The decline of many American downtowns is a story that spans decades. Once the center of commerce, culture and social interaction, most slid into a downward spiral after World War II, when citizens left cities en masse to follow the siren song of suburbia's wide-open spaces. For numerous reasons, many downtowns are still in decline.
"Downtowns falter because their historic functions are no longer relevant," says Eugenie Birch, FAICP, professor and chair with Philadelphia's Department of City and Regional Planning and a co-director with the Penn Institute for Urban Research at the University of Pennsylvania. "For example, in most American cities, the downtowns do not dominate in office employment and retail, because these activities have moved to the suburbs."
"Downtowns didn't just falter. They got killed," says Roberta Brandes Gratz, author of "Cities Back from the Edge." Gratz points to three categories of events that damaged downtowns during the decades following World War II:
1. External forces: Mall developments, roads out of town, highway engineers tearing up the downtown core, widening streets, eliminating parking -- doing all the things that make downtown something to pass through, rather than a destination.
2. Public will: "In most places, people gave up on downtown," says Gratz. "They didn't believe in it anymore, they took it for granted and didn't realize its value to the larger community until it was on its way down."
3. Removal of community anchors: Public and diverse uses that feed on each other, such as city hall, the post office, the library, entertainment venues, educational institutions -- these anchors attract people, create street life, and generate the market of people that feed retail. When these started moving to suburbia, downtowns started to fall apart, piece by piece, eroding the population that the retailers depended on.
It didn't stop there, says Gratz. "There's been a lot of demolition, too, and a lot of building of isolated and disconnected projects that didn't encourage street life. The damage was done a little at a time, thinking that a block here, a building there -- none of it would be too damaging. But every little piece nibbles away at the whole, and eventually it adds up to nothing."
Like a sluggish steam liner, that trend toward decline is slowly reversing, due in part to dedicated urban planners, architects, academics and a populace that is not only learning more about what makes a healthy urban environment tick, but is increasingly choosing to move back and enjoy the amenities that only a vibrant downtown can offer.
"There is much more interest among people to live downtown, to have an urban culture, to experience urbanity," says Lynne Sagalyn, Ph.D., professor of real estate development and planning at the University of Pennsylvania. "What this means to different people will vary. Generally speaking, though, it means a pedestrian environment, a desire to experience a kind of 'see and be seen' element of urbanity that you don't have when you have a daily life of getting in your car, driving to work, and driving home. I think all of these kinds of things are shaping an interest in downtowns -- it's an interest in urban living."
Discussing which came first -- the interest in urban living or the urban revitalization that drives that interest -- is something of a "chicken and egg" argument. Either way, cities are responding to the demand for amenity-rich urban living by restoring what fabric remains, while taking steps to reemerge as the powerhouses of culture they once were.
Bolstered by state, federal and private funds, and guided by nonprofit organizations such as the National Main Street Association and the National Trust Main Street Center, many cities are reversing the momentum of decline and reawakening to a new era of prosperity, beauty and sought after amenities. And much of the time, new urbanist practitioners are involved in the process, some working exclusively in down town infill and redevelopment projects.
With a metro area population of 750,000, Albuquerque is the largest city in New Mexico, and one that is realizing a 50-year problem can't be solved with a 10-year plan. "We've missed milestones we thought we'd have hit by now," says developer Rob Dickson, owner of Paradigm & Company. "We realize now we're in a 20- to 30-year revitalization process."
That process has legs. It began with the passing of form-based codes for downtown and east downtown Albuquerque, both codes created by the local office of Moule & Polyzoides Architects and Urbanists. In part, the codes encouraged certain types of development and buildings, and allowed for permit approvals within 29 days if developers followed the codes.
The resulting redevelopment was rapid and appropriate. Moule & Polyzoides, along with local urban land use strategist and developer Christopher Leinberger, won a competition to redevelop 12 blocks of downtown Albuquerque. They delivered a 14-screen cinema wrapped with three-story liner buildings, a garage wrapped with liner buildings, and a loft building that wrapped the garage. A new transportation center was also built, in the form of the old El Dorado Hotel, which had been torn down in the 1970s.
