Problems in Preserving a City's Downtown District

Downtowns, the soul of every city, are hanging on.

City skyline
Nathan Rupert/Flickr CC
Just listen to the music of the traffic in the city,
Linger on the sidewalk where the neon signs are pretty,
How can you lose?

When Tony Hatch wrote the lyrics to his song Downtown, made famous in 1965 by pop singer Petula Clark, America’s downtowns were indeed losing something: their dominance as the place to live, work and shop.

By the 1970s and ’80s, the trend had accelerated with jobs and people moving out -- and crime moving in. Fewer people were willing to take in what downtowns had left to offer, namely theater, museums, sporting events, the urban nightlife and a few of those “little places to go to” that Clark immortalized.

But like so many things in America, downtowns had a second act to play. By the 1990s, the soaring crime rate finally burnt itself out. Young professionals found that downtowns were not only a cool place to play, but also an interesting place to live. City centers, once empty of inhabitants, soon began to attract residential life. Urban strategists worked with retailers and local governments to keep downtowns safe, clean and inviting. They created a new urban support mechanism, known as Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) that provide the extra layer of funding downtowns need to function smoothly and stay attractive. Today BIDs are the driving force behind downtown renewals in hundreds of small, medium and large cities.

But with the latest recession again choking off development -- and with large and small retailers disappearing at an alarming rate -- there are some who feel America’s downtowns could, once again, face dire challenges. Dave Feehan, an urban specialist, disagrees. Lower crime rates, increases in residential living and the success of BIDs have given downtowns a degree of stability they haven’t had in some time.

“The trends are going in favor of downtowns recovering more quickly, allowing them to start growing again in a more strategic way,” he says.

Still, downtowns need a lot of attention, and unfortunately there’s little public officials can do that involves public financing. The funds just aren’t there, according to Doyle Hyett, an urban consultant with the firm HyettPalma. City governments are trying to determine how to budget for law enforcement, teachers and pensions. There’s nothing left for revitalizing downtowns.

Yet they can’t afford to neglect the downtown. “It’s the city’s identity,” Hyett says. “People look for a place to congregate; they want to have a sense of place. That’s what the downtown gives them, with entertainment and cultural institutions, as well as the centers of government.”

Downtowns also are a city’s economic engine, generating far more tax revenue than they consume in the form of services.

So what can cash-strapped local governments do to ensure that their downtowns stay vibrant? Feehan believes they can help maintain downtowns through cooperative agreements, such as BIDs, and they should encourage public policies that help maintain the unique lifestyle in downtown areas. Hyett urges local governments to maintain and expand their civic icons -- libraries, museums and city halls -- while changing zoning ordinances that allow a greater mix of residential and commercial activity.

Done right, there’s every reason to believe that “things’ll be great when you’re downtown.”

Andy Kim is a former GOVERNING staff writer.