Defending regional identity

As you may or may not be aware, an ad-hoc Land Use Advisory Group working under the auspices of the Planning Commission is reviewing the draft of Northfield’s new zoning ordinances. The new ordinances are intended to bring our land use regulations in line with our Comprehensive Plan, something we’ve been unable to accomplish with previous revisions. One of the things the advisory group has discussed is how much Northfield would/should/could restrict the use of “franchise architecture”. (continued)

Since that is a policy decision more than it is a technical/advisory one, it’s still an open question. I think a pretty good argument can be made that most examples of franchise architecture violate two or more of the Comp Plan’s principles, against which decisions should be weighed. Anyway, I nagged City Planner Dan Olson for resources and information beyond what I could Google, and he pointed me to Defending Regional Identity: Strategies for Reshaping Franchise Architecture. The paper’s author, Terry Schwarz of the Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative, has kindly given permission to generously excerpt for this blog post.

Of course if I were Griff, I’d dispense with the paper and just put up an “objective” poll:

Which do you prefer?

  1. Cookie-cutter, corporate franchise lego boxes continuing to sprawl along Hwy 3
  2. Distinctive, context-sensitive design and architecture that reflects the history and topography of Northfield

Not that I’m stacking the poll by the way I phrase the question or anything.


Defending Regional Identity:
Strategies for Reshaping Franchise Architecture

The architectural design of retail franchises contributes to the ongoing homogenization of the American cultural landscape. Regional differences in architectural styles and materials are giving way to standardization and uniformity.

Architectural variety enriches communities and celebrates the distinctions between different people and places. The quality of the built environment influences the ability to attract and retain businesses, residents, and tourists. Increased architectural standardization leads to barren cityscapes and communities devoid of authenticity and charm.

Franchise prototypes are an architectural form of branding. A branded building is difficult to reuse since its physical character tends to be strongly linked to the corporate identity of the original occupant. Franchise outlets are often constructed with flimsy, short-term materials, so recycling these buildings is often less feasible than demolishing them and starting from scratch. In rare cases where a franchise building is adapted for a new user, the results can be confusing at best.

7-ElevenEvery place has some distinguishing feature or historical attribute. Once a community has articulated its goals for physical development and appearance, it becomes easier to encourage franchises to adapt their buildings to suit the local context. The most effective guidelines tread a fine line between being specific enough to provide clear guidance for property owners, while not being so prescriptive as to limit creativity and potential design solutions. Design guidelines must be clearly articulated and a community needs to be persistent in order to get a truly distinctive and site-specific building.

Recently, the community of Mequon, Wisconsin was able to influence the replacement for an existing gas station. The new station, not yet constructed, will look like a picturesque cottage with large windows, fabric awnings, a gabled roof, and a cupola. The signage will be subdued and the site will have ample landscaping. According to Mequon Mayor Christine Nuernberg,

“You don’t have to accept yellow arches if you don’t want them. We tell people: If you want to build here, here’s what you have to do. We’re going to insist on good design.”

StarbucksRegional variations in architectural styles and building materials enrich the fabric of communities, enhance local economies and promote an ethic of sustainability. The most effective way of getting well-designed, context-sensitive buildings is through regulated approval process. The best results are achieved, though, when it is in a corporation’s own best interest to make innovative, community-responsive design choices.

Regulatory tools (which are continually being refined in the U.S. and abroad) are still needed, especially when dealing with recalcitrant corporations. In the absence of a regulations, a clear expression of a community’s preferences and a well-informed negotiation process can also help to preserve regional variety and achieve better franchise architecture.

Complete document here (PDF).


Emphases above are mine; I encourage you to read the whole document so you’re not just getting my biased excerpts.

Now, before you free-marketeers go all apeshit on me and say that the City has no business regulating businesses and stomping on individual liberties to be tasteless or make a buck, etc. I will simply remark that we already DO regulate things regarding zoning, land use, site planning, streets, etc. It’s simply a matter of whether we want good, effective, livable, enforceable regulations, or whether we want some other kind.

In conclusion, I’ll offer up this Flickr slideshow of a bunch of McDonald’s fast-food restaurants in different architectural styles. The photo at the top of this post is from the McDonald’s in Sedona, AZ which probably has the world’s only turquoise arches.

