Co-oprified Commerce

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Why include commerce?

Co-oprification's premise is that the corporate world, and big real estate business in particular, may have hit upon some ideas that groups of citizens could adopt for our own benefit, and do "better" -- at least for the welfare of the community -- than absentee institutions. In urban real estate development, one common practice is to anchor a block of high-density housing with a business or two that will engender common gathering and lend a "neighborhood feel." In an up-and-coming neighborhood, where the rental market for commercial space isn't very competitive, building and leasing new storefronts may not be profitable in itself; but it does make for more attractive housing to have a coffeeshop, gym, restaurant, or grocery store on the corner.

More generally, Jane Jacobs observed long ago that residential communities gain in liveliness, value, and resilience from having commerce mixed in. Indeed, as the industrialized world (re-)learns to value neighborhood walkability, "mixed use" is increasingly part of urban planning doctrine. However, this shift is not yet reflected in the legal structures of home ownership -- the mortgage, the condo board, the homeowners association. Formally the affairs of neighborhood business are kept completely separate from residential matters, even though their everyday impacts are anything but separate.

A typical urban block's residents and businesses don't share formal dialogue or decision-making at any level more local than the neighborhood council or municipal government. And how much does the average resident tend to participate at these levels? The geographical purview of most neighborhood (to say nothing of city) councils is simply too broad and bureaucratic to hold the attention of most residents, as these bodies aren't designed or intended to promote the unique character of individual blocks. Yet the character of any block is impacted profoundly by the businesses that call it home, so it stands to reason that a block's residents and businesses would take an interest in, and benefit from, a governing body that affirms their shared destiny.

Furthermore, creating ownership stake in the block as a whole place, including its enterprises, may encourage all stakeholders to take a more holistic view of each other. A business, renting its space not just from some owner of commercial real estate but from the very block itself, would almost have to see itself as having a community and not merely a location. Likewise any co-op bond owner would have to take into account the community's commercial life when contemplating his investment's value. Longer-term residents may even regard their shorter-term neighbors more thoughtfully, if business success is seen as part of the block's wealth and a dynamic base of residents is seen as part of that success.

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