Magazine

‘Craftier Competition’ Forces Downtowns to Evolve

Paul Felt

What will downtowns face in the future? The most predictable thing is craftier competition of all sorts, from all sides. Areas competing with downtowns are becoming more sophisticated all the time. So downtown leaders must keep evolving along with the expectations of the marketplace.

“The next few years will bring an expanding set of challenges,” said David Feehan, President of the International Downtown Association. “Over the past decade, many downtowns – though not all – experienced new investment, renewed interest

and improved public perception.

“Young people are finding lots of reasons to want to go downtown, including a host of new attractions – such as science centers, aquariums, libraries and events, Feehan said. “GenX-ers and baby boomers are finding other reasons – cultural facilities, great dining and entertainment, and new living and working possibilities.”

But suburban developers have taken notice and are unveiling a new generation of projects that will make the coming years exceedingly competitive.

“Most areas are seeing a virtual explosion of ‘New Urbanist’ mixed-use developments, lifestyle shopping centers, mall makeovers, and whole new communities, often done in faux-historic style,” Feehan said.

“Downtown leaders should welcome the challenge these new projects represent, and should use these challenges to improve and enhance downtowns. Too often in the past they bemoaned suburban developments surrounding them, instead of differentiating themselves in a positive way.”

Downtown provides value to people to the extent that they can use and benefit from its “human-scale connectivity.” People enjoy being able to do a lot on foot in a small area, and the change of scenery and exercise are fringe benefits while they’re making their rounds. But it’s always frustrating to come to a downtown and not be able to find parking space, to feel somewhat stranded by spotty transit service, or to feel anxiety or isolation over being lost.

“A key challenge is attacking one of the biggest remaining barriers to a positive downtown experience – the parking/transportation/wayfinding dilemma,” Feehan said. “Most downtowns still haven’t figured this one out.

“We know how to make downtown parking a great experience, but few downtowns have aggressively taken on this challenge. We know how to create excellent signage and wayfinding systems, but many downtowns remain a mystery to visitors. We know that an integrated transportation system, even in smaller cities, is possible, but we need to invest in these systems.

“All downtowns, big and small, would have much happier customers if they truly managed parking and transportation as an asset and an opportunity to provide extraordinary customer service rather than as a liability to be apologized for,” Feehan said.

“Parking will continue to be a hot issue in downtowns, even though in many places the issue is vastly overrated,” said Kent Robertson, professor and director of the community development program in the Department of Community Studies at St. Cloud (MN) State University. “In select downtowns, parking demand will continue to increase with new developments coming onboard,” Robertson said. “For most, the key will be to make more efficient use of the abundant parking spaces currently available but not always right where people want them.”

He predicts that an increasing number of downtowns will embrace answers such as “Smart Downtown Parking” (see the Perspectives article at www.downtowndevelopment.com); shared parking; shuttles to parking on the edges of the core; more emphasis on alternative transportation; and innovative parking management programs.

“Diverse, affordable housing is a key to sustaining prosperity and community,” said Brad Segal, President of Progressive Urban Management Associates. “The depletion of petroleum, increasing highway congestion, a desire for more walkable and sociable environments, plus many other factors will make downtown living more and more attractive to a broader array of demographic groups.

“Diversified price points and product types for housing will be key to attracting new residents,” Segal said. “Rental housing options are particularly important to accommodate diverse incomes and as a hedge against impending instability in the home ownership market.”

“Cities need to work to maintain some affordable housing downtown so that prices do not force out moderate and lower income residents,” Robertson said. “The diversity of residents is a plus for downtown.”

“No town is too small and no city too big to turn its back on the great power of businesspeople who meet, dream together, and establish goals for short- and long-range implementation,” said Robert W. Bivens, a co-author of “For Great Cities – A Bold Initiative.”

“Traditionally, government employees lack the creativity needed for community improvement projects, and elected leaders are handicapped by terms of office that may be shorter than the time it takes for big projects.

“Many times,” Bivens said, “I’ve seen great projects die – unfinished – because one mayor started a great project, only to have it ditched by a new mayor wanting to leave his or her own imprint.”

Downtown businesspeople are the best positioned to dream great dreams for downtown and guide them to implementation, he said, and the downtown organization should serve as the forum where great ideas are worked out.

“A cohesive, private, downtown organization is a good forum for exchange of constructive ideas,” Bivens said, “and for inspiring businesspeople to work together toward common goals for mutual benefit.”

Article Abstract from February, 2007




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