29 thoughts on “Defending regional identity”

  1. Tracy,
    Interesting set of issues… sure to stimulate a lively conversation. The link to the pdf doesn’t appear to be working, but I found the paper here.

  2. Tracy,
    ‘Lively’ online civic discussions rarely take place on a spring weekend.

    I think that developing a coherent visual style for new development in the community is potentially a great idea. The problem is: what would it be, and where would it be applied? Everything on Hwy 3 south of Babcock Park is already pretty well established as “generic suburbia,” or – if you prefer – “franchise architecture.” It would take decades for rules like this to make much difference in Southern Northfield. Might be worth it for our kids, though.

    On the other hand, downtown and the near-west side would be an area which might benefit from some guidelines. Certainly, there must be some architectural terminology which accurately describes the surviving 19th-century storefronts, and which could be incorporated into new developments.

    One issue with doing so, however, is that ’19th century storefront’ is not just about particular design elements. It’s also about dense, wall-to-wall buildings. So if you were going to go that route, it would seem equally important to emphasize how the lots were divided and used, and not just what the decorative elements looked like.

    That is to say: putting Victorian decorative elements on a McDonald’s on Highway 3 won’t accomplish all that much. Consistent density, lot size, etc. are also essential to creating a coherent feel.

    [DIGRESSION:] The most recent edition of the Froggy Bottoms menu (yes, the menu) has some very nice articles by Susan Hvistendahl on the history of the west side, and what it was like before the local government decided to plow Highway 3 through the neighborhood. It’s quite shocking what was given up in exchange for Q Block.[END DIGRESSION]

    1. Bur Oaks…
      and an identified Nat’l Trust Historic Downtown !
      Typical 19th Century Central Business district surrounded by a grid-system residential area, and then (after some digressions in development values, mainly to the southeast) rolling agricultural lands with plenty of trees remaining.

      Anyone remember the “West of the River Design Guidelines”?

      This town is already “branded” by its visual aspects. I think trying to elaborate on that visual content would be jargon on top of fact.

  3. David, how would you describe it? Kiffi’s observations above are the sort of thing I’m thinking of.

    Regional identity has to do with the features of both the natural and built environments. In our case, it’s in a region where the northern plains blend into the Big Woods, a red-brick river town founded in the mid-19th century with a good share of its development pattern set at that time when the original town was platted. Its architecture is fairly diverse for the period, so no one architectural style predominates. Building materials also vary a bit. The built environment is characterized more by the relationship of the buildings to each other, and to the street… Different downtown than in the residential areas.

    I would hope that our regional identity is based on those more distinctive features than the generica of Highway 3.

  4. Tracy: I don’t think that “we” have a specific identity. Just like a family has different identities, so does Northfield.

    We have:
    1. The East-Siders (who generally favor East-side looks);
    2. The Ex-urbanites (who want the big city opportunities with the small town amenities);
    3. The Chamberites (who favor marketplace over political decision-making);
    4. The NIMPU’s (who believe that Northfield Is My Personal Utopia);
    5. The Townies (who are tired of all the outsiders like us saying what is best);
    6. The Academics;
    7. The Seniors;

    and the list could go on.

    I prefer a town that is open to multiple identities. As I recall, that was the purpose of the Ad Hoc Committee. They are there to lend practical and common sense advice to the Planning Commission.

  5. David, I think Northfield may have multiple personalities, but what I’m talking about can be at least partly measured and quantified. As a matter of fact, a couple of years ago ACP had a guy going all around Northfield, measuring lot widths, street widths, distance from street to front door, height and massing of buildings, etc. etc. in order to identify patterns in the built environment here. I believe they identified three basic patterns for the residential areas, and two for the commercial ones. The buildings in each defined area had general characteristics in common. (They actually had it more finely-grained than that, but for practical purposes it made sense to broaden the ranges slightly.)

    And you’re right, the Land Use Advisory Group has been an excellent source of input, feedback, and advice.

  6. David: You have listed segments of society, not the general/basic visual characteristics of Northfield …
    Please write your visual description of the town, limited to one long, or two short, sentences.

  7. David, I’ve thought for a long time, and have now concluded, that you are one of those poor unfortunates who has absolutely no conscious sensitivity to your surroundings.

    (For unconscious sensitivity, I’ll refer you to this article in Scientific American.)

    So, talking to you about this stuff is probably as futile as trying to teach a tone-deaf person to sing an aria. But suffice it to say that these things DO matter to a lot of people, and not just east-side NIMBYs or NIMPUs either. In fact, documents that the city has already adopted are full of evidence to that effect: The Economic Development Plan, the Comp Plan, the Downtown Design Guidelines, the Streetscape Framework Plan and others all reference what you dismiss as insignificant, the “visual characteristics”. And they do so because there is a measurable relationship between quality of design in the built environment, and economic benefits to the community. It’s not just about having a pretty theme park to live in.

    Stop being such a pain. 🙂

  8. Actually, after hearing the council ‘discussion’ on this subject last night , “branding Northfield”, is absolutely ridiculous as now presented.
    The EDA Director, Jody Gunderson, and the EDA Marketing committee chair, C. Pownell, presented their perspective, and they didn’t seem to get the difference between “branding” and marketing… but were persistent in their idea of benefit to the “community”.

    The Mayor was persistent in explaining the difference between marketing and branding, very clear and persistent.

    I’m not sure her message was understood by the relevant parties.

  9. Tracy: I am not aware of any “measurable relationship between quality of design in the built environment, and economic benefits to the community”. Officious written proclamations in the Comp Plan, EDA documents, or references isn’t evidence.

    The kind of regulations that you are talking are not being designed to help businesses, i.e. providing economic benefits to the community. They are designed for specific segments of the citizenry (NIMBY’s and MIMPU’s in particular) who would prefer that the entire town share their idea of appropriate visual characteristics.

    When I think of the importance of development characteristics, visual attractivesness is a long way down my list of factors for the EDA director to consider. Tax dollars and jobs are much, much higher on my list.

    If you don’t agree with that, maybe we don’t have anything to talk about.

  10. I see that David L. is on the Streetscape Task Force. Since you have “no visual sensitivity to your surroundings,” David, here’s something to orient you to your surroundings: the street is that gray thing that runs in between the pointless brown pavers.

  11. David:

    Tracy: I am not aware of any “measurable relationship between quality of design in the built environment, and economic benefits to the community”. Officious written proclamations in the Comp Plan, EDA documents, or references isn’t evidence.

    May I suggest that you haven’t done your homework on this subject? And I’m not talking about the “officious pronouncements”. (Although I suppose if you want to diss the Economic Development Plan that took a team of international specialists several months and $60,000 or so to do, feel free.)

    The kind of regulations that you are talking are not being designed to help businesses, i.e. providing economic benefits to the community. They are designed for specific segments of the citizenry (NIMBY’s and MIMPU’s in particular) who would prefer that the entire town share their idea of appropriate visual characteristics.

    What kind of regulations do you think I’m talking about?

    When I think of the importance of development characteristics, visual attractivesness is a long way down my list of factors for the EDA director to consider. Tax dollars and jobs are much, much higher on my list.

    Why do you think it’s either-or? Either visual attractiveness OR tax dollars and jobs? Why not both-and?

    If you don’t agree with that, maybe we don’t have anything to talk about.

    I don’t disagree. I just think you have an enormous blind spot. HEY! WATCH OUT FOR THAT MACK TRUCK!

    1. Tracy: I read the Economic Development Plan. I don’t recall any evidence in there regarding your proposition. As I recall, the document spoke of a need to develop a “sense of place”. The place I am hoping for would be as liberal (free) in its economic thought as it is in its social thought – unity in the essentials, liberty in the non-essentials.

  12. Tracy: Your original post said that it (design regulations) were about good, effective, livable, and enforceable regulations. “Good” and “livable” seem arbitrary. See Patrick’s post #3.

  13. David,
    “Good” and “livable” may be arbitrary, but sometimes arbitrary guidelines can be a good thing.

    When you want to paint your house, no one color is, objectively, “better” than any other. However, if you paint each and every part of your house a different color, the house is probably going to come out looking pretty awful.

  14. Patrick: What I like about your comment in #3 was your observation that Northfield has a number of different identities in residential and non-residential development.

