Living the Niche Life

Building housing downtown is the latest trend, but it's hardly the return to the past that people think it is.
August 2004
William Fulton
By William Fulton  |  Columnist
Director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University and former mayor of Ventura, Calif.

After 16 years of suburbia, I now live in a downtown. Ventura's downtown is not big--only a dozen or so blocks end to end. But it's a downtown most American cities would kill to have, with a historic fabric, both movies and live theater, dozens of restaurants and lots of retail stores.

Since I moved, I've become more of an urbanite--eating out more often, running more errands without using my car. My teenage daughter is quickly making a way of life out of walks to Starbucks, jogging down Main Street and taking the bus everywhere instead of being chauffeured by me.

And I am not alone. Plenty of other people live in or near my downtown, and, motivated by high California home prices, developers have teed up 800 new housing units to be constructed here in the near future. In my town, as elsewhere in the country, living downtown seems to be the latest trend.

Wistful urban planners claim that this is simply a return to the way things used to be--a time when everybody lived "above the store" in close proximity to jobs and everyday services. In fact, however, such nostalgia isn't quite accurate. As MIT professor Robert Fogelson points out in his excellent recent book Downtown, the emergence of the American downtown between 1880 and 1920 was based on the opposite premise: that a downtown was exclusively a business district where nobody lived.

In fact, Fogelson argues, the American downtown--especially in large cities--was actually part of the engine that fueled suburban growth during the streetcar and early automobile eras. In those days, civic promoters believed that cities had a kind of inherent duality: Businesses were centralized in downtown, while residents were dispersed in suburban districts. Indeed, many urban leaders argued that these two forces worked together, that as a downtown became more and more densely developed with office and retail uses, this permitted the residential population to become more and more dispersed in the outer residential areas that were being created at the time.

As early as the late 1920s--and certainly after World War II--this theory was proven wrong. It was inevitable that retail and office businesses would follow their customers and their workforce out of downtowns and into outlying areas. This created a crisis among real estate investors who had staked so much on the downtowns. These investors, Fogelson argues, actually appropriated the ideas of urban renewal and "slum clearance" from housing advocates as a way of boosting downtown fortunes.

But one thing is clear in Fogelson's history: During downtown's heyday, nobody actually lived there. There may have been flophouses and declining working-class districts on the outskirts, but in order to gather the vast number of people required as workers and shoppers, downtowns depended not on local housing but on modern transportation systems, especially trolleys.

So when people talk these days about creating a vibrant downtown by building housing, they are not talking about the way things used to be. They are talking about a revolution--inserting housing into districts that, historically, were used exclusively for offices and stores.

This revolution is not likely to counteract the ongoing march of suburbia. Nationwide, the downtown housing numbers are tiny--a few thousand units here and there, compared with millions in outlying areas. But there is a downtown housing movement for several reasons.

One of the most important is that downtowns themselves have changed. Rather than serving as the one-stop shop for practically all retail and office-based businesses in a city, they have emerged as a kind of lifestyle alternative. General retail and office uses have been on the wane in downtowns for many years, and they have been replaced by entertainment-oriented retail such as theaters and restaurants.

Some people like living in close proximity to these amenities, and they're willing to make tradeoffs that most people are unwilling to make--less living space, higher housing costs, more traffic noise, tough parking situations. Far from being a place where everybody goes, downtowns are becoming a niche market where a few people live. Indeed, one of my concerns about downtown Ventura is that it will simply become an entertainment-oriented bedroom suburb for pricey Santa Barbara, 30 miles up the road.

Some things aren't any more convenient downtown than they are anywhere else. I still have to schlep my car to the supermarket and the big-box retailers just as I always did. And urban living has its downside, too. The police visit my block every once in a while, and the homeless wander by on a regular basis.

But I can walk to my local farmers' market, and the 10-screen movie theater is just past the library. And even though I get skittish about giving my daughter more freedom, I always know she's somewhere in the neighborhood. I'll take the trade.