A downtown Hutchinson walking tour only made it 30 feet the first 30 minutes.
That’s because Strong Towns founder Charles “Chuck” Marohn had a lot to say about the first block. Marohn, a licensed engineer and certified planner, spent the last two days meeting with city leaders and community members. The idea was to provide insight for any future development in the city.
On Tuesday, a Curbside Chat brought roughly 200 people to the Hutchinson Fox Theatre. About 30 people attended the walking tour on Wednesday that started at DCI Park.
During the Curbside Chat, Marohn criticized the city planning nationwide following WWII that allowed development on the outskirts of town. The move forced unsustainable infrastructure improvements and caused more isolation and depression among people, he said.
From the park, Marohn pointed out different “ornamental” features that he said most people don’t notice while driving by.
Marohn pointed to the bushes along the south side of park, noting they were a type of “urban bandaid” meant to try and make the patch of green space in downtown look less like a gap. Further, he said, the bushes created an area that people subconsciously feel uncomfortable passing since someone could jump out and scare them.
Marohn said an urban park should be open, inviting a passerby to lie under a shaded tree canopy.
A few steps from the park, at the corner of Second and Main streets, Marohn drew everyone’s attention to the two kinds of street lights. The ones on Second Avenue were tall and arch out into the roadway at the top, while the ones on Main Street were vertical with a light on top.
Marohn said the latter were more inviting but the height of those posts, over 10 feet high, still created a “dehumanizing” feeling.
The Minnesotan had everyone look south, down the block on Main Street, and pointed out the symmetry along the downtown buildings. He said people, like animals, naturally feel more comfortable and safe when having a constant backdrop.
Marohn said psychologist call the phenomena … He forgot the word.
“Thigmotaxis,” Hutchinson councilmember David Inskeep said.
Marohn gave Inskeep a high-five and asked how he knew that. Inskeep said he attended a Strong Towns conference in Tulsa last year. Inskeep had been part of a group to bring Marohn here.
The group included the City of Hutchinson, Hutchinson/Reno County Chamber of Commerce, Hutch Rec, Young Professionals of Reno County and Hutchinson Community Foundation.
It cost $4,500 to bring Marohn to Hutchinson, according to HCF Program Officer Kari Mailloux.
Marohn also pointed out Long’s clothing stores and the adjacent one, two or three story buildings compared to nine story Wiley Building. Marohn said the third generation buildings, such as Long’s, were all built with the thought that one day it would need to be replaced with more stories to meet the demand.
“The people who built this out had a vision that this place would grow to be Milan, Paris,” Marohn said.
The cohort crossed the road and ended up out front of accounting firm Swindoll, Janzen, Hawk and Loyd at 200 N. Main Street. Marohn asked what the 1886 building conveyed.
“Solvency,” Rep. Jason Probst (D-Hutchinson) said.
He said the Roman columns out front and structure of the building represented strength. While companies today put their money in fancy billboards, that building was erected to be its own sign.
“We can’t build this today,” Marohn said. “That’ a lost knowledge.”
The group made their way down what Marohn called the “most authentic block” in the city — along Main Street between First and Second avenues.
At a corner, Marohn asked who sits at the black table and chairs fixed to the ground.
Interim Planning Director Jim Seitnater said tourists.
Marohn said a planner probably designed that corner with the tables and chairs because it looks good. A better alternative, he said, would have been buying plastic chairs and tables and seeing where people arrange them before deciding a permanent place to go.
Halfway down the block, traveling south, Marohn stopped and talked about the buildings. He said people today relish brick buildings since bricks aren’t produced in the bulk they used to be and because skilled masons are so rare they charge a premium.
However, brick, when it was used, was considered a cheap alternative, he said. The plan was to one day replace the brick buildings with material associated with riches.
Before the one hour tour ended, Marohn said he thought the city had a ridiculous amount of parking. And for free.
Marohn said the mindset needs to be that people want to come here and they are willing to pay to be here.
Following the tour, Marohn went to HCF location at the First National Bank for a “debriefing.” About 15 people attended the meeting, including a few faces that didn’t go on the walking tour.
Someone asked Marohn if there was a town that had instituted Strong Towns philosophy with great success.
Yes and no, he said.
Marohn mentioned cities around the country and in Kansas that had successes with the Strong Towns model, which often means doing lots of little feats instead of banking on a panacea. However, he said, people had been designing towns the wrong way for the last 50 years and it will take more than a few years to undo all that was done the wrong way in a few years.
Marohn talked about lowering the standard for new businesses to start with the idea that if they are profitable than the building would be brought up to code later on.
During the debriefing, Marohn was also asked how residential areas fit in to the grand scheme of things.
Marohn mentioned a grant matching program implemented in Oswego, New York. The program was implemented in communities that had not been deemed a total loss. The grant would match up to half of the capital improvements, visible from the street, as long as the city could get at least five people in the neighborhood to agree to making an improvements.
Marohn said, in one case, the fifth neighbor made a shrub the capital improvement project.
As an added bonus, the program made the neighbors talk and share their vision for the neighborhood, he said.
Everyone seemed in agreement about starting a similar program in Hutchinson.
“We’ve got to do something that’s not being done,” Reno County Commissioner-elect Ron Sellers said.
Sellers thought the city moved to slow in existing neighborhood projects. Mayor Steve Dechant thought they were moving too fast.
Marohn said he expects it’s a mix of both. Marohn said it would be better to have several initiatives going on in different neighborhoods and see what sticks. He also told city officials they should be OK with employees making small failures in an effort to find something that works.
The clock hit 2 p.m. Marohn needed to leave to catch a flight to New Orleans where he would start similar conversations.
“I hope when I walk out of here you feel liberated, not burdened,” Marohn said.