Downtowns Look to the Future; Parking and 'Place-Making' Linked
The best way to see the future is to look at what's happening now. The downtown projects we profiled that truly stand out demonstrate critical self-evaluation and proactive initiative, a move away from formulaic and copycat approaches toward stakeholder-based visioning and planning and partnership-oriented implementation.
What keeps downtowns alive is not money but people who care.
Downtowns are learning to expect less from govern-ment and are looking more to the private sector for inno-vative ideas, such as: "What can downtowns learn from newly emerging 'lifestyle centers'?"
They're also expecting and getting more from private-sector constituents for revitalization support. A prime example is the Kentucky city that partnered with a local bank and was not satisfied until it had a loan incentive sufficient to attract artists to relocate as homebuyers from more glamorous cities, where they were typically paying rent.
Private-sector thinking has also influenced the frugality of some cities, such as one that scored cast-iron tree grates on eBay at a steep savings ($95 apiece versus $700 new).
Parking and 'place-making' are closely linked
Is the problem with downtown parking that there isn't enough? That people don't know where it is? Or that people are too lazy to walk from where they can find it? Or is it that downtown is not pleasant enough to walk in? Ah, there's the rub.
The downtown parking issue is highly relevant to "place-making" and the pedestrian environment.
"Place-making" refers to creating a "place" where people want to go, making downtown areas attractive.
Parking is also a public relations issue for downtowns: People don't like to be gouged either at a privately run garage or when they receive a ticket from the city.
A parking brand established by one downtown pro-vides drivers an easily identifiable sign displayed by garages participating in a "fair deal" program: $2 for the first hour during business hours and $5 to park after 5 p.m.
Another downtown plans to establish a parking authority, which will have a kinder, gentler approach to parking enforcement than the police department. Some downtown businesses such as banks may have more parking than they really need, and the idea of formalizing shared parking arrangements was suggested as something that could benefit many downtowns.
Private sector gets into transit and trolley act
While some cities have introduced expensive and highly subsidized light-rail transit systems, Business Improvement District property owners contributed significantly to an extension of the Portland streetcar.
Other cities have been investigating bus rapid transit as a less costly alternative. For smaller downtowns, a rubber-tire trolley can do just fine. One downtown even got a lunchtime trolley fully sponsored by Hooters.
Government programs can still help, of course, such as in testing new technologies like electric buses using federal clean air grant funds. Pilot programs have also tested ways of encouraging greater transit use by the public, from the standard cash to the partnership with a downtown retailer to offer a cup of coffee or tea.
Residential development a key opportunity
Transit-oriented development and mixed-use residential development above retail are major trends. Empty-nest baby boomers are seen as a prime demographic for downtowns to attract. Entertainment amenities, and services such as grocery stores, parking and commuter transit are all things that work hand-in-hand with higher-density downtown residential development.
City regulations can have a huge influence on entertainment amenities, ranging from sidewalk cafes to movie theaters. One city limited suburban cinemaplex development, and is consolidating its antiquated, smaller movie houses downtown in favor of a cinemaplex there.
Reflecting the residential trend, Orange County, CA, broke ground on its first transit-oriented live/work loft community last year, and as its developer says: "Living in the city is back in vogue."
Gentrification of cities in America is more widespread and pervasive than ever, and is not as dependent on unique architecture as it once was. That is great news for downtowns, but it does come at a social cost when low-income people are forced to move.
We've spoken with an architect who says downtowns need more "non-poor" people in the close-in neighborhoods, as well as with an affordable-housing advocate who reminds us that service workers need a place they can afford within reasonable commuting distance.
For more information, log on to www.DowntownDevelopment.com.