Former MOTHER EARTH NEWS artist Kim Zarney built a new career through much of the 1970s in the planning and execution of building renovation and street makeover projects.
If you take a look at MOTHER EARTH NEWS from the 9th issue through the 25th, (with the exception of issue 12), you'll see the considerable talent of Kim Zarney displayed on the front covers. Nowadays, though, Kim has a much larger "canvas" to work with. For the past seven years his firm, Townscape, has done design consultation for nearly 40 communities on projects ranging from individual building restoration to street makeover concepts for entire downtown areas!
Zarney's interest in urban beautification started some 16 years ago, when he was still a student at the Cleveland School of Art. At that time, his hometown of Medina undertook what still ranks as one of the nation's most successful "Main Street" restoration projects. Since Kim's father (a commercial artist) was a leading figure on the Community Design Committee, the son soon became involved in Medina's program. And the benefits that the restoration subsequently brought to the Ohio town made a lasting impression on the young artist.
"Most of America's Main Streets have been around for well over 100 years," Zarney notes, "but in that time, little has been done to them to keep the customers coming to the central shopping areas. Newer malls usually offer better lighting, parking, displays, and security ... and, ironically, many of them try to look like old-time Main Streets, while the real things waste the wonderful ambiance they already possess."
Recapturing lost trade and making central urban areas convenient, comfortable, and attractive is often more a matter—the consultant has discovered—of revealing than of rebuilding.
"Most of America's downtown areas came into being between 1850 and 1930," Kim explains, "when the quality of construction and visual integrity was generally good. Therefore, in many cases, it's necessary to strip away the more recent aluminum and plastic facades and get rid of the maze of poles, meters, signs, and other unintegrated objects that have been tacked on during the last 45 years." (During Medina's remodeling, workmen found a virtually priceless Tiffany glass sign perfectly preserved under a "modern" plastic placard!)
Most town centers also require improved lighting and pavements, more crosswalks, a general cleanup of trash, paint (or its removal to show the original brickwork underneath), some restraint in the use of signs, additional shade trees and flowers, and benches that invite shoppers to stop, rest, and chat.
But—you may well wonder—are downtown restorations really worth all the work involved? Seemingly, they are.
"In the first place," Kim points out, "the energy crunch is reversing the flight to the suburbs. People want—and need—to be closer to their work, entertainment, stores, and services"
"Furthermore, it's usually much less expensive to recycle an older structure than it is to build a new one ... and it costs no more (and maybe less) to make the building aesthetically pleasing by exposing the pure architecture so often hidden under a plastic-neon facade.
"Downtowns which have a successful revamping program can expect a business increase of 25% to 27%," Zarney told us. "In Medina, the largest department store on the square saw its income double within the first three years of the project."
If the additional service is requested, Kim's consulting firm doesn't stop with the exteriors, but will move inside and make the interiors match up, as well! And this extra work, as Zarney explains, offers another interesting and profitable spin-off for the property owners.
"The upper floors of Main Street buildings are usually wasted space, yet they often have beautiful woodwork and could be used as attractive offices for lawyers, accountants, and the like ... although sometimes the stairways and elevators have to be creatively reworked, both to make them enticing and to bring them in line with the requirements of local building codes."
But when such upper floors are remodeled in keeping with their architectural potential, the landlords suddenly find that they can get rent money they never had before ... and some property owners are even turning such areas into beautiful apartments, to encourage people to live downtown. Of the more than 40 buildings (some with three stories) involved in the Medina project, only one upper floor isn't currently occupied ... while in 1967—prior to the renovation—only three or four were leased. (Zarney's own company is installed in a charming garret in one of the formerly unused spaces.)
An improved central business district isn't just for the benefit of storekeepers and landlords, though, because—as Kim is fond of pointing out—a downtown is the face of a community. "A good atmosphere attracts newcomers and will add to the growth of the city ... but it's important that such growth take place as gracefully as possible."
And what advice does the head of Townscape have for those who want to see their own Main Street realize its full potential?
"First of all, you have to have patience. Remember that your city's downtown has probably taken 100 years to deteriorate to the condition it's in today ... and you can't change all that overnight. Also, while companies like ours can get people enthusiastic and show them what can be done and how to go about it, we can't make the changes happen, no matter how good our plans are. Something has to be done in the near future if we're to save our downtowns ... and—with more economically tough times ahead—there's not going to be a whole lot of funding available from the various government agencies.
"Our cities," Kim concludes, "are going to have to rely more and more on themselves."