Born again Downtown revivals offer salvation for cities
Downtowns today are hot. Customers, investors and downtown business owners alike are pursuing revitalization with a renewed interest and passion.
Cities nationwide, from Syracuse, N.Y., to Ontario, Calif., have embarked on programs to rehabilitate once-neglected downtowns. Some revitalization efforts have come up short, but success stories do exist – good news for cities and counties that have not yet launched such efforts. Community leaders no longer must be pioneers using trial and error; instead, they can follow the lead of other ventures by employing aspects of “new downtown realism,” a common-sense approach at work in hundreds of cities.
The economic health of downtown areas affects all people in a community. Downtown serves as a bold symbol of a community’s quality of life. A community’s overall image is largely derived from the public’s perception of its downtown. The city center is a barometer of the whole community’s economic condition and health. In this regard, downtown affects a community’s ability to attract quality employers and employees – not only to the community but to the region. Lastly, in most communities, downtown is a revenue generator in terms of business sales, real estate values, job creation and tax revenue. In other words, as downtown goes, so goes the entire community. Communities cannot afford to ignore their downtowns.
While it is important to keep downtown physically appealing, the bottom line is that a sick downtown cannot recover unless its economy is improved. Simply implementing physical improvements does not get the job done. Economic ailments require economic solutions.
Mayor Nancy Graham and the city commission of West Palm Beach, Fla., implemented a plan based on this assumption. Using a technical assistance program offered by the National League of Cities, public and private sector leaders completed a market analysis and action agenda based on a sound grasp of downtown’s economic promise.
The analysis determined that downtown had the potential to become “The Culture Capital of South Florida,” largely because of assets already in place. The action agenda defined the steps necessary to achieve that goal. Under the leadership of Graham and the commission, the city currently is acting to ensure that downtown’s economic and physical needs are addressed in the effort.
“Bringing people and energy back to our downtowns does not happen by accident,” Graham says. “Doing so takes a comprehensive analysis and a specific, action-oriented strategy.”
All downtown enhancement programs aim to attract people to downtown, and, over the years, many communities have tried to achieve this by holding special events. Special events are important because they build community, positioning downtown as the community’s gathering place. However, special event attendees typically do not spend substantial amounts of money in downtown businesses during events.
Instead, if downtown’s investors – business owners, property owners, real estate developers and City Hall – are to become more financially successful, downtown must offer services that attract spenders. Many downtowns that have achieved this have been enhanced as mixed-use areas, often providing a new definition of “downtown anchors,” a term previously associated with department stores.
Non-traditional downtown anchors include the Museum of Science and Technology in Downtown Syracuse, N.Y.; Borders and Barnes & Noble bookstores that anchor each end of the Bryn Mawr business district in Lower Merion Township, Pa.; the Southern Utah University art gallery and museum in downtown Cedar City, Utah; a community college located in a former department store building in Monroe, N.C.; a farmer’s market in Overland Park, Kan.; the Hibachi Japan restaurant in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio; and a large movie theater in Barberton, Ohio.
Distinct niches help
Many downtowns that had once been in decline now flourish economically despite their proximity to shopping malls and discounters. These downtowns did not accomplish this by competing head-on with the giants or through business as usual. Instead, acting on the adage “evolve or die,” they found ways to successfully co-exist with the giants.
The road to successful co-existence often requires cities to define a niche for downtown. Cities can cluster businesses to create that niche and ensure that those businesses are highly specialized and committed to offering exceptional customer service – two qualities the giants often lack.
Distinct niches have been created in many downtowns by clustering specialty businesses. These include: a home furnishings cluster in Old Town Alexandria, Va.; a women’s apparel cluster in Petoskey, Mich.; an antiques cluster in downtown Dania, Fla. and fudge shops on Mackinac Island, Mich. In Lower Merion Township, Bala Avenue is known locally as “Baby Alley” because of a cluster of baby- and maternity-related shops.
Downtown business sectors and local governments both have an investment in downtown, and both must play a part in enhancing that investment if downtown is to thrive. The most successfully enhanced downtowns are those whose business leaders, public sector officials and residents came together to implement an agreed-upon enhancement strategy.
The downtown enhancement effort in Ontario, Calif., is spearheaded by a private-public partnership that includes representatives from the Downtown Ontario Business and Professional Association, the United Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, the Ontario Historic Society and the Ontario Public Library; as well as city council members representing the city’s redevelopment authority; downtown business owners, property owners and real estate developers; nearby college administration representatives; bank CEOs; residents; and community leaders from outside of downtown.
