The city of Dover, if it wants to attract new investment as envisioned in its “Capital City 2030” master plan, will have to change the way it does business, or this plan will be like so many other city plans and collect dust at City Hall. Fortunately, the city is considering the changes needed.
Around the country, communities large and small are amending and even completely rewriting their zoning codes in a way to make them easier to use and up to date for the 21st century. Looking around Dover, downtown isn’t even the most recently disinvested retail center, when considering the struggling Dover Mall and the former Blue Hen Mall. Its struggles with retail are in line with districts around the country, where so much first shifted to one mall, then another mall, then online. Our zoning code has not kept up with these changes and still requires unneeded permissions from the city for businesses we can mostly agree belong on Loockerman Street.
The Hive on Loockerman, the new co-working and event space, for example — considered by the current code a place of public assembly — required a public hearing for it to be able to open. In legal terms, a place of public assembly on Loockerman Street is not a permitted use, able to be done with simpler staff approval, but a conditional use, requiring the approval of the Planning Commission. This type of barrier to opening wastes the often limited money and time of those trying to establish small businesses and drives them to other towns, for a use most Doverites probably agree is positive. We cannot let these types of restrictions get in the way.
It’s exciting to see, as well, other uses being potentially allowed without a public hearing — for example, manufacturing uses. Though, at first glance, we may think of the Kraft plant, generally, the type of uses trying to locate in retail districts are things like microbreweries, coffee roasters and other small producers of value-added food products, who can benefit from a small retail presence with foot traffic. No need to fret smokestacks and tractor-trailers, as they will have eliminated downtown as an option through their site selection process.
To attract more retail downtown and to provide better support to the retailers already there, we need more people downtown at all times, and we need to create more housing units. Dover has tried for a long time to promote bringing in people from elsewhere to support its businesses, and though they should be welcome and encouraged, this cannot be the primary strategy to support businesses downtown. People who live downtown are the people who spend the most money there, and we need to create more opportunities for downtown living by creating new housing, both more units and more types of units.
One of the best benefits of living in or near downtown is the ability to limit the number of cars you need. My family has been able to get by with one car, as have many others, because of the ability to walk, bike and take transit in Dover. The more that is established downtown, the more people will be able to make this choice, with families spending money on things they want, like coffee at The House of Coffi or lunch at Stonerail Market, instead of on gas at Wawa and car payments to Detroit.
Transit, walking and biking in Dover can all be improved, and many groups are working on this, including the responsible government entities. All of these modes can be helped by the elimination of minimum parking requirements, as no one wants to walk by a parking lot. In addition, the current requirement for minimum parking requirements is something that, if eliminated, can save projects money by allowing them to provide only the amount of parking they know their project needs to be viable. Some people will provide more parking than the current code requires; others less. But, when we require parking that is not needed, that is how we lose historical buildings and create empty, trash-strewn parking lots, as exist in some corners of downtown.
I’m hugely optimistic about “Capital City 2030.” New investment downtown will also provide the capital needed to fix and repopulate our existing historical buildings. So long as our historic preservation ordinance is maintained and our historic district commission retains its role in review, this effort will help fill the vacant lots, underused parking lots and other marginal spaces with new uses. Only when a historic building is demolished do we realize the small space it previously filled. It’s exciting to imagine filling so many empty small lots with new people and businesses.
I highly encourage other citizens to support these commonsense reforms and encourage the Planning Commission and City Council to do the same.
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