By N. David Milder
I have been working in the field of downtown and urban revitalization since 1974. Back then, the riots of 1968 had brought considerable attention to our urban distress. Many civic and business leaders became much more aware of the cascading erosion their downtowns were facing. The white flight of shoppers and residents living in the downtown and close-in neighborhoods, disinvestment by landlords and businesses, spreading physical decay, soaring fear of crime, badly tarnished public images, and widespread frustration about not knowing how to reverse this situation were common problems in downtowns across the nation. Today, many of our downtowns have been thoroughly revitalized and become very popular places for people to live, play and work. Scads of other downtowns are in the process of doing so. These days, the expectation that downtowns can and will be revitalized has replaced the fears of the 60s, 70s, 80s and early 90s that downtowns were doomed to be places of failure, despair and decay. Downtown leaders now can tap a large and growing knowledge base that includes an array of tools and techniques they can use to solve the problems that had previously plagued our downtowns. Among them are: place-making, improving walkability, transit-oriented development, mixed-use residential development, niche marketing, BIDs, TIF, PILOTs, community policing, etc. This success — both actual and expected — and the knowledge base and leadership pool that support it, are some of the defining characteristics of the New Normal for Our Downtowns.
The Downtown Residents – CSD Connection
Successful downtowns, however, are not stagnant socio/economic/geographic organisms. Indeed, some of the factors that explain their success have also both changed the way they operate and generated a new set of problems that now need attention and solutions. For example, though it is generally agreed among downtown revitalization experts that the significant growth of housing in and near our downtowns has been a primary engine for their recent rejuvenations, questions recently have emerged about downtowns being turned into ghettos for the affluent. Still, the significant presence of these residential units are themselves an important and new phenomenon. Moreover, these new residents have created a significant new demand for services, amenities and merchandise that are not typically associated with the Central Business District (CBD) functions and venues that dominated our downtowns in decades past. These CBD functions and venues also have long dominated our understanding of how successful downtowns should operate and been the focus of most downtown revitalization strategies (e.g., retail growth, office development, job creation, transportation improvements). While many of these new downtown residents may also work in the district, their demand for and consumption of opportunities to socialize, relax and be entertained has driven the development and/or use of strong restaurant and bar niches, public spaces and parks, libraries and community centers, movie theaters, museums, PACs, churches, senior centers, etc. These venues are associated with a downtown’s Central Social District (CSD) functions.
Another defining characteristic of the New Normal is that successful downtowns have very strong CSD venues and, with increasing frequency, they are as important or even outshine those associated with its CBD functions. Some types of CSD venues have long been present in some downtowns, but the appearance of a bolus of downtown residents has generally sparked their significant growth while broadening the kinds of venues present. In turn, by strengthening these venues, the downtown residents have helped them be stronger magnets for people working in the district as well as daytime visitors from the district’s largest trade areas and for tourists from even more distant places.
The presence of these residents and the strength of these CSD venues also has changed the way a downtown operates. Most importantly, they widen the range of a downtown’s multi-functionality, increasing the reasons why people will use the downtown. By doing so, they also provide a steady and significant flow of pedestrians and customers that helps assure the district does not close down on weekends or weekdays after 6:00 pm. Strong CSD venues also make the downtown “stickier,” keeping visitors in the district for longer periods of time.
Strong CSD venues also make working in a downtown more appealing. In a labor market where many job offers now find no takers, firms located in strong CSDs are likely to find it easier to recruit quality employees. Moreover, many of the quality of life needs of creatives/knowledge workers are met by strong CSD assets. In smaller towns, strong CSDs can help attract quality independent retailers and Lone Eagle business operators.
But CSD Development Can Be Very Bumpy
Nevertheless, CSD development and growth does not always have clear sailing. Many communities may opt for CSD development projects that are ill-suited for their demographics, geographic locations, or industry trends, while they could have instead undertaken projects that were cheaper to build and operate and capable of attracting many more users. For example, advocates for new arts events venues such as PACs, theaters, and museums as well as for arenas and stadiums often badly over-estimate their potential economic impacts on the downtown, while underestimating construction and operating costs. In larger cities, major organizations in the opera, ballet, symphony orchestra and nonprofit theater fields are badly stressed having to cope with significant declines in paid attendance and financial contributions. In smaller communities, the impacts of new arts events venues on their downtowns are too often grossly exaggerated, and operating costs badly underestimated. Consistently, between 40% and 50% of arts nonprofits are financially in the red.
The most effective strategic path is to first focus on the strengthening and/or development of well-activated parks and public spaces, restaurants and watering holes, and movie theaters. They are usually the easiest to create and operate and have the fewest user frictions or are asset treasures that need to be improved and saved.
Though a lot of strategic planning is done for CBD functions and venues, strategic plans for CSDs are rare, but equally needed. While attention may be given to individual CSD projects, too many of such studies are marred by advocacy induced puffery. Very unfortunately, little attention is being paid to the CSD as whole entity.
Technology Is Creating a New Set of Problems
The impacts of technology are also strongly defining the New Normal. This is most apparent in the way the Internet is forcing the whole retail industry to search for a new operating paradigm and electronic consumption has reduced the brick and mortar consumption of the arts. How and when people shop is consequently changing in significant ways. They first research online and then shop the store for the targeted item(s). Strolling and browsing shoppers subsequently are on the decline. Many Americans are time-stressed, so many shoppers want quick, convenient retail transactions. Yet, many others want more interesting, more meaningful and more socially appealing shopping experiences. Shoppers have also become much more careful and deliberate when making purchases. While this is most strongly apparent among middle-income consumers, affluent shoppers are also showing signs of greater caution.
Changed consumer behavior, combined with growing online sales, have reduced the demand for downtown store locations and the amount of space retailers want for their new stores.
While downtown retail shops will not disappear, they almost certainly will change in the way they operate, the amounts of space they each need, as well as the types of locations they will want.
Yet, as my discussions with potential clients demonstrate, many downtown organizations still see retail as a key element in their downtown’s future, while largely disregarding improvements to their CSDs.
The appearance of app-driven car services such as Uber and Lyft have already impacted on traffic congestion and the use of public transportation in several large downtowns. The imminent use of automated vehicles – e.g., by Waymo soon in Phoenix – will likely have important impacts on traffic congestion in a host of additional downtowns. What these impacts will be remains uncertain- as do the possible remedies to those that are harmful. The transition to automated vehicles will probably take 20 to 40 years, with different issues dominating downtowners’ concerns at each stage of its progression.
Success Can Create Problems
The very success of our downtowns also has created its own set of problems. For example:
- High housing demand has created a very serious affordability problem for many downtowns and their nearby neighborhoods.
- Downtown success usually means more pedestrian traffic. For example, from 2009 to 2015, pedestrian growth in Manhattan’s economically healthy central business district grew by about 18 to 24 percent. At what point does the density of downtown pedestrian traffic become uncomfortable and unappealing for pedestrians and detrimental to an area’s image and popularity? The uncomfortable density of users is already occasionally being felt in such famed public spaces in NYC as Times Square, Bryant Park and Central Park. Will those instances of pedestrian congestion increase? Some of the managers of these public spaces seem unconcerned about pedestrian congestion. Indeed, they seem to be committed to having the largest number of visitors possible.
- As a recent study of Center City in Philadelphia has shown, greater downtown development density increases traffic congestion.
This is part of book proposal I am writing. I’d appreciate hearing if you would be interested in a book that expanded upon the above content. Please let me know at [email protected] .