On March 4, 2016 Andrew Dane, of SEH, and I will be doing an APA sponsored webinar on “The Central Social District – the Key to Tomorrow’s Successful Downtowns.” We hope you will join us. APA members can register at: http://tinyurl.com/j6m8sek . Non-APA members perhaps have a friend or colleague who is a member and can be convinced to attend.
Andrew and I teamed up on downtown revitalization projects in Sherwood, WI and Gering, NE. Even in those relatively small communities, we found the Central Social District (CSD) to be a compellingly useful concept when assessing a downtown’s assets and liabilities as well as for developing solution paths.
My own interest in CSD functions dates back to the late 1970s, when I tried (alas unsuccessfully) to get a Celebrate Charlotte program going in that city’s CBD. Since then, fostering a strong entertainment niche has been key element in many of the downtown revitalization strategies I helped develop for such communities as Rutland, VT, White Plains, NY, Morristown, NJ and Peoria, AZ.
In recent years, the portion of my research that I have written about here on the Downtown Curmudgeon bog has been almost exclusively related to the entertainment and restaurant components of CSDs, e.g., arts venues’ attendance and funding, the advantages of informal entertainment venues, assessing the impacts of formal and informal entertainment venues, the need to protect our downtown cinemas, restaurants as the cornerstones of vibrant CSDs.
Can’t make the webinar? Email me at [email protected] and I’ll send you a copy of our presentation.
What Are Central Social Districts (CSDs)?
A CSD is that part of a downtown that has venues performing CSD functions. Since antiquity, successful communities have had vibrant central meeting places that bring residents together and facilitate their interactions, such as the Greek’s agoras and the Roman’s forums. Our downtowns long have had venues that performed these central meeting place functions, e.g., churches, parks and public spaces, museums, theaters, arenas, stadiums, housing, etc. However, local leaders often seemed to give higher priority to their CBD related venues – e.g., retail shops, financial institutions, public and private sector offices, hospitals, etc. Indeed, for decades the terms downtown and CBD often have been used interchangeably in common parlance.
Why Are CSD Functions Becoming Much More Important
There are three main reasons:
- Since the Great Recession, for many downtowns, especially those with mainly middle income users, retail and office growth have become far more problematical, if not plainly impossible. For them, CBD functions are far less able to sustain a healthy and popular downtown. There is little evidence that this situation will turn around anytime soon.
- There has been a major cultural shift and today a significantly larger segment of our population wants to live and play in downtown-type environments than was the case in past decades. In other words, the popularity of downtown CSD venues has grown very substantially, while those associated with the CBD are often floundering
- With long working hours and the growth of e-communications, people are increasingly looking for entertaining places to spend scarce quality time with those they care for. More and more they are finding that their downtown’s CBD venues can provide such places.
More Downtowns Should Focus On Strengthening Their CSD
Today, for most small and medium-sized downtowns, CSD development offers the best prospects for economic growth by:
- Growing their base of downtown visitors and sense of vibrancy
- Maintaining or raising real estate values
- Providing the amenities, ambience and customer traffic that makes the district a more attractive location for retail and office tenants.
CSD Development Is No Slam Dunk
One does not have to travel far to find examples of successful CSD development. However, a similar trip might also reveal a theater, PAC, museum, park, public space or other CSD venue that is either struggling financially or finding it hard to attract the numbers and types of users its plan called for.
It is crucially important to choose the CSD components that best fit your downtown from the perspectives of:
— Market demand.
— The ability of the private and/or public sectors to fund the construction of a needed building or facility
— Once built, the ability of the managing organization to earn and/or raise adequate operational funds
— Its potential impacts on the downtown on these dimensions:
- Number of users
- The revenues and customer traffic of nearby merchants and CSD organizations
- Real estate values and taxes
- The walkability of nearby streets and pedestrian flows
- The physical attractiveness of the area
- The ease of finding parking
- Traffic congestion
- Comparative cost benefits
- Quality of life issues: crime, vagrancy and panhandling, noise, litter, smells.
Because another town has successfully developed a particular type of CSD venue does not necessarily mean a similar project will succeed in yours.
Some types of CSD venues have a higher probability of success than others:
- They have a larger potential local customer base
- They cost less to build
- They cost less per user to operate.
N. David Milder