On the residential side, Dickson's company is pushing hard to grow the city's housing options. His Lofts at Albuquerque High, a redevelopment of the Gothic-style 1914 Albuquerque High School that was financed in part with Metropolitan Development funds, offers 180 residential units, with another 54 about to begin construction. When the project is complete in 2007, it will have created $50 million of real estate value downtown and will include 234 homes, 28,000 square feet of commercial space, a parking structure and $2 million of landscape and streetscape improvements in a 3-1/2-block area.
Dickson isn't ready to rest on his laurels, though. "Albuquerque should be building 200 or 300 new downtown housing units every year, and we're only doing a third of that now. But more new urbanist developers are coming to town, and if we can hit that rate, 10 years from now you'll be able to see the synergy. I'm looking at a 52-unit conversion of a historic building downtown, and I have another goal to build Albuquerque's first residential tower in 25 years."
As for Albuquerque's ability to execute its revitalization plans, Dickson is optimistic. "This is a great town with a great future. We're not fighting bad zoning anymore, businesses are opening downtown and having success. We just need to be patient and give the new codes time to work."
The state capital of North Carolina faltered primarily because of a lack of political will to become more than a "sleepy little Southern capital," says Daniel Douglas, AICP, director of the City of Raleigh Urban Design Center.
But that began to change in 2003, when the city conceived its Livable Streets Plan. "We had a perfect alignment of pushing from the private sector, political backing, and the will of city management simultaneously," says Douglas. "That's what kicked it off."
And sent it right out of the ballpark. Since adopting its Livable Streets Plan, Raleigh has spent more than $1.7 billion in new downtown investments that have been built or planned. The laundry list of projects is impressive, to say the least:
• More than 1,200 units of new housing
• A $100 million U.S. headquarters of the Royal Bank of Canada
• A $100 million World Headquarters of Progress Energy
• A new $200 million Convention Center
• A $100 million expansion to the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences
• Three new hotels
• $20 million in streetscape improvements
• $7 million in public art
And the list goes on, with each new project falling under the eyes at the Urban Design Center, to make sure it conforms to the Livable Streets Plan, as well as four additional area plans.
"It's going to be a completely different place," says Douglas. "Once the momentum begins, it won't stop. We're on the 'most livable city' lists now. We have one of the fastest-growing Hispanic populations here, as well as a vibrant East Indian population. In 1960 our population was 50,000; now we're at 350,000. It's really true that the rising tide lifts all boats."
While there are plenty of stories of public and private will aligning like so many stars to jump-start an urban renaissance, Roberta Brandes Gratz offers several guidelines for pursuing downtown revitalization in virtually any part of the country.
1. Start with what exists, and value the assets that are already in place.
2. Don't look for a "magic bullet" project. They never work. Pursue instead an assortment of more modest projects, and let the synergy emerge among them. "In most of the downtowns I have observed, this is the process that works. The places that tried it with big projects -- an arena, a mall, a stadium -- didn't create real places; they created an assortment of visitor site," says Gratz.
3. Let the locals drive the redevelopment. "If you do it for the locals, the visitor will come. But if you do it for the visitor, you will lose the locals and, eventually, the visitor. Because what makes real places appealing can only be created by local people," Gratz says.
4. Start with catalyst projects. "Farmers' markets and revived theaters are two of the best," says Gratz.
5. Make historic preservation part of your strategy. "If the quality of the urban fabric is appealing, there are people who will move in. I have not seen a regenerated downtown yet that did not have a major component of historic preservation," she says.
6. Keep it real and interesting. "If you want me to come downtown, you have to make it an interesting place. That means diversity in ways that are beyond a mall's capability," says Gratz. "Weave the local population into its commerce, entertainment and uses, so that it will be a real place and attract real people."
As we move into the 21st century, a growing segment of Americans have grown weary of being slaves to their cars. The fact that downtowns are reviving at the same time is no coincidence. With each new success story, a truth emerges: If we create enjoyable, walkable, appealing urban environments, citizens will come back to the cities -- on foot.