The group defined an enhancement strategy and agreed to aggressively lead its implementation.
“When you don’t know where you’re going, you always end up somewhere else,” says Lee Mayfield, deputy director of Ontario’s redevelopment agency. “Previously, at best I would have described On-tario’s downtown enhancement efforts as unfocused and deadlocked. Now through the partnership, all of downtown’s stakeholders hold a common vision, pull together in the same direction and are accomplishing measurable success.”
Entire community benefits
Often, local government officials or citizens object to supporting a downtown enhancement effort because it focuses on only one of the community’s commercial areas. However, such an objection is shortsighted because an enhanced downtown benefits the entire community.
This fact has been acknowledged and embraced in Clinton, Iowa, where the Clinton Area Chamber of Commerce spearheaded the effort to define a downtown market analysis and enhancement strategy. Following its completion, the chamber – whose members are from a tri-cities area – took a number of progressive steps.
First, the chamber’s board of directors created a downtown division within the chamber – a private-public partnership charged with ensuring that the enhancement strategy is implemented in a timely and quality manner. Second, the chamber launched a community-wide funding campaign. Third, it committed to hiring a downtown director with the use of both private and public funds who will bring professional expertise to the enhancement effort.
Both the chamber of commerce and Clinton’s elected officials understand that a revitalized downtown can increase the entire region’s ability to attract and keep high-quality employers and employees. Doing so increases the region’s quality-of-life, and thus its appeal to residents and visitors.
“Our downtown merchants and private individuals have diligently addressed the issues that keep our downtown attractive to shoppers,” says Clinton Mayor LaMetta Wynn. “Now that downtown’s economic role has been realistically defined, we are able to successfully market it as an important part of the community’s economy.”
Use the tools of business
Downtown enhancement is economic development, and a downtown’s economy cannot be strengthened without the necessary tools. These include:
* a clear vision of downtown’s preferred future;
* a clear and realistic understanding of downtown’s realistic and office market opportunities;
* a definite and appropriate course of action for capturing market opportunities and attaining the vision;
* a management entity comprised of business and public sector leaders committed to the course of action; and
* a stable source of funds.
For too long, local leaders have tried to enhance downtowns by guessing about a downtown’s market, implementing projects without a clear idea of what they seek to accomplish and operating programs with too little funding. The commercial giants do not operate in this fashion; they build their economic success on solid business tools. Without the same tools, a downtown does not operate on a level playing field, and revitalization thus will not be successful.
New thinking, new life
>From 1992 to 1994, NLC conducted a pilot revitalization program called “Accepting the Challenge: The Rebirth of America’s Downtowns.” Eleven communities took part, including small towns such as Dania, with 13,024 residents, and larger cities like Flint, Mich., with 140,761 people. Each conducted a community-driven process that led to a downtown action agenda. Each agenda included:
* a vision, defined by the community, of what downtown should be like within five years;
* an assessment of downtown’s current condition;
* a detailed course of action to address the issues facing downtown so a community’s vision can be attained; and
* recommendations for forming or bolstering a formal private-public partnership.
Based on the program’s success, NLC created a new fee-based technical assistance program that helps localities to start or redirect enhancement efforts. The program emphasizes early partnerships between the public and private sectors to assemble the tools essential for success.
Using the program, Millbrae, Calif., sought to create the tools it needed. At the start of the program, the city council appointed a so-called process committee that brought together the city council, the chamber of commerce, downtown business owners and managers, downtown property owners and managers, real estate developers, city staff and interested citizens.
Over a five-month period, the committee involved the community in defining a vision and market analysis; it is now working with the city and the private sector to implement the resulting action agenda.
“Our city council has been particularly pleased with the widespread community participation fostered by the action agenda,” says Mayor Daniel Quigg. “Committee members continue to play an important role in carrying the goals of the action agenda forward.”
Dolores Palma and Doyle Hyett are the founders of Alexandria, Va.-based Hyett-Palma, a national consulting firm specializing in the economic renaissance of business districts.
Not long ago, a neglected area of downtown Atlanta consisting largely of dilapidated warehouses sat ringed by islands of opportunity – Peachtree Street’s hotels and restaurants to the east, Underground Atlanta to the south and the Georgia World Congress Center (GWCC)/CNN Center area to the west.
One year ago, that same site served as the social center of the 1996 Summer Olympic Games after Atlanta’s Olympic leaders had recognized the need for a gathering spot and transformed the area into Centennial Olympic Park. The park is now the focal point of a plan to capitalize on Olympic momentum and revitalize downtown. City leaders say the 21-acre park, the largest built in an urban area in 25 years, stands among the key legacies left in Atlanta from the Olympics.
