Friday, September 30, 2011

A new perspective on Hillsdale

When our neighborhood, with its commercial center, was awarded a Main Street designation last year, those who chose us for the program did so, in part, because we had a problem. A major commuter thoroughfare, Capitol Highway, cuts through the shopping district. It is both an asset and a liability to our neighborhood. It brings commuter business to the area, but it floods the Town Center with disruptive and, at times, dangerous automobile traffic.

No single event underscores the problem better than JPMorgan Chase Bank's interest in building a new branch here.
This week, in an editorial in the Hillsdale News, I shared my perspective on the problem. Here's what I wrote:

Even though we say we live in a place called Hillsdale, it really is two places.

One I'll call a wide place in the road - at the top of the hill.

This Hillsdale is a dynamic, traffic-rich place defined by 32,000 work-day commuters passing through it. From the standpoint of merchants, large retailers (including banks) and commercial property owners, it is a strategically significant commercial strip.

Significantly, the patrons of the wide place pass through and don't identify with Hillsdale as a community because they don't live here.

Which brings us to the second Hillsdale, the place where you and I live. To us it is a community with a commercial center at its civic core. It has our three schools, our library, our Farmers Market, several locally owned shops, a few places to worship and a few to imbibe.

Most importantly, it is where we - 7,400 of us - reside nurtured by friends and neighbors.

It is home.

For easy reference let's refer to the two Hillsdales as the "wide place" and the "community."

Until quite recently these two Hillsdales got along fairly well. For 20 years, a couple dozen of us made plans for the "community" Hillsdale. We actually redrew the map and created a Hillsdale neighborhood. That status gave us some official standing with various governments including the City, the County, Metro, the School District and Tri-Met.

Meanwhile, some with commercial interests were also figuring out how to take advantage of the "wide place" Hillsdale.

Since its founding last year, the new Hillsdale Main Street, to its credit, has tried to balance the interests of both Hillsdales.

It hasn't been easy, particularly in light of JPMorgan Chase's interest in and single-minded motives for building a branch here.

Chase's first proposal, designed for commuters, predictably ran afoul of the desires of the neighborhood association and the Hillsdale Town Center Plan, which is aimed at promoting commercial in-fill and pedestrian, bike and bus transit.

After that setback, Chase has returned to the drawing board.

Let's hope the big bank will confer first with the community before it puts pencil to paper. To be successful, it should please BOTH Hillsdales and so unite them.

It can be done.

For the record, I'm not in favor of building another bank here. We have two plus an ATM for a third in the Town Center. Several other banks have branches nearby. Chase's presence is as near as the Burlingame Fred Meyer.

Despite my opposition, I'll offer Chase some advice about how to succeed in getting approval to build in the Town Center. It starts by treating our two Hillsdale's as one.

Zoning calls for a building more than twice as large as the one Chase originally proposed. Chase wanted a smaller building to make way for more parking. It actually reserved nine of 21 spaces for its nine employees, assuming they would ALL drive to work. Does that sound like Portland or Hillsdale to you?

For Chase's proposal to pass muster, it should adhere to existing zoning and then use just part of the big, possibly two- or three-story building for a small Chase branch.

But what about the leftover space? you ask.

Now here comes the challenging part, particularly for Chase, which seems innovation-averse. Rent the rest to a diversity of businesses. Or simply lease it to a developer to sub-lease.

I already know the criticism of my proposal. An earlier effort to lease space in a multi-use commercial building failed to attract tenants.

Here's where the creative part comes in. Until the economy improves and tenant interest resumes, Chase should donate - or make available at a nominal fee - the space to the community. We could use a community art gallery. The Hillsdale Main Street program could use a prominent location with space for its numerous meetings. The Hillsdale Community Foundation could open a small book store and stock it with donated books. The Hillsdale Bicycle Coalition might open a bike repair cooperative. SW Trails could open an information center for hikers. Hey, how about a little competition for the banks by renting to a credit union?

