Key Steps For Improving and Redeveloping Downtown Areas

Downtown areas are the social and financial center of many communities. Some municipalities are looking to revitalize and kick-start development in struggling downtown districts, while others are looking to grow and expand upon quality development that has occurred organically over time. Regardless of the issues, a key to a healthy downtown is continually generating fresh ideas and solutions that are tailored to an individual community’s changing needs.

To fully develop ideas and solutions, there needs to be an evaluation of what is currently working and not working downtown: an existing conditions overview. This includes honest observations that point out how a downtown environment could be even better.

An intensive assessment by a team of downtown professionals typically includes a walking tour of downtown, informal meetings with merchants, residents, staff and officials, review of previous planning documents, and independent analyses and evaluations by an experienced downtown team.

Some of the questions a downtown team will typically ask include the following:

Signage: How are businesses communicating to the public? What do the signs say about the downtown environment?

Street Lighting: Is the downtown well-lit, safe and appealing?

Window Displays: What are shoppers’ first impressions of downtown businesses?

Connectivity: How are neighborhoods connected to downtown?

Downtown Sidewalks: What is the quality of sidewalks? How are the downtown sidewalks functioning?

Streetscape Continuity: How does the streetscape enhance or deter pedestrian movement along downtown streets?

Maintenance of the Public Realm: How well-maintained are public spaces? What private spaces function as public spaces?

Recently, the NEXTSTEPS for Downtown team, which provides expert planning, parking, and traffic services to downtown areas, prepared a downtown evaluation for the Village of Holly, Michigan. The Village of Holly is located in northern Oakland County, Michigan and includes a historic downtown district.

Downtown Holly was developed at a pedestrian-oriented scale that is easily walkable. Recent improvements to the streetscape are attractive and barrier-free.

Battle Alley, a narrow historic street flanked by local shops and the historic Holly Hotel, has a scale and charm that is immediately felt by the pedestrian. Other downtown streets vary in terms of streetscape amenities, street trees, building walls, and the like.

Many storefronts have attractive display windows, interesting merchandise visible, and amenities for shoppers such as wide awnings and recessed doorways. These adjacent private elements augment the public streetscape and are part of what makes the pedestrian experience in downtown Holly unique.

After a site visit, interviews (with staff, merchants, customers, and developers), and review of previous planning documents, the NEXTSTEPS team prepared a user-friendly downtown toolkit. This toolkit included:

• Assessment of the business district by experienced downtown professionals,
• Illustrative report describing what is working and what is not working downtown,
• Series of short-term and long-term action strategies (Next Steps) to enhance & strengthen downtown,
• Best practices report (what’s working elsewhere in downtowns across the country),
• Implementation worksheets (to prioritize and assign tasks that strengthen and grow downtown), and
• An interactive disk containing electronic versions of all the above documents.

The entire NEXTSTEPS for Downtown process is designed to be completed within 30 days of the site visit. It’s an intensive effort that is designed to generate fresh ideas and solutions quickly. Many ideas can be implemented right away at little cost, and others are often more significant in scale and cost. The implementation worksheets provide the tools necessary for the downtown leaders to accept, reject or modify recommendations, prioritize them, and then make assignments to appropriate persons, boards or organizations.

More information can be found at http://www.nextstepsfordowntown.com.

Downtown LA – That’s Where the People Are

“Downtown has sharpened its focus as the regions’ employment, transportation, and culture arts hub,” “…its no longer a 9 to 5 area but rather a 24-hour place, setting the standard for the Los Angeles region in terms of all its growth, vibrancy and offerings.” All of this is according to a new demographic study commissioned by the Downtown Center Business Improvement District.

No longer an afterthought, low rent district or drop off for unfortunate souls with no place to go, Downtown has found its voice, literally and figuratively with 40,000 permanent residents who call the city center home. Add to that 10 million annual visitors and a 500,000-weekday population and we all start to see how LA is finally embracing its core.