After closing the park temporarily during the games following a bombing that killed one visitor, officials again closed the park after the games to transform it from a festival site to a city park. Officials will reopen the park this fall as the centerpiece of a multi-year plan to enhance about 80 surrounding acres on downtown’s western edge.
Central Atlanta Progress (CAP), a downtown business group, last year set up the nonprofit COPA (Centennial Olympic Park Area, Inc.) to spearhead the redevelopment project. The city and CAP commissioned a study of the area by the Urban Land Institute (ULI), a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, and adopted ULI’s plan to make downtown Atlanta a 24-hour city.
“We really have a nine-to-five – somebody said 10-to-four – downtown,” says COPA President Ken Bleakly.
Helping lead the effort will be the Atlanta Development Authority, a nascent state authority intended to absorb the Atlanta Economic Development Corporation and other agencies. Mayor Bill Campbell will chair ADA’s board and has nominated Kevin Hannah to head the authority. Unlike COPA, ADA will have the power to acquire land and to issue revenue bonds.
“Alongside COPA,” says Hannah, ADA will lead efforts to revitalize the area. “Anything we can do to help make that happen, we’ll try and do it.”
The ULI plan aims to connect the three separate “islands” downtown: Peachtree Street’s restaurants and hotels; the GWCC/CNN Center area; and the Underground Atlanta entertainment and retail complex.
COPA’s efforts focus on three main components: creating a larger residential base, additional jobs and more entertainment options. The ULI plan envisions housing bordering the park’s northern edge, on land currently owned by Coca-Cola. A multi-use business park is planned for the area west of the park. The area southeast of the park is planned as an entertainment corridor linking the park with the historic Fairlie-Poplar district, the subject of a separate task force’s enhancement project.
Atlanta in May approved for Fairlie-Poplar a $500,000 sidewalk improvement grant, which the city seeks to match through corporate donations. The area from Woodruff Park to Centennial Park in September will host the 17-day Arts Festival of Atlanta, formerly based in Midtown’s Piedmont Park.
However, the downtown revitalization effort faces formidable obstacles, including an overburdened infrastructure and massive urban sprawl. Atlanta’s uncontrolled growth has created a largely suburban metropolis, with many residents who view downtown as unsafe and unattractive. A successful revitalization program, developers say, would require improved public safety and education, as well as more efficient and cooperative government.
A recent study by McKinsey & Co., a New York consulting firm, said Atlanta’s main need was to foster more middle-income residents. Atlanta has the highest per-capita share of public housing in the U.S., and its population represents just 12 percent of the metro area population. Atlanta is the only major U.S. city not to annex land in the last 20 years, McKinsey says. On average, metro Atlantans drive longer per day than people in any other U.S. city, and air quality has suffered as a result.
The biggest immediate obstacle impeding development in the area, however, is the price of land. Land owners in the area currently seek far more for their parcels than developers are willing to pay. According to many developers, the city is partially responsible for bridging the gap.
To that end, the Atlanta City Council in a controversial May vote granted federal Empowerment Zone status for the site of a hotel and residential development proposed by Legacy Properties International on the northwest edge of the park, between Luckie and Marietta Streets. The vote exempts Legacy from $2.5 million in property taxes over five years. Legacy plans to begin work in the fall on a 322-room Doubletree Suites Hotel, phase one in the $88 million project.
COPA’s efforts received a boost June 4 when the Fulton County Commission app roved Turner Broadcasting System’s $213 million plan to build a new arena on the site of the Omni. Turner had threatened to locate the new arena in the suburbs if the deal was not approved by June 4, the National Hockey League’s deadline for its decision on where to locate future franchises. Turner was hoping to land a franchise, which would share the arena with the Atlanta Hawks. The arena, funded in part by government-backed bonds, faced some opposition on the commission. TBS, required to repay all bonds, says the deal in the end will cost taxpayers nothing.
TBS, an Atlanta-based unit of Time Warner, says it plans to make the arena the focus of a 12-acre “town square,” with added retail and entertainment options. The project includes $75 million in public improvement financing mainly for upgrading surrounding streets, sidewalks and viaducts. Georgia’s Department of Transportation also plans to rebuild the stretch of International Boulevard between GWCC and CNN.