The list is only limited by our imaginations.

So how about it Chase? Can you get out of your Wall Street mind set and "think local."

By serving two Hillsdales you could help create one.

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Tuesday, September 27, 2011

From car to computer crazed

When I was a kid, each fall on my way home from school I’d veer off the shortest route home to walk by a trucking firm that hauled new cars.

Well before I ogled newspaper photos of the new models, I would get an exclusive look at the sleek sheet metal riding on the open trailers and lined up in the trucking company lots.

This was not idle voyeurism. Every other year I knew that my Dad would buy one of these remarkable machines. A lot of people did. The Fifties were the height of the car culture. Detroit and its auto fantasy drove the bulk of American industry.

So as I’d approach the trucking lot in anticipation, I’d feel a rush of quasi-ownership. A compulsion really. An irrational lure.

For all kinds of reasons, besides the turning of hundreds of calendar pages, those days are over.

Today, cars last longer. We keep them longer. Much longer. We have to. I’ve lost my obsession for outrageous stylistic flair and the newest, latest. Owning a new car has no cache with my friends or family. My cars have been used for the past 20 years. Not clunkers exactly, but they’d been around their share of blocks.

Still, the feeling that I had approaching that trucking lot decades ago is still with me. Today, satisfying the consumptive urge costs less and achieves more — or at least I’d like to think it does.

What attracts me and millions of others now are new computers and associated geeky gadgets. The “much anticipated” label gets applied to every new mass-marketed computer device. These machines are “unveiled” just as Chevy Impalas and Pontiac Firebirds once were. Think no farther than the anticipation surrounding the iPhone 5, and the new Amazon tablet.

Here we have “not-so-major” purchases that still create buzz and carry status. Apple, today’s Chrysler or Lincoln or Cadillac, profits from high price tags partly for this reason. It also helps that the Cupertino giant is fixated on consumer satisfaction.

Computers are much more parts of our lives than cars were. And much more important to us. In fact, our cars rely on computers. Which is more difficult to replace, a stolen car or a stolen computer? We are “into” computers far more than we are "in" our cars. These wheel-less vehicles can transport us to real and imaginary worlds in nano seconds!

Oddly, points of comparison between computers sound similar to those once used in car marketing. Power, performance, speed, design. A current Intel campaign displays a sports car with half of its front appearance portrayed in x-ray. The caption reads, “Visibly_Smart....Stunning Visuals_Intelligent Performance”

No one ever told us we were “smart” or “intelligent” to buy the now iconic 1959 Chevy Impala but visuals and performance — computer selling points — were definitely in play.

Accessories also come into play. I have a new Mac Air (yes, Apple grabbed me again). Its keyboard lights up, presumably on the off chance I need to work on the Red Eye after the cabin lights have dimmed. The metallic graceful notebook is also light, thin and, well, sleek. These non-essentials no doubt played a role as I forked over a cool grand for an Air at the Apple “showroom.”

Didn’t cars once “grace” showrooms?

No list of comparisons would be complete without mentioning planned obsolescence, except in the case of computers you don’t get the feeling it is all that planned. The “latest technology” really is the latest. With cars, the basic technology never really changed until the introduction of the hybrid system.

Finally, there is the status-defining differentiation within lines. When Dad bought his new Buick, he bypassed the “entry-level” Special and the “luxury” Roadmaster and the similar, but less powerful Super. For him, the “Century” fit his persona. It was the closest thing that Buick had to a hot rod.

When I shopped Apple for my laptop, I too had a hierarchy of MacBook models to choose from. Good, better, best.

I got the feeling that the choices were there mostly to give me pause to ponder and engage with my options and prospective purchase. They defined the field. Besides, Apple seemed to be saying that it had given thought to my individuality. Steve Jobs had, in fact, considered me.

Buick showed the same marketing “sensitivity” to my Dad a half century ago.

Have we come all that far since then?

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