Restoring an historic "town square"
I live in an urban city that annexed an area of the county many years ago that, for a short while, was an independent town. It was created as a planned community in 1918, and follows the blueprint for many new communities today.
In the center of the community is a town square that includes a small park, fire station, library, office space, theater, and retail shops. The neighborhood was intended to be self-contained with all of the services and amenities that its residents might require, including doctors and dentists offices.
We were designated as an Historic District, but that designation has changed to Conservation District.
The square has become very dilapidated, and has a lot of empty buildings. This is partially due to a particular owner of many of the buildings, who refuses to do anything beyond the minimum upkeep, and doesn't seem to care whether the property is rented or not. The city can't seem to get it together to get anything done either, and there is a lot of apathy from the residents because this issue has been going on for so long.
How do we get the city to embrace our uniqueness and see the value in saving our wonderful town square? Our civic league is fairly active, but every request we make is met with platitudes that never materialize into any action.
We are trying to form a committee to help identify some of our problems, and help solve the issues. The problems have been going on for so long though that it is such a struggle to get any buy-in from the city or the residents.
Any insight you can provide as to what we should be doing would be greatly appreciated. Your website has given me hope.
Thanks, and I apologize for this email being so lengthy!
Every community needs to capitalize on all of its assets, so you are doing the right thing in organizing a committee to tackle this question.
The keys to the situation may be these:
(1) Try to discover why the city doesn't want to do anything about the situation. Is it because the elected officials don't know what to do? (In that case, they need to attend some workshops, which no doubt your state or a nearby university offers.) Is it because they don't want to ruffle any feathers? Maybe especially they don't want to anger the one property owner who owns quite a bit of this town square? If this is the case, then you and your new committee have to make it more painful for those elected officials to ignore you than it is to take on the property owner or owners who are in the wrong.
(2) In almost all situations, except those that involve personal danger, do try direct negotiation with the property owner(s) that would need to change. If you can find these individuals and arrange to meet, sit down calmly and seek to understand why they are acting the way they are. They may feel hopeless about the amount of work that would be required (since you say the buildings are quite dilapidated). They may not really have the money or the credit to do the work, and they may be embarrassed about that. There could be some legal problems. If you have more facts, you are more likely to understand and thereby begin to propose solutions that are more realistic. If there is a mediation service in a nearby city, sometimes these people can be very helpful.
(3) Since you yourself are quite articulate about the history of this area, you may be able to help your cause by compiling a brief but charming history of the town square. You can publish a booklet if you can find the funds, or simply publishing on the internet will be an eye opener for many. Tell the story in a way that pulls on the heart strings today, as in you have compiled this history because you love this little town so much and you want your grandchildren to know how this quaint enclave came to be, and so forth.
So in short, you are on the right track. Organize yourselves, seek to understand the motivations for both the elected officials and property owners who do not act, try the direct negotiation approach, and then go on the offensive to explain the historic and cultural values behind this town square.