American author Gertrude Stein once complained of Oakland, Calif., her hometown, that there was no “there” there. Stein moved to Paris for the same reason that people continue to be attracted to cities of distinct character and charm — from San Francisco to Charleston. Their strong sense of place defines them as great cities and creates memorable communities.
Many cities today are concerned about not having enough “there” as they compete to attract businesses and residents or seek to create more attractive environments for current residents. Some communities have suffered economic or demographic changes that have drained the life from their streets; other up-and-coming places simply want to stand out. Cities as large as Hartford, Conn., with 1 million residents, and as small as Hermitage, Pa., with just 16,000, are using basic principles of place-making to guide public and private development.
Revitalization without growth
Many small cities are confronting problems of flat to declining populations and economic growth by redeveloping vacant downtown properties to attract new businesses. Washington, Pa., a classic 18th-century town with an ordered street grid spreading out from a courthouse building on a hilltop, was a bustling community until sprawl and the decline of the steel industry in the 1970s devastated its downtown and reduced it to an empty shell.
But that changed in 2003, when local developer Millcraft Industries proposed a mixed-use development downtown. Its master plan called for new construction, renovation and preservation of buildings within a 14-block area surrounding Main Street to include new offices, retail outlets, restaurants, housing and a hotel.
Construction began in April 2005, and the project involved many city, county and state agencies, as well as Washington & Jefferson College, whose campus is immediately adjacent to downtown. The development dovetailed with earlier improvements by the Redevelopment Authority of Washington County, which invested $17 million in infrastructure upgrades along Main Street, including decorative paving, historic-style streetlights, landscaping and street furniture.
The cornerstone of the plan is a new $18 million, seven-story, 140,000-square-foot office building, Nationwide Centre, named for anchor tenant Nationwide Appraisal Services Corp. Built on the site of a former YMCA, it is the first large commercial building to rise in downtown Washington for several decades and combines commercial and retail uses, as well as parking. “After 30 years, when the downtown was slowly killed by the mall and the big box stores, Washington is coming back,” says Rich Cleveland, former development and redevelopment director for the Washington County Redevelopment Authority and current manager and planner at locally based E.G. & G., the planning and landscape architecture firm that led the streetscape improvements program. “The city made some bold choices with the building and the decision to do all the streetscape at once, not piecemeal. Now, those decisions are paying off with a new pride in the image of downtown, and busy restaurants and shops filled with workers from Nationwide.”
More than 100 miles from Washington, another small town, Hermitage, Pa., grew from the post-WWII population shift that so radically reduced Washington. But, unlike Washington, Hermitage did not have a downtown to redevelop. In 2005, the city began planning to turn what was little more than a suburban crossroads into a town center. “The business district didn’t promote an image. People were only comfortable in their cars — there was no place else for them to go,” says Marcia Hirshmann, Hermitage planning director.
Working with the Mercer County Regional Planning Commission and with funding from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, Hermitage contracted with an architecture and planning firm to design the town center. The resulting plan created guidelines for a town center structure, including public spaces, building placement, and landscaping, including a formal green space with plants, new sidewalks and coordinated signs.
For the last year, the city has been incorporating the new elements, and new retail and commercial developments are taking shape at the site. Locals now gather at Starbucks, Home Depot and Walgreen’s stores at the center of town. “It is incremental and slow, but there is new development in the town center,” Hirshmann says. “The landscaping is coming together, and even those who didn’t believe it was possible have responded positively to the changes.”
On the other side of the country, Manhattan Beach, Calif., suffered similarly without a community gathering spot. So, in the early 1990s, the city acquired the site of a former ceramics manufacturer and sponsored a competition among developers, architects and planners to design a new “heart to the city.”
Pasadena-based Tolkin Group won the competition, and Tolkin & Associates Architecture designed a mixed-use project, including a 38-room hotel, retail, offices and underground parking. Surrounding courtyards, gardens and streets invite visitors outside to the public spaces. “While it was critical that the economics of the project work from the size to retail mix to the number of parking spaces, the true success of the project is the popularity of the Town Square,” says Richard Thompson, director of community development for Manhattan Beach. “Kids love to play in the fountains, and everyone likes the connection to the history of the site.”
Activating existing assets
Some communities have historic properties and natural resources that can be highlighted in redevelopment projects. Manchester, N.H., a former textile center on the Merrimack River, struggled to stay alive following an exodus of all its textile businesses to the South in the mid-1930s. The vanished textile industry left a full mile of empty mill buildings lining the river.
