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New shine on Railroad Avenue? National study finds economic gold in urban areas with old, small buildings

It turns out you can enjoy commercial areas like the offbeat heart of Railroad Avenue and still call yourself a fan of economic development.

I'm talking about the long block of Railroad between East Holly and Magnolia streets, where buskers and beggars compete for sidewalk space with people seeking bagels and shoes, and with people sitting outside munching hash browns and hamburgers.

Stand back from the sidewalk and you'll notice that the buildings along both sides of Railroad are mostly old and small, with a few new and remodeled ones in the mix.

That's the kind of urban area - with a blend of old and newer structures modest in scale - that came out looking good in a recent study called "Older, Smaller, Better," from the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The study focused on three test cities: Seattle, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. Analysts compiled the age, size and density of buildings in those cities in grid squares equal to one to two full city blocks. Then they looked at how the numerous grid squares compared in economic terms - such as jobs per 1,000 square feet of commercial space - and in other measures that indicate a vibrant urban life.

In a nutshell, the study found that clusters of older, smaller buildings were associated with more jobs, per square foot, than areas with mostly new and larger buildings. The study also found areas with old and small buildings were more walkable, support a livelier social scene, and were home to more new businesses, including ones owned by women and minorities.

The gist of the study didn't surprise Darby Cowles, the senior planner working on the update of Bellingham's downtown plan. She said current city plans and rules, and the update, all support the goals of having more people live downtown, of making downtown streets and sidewalks friendlier for pedestrians, and of re-using downtown buildings, especially historic ones.

"There's that authenticity and sense of history, that uniqueness," Cowles said. "When you have a vibrant, active downtown, people want to be there."

The national study provides statistical support for Jane Jacobs' famous 1961 book, "The Death and Life of Great American Cities," which challenged the practice of replacing old neighborhoods with large buildings and wide streets in the name of urban renewal. Jacobs' book showed how neighborhoods in New York City functioned best when they had dense development, mixed uses, short blocks, and buildings that were a stew of old and new.

Returning to the microcosm of Railroad Avenue, affordable rents and customer traffic over the years have supported long-term businesses, such as The Bagelry and Wonderland Herbs, Teas and Spices. That activity, in turn, has attracted newer businesses, such as Cresswell Boggs and Fiamma Burger.

For a bonus, there's a helpful smattering of service businesses on Railroad, including Tommy the Tailor and Sandy & Vale Shoe Repair, and retail shops not often found in downtowns - I'm referring here to Clark Feed & Seed and to Hohl Garden & Pet.

The study doesn't say businesses in large buildings are obsolete. Cities certainly like the tax revenue generated by big-box stores, and people will continue to frequent malls and chain stores.

For me, the study reaffirms the idea that downtowns and other older commercial pockets deserve protection and encouragement so they can blossom over time, both for their charm and, it turns out, for their economic value.


- To learn about the update of Bellingham's downtown plan, go to and search for "downtown planning."

- To see the report "Older, Smaller, Better; Measuring how the character of buildings and blocks influence urban vitality," go to and search for "Older, Smaller, Better."