The state’s GWCC Authority, which manages the park, in February announced the completion of funding for the second phase of the park’s master plan, designed by San Francisco-based EDAW. Phase two will largely complete development of the park’s northern end, including water gardens and a visitor’s center. GWCC fell $3 million short of what was needed to complete its entire plan. Phase two funds total $12 million, half of that donated by the Atlanta-based Southern Co.
Phase one of development, which included construction of the Fountain of Rings and an amphitheater prior to the Olym-pics, cost about $55 million, half of that given by Atlanta’s Robert W. Woodruff Foundation.
The private housing development envisioned north of the park, critical to the overall plan, would connect with the Clark Howell/Techwood mixed-income housing redevelopment. COPA is conducting studies to determine the economic feasibility and most appropriate design for the housing plan. CAP hopes to have 5,000 new housing units downtown within three years.
In the business park, Bleakly says, “We have more [potential] tenants than we do property at this point.” But COPA has yet to obtain the needed land, environmental studies or neighborhood backing.
In the entertainment corridor, he says, “We’re waiting to see where Turner goes, where Underground goes,” Underground, which has struggled, is now under new management, and TBS should soon reveal detailed plans for its downtown enhancement efforts.
“We’re going to have development around the park,” Bleakly says. “The question is, can we do a few things that will really make this exceptional?”
In the name of downtown redevelopment, communities across the nation in the 1970s closed their central arteries to automobile traffic. Civic leaders, panicked by the flight to outlying shopping malls, attempted to make their downtowns friendlier by banning cars on Main Street and planting trees to shade park benches.
By 1979, Chicago joined those cities, completing the malling of its famed State Street, a mile-long stretch through the heart of the city (“the Loop”). Starting with Wacker Drive to the north and Congress Parkway to the south, State Street’s sidewalks were widened and shrouded in gray asphalt, and its boulevard was tightened to allow two-way passage of muscle-bound public buses. City officials hoped that by creating this mall, State Street could better fulfill its identity as Chicago’s “Main Street.”
Right away, however, the city realized that its grand scheme to amplify that character instead had had the opposite effect, isolating the area and transforming “That Great Street” into a mass transit-oriented thoroughfare with diminished public access.
Years later, the city opted to redevelop the redevelopment. North State Street’s Chicago Theatre Center renovation, completed in l986, is generally credited with being the pioneering effort to bring back State Street. The $26.5 million private sector redevelopment was enthusiastically endorsed by city officials. The project converted a 1920s movie palace and adjacent l870s building into a mixed-use entertainment, retail and office center. The city recognized the Chicago Theatre refurbishment as the foundation for a theater and entertainment district and ultimately for a renewed State Street.
To that end, the city and the Greater State Street Council in 1990 solicited conceptual plans for renovating nine blocks of State Street The plan chosen proposed bringing back auto traffic on a four-lane, straight-curbed street, returning State Street to a pedestrian-oriented main street and setting the stage for future development in the area by introducing three subdistricts: theater/entertainment, retail and cultural/educational.
The plan was implemented following years of effort to untangle funding restrictions that had resulted from the mall, a transit way funded through the federal Urban Mass Transit Authority. Replete with historic lampposts and tree clusters, the $30 million renovation was finished in 1996 by a myriad of firms in conjunction with Chicago’s Department of Transportation. The effort, championed by Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, reopened State Street, restoring a human element and a sense of scale.
In 1993, as part of DePaul University’s expansion of its one-million-square-foot Loop Campus, the DePaul Center opened in a former department store building. This reuse project braided educational, office and retail functions and spurred a growth movement. Along with the city’s new Harold Washington Library Center, it firmly established the cultural/edu-cational district anchored at State Street’s south end.
At the same time, the Chicago Theatre was further revitalized by a record-breaking, 16-month run of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” The show’s success sparked interest in other theater/entertainment properties on the north end of State Street and bordering blocks, expanding the area to become the North Loop Performing Arts District. New, mixed-use projects include the Oriental Theatre and Palace Theatre.
The next goal for State Street is to build on the success of famed merchants Marshall Field’s and Carson Pirie Scott to create a stronger retail core. Several newly opened or announced stores provide added diversity.
Integral to the city’s vision for State Street and now becoming a reality is the revitalization of the mass transit infrastructure. Subway stations are being redesigned with below-grade spaces opened up and the stops made more transit-friendly. The plan reverses the dark, dank feel previously associated with Chicago’s urban transit.
The push for a new State Street has been encouraged by Daley, who expanded an existing Tax Increment Financing district to make about $300 million available for the city center. Further residential and hotel developments are planned to flesh out the three districts.
This article was written by Dan Coffey of Daniel P. Coffey & Associates, Chicago.