Monday, December 7, 2009

Case Study - Wellsboro, PA

If this were a magazine story, I'd be inclined to title it "The Scale of Urbanism: Why You Don't Need 'Manhattan' to Go Car Free." A recent visit to relatively tiny Wellsboro, Pennsylvania, my second in a span of two months, serves as the inspiration for a discourse on a belief of mine regarding the definition of urbanity.

The county seat of largely rural Tioga County, Wellsboro is a small town that James Howard Kunstler would be inclined to characterize as a place that possesses a meaningful relationship with an agricultural hinterland. The distinction that all areas in and around Wellsboro are either urban or rural has been blurred a bit, fortunately not to the extent of larger municipalities. Yet, what makes Wellsboro unique from the bulk of Small Town America at or past its demise are the innately useful amenities of retail within walking distance of any point in town.

Declaring the functional center of Wellsboro is not a simple task. But whether the choice is the properly programmed (and surrounded!) courthouse square, or the fully functional and historic Penn Wells Hotel & Dining Room, the feeling that one is in a place of importance, insofar as the business of Tioga County is concerned, is unmistakable. Wellsboro's commercial district boasts one of the last independent downtown department stores in Dunham's, complete with home improvement, furniture, clothing, toy, and housewares departments.

Complementing this gem, the likes of which have been seemingly lost to yesteryear, are menswear, outdoor gear, candy, jewelry, and book stores intertwined with real estate, finance, and legal offices. Less desirable building forms nevertheless provide a pharmacy and supermarket just a block from the denser village center. While a minor disappointment in terms of pedestrian emphasis in a place otherwise brimming with possibilities, the lack of a supermarket at the core is often cited as an obstacle to urban living in much larger cities.

Wellsboro no longer enjoys a diverse blue collar employment spectrum. Once a center of trade for a wide area that necessitated the service of denizens in institutions as varied as fruit evaporators, flour and woolen mills, milk-condensing plants, marble works, saw mills, foundry and machine shops, and manufactories of cut glass, chemicals, rugs, bolts, cigars, carriages, and furniture, Wellsboro appears to have two major employers in the local Sylvania Light Bulb factory and the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hospital.

Transportation to and from Wellsboro is severly restricted to five local bus arrivals and departures per day to and from nearby Mansfield on EMTA's Route 30. A railroad, the Tioga Central operating on Wellsboro & Corning trackage, still operates 34 miles of track north to a yard at Gang Mills, NY. Preservation of this equipment is crucial despite its current use as an excursion platform. Wellsboro isn't serviced by any national intercity bus service.

Finally, I'm pleased to discover that the braintrust steering little Wellsboro is ahead of many American townships with respect to the preservation of what makes them great. In addition, the promotion of future quality development has been addressed thanks to the September 13, 2004 adoption of the Borough Zoning Ordinance. This form-based code renders legal once again the replacement or expansion of the quality urban fabric that gives places like Wellsboro their charm. Notable excerpts pertaining to the Central Business District are the phrase "strong pedestrian orientation" and no minimum building lines, the death sentence for good urbanism in a lot of locales.

If one subscribes to the notion of a return to localization, diverse economies on a more managable human scale, a lot of lessons can be taken from Wellsboro. At the city scale, one can see how cities of the past were orientied along multiple similar commercial corridors surrounded by comparable radii of denser residential neighborhood structure. Immaterial of scale, one can see the energy savings inherent in the lifestyle when properly programmed. This is the challenge facing thousands of municipalities across the nation, some clinging to the status quo, and others waking up to a new reality and starting the conversation about the role (and benefits) of quality dense built environment in everyday life.

No comments: