Saving Small Business Downtown
By Wells Dunbar,
1:59PM, Wed. Dec. 27, 2006
Another local happening that got neglected in our yuletide insanity was announcement of the Congress Avenue Retail Retention and Enhancement Fund. In promoting the program last week, the mayor said the fund would enable "judicious, strategic investments in Congress Avenue," but made no attempt to obscure its impetus: "The inspiration for this program is, of course, the situation regarding the proposed Marriott development on the 200 block of Congress and the desire to preserve Las Manitas, a mainstay of Congress Avenue."
The fund would take fees the city levies on major developments Downtown – fees that have often gone uncollected as the city sought to bolster growth – and fold them back into smaller and local businesses. What might seem like a ledger balancing decision to a $180 million development like the Marriott complex – $100,000 in fees for closed lanes, or traffic easements, for example – could conceivably save a smaller business like Las Manitas or Escuelita Del Alma, or so goes the line of thought.
On first reading, I think the proposal has potential, if cautiously implemented. The mouth-breathing bleat of "that's my tax dollars" doesn't even seem to be a starter, as, no, they're not – it was municipal money the city was willingly let slip away to bring Downtown to what it is today. I don't remember anyone calling for it then; no, it's the sitting target of Las Manitas working every would-be Grover Norquist's blood to a boil.
I do think that the city has an obligation to protect places like Las Manitas, stewards of Downtown before it morphed into the New Urbanist playground of today, purveyors of true urban cool. Their only crime is that they did their job too well, paving the way for developers to sell that dream back as $500,000 condominiums. In exchange for their work, they shouldn't be discarded.
But where the plan needs help is its scope; limiting it to the part of town where the most expensive development is happening makes sense, but could also set a dangerous precedent. If I were rebuilding Midtown Live, and saw what was happening Downtown, I'd be more than a little upset.