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Revitalising America's downtowns in the twenty-first century.

MANY citizens have left downtown areas for the suburbs over the years. Also, many businesses have moved to the shopping mall over the years. Much of this was brought about by the development and expansion of the Interstate Highway System, a product of the mid-1950s, which is still evolving today! Traditionally, a family wanted to raise its children in a single-family house with a yard, away from the traffic and noise of the downtowns. This seemed like the 'American Dream' for many years, and is now changing.

A quick overview of history would reveal that, as the highway system expanded, many residential subdivisions were developed in the suburbs. Families moved there for the reasons noted above. This trend went on for several decades. In the 1950s there was typically one car in a family. As mothers went to work over the years, they acquired cars too. Nowadays, it seems many children over the legal driving age in every state have cars. Older citizens recall seeing old homes with single car garages, newer homes with two-car garages, and more recent homes with three-car garages. A colleague was recently visiting one of the nation's growth states, and saw some new homes with four-car garages.

Things are now changing! There are families where the children have grown, and they would like to relocate in urban downtown areas. There are young professionals who would like to focus on their respective jobs before starting a family. They wish to locate in inner-city areas and relocate to the suburbs later in life. There's also another group, consisting of people who would like to live their lives without having a vehicle. Hence the new type of residential developments around public transit stations called Transit Oriented Developments (TODs). There is also a rapidly developing market for condominiums and townhouses that are located next to light-rail public transit systems.

There is a national need, a community one too, to make downtowns attractive, which requires a redevelopment effort to make them more livable. Such positive movements require states, and their local governments, and especially those officials who are responsible for managing downtowns, to advocate changes that will benefit downtown areas. We think history has gone, or is going, full circle in this regard. We were recently looking at a picture of a high-rise residential area in the Lower East Side of New York City from a century ago. Individuals and families lived in several storey residential structures, with an assortment of commercial businesses located on the ground floor. All of the restaurants, markets, and other types of commercial activity, took place at street level. Then over the years we separated our land uses as we imposed pyramidal zoning on our cities. After all, you would not want citizens living in commercial or industrial areas. This way of thinking is now rapidly changing.

If communities want to revitalize their downtown areas, they must change their zoning laws to allow for mixed uses of commercial (on the ground floor) and residential (on the floors above that). Also, arts, entertainment, and culture are coming back to downtown areas. Lately, citizens have seen their city officials using libraries and museums as tools to stimulate economic development. Also, cities are trying to lure educational institutions and non-profit organizations back downtown. We recently read some states are even relocating some of their offices from the suburbs back into their downtown areas.

There's also a big trend to preserve what's left of nature in our downtown areas, and to restore what's been removed over the decades, as well as to expand various aspects of nature. This includes parks, wetlands, waterways, and also enhanced pedestrian access and movement through the use of walkways, bikeways, plazas, and the widening of public areas to accommodate people as opposed to cars.

Many citizens have thought that their downtowns were designed by cars. It seems people were a secondary consideration. Times have changed! Streets are now getting narrower, and so are the number of lanes used to accommodate traffic. Pavements are now getting wider--as well as greener. This trend has facilitated the movement of people back to our downtown areas. It's also great for those commercial businesses established on the ground level to have their market built-in around and above them. No need for those one-storey commercial centres and block after block of retail buildings of the past. Rezoning them and placing residential units above them is the wave of the future. If you build them, people will come, especially if there's public transit in the area.

Some of these major evolving downtown trends are highlighted below:

* Restoration and enhancement of all aspects of nature;

* Buildings that have mixed-uses, and are multi-storey in their height;

* Making public transit available, usually light-rail systems;

* Restoration of the public infrastructure to favour people over cars;

* Combine landscaping with the restoration of all aspects of the public infrastructure;

* Conversion of surface parking to parks, gardens, and open spaces;

* Attraction of culture, the arts, and entertainment amenities and facilities;

* Attraction of educational institutions and nonprofit organizations;

* While many businesses have located to shopping malls, smaller specialized ones are locating downtown;

* Focus downtown on ethnic and niche stores, such as markets, delicatessens, bakeries, and restaurants;

* Restoration of a sense of 'public place' in the core of the 'new' downtowns.

Above all, these trends make the downtowns more 'people friendly' rather than favouring the movement and parking of vehicles. Many of the items on this list, if accomplished by a city government, would stimulate the local economy, and attract the type of businesses, educational institutions, and non-profit organizations that would benefit the rebirth and growth of our downtown areas. Additional incentives would further facilitate the attraction of desirable private, educational, and nonprofit sector additions in our downtowns. These incentives typically include:

* Low-interest loans;

* Grants for 'high priority' projects;

* The construction of certain 'on-site' improvements, such as parking garages;

* The construction of certain 'off-site' improvements, such as utilities, roadways, and signalized intersections;

* Facade improvement programmes;

* Provision of a 'user-friendly' development process;

* Property tax incentives, usually in the form of reductions or rebates;

* Agreed upon Sales Tax rebates;

* Zoning to accommodate 'mixed' land-use developments;

* Public investments in downtown improvements;

* Programmes to market the 'new image' of your downtown.

As we all know, to sell economic development incentives to local public officials, they must be reasonable as well as have a long-term benefit to the taxpayers.

More importantly, those public officials elected by the citizens must feel comfortable with such incentives, and feel that they will improve their downtown. They must also benefit all the citizens within the community. A nice downtown should not only serve as a great public place for those citizens that live there, but for other individuals and families in the community as well. They should not only be attracted to 'their' downtown, but they should also feel comfortable within the entire inner-city area, including the surrounding neighbourhoods. The various trends outlined above, when facilitated by local public officials, will make these trends a common reality.

Public officials, both elected and appointed, should always keep in mind that prudent economic development incentives are a wise way to increase a local government's revenues without raising its taxes. During these difficult economic times, the above practices should be embraced and facilitated by politicians, downtown professionals, and citizens alike, since they will assist in balancing their community's budget with the increased revenues that result from renewing a community's downtown.

Most cities evolved piecemeal over the years, and now need to be retrofitte and redesigned for the future. Planning, zoning, and building laws and regulations should be in place to accommodate mixed land-uses, infill development, and redevelopment projects. Call it New Urbanism, Sustainability, Smart Growth, Pedestrian Cities, Healthy Cities, Livable Cities, Inner-City Renewal, or the Green Cities Movement, whatever you wish! People must all work together to get our respective downtowns moving in these positive directions.

The practices facilitated by these downtown revitalization trends can be increasingly applied to projects of all sizes--from a single building, to a full block, to a neighborhood, and even to an entire community.

Roger L. Kemp, PhD, is a career City Manager having served in cities in California, Connecticut, and New Jersey. He also served as a Planning Commissioner Carl J. Stephani, MRP, is Executive Director, Central Connecticut Regional Planning Agency, Bristol, Connecticut. He also served as a City Council member City Manager and Planning Director Roger and Carl are co-editors of a new book titled Cities Going Green: A Handbook of Best Practices, which will be published in 2011.
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Author:Kemp, Roger L.; Stephani, Carl J.
Publication:Contemporary Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2012
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