How One Man's Renovations Are Saving a Small New York Town

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Greg O'Connell, a former "rumpled New York City detective," has used historic storefronts to bring Mount Morris back to life

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The small town of Mount Morris is in upstate New York. Way upstate, just west of the Finger Lakes, about 33 miles from Rochester, the nearest city of size, and surrounded by farmland. With 2,856 people as of 2009, it has lost 12 percent of its population over the last decade, according to city-data.com.

Like other isolated small towns, Mount Morris once had a thriving Main Street where all the commercial activity took place: shops, small businesses, eateries. The Main Street infrastructure is still there, and it looks pretty decent to me. But it would be a stretch to call it "thriving" in more recent years.

satellite photo of Mount Morris (via Google Earth)

That's where Greg O'Connell comes in. Profiled in a terrific article in The New York Times by Dwight Garner, O'Connell is a former "rumpled New York City detective" who has basically adopted Mount Morris's historic Main Street and has been redeveloping:

Things began to change in Mount Morris in 2007. That was when O'Connell quietly began buying up buildings -- he now owns 20 -- on Main Street. For some he paid as much as $140,000. Others he snatched up for $4,000 at tax-lien sales. Then he went to work. He restored the historic storefronts and interiors, cleaning the tin ceilings. He renovated the apartments on the second floors, bringing in fresh paint, oak and maple floors, new windows, nice bathrooms. He spent about $1 million on the properties, he says, and he expects, when all is said and done, to spend another million on renovations"
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Noting a coffee shop, a barber shop, an antiques store, and a gourmet food shop, Garner finds the town "tentatively, blossoming." What I find remarkable about the story is that O'Connell, a devotée of Jane Jacobs, is determined that the development happen in a way that maximizes community benefits. He rents apartments above the shops but offers the commercial space to tenants for as little as $100 per month. In exchange, he asks the businesses to leave their lights on at night, to change their window displays at least four times a year, and to stay open at least one evening per week.

Years ago, Garner reports, O'Connell was a significant factor in redeveloping the Red Hook section of Brooklyn, where he took a similar community-oriented approach. In some circles, he is apparently known as the "socialist developer." O'Connell believes that, although Mount Morris isn't exactly a destination for many people now, it has potential, with the Finger Lakes and a popular state park nearby. Tourists pass through regularly and might be encouraged to stop. And that's not all:

The area is horse country too, O'Connell points out. He's taking advantage of that fact by placing hitching posts behind a few of his buildings. (It's fun to imagine O'Connell, the lumbering giant of Queens, on a horse.) But he wants more going on. He's thinking about festivals and arts events. Maybe hire an ice sculptor to work on Main Street in the winter, someone who can carve wood there the rest of the year. "You know," he says, "a family can still buy a nice house here for $50,000 to $60,000."

It's a great story, and Garner tells it well. Read it in its entirety here.



This post also appears on NRDC's Switchboard.
Images: Allen Schultz via city-data.com, Google Earth

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Kaid Benfield is the director of the Sustainable Communities and Smart Growth program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, co-founder of the LEED for Neighborhood Development rating system, and co-founder of Smart Growth America. More

Kaid Benfield is the director of the Sustainable Communities and Smart Growth program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, co-founder of the LEED for Neighborhood Development rating system, and co-founder of Smart Growth America. He is the author or co-author of Once There Were Greenfields (NRDC 1999), Solving Sprawl (Island Press 2001), Smart Growth In a Changing World (APA Planners Press 2007), and Green Community (APA Planners Press 2009). In 2009, Kaid was voted one of the "top urban thinkers" on Planetizen.com, and he was named one of "the most influential people in sustainable planning and development" in 2010 by the Partnership for Sustainable Communities. He blogs at NRDC's Switchboard.
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