Contrasting demographics with a 2006 study completed after many new housing options were completed, but well before the community began to gel, the study helps to clarify who lives downtown, what they want, and how they tend to live.

What do “Downtowners” look like?

First of all they are predominately renters (60%), a trend that is likely to continue for a short while, with the collapse of the real estate lending market and many condo buildings converting back to apartments. They’re smart! 78% of the population has completed four or more years of college; and they make a lot of money with an overall median income of $96,200.

53% of the residents are male and 64.3% of them are between the ages of 23 and 44, prime earning and spending ages. Compared to 2006 fewer are college students, as 70% hold down full time jobs. The population is also becoming more diverse. Still predominately Caucasian (53.8%), more Hispanics and African Americans are discovering downtown at what seems to be the expense of the long time Asian populations found in Little Tokyo and Chinatown.

How do they get around?

Fewer by Car! Two-thirds of our city dwellers get to where they’re going by public transportation, bicycles or get this, walking… This tells me two things really. First, businesses located downtown are benefiting from the new housing options provided by the city center (63.5% in 2008 v. 55.1% in 2006 live and work downtown). Whichever the reason, young educated workers are ready willing and able to tackle the urban environment. Second, an important note for the rest of Los Angeles, young people in LA are willing to break the auto driven ideology that has become so much a part of the Southern California culture. Essentially the hub of the ever-expanding transit system, Downtown has declared loudly that they are out of their cars and ready to explore the city by foot.

What do they do?

They watch a lot of TV and do a lot of computing. However compared to the 2006 survey more downtown residents do what they do near home. Going out for a drink and dining out were reportedly done far more often at the local watering holes and restaurants.

Many also have pets. 40% of Downtowners spend time with a furry friend. Whether a cat, dog, parakeet or ferret downtown residents seem to get the benefits of sharing time with a non-human best friend.

What do they want?

They want upscale grocery choices. In particular Whole Food and Trader Joe’s if you’re listening – here’s your cue. Over 89% were hoping for the Southern California based specialty retailer, while 68% hope to wake up one day and find the natural and organic grocery hawking fruit. They like going to movies and feel in desperate need for a new cineplex to fill the need. What a terrific opportunity for the LA Conservancy and their followers to encourage bringing Broadway back.

They also want more discount department stores like Target, specialty stores like Barnes & Nobles and to accommodate all the emailing and TV watching a Best Buy wouldn’t hurt. I also note when reading the study, it seems that Downtown LA is a Mac! Sorry PC…

Observations…

For a long while, LA’s elite have believed that the fate of this city was inextricably tied to the fate of its downtown. The reasons for this conclusion differed depending upon whom you asked. Politicians pointed to the importance of a thriving center as a symbol of our progress and prowess. Supporters of the arts suggested that every great city must compete culturally with the other great cities of the world. Homeless advocates and preservation pointed to downtown as the last safe haven for a forgotten few or the inextricable link to our city’s past. Finally, the developers all with different plans and target markets, pointed to a vibrant commercial core and housing market, proof that LA’s economy functions properly.

Ultimately however a city’s people determines its character and influence. Los Angeles has long been a city of eccentricities, creative minds and visionary dreams. Often locked in a cycle of constant flux and new invention LA is less about its lost past and more about its unlimited potential. This ideal has always been at the city’s core, and our core will always be Downtown LA.

Stepping Up Downtown Revitalization

The Need to Step Up Downtown Revitalization

An old saying goes something like this: “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” This saying applies to the places we live. While some people may love the South because of their mild winters, others may despise their humid summers. Some people may love to live downtown because of the great night life, while others would prefer a place away from the hustle and bustle of the city.

Some qualities, however, remain a constant in finding a place to live. Everyone wants a safe neighborhood, good neighbors, and proximity to schools and stores. Traditionally, all of these could be found in the downtown areas of our American cities. Unfortunately today, many downtowners find themselves living in substandard housing, in areas of the city that are obviously falling apart socially, economically and physically.

