “You can have all the parking in the world, but if there’s nothing to do, no one will ever go there,” he remarked. “Heritage tourists stay longer and spend more money than other tourists,” he pointed out.

“If you don’t have a healthy downtown, you don’t have a healthy town,” he commented. “It’s hard to be a suburb of nothing.” Preserving downtown Wheeling is important, he contended, because “it is the image that people take of this community.”

McMahon offered keys to successful tourism: tell the city’s story, interpret its resources, “use public art to tell the story of your community” and celebrate famous people, famous events and ordinary people.

“Make the story of Wheeling manifest in the landscape,” McMahon urged.

Establishing strip malls was the old paradigm of economic development, but strip development “is development for the last century,” he said. “The future of development belongs to main streets.

“We’ve overbuilt on the strip,” he said, addimg that the United States has more than double the retail space per person than in Europe. “Consumer attitudes are changing. E-commerce means fewer and smaller stores,” he said.

With hundreds of “big box” stores standing vacant, cities are outpacing suburbs, as retailers and corporate offices are moving back to downtown areas and creating “new life for old buildings,” he said. “Retailers are racing to cities. They’re willing to change all their rules.”

Regarding downtown redevelopment, he said, “You have a choice – when chain store developers come to town, they generally have three designs.” McMahon showed examples of major restaurant, drugstore, retail and hotel chains that have built or adapted structures to complement cities’ extant architecture, instead of building their typical facilities.

“The biggest impediment in West Virginia is a fear of saying ‘no’ to anything,” he charged. A city with low or no standards will compete to the bottom, but a city that competes to the top “always gets better development in its place.”

McMahon shared secrets to a successful community:

– Develop a vision for the future.

– Inventory local assets and resources.

– Build plans around the enhancement of assets. “You’ve got the assets to turn this around.”

– Use education, incentives, partnerships and voluntary initiatives, not just regulation. “We educate in order to reduce the need to regulate.”

– Pick and choose among development proposals. “You, the citizens of Wheeling, have the right to choose the future, but also the right to know the options.”

– Cooperate with neighbors on mutual benefits.

– Protect community character as well as ecology and economics. “Community character matters … People want to live in a place with character again.”

– Have strong leaders and committed citizens.

“It’s never too late,” he commented. “Your community has deteriorated one building at a time. It can be revitalized one building at a time.”

He told Friends of Wheeling members and guests, “Successful communities have a group of people like you … ‘No’ is a powerful word in America, but ‘yes’ is a more powerful word … Vision counts, but implementation is priceless.”

He suggested to the Wheeling audience, “You’ve got to start small. Pick the easiest project.”

McMahon also spoke of the balance between sustainability and harmony and the connectivity of economics and development. “Sustainable communities are places of enduring value,” he remarked.

“Landscapes give places a large sense of meaning,” he said. Decrying the sameness of many urban areas, he said, “We’ve been losing our sense of place.”

McMahon, an Alabama native who has been living in Takoma Park, Md., for about 20 years, noted that “the world is changing very rapidly” and warned that unplanned change “will simply destroy everything you love about the place where you live.”

While the old model for economic development was “cheap labor, cheap improvements,” now “it’s about high-value improvements,” he said.

“The one big thing rarely works,” the guest speaker said, citing an overabundance of convention centers, festival marketplaces, aquariums and amusement parks in the nation.

Conversely, he said, “Successful cities think intelligently in a small way … You can bring Wheeling back, one building, one project, at a time.”

Discussing the arrangement of development, he said, “Every city in West Virginia needs a long-range conservation plan.” In the United States, the model for 300 years was a town, with a mix of uses that were “architecturally coherent and interesting,” However, he said, in about 1950, the new model became sprawl, transforming the landscape into a place that was “architecturally chaotic and ugly,” he said. “There is no sense of place because it all looks exactly alike.”

Showing examples of appealing gateways – “a community’s front door,” he observed, “The image of a community is fundamentally important to its economic well-being … Sameness is a minus, not a plus, in today’s world.” He added, “If you can’t differentiate Wheeling, W.Va., you will have no economic advantage.”

McMahon, who was involved in putting together a recovery plan for New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, commented, “The more a community does to enhance its unique identity, the more people want to go there – because that’s exactly what tourism is.

“The scenic landscapes of West Virginia have quantifiable economic value,” he argued. “That’s why we ought to be saving more of them.” Citing the real estate adage of “location, location, location,” he said, “The surrounding environment is the single most important factor in the value of a home.”