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.