Imagine how it would be to wake up every morning to the smell of dog urine, feeling a cold wind coming in from the broken glass of your window. You know that there isn’t much for breakfast, so you decide to stay in bed. Somehow, you think, maybe if you go back to sleep for a while, things will be better when you wake up.

Or, imagine that you awake one morning to the smell of pancakes cooking and coffee brewing in the kitchen. As you get out of bed, your new bedroom carpet greets your feet.

Is it any wonder that one of these scenarios is more likely to produce a person that will do well in school, find a good job, and be a productive citizen?

Studies have shown that the environment in which a person lives can have a positive or negative impact on that person’s behavior. For example, a person living in an area that is well cared for will be more motivated to do his or her part to take care of the area. A person who lives in an area that is falling apart will have less motivation to take care of the area, and could actually contribute to the area’s degradation.

Go into almost any modern suburb, and it won’t be long before you see construction workers with their hard hats and leather gloves, building a new strip mall or Wal-Mart. At the same time, there is another store closing its doors downtown and moving out, creating yet another vacant building in the middle of the city. This sounds crazy, until you stop and look at the bottom line. The stores are going to go where the people are, and the people are also leaving downtown for the suburbs. Why would someone want to live downtown, when it is falling apart and they can have a bigger house with a bigger yard in the suburbs?

Until lately, the government hasn’t stepped in to do anything about this downtown decay. In fact, states often adopt policies that encourage suburban sprawl, disinvestment in downtowns, and disparities. Few regions in the United States have incorporated government organizations for the strategic planning of cities. The government, like the person in the first example above, seems to be pulling the sheets over its head and hoping that all the problems will just go away by themselves.

Can we blame the government for what has happened over the last 40 years to our downtowns? Elected officials only hold their positions for a few years at a time, and investing big money in downtown revitalization may not produce the instant economic gains that are required to earn reelection. As stated by Beth Mattson-Teig in her article, Financing Urban Revitalization,

“Redevelopment is much more costly than building on open suburban acreage. Additional capital is required to assemble land, raze or renovate existing structures, and clean up any environmental contamination. As a result, revitalization projects typically involve multifaceted layering of bank and commercial mortgage financing, public grants or low interest loans, tax abatements, private equity, tax credits, and other forms of subordinated debt.” (Urban Land, March 2002)

Even in a rough economy, some are seeing advantages of returning downtown. Retailers, who during the 90’s were building stores rapidly without much consideration for location, are now becoming selective. The downtown areas are great for retailers, with relatively low rent for space and a good amount of potential buyers. Another idea that is working is that of renovating old warehouses and other buildings, creating multi-use structures. There can be living quarters in the upper levels (apartments and condominiums), and commercial space on the first floor. This idea faces some opposition because many of the current two-dimensional zoning laws are not complex enough to handle multi-use buildings.

Another ray of hope for downtowns comes in the form of its residents, both people and businesses. These businesses have a strong interest in keeping the downtown alive, because they need a quality city in order to attract quality workers. Some civic groups have had a lot of success, assisting in the development of many key downtown projects or investing in the public school systems. Those interested in helping their downtown areas improve should become involved in these organizations or in local government.

Downtowns are precious links to the history of cities, and at one time they were the place to be. Although downtowns have suffered, many cities are rediscovering the benefits of downtown revitalization. With increasing public awareness of the problems affecting downtowns, local and state governments are more likely to invest public money in much needed urban renewal projects. Hopefully, someday, we will be singing the old familiar tune:

When you’re alone and life is making you lonely

You can always go – downtown

When you’ve got worries, all the noise and the hurry

Seems to help, I know – downtown

Just listen to the music of the traffic in the city

Linger on the sidewalk where the neon signs are pretty

How can you lose?

The lights are much brighter there

You can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares

So go downtown, things will be great when you’re

Downtown – no finer place, for sure

Downtown – everything’s waiting for you.

Downtown, by Petula Clark