    We have the mini-McMansions on Mayflower, Victorians on the East side, bungalows on the West Side, split-levels in Jefferson Park etc. For non-residential, we don’t have as much diversity, but we do have the downtown, the Highway 3 strip, the Riverside development, Armstrong Road etc.

    To me, good and livable mean that no one group is going to force its identity on the rest of the town.

  15. David, my point in #3 is that different zones can have different styles, and varying degrees of guidelines. The community can can agree upon some architectural guidelines (as broad or narrowly defined as the community sees fit) in some of those areas, while other areas could be defined in a different way.

    It’s an extension of zoning laws.

    Are you opposed to those, as well?

  16. Patrick: I am in favor of letting Northfield develop naturally with decisions being made by those who have an investment, and restrictions being placed only upon a showing of some public necessity. Tracy’s suggestion is that it makes good and livable economic sense to institute a “regional identity”.

    I’m not confident that the community can agree upon any ascertainable standards to say what is our regional identity. “We” say that we don’t want big-boxes, but we have a huge middle school on one end, and the hospital on the other end. “We” say that we don’t want cul-de-sacs, but we almost had one on the west side. “We” say we want mixed use housing, but then we institute a very restrictive (and perhaps unconstitutional) policy on housing.

  17. I don’t mind the eclectic look of our downtown or our neighborhoods with their evolution of styles over time. The architecture of the Community Bank sticks out, admittedly, but it reflects the thinking of folks at the time it was built, just as does the look of the Scriver Building across the square reflect 19th Center taste and function. While some think Santa Fe’s downtown is cute with the mandated adobe exteriors, it is just too too aggressively regional for my taste. One of my favorite places in MN is the Rice Park area of St. Paul with the Ordway, the St. Paul Companies, Landmark Center, St. Paul Hotel and Public Library building standing proudly, each representing its own function and time.

    Ugly as it is, you might say the “look” of south highway 3 is regional . . . looking like any other highway commercial area. I applaud Bierman’s attempts at recreating the “downtown” look out there, and the Planning Commission put up a good fight to get Target to look more distinctive. These don’t “cure” the problem over all. I’m afraid that form follows function out there.

    What is the regional residential architecture here in Northfield? The lovely old “Victorian” houses on the east side, or the low, toady stucco homes like mine on the west side?. Newer neighborhoods in the southeast look like suburbs of quasi – historic home in Apple Valley and elsewhere. Again, the styles reflect the tastes and practical needs of the period they were built.

    Having said all this, I have to confess I’ve always admired the fact that Freeport Maine was able to get McDonalds to either take over or build an 18th century style place right downtown on the famed street where LLBean also resides. (See the final shot on the video above.) So, I’m pretty inconsistent, myself!

  18. I have to admit, I am more interested in careful zoning laws than in trying to mandate that McDonalds has Victorian decorative flourishes. The now-controversial phrase “lipstick on a pig” comes to mind.

    A certain amount of visual coherence, as well as benefits such as pedestrian accessibility, could be gained by picking an area – such as the west side of the river downtown – and setting up zoning laws which mandate a certain density of development for any future projects there. Ideally, there would also be incentives included in a redevelopment project along with this to encourage willing participation.

  19. There were such regulations developed, and agreed to by many of the private and public entities involved in their development.

    They were called the “West of the River Design Guidelines”.

    They were never codified into legality; they remain as Guidelines, and most people have forgotten all about them.

  20. Patrick: It has to be remembered that restrictions drive up the cost for the private sector; incentives drive up the cost for government.

    Generally, I am less opposed to the incentive approach. It puts the cost where it belongs – with the taxpayers who want the restrictions. It also makes the costs of restriction more obvious. However, it does unfairly burden the taxpayers who really don’t care if the McDonald’s sign is red or turquoise.

  21. …which is why I’m more interested in zoning guidelines than in mandating decorative flourishes.

    There was an interesting episode of Frontline that I listened to yesterday, titled “Poisoned Waters.” Its focus was on problems with water contamination in the Chesapeake and Puget Sound, but Chapters 12 and 13 were of some relevance here.

    It looked at development in Tysons Corner and Arlington VA, and the democratic implementation of “smart growth.”
    http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/poisonedwaters/view/

Leave a Reply