June 17, 2010

Business comes from the road

Recent planning conversations, notably the 13/366 Corridor Study, the draft Dryden zoning, and more recent discussions of Varna, seem to suggest that popularly requested businesses - grocery stores, pharmacies, the ever-popular dream of a 24-hour diner, and similar retail - appear when there is a concentrated enough cluster of residents to serve.

The more I've thought about this, though, the less true I believe it to be, at least for hamlets like Varna. That's based on both a survey of local history and looking around at what currently works.

The Goodrich history describes some industry in early Varna, the same kinds of businesses that were scattered all over the Town. Grist and saw mills that took advantage of Fall Creek's power as well as a tannery and distillery were there for a while, but most of the businesses mentioned drew their power from the road, not the creek. A tavern, a hotel. Wagon shops, blacksmith, and post office. O.T. Ellis, a merchant prosperous enough to offer printed business cards that turn up today from time to time, and other stores. A distribution center for clock peddlers. Horse-trading that reached all the way to New York City.

Today, I'm not surprised when I see people from Etna and Trumansburg at Autoworks, or Ithaca residents at Varna Auto Service. The karate studio isn't serving just Varna residents, and the farmstand at Forest Home Drive is set up to attract people driving by. In one recent conversation about Varna, the gas stations on the 13/366 overlap came up as examples of local businesses doing well without much of a neighborhood. They seem to be the rule rather than the exception. On the 13/366 overlap, while there certainly are residences, not all of them immediately visible, the gas stations collect much of their business from the road, and the other businesses there are destinations worth driving to.

It is, of course, true that Varna had a time in the 1960s when it had a lot of small businesses commonly associated with denser areas: a grocery store, a pharmacy, a liquor store. Those functions have all migrated to East Hill Plaza, which serves a much larger area, now that people have grown willing to drive longer distances to get larger selections. I suspect, though, that the other reason that Varna's retail golden age came to a close is that Route 13 moved to its current location, and the former major highway became a more minor commuter road, the back door to Cornell.

Making downtown Varna a business center again is possible, though challenging. The strength of Varna businesses has been and likely will continue to be the road, even as that same road creates noise, danger, and decay. Successful businesses could cater to commuters - say, a coffee shop on the north side of the road, where morning commuters could stop easily, and businesses that cater to those headed home on the south side. The 24-hour diner, though, probably has to go on the 13/366 overlap or just on 13, where it might draw enough passers-by to sustain it.

Higher energy prices and reduced willingness to drive could change these calculations - but given that these patterns date back to well before the automobile, I'm not sure that the fundamentals would change.

Even if Varna doubled from its current population of 679 ("downtown Varna") or 976 ("Greater Varna"), or if its maximum density climbed from around 5.2 units/acre, I can't see these realities changing. Discussions for Varna II have included "something like a Byrne Dairy", which even at their largest are still more like convenience stores than groceries.

"After you densify" is a common answer to a lot of resident questions about planning and commercial development. The carrot of new businesses often gets held out as a way to encourage residents of existing nodes to accept lots of new development. Unfortunately, the more I look at it, the more false that seems to be. It seems to take a model that works in cities, where large pedestrian-friendly areas have businesses more focused on local residents, and casts that vision into far more rural areas where businesses have always behaved differently.

(Intriguingly, a meeting on transportation went beyond the focus on business to suggest that carrots such as removing the passing zone in Varna and reducing the speed limit would be rewards for increasing density. Somehow, though, the New York State Department of Transportation actually fixed both of those issues without demanding new development first.)

Posted by simon at June 17, 2010 11:08 PM in , ,
Note on photos


urbandata said:

Familiar problem in upstate NY small villages. Very few are business centers with retail Strips unless they have a critical mass and become destinations. Most of those are closer to large cities, eg, Albany, Syracuse, Rochester. Some have auto oriented business on major routes, e.g. The sweet dairy Cream place or dougs fish fry in cortland/homer. Do you know the varna traffic counts? I agree a ped-friendly, traffic calmed environment could help make places more attractive (eg by reducing noise exposure at the business), but so could wide setbacks and parking lots.

I agree with the familiarity of the problem, and thought about stopping at Doug's Fish Fry today. (I didn't - I actually went to KFC to try the Double Down, which was, as I'd guessed, mostly a mistake.)

For traffic counts, I've posted some recent-ish ones for area roads. 366 through Varna is around 7200, while the 13/366 overlap is around 17K. I've heard that when 13 moved, it had around 6000 cars/day through Varna, but I need to find actual data on that.

urbandata said:

Those numbers seem kind of low to support strong business, but there are other variables to consider (eg hourly peaks, income). Used to stop often in Dryden for ice cream etc-seems like a Very walkable town center with higher traffic that could be successful. towns like Moravia (where coffee cream went out of biz I think) & Varna may just be too small.

My suspicion is that it's not merely the count of traffic, but the kind of traffic, with a higher proportion today of people who need to get somewhere specific in very near future.

My point, though, doesn't rest on Varna's odds of developing strong businesses that draw from the road. It's more that what business is there has always drawn from the road, not from the neighborhood.

As Goodrich put it in the fragment of his history that I linked: "The proximity of Varna to Ithaca has always interfered with its prosperity as a business center." As people grew more willing to drive longer distances, I think that's more true.

And alas, while I agree that the Village of Dryden has a very walkable center, the businesses you knew there have largely emptied out from that center. There is an amazing Community Center Cafe on the 13/38/392 intersection now, though! That may be a case where traffic volume is so high that it interferes with interest in walking and conducting business there.