On Tuesday, Aug. 5, the Ashland Community Food Store, known as the co-op, will propose a change to Ashland's Comprehensive Plan to the City Council. It marks the first time a comp-plan revision will be initiated by a private entity.
The deal is the co-op wants more parking but to get it needs its next-door neighbor, Umpqua Bank, to move. However, before it will agree to move, Umpqua Bank wants assurances it can retain its drive-up window. And therein lies the rub, because 28 years ago the city placed restrictions on drive-up windows in Ashland and sealed that decision in the comprehensive plan.
A little history
In the late '70s and early '80s, with a lackluster economy and struggling downtown businesses, civic leaders decided to make some changes to enhance the city's center. Committees were formed and habits were studied.
It was noted that the distance from the Carnegie Library to the Plaza was roughly the same as from one end of the Rogue Valley Mall to the other — a distance people regularly walked. Most believed that getting people to walk more in the downtown was critical to its success; after all, as people walk, they shop. The goal was to encourage people to walk the entire corridor by improving their journey. So after hundreds of hours of community debate, the Downtown Plan was written, adopted and eventually wrapped into the Comprehensive Plan.
Over the next two decades Ashland implemented the Downtown Plan: Drinking fountains, benches, art, decorative fountains, lighting and street trees were installed — all to enhance the journey of those walking. Today, anyone visiting Ashland's downtown can see the success of this legislation and understand that a vibrant downtown retains and attracts businesses.
Within the legislation was the vision to restrict drive-up windows, especially in the historic downtown. Of those drive-ups located in the historic district, planning actions could trigger their closure. Outside the downtown, drive-up window permits were restricted to the number in existence at the time the legislation was passed and those could be transferred. Yes, the city created a commodity and businesses pay handsomely to acquire drive-up window permits from one another.
The slippery slope
Typically comp-plan revisions originate with the City Council. It then calls for public hearings after which policy is drafted and finally, one last public hearing is called before the policy's adoption. It's a long and thoughtful process because it's meant to last.
When a revision, such as that proposed by the co-op, travels through the back door, it effectively bypasses public input and thought.
While that is alarming and grounds enough to cast this request aside, one cannot ignore the timing: Banks are about to fundamentally change, and will do so most notably in size. Here's why:
Depression era bank-runs were exacerbated by the panic that ensued when citizens saw depositors queuing up around the block. To remedy this, banks were redesigned, giving the lobby a disproportionate amount of the interior floor space. (Check it out next time you're in a bank.) By doing this, banks could accommodate more people inside, thereby avoiding the appearance of a run to those outside. But now, bank runs can occur from the comfort of our homes, leaving the oversized lobby as a footnote of another era.
Think of this: Twenty-eight years ago when Ashland placed restrictions on drive-up windows there were virtually no home computers, no ATMs, no bills paid online, no online transfers. The reason for drive-up banking, like drive-up windows for film development, has all but vanished. Ask anyone and they will tell you: The ATM is faster than the drive-up. Once touted as a convenience, drive-up banking windows have now outlived their purpose. And there's the solution to the co-op's request: Given time, Umpqua Bank will realize it does not need a drive-up window; it doesn't even need a space as large as it now occupies.
At the Planning Commission meeting, the request to ease drive-up window restrictions was presented as a small one, underscoring how no new windows would be created. But it's a slippery slope. If Umpqua Bank can retain its drive-up window when it moves, then so can Wells Fargo, Chase and US Bank — fair is fair. Think about how much land is dedicated to cars just at Wells Fargo alone; that bank occupies an entire block with better than two-thirds paved and dedicated to automobiles. We've waited three decades to reclaim that block for better use; don't lose the vision now.
Catherine Shaw was mayor of Ashland from 1989 to 2000.