The Unnecessary Decline of Main Street

The American Conservative has focused much attention on “localism” and “new urbanism” over the last few years. This has been one of my favorite developments in this magazine. I refer here to two new articles from the magazine.

The average American liberal and conservative, Democrat and Republican can probably agree on a desire to revitalize the traditional main street. Who doesn’t long for a town or city center with lively shops and cafes, over which real people actual live?

John Norquist identifies federal lending and urban development policies as a reason for the decline of Main Street. These policies set caps on the amount of floor space that can be committed to commercial purposes in a mixed-use building.  With caps of between 15 and 30 %, it’s tough to get a loan for a three-floor building of which the first floor (about 33% of the space) is for a business. And this despite the fact that banks used to consider mixing a business with apartment rentals above the business used to be considered a safer loan, since rental income can compensate for downturns in business.

Adding to the tragedy, traditional, mixed-use, pedestrian-centered Main Streets are also more valuable in taxes revenue than current car-centered development. See Charles Marohn’s math on this here. Who doesn’t want more tax revenue in their municipality – without having to raise taxes?

There’s nothing inevitable or unstoppable about the decline of Main Street. Its decline is the result of unintended consequences of federal lending policies, bad math by municipal leaders, and particular decisions by governments.  We can fix these problems and bring back Main Street.

For all of the talk about partisanship and legislative gridlock, Main Street should be an issue that the two parties can work on together.

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