Here’s a teaser and a link to an article of mine that was recently published in the IEDC’s Economic Development Journal. I think its title aptly signals its content.
Let’s Recognize and Leverage the Opportunities the Covid Crisis Has Given Our Downtowns: Some Examples
Since the early stages of the Covid19 crisis, our downtowns, especially the larger ones, have been pictured in the media to be either in serious decline or on the verge of failure. While there have been strong analyses that refute such arguments, there has been little recognition of the fact that a robust crisis can not only be destructive and create serious problems, but also new or expanded opportunities for our large downtowns to grow and prosper. These growth opportunities also are appearing robustly in many suburban downtowns. The intent of this article is to attract attention to some of these crisis generated growth opportunities so downtown leaders and stakeholders can start to take meaningful positive active steps to help their districts recover.
This article is driven by a deep concern that far too much attention has been paid to doom and gloom prognostications, while far too little is being paid to the opportunities the crisis has created that, if seized upon, can help our downtowns recover robustly.1
While we need to acknowledge that we are not going to have a full return to a pre-Covid world, that does not mean our downtowns are in for a catastrophic future, for it is well known that crises can create substantial opportunities as well as serious challenges. One reason for this failure to look for crisis-generated opportunities is that while the doom and gloom discussions have focused on the Central Business Functions (CBFs) found in our large downtowns, especially office uses, many of these potential opportunities involve venues associated with a downtown’s less appreciated Central Social Functions (CSFs). In turn, that is probably influenced by a widespread misconception that Central Business Districts and downtowns are interchangeable terms.2
Given that for well over 30 years, knowledgeable leaders and admired urbanists such as Jane Jacobs have argued against monofunctional downtowns focused on office work and use, one might suppose that this issue is long settled .3 As Mike Berne, in a recent discussion among downtown experts, stated: “Can someone tell me why the need to convert from sterile, office-only Downtowns to more diversified ones complete with residential is worthy of so many articles these days? Haven’t Downtowns been moving in this direction for a quarter-century now?”4 The answer seems to be that movement away from office monofunctionalism has been very slow, as the current crisis demonstrates, probably because the real estate industry continues to believe the financial highest and best use in these downtowns is office development. That was strongly reflected in NYC a few years ago by the industry’s insistence that the East Side of Midtown Manhattan be rezoned to give a strong priority to very dense office development.
Additionally, while downtown office use may be influenced by strong long term structural challenges posed by remote work and office buildings becoming outmoded because of their inability to attract tenants adopting hybrid work models, the visibility of the recovery and growth opportunities generated by the CSFs is situational, varying with the ebbs and flows of the Covid#19 virus and our ability to cope with it. That means that at first glance these opportunities will often appear to be just potentials, or to lack credibility. However, one might reasonably argue that their persistent resurgence demonstrates a proven strength that will be fully unleashed when either the pandemic significantly ebbs, or we learn how to better cope with it.
Also, the importance of some of these CSF assets, such as housing, attractive public spaces, and strong entertainment/cultural assets, to the health and well-being of our downtowns, and even to the value of their office buildings, too often have not been properly appreciated in the past. In Europe, for example, city centers have not been as dominated by office uses as is the case in the U.S. As downtown office assets have apparently weakened, the spotlight is shifting to these other assets.
The time has come for analysts, leaders, and stakeholders to look at these new opportunities, and to start forging realistic, viable strategies and programs for the recovery and future growth of their downtowns. Moreover, these opportunities may appear in surprising manifestations. An objective of this article is to provide some examples that will encourage downtown leaders and analysts to look for other new crisis generated opportunities in their downtowns.