The pandemic has dealt a special blow to all retail. But the boarded-up windows on State Street in Madison, now mostly gone, have kept people away for too long, even as other shopping areas in the city operate fairly normally.
We need to bring people back, and creating a pedestrian mall on State Street is a great idea that will work. I’d start as early in the spring as the pandemic allows. We are hardy here, and we love to eat out in the fresh air.
But if we want to help State Street recover and flourish, we need to make sure most of the spaces stay small and the rents reasonable. The huge Hub development on lower State Street built out large ground-floor spaces mostly filled with big chains, replacing Husnus and Kabul, popular local restaurants that always drew crowds for outdoor dining to lower State.
And even though Madison has been touted nationally for years as a desirable place, and housing developers line up with new projects, the city acts like we have no bargaining power. We should be calling the shots for how big the ground-floor spaces are in new developments, and encourage local tenants.
The new 12-story development proposed for the corner of State and Gorham, by the people who did the Hub, is being touted for affordable apartment rents. What about affordable retail rents? Community Pharmacy, A Room of One’s Own bookstore, Casa de Lara and Kanopy Dance are among tenants now making plans to move elsewhere. Does anyone really think it’s good for the city to chase away excellent and popular businesses from State Street?
The rents on the street have grown as property values have increased, discouraging small startups. We are not alone. Columbus Avenue in New York, which used to have a wonderful assortment of stores, now is lined with chains you see everywhere. Some say that’s inevitable, but other cities have worked to find solutions. Albuquerque addressed the problem by establishing a civic trust to finance affordable commercial space for local businesses. This is a discussion whose time has come.
Finally, in an era where globalization has brought greater inequalities of income and split us into groups that rarely encounter each other, we are lucky to have a Downtown that still brings us together, even if imperfectly, and for better or worse has always reflected who we are as a people.
Durand, of Madison, founded Puzzlebox and Little Luxuries on State Street in Madison.