That changed in 1985 when the city changed its zoning rules to allow mixed-use properties. “The historic mill buildings were then desirable as residences, and our job has been to create new neighborhoods in the downtown to support the changes in lifestyle,” says Stephanie Lewry, executive director of Intown Manchester, the city’s business improvement district.
Today, Manchester is one of the fastest growing economies in New England, with a thriving downtown. Lewry’s charge is to protect and enhance the sense of place that the town has created through public space improvements, which have, in turn, attracted private investment. “We work hard to keep the city clean and attractive, cutting the grass and planting flowers,” Lewry says. “We are also responsible for developing promotional activities that help to build a sense of community: street banners, newsletters, a Web site and special events. Our goal is to appeal to a broad demographic in ways that increase livability and vibrancy.”
Like Manchester, Milwaukee has been investing in public spaces to highlight the historic buildings and structures along the Milwaukee River in the Historic Third Ward. In 2005, it completed an $11 million, one-mile boardwalk, planned by Milwaukee-based Engberg Anderson based on the design concept of New York City public artist Mary Miss, to connect the neighborhood with the Milwaukee Downtown Riverwalk.
The Riverwalk has helped spur development in the area, attracting several new condominiums as well the adaptive reuse of historic properties. “We’ve added 19 retail and restaurant outlets in the past year,” says Nancy O’Keeffe, Executive Director of the Historic Third Ward Association, a private non-profit financed through funds from a business improvement district, combined with city and membership support. “We are a popular destination, and the Riverwalk makes getting here easier and more interesting.”
Changing the game
Sometimes cities need a big project to change the way they are perceived. Hartford, Conn., still is known as the “Insurance Capital of the World” although economic struggles have left downtown with empty stores in an outdated Civic Center mall. In June 2004, Newton, Mass.-based Northland Investment Corp. proposed to redevelop the mall property into a 36-story apartment building with shops and restaurants on the ground floor.
The Capital City Economic Development Authority (CCEDA) committed $30.5 million in equity funding for the $160 million Hartford 21 project, and the developer worked with the Connecticut Development Authority among others to secure additional funding. Completed in summer 2006, the nearly 1 million-square-foot development, designed by Boston-based architects CBT/Childs Bertman Tseckares, has transformed the city’s outdated Civic Center Coliseum and mall from a dim, “walled city” into a lively residential community, doubling the number of housing units in the city’s core with 262 apartments and adding a distinctive landmark. “The project put Hartford on the map visually,” says Sarah Barr, Hartford Mayor Eddie Perez’s director of communications. “The tower creates a metropolitan image on the skyline that when viewed with the mix of historic buildings connects us to our past and the future.”
City officials faced the challenge of creating a complex of such presence and scale that it would redefine downtown Hartford. With the new configuration of three integrated structures that house residential, retail and entertainment activities located at the city’s prime intersection, people are attracted downtown again, after years of actively avoiding it.
Different communities, different needs — yet all of the places began with a vision that brought together public and private interests to accomplish long-term goals for improving the sense of place in their towns. Thoughtful leaders are leveraging their assets from the small details of landscape and signs to substantial building programs to build identity and community pride as well as competitive advantage.
Michael Stern is a landscape architect and founding principal of Pittsburgh-based Strada, an architecture, interiors, landscape and urban design firm.
Principles of place
City officials, planners and economic development officers around the country use a variety of strategies and tactics to build stronger communities.
Create a town “heart”
Interesting streetscapes, an inviting pedestrian environment and controlled development will create a place to call the center of town, not just a geographic center.
Develop open spaces for the community
Towns need gathering places, typically at their heart. Such places serve functional needs while creating a visual center that establishes a recognizable image for the town.
Connect the pieces
Under modern zoning codes, many cities are divided into residential, business and retail areas that are located in separate parts of the city, often requiring a car to get from one part of town to another. New connections, both vehicular and pedestrian, need to be made.
People enjoy walking between destinations when the walk is convenient, pleasant and interesting. That is apparent in historic towns and cities and in new developments modeled on historic shopping districts. Cities need to create the infrastructure to foster a pedestrian environment.
Establish mixed uses
The true key to establishing a walkable community lies in creating a mixed-use environment that places living, working, shopping and recreating in the same environment, eliminating the need for a car for every activity.
Reflect a unique character
Many elements of the urban design contribute to the character of a town. It is the combined set of elements — the landscape, buildings, streets, sidewalks, signs, infrastructure — that are a part of the historic development. Each of the elements presents an opportunity to enhance a city’s unique character.