by Matt Ashby, AICP CUD
Filling vacant spaces on Main Street is often one of the most challenging aspects of downtown development. Many communities have struggled with the ghastly fissures in their urban fabric dating back to the days when urban renewal sought to modernize through demolition. Downtown Cheyenne has an empty hole since a fire nearly took down the entire block in 2004. Despite a variety of efforts, including the recent narrow defeat of a tax ballot election to build a children’s museum, the persistent hollow continues to cast a dismal pallor over the area. In contrast, the Main Street Program in Laramie, Wyoming, is thriving, having successfully cultivated millions of dollars to help fill these vacant, blighted spaces with permanent structures.
Indeed, some communities are succeeding in transforming these forgotten spaces into assets that encourage residents and visitors to engage with its surrounding businesses. One of the best examples comes from Main Street Buena Vista, Colorado, where several vacant lots have been converted into active patio spaces that help to extend the continuity beyond what would otherwise be a deterrent to a cohesive urban fabric. A long-held urban design principle indicates that visitors will only tolerate a small percentage of void space before they decide that its “time to turn back.” Too many gaps in your Main Street subtlety indicate to the casual stroller that they have reached the end of the district, and further wandering could lead to a waste of time (at best) or into the sketchy fringe of downtown where safety could be compromised. This is the worst-case scenario, particularly if your business is just beyond the gap.
The Jailhouse Craft Brew Bar has occupied a 19th Century Lockup since summer of 2016. The 1,000-square-foot space is cozy, with the number of taps doubling the stools at the bar, where you can find out every detail you’d like to know about brews from Colorado and the west. Yet despite the building’s small footprint, the crowds the Jailhouse can accommodate are immense, thanks to the taproom’s creative annexation of adjacent spaces.
From the moment you arrive at Jailhouse, you know it’s going to be a pleasurable experience, with every detail of the space well-executed. Stepping into the courtyard through the iron cell door, the colors and textures of the space lend a sense of comfort – you know you’re going to want to stay a while. And thanks to the exquisite beer selection, you might never want to leave.
As for the details, the jailyard is defined by a low fence, punctuated by taller window and doorway features that help to define the space. Several smaller gathering areas are clustered along the boardwalk spine interspersed with trees, shrubs and seasonal plantings. Overhead, stretched canvas tenting helps to dissuade the southern exposure during the sunny summer afternoons.
Taking stock of all seasons, the summer warmth and need for shade transitions well into the colder winter months where you can gather respite around the fire pit. No detail has been overlooked, with barrels having been transformed into Adirondack-style chairs from which to sip your saison.
Matching well-executed business concepts with quality placemaking is a recipe for success on any Main Street. What owner Sarah Haughey does is not so much picking quality beer, but rather curating an experience for her patrons’ enjoyment. This authentic approach to creating an experience-centered happening every time you walk through the door brightens Jailhouse’s prospects for prosperity. Sarah’s penchant for finding great new brews to sample leaves visitors with a tough decision each time they walk in the door. And the rolling selection only lasts as long as the keg; each brew is replaced once they run out, so every visit is a new discovery. Only one problem; if you discover something you really like, it could be gone the next day, so drink up!
Just one success story in a community would be enough, yet Buena Vista has several great examples. (Actually, they have two others on the same block accompanying the Jailhouse.) Maybe it’s something to do with craft beverages, but one of the other great examples - across the street and a block down – also specializes in local spirits. Only this time, the brew is nurtured (locally) under the watchful eye of Lenny Eckstein who migrated to Buena Vista to take stock of the local whitewater. Emboldened by his own brand of “bootstrap ambition,” the proprietor at Deerhammerhas taken his passion to a higher elevation by producing spirits that reflect the care and timing of subtle production nuances.
Step outside the distillery, and you’ll find yet another great courtyard space to occupy your time. Main Street Buena Vista has taken full advantage of local metal artisans to personalize just about every empty cranny. One of my favorite transitions between the public realm and observation deck outside Lenny’s place sits adjacent to Deerhammer. When the sun shines just right, their logo is projected across the sidewalk with a combination of materials and textures that demonstrate how important the distiller takes his craft.
When asked about the vacant space beyond the whiskey-garden fence, Eckstein muses that one day he might get his act together and build on. But until that day comes, he’s lined up one of the best food trucks in the valley ensure that the Moscow Mules he serves don’t kick you too hard.
The story doesn’t end there, but you’re just going to have to take a visit to experience all the great things happening in Buena Vista. (By the way, before you go, make sure you know how to say Buena – long on the “U” and ignore the “e” - otherwise they’ll laugh you right out of town.) Other great spots to check out include the People’s Stage, a project supported by Colorado Main Street to help bring live music to Main. Definitely don’t miss the local testament to Park-ing Day in front of the Lariat at 206 E. Main Street. It’s a great example of how converting just a few parking spaces can create activity while focusing attention on the quality of place.
Whatever you do on Main Street, be sure to Mind the Gap!
(Originally coined for the London Underground the phrase gave warning to passengers to watch out for the spaces between the railcars and the platform that could be potentially perilous. On Main Street, we know that too much nothing is the death knell for pedestrians. Use these case studies to help turn your local gaps into assets for your community.)
Matt Ashby, AICP CUD, is a trailblazer in community development. After 15 years of public sector service, Matt joined Ayres Associates as an urban planner in 2015. Ashby’s downtown street cred includes service on the WY Main Street Advisory Board, as well as an appointment directing Windsor, Colorado’s Downtown Development Authority. A gig working with Colorado Main Street originally brought Matt to BV where he’s had the opportunity to develop transformational strategies with the likes of Sarah, Lenny, and the rest of the BV Main Street crew. Educated at the University of Colorado, Ashby holds dual Master’s Degrees in Urban Design and Urban & Regional Planning. Follow him at https://www.linkedin.com/in/mashby1
Published in The Western Planner in March 2017