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Work Has Changed, and That’s an Opportunity for Bedroom Communities

Telecommuting is here to stay, and those workers are a built-in market for revitalizing your downtown — if you give them the right kind of place to go.

Outdoor scene at a new mall.
Crossroads Bellevue is an example of how suburban communities can create a public space that draws in and retains people. (Photo: Keith Brofsky)
As the mayor or city manager of a suburban town, you may have spent years trying to revitalize your downtown, only to see many of your residents drive off early in the morning and come home much later in the day. The pandemic has changed that, and now, with the prospect of many people permanently telecommuting two or more days a week, you have an opportunity to capture those residents' time and spending.

We know from the way gig workers behaved before the pandemic that people want to take a break from their screens and get out. Provide them with a place to go and you'll capture their spending, fueling the rise of coffee shops, brewpubs, sit-down restaurants, running stores and other high-service businesses that cater to their newfound interests and leisure time. But you need to "stick" your public investment to a given place where they can count on seeing other people, and not stretch it out over blocks and blocks of streetscape. You need a gathering place with a critical mass of activity.

That's what the Seattle suburb of Kenmore did when it built a small public square with an attached winter garden that includes a fireplace, lounge and big glass rollup doors that bring the outside in on sunny days. Before the pandemic, that new square and building were drawing local residents all day and all week long, enough to attract a popular restaurant next door in a newly constructed building. In contrast, across Puget Sound on Bainbridge Island, the city spent millions redoing sidewalks and parking along its main street, but got no real increase in local use. However, when a private landowner closed off a neighboring driveway and filled it with tables and chairs, people went there, and that narrow strip of asphalt, probably improved for less than $10,000, became the place to sit down and watch other people, even now in the middle of the pandemic. 

Second, give building owners the flexibility they need to renovate and fill old buildings. Special provisions in the International Building Code allow owners to incrementally upgrade building systems as they go, rather than incurring all those costs up front. Change your zoning codes to allow developers to mix and match different uses, not only in the same building but on the same floor. That approach was one of the key factors in the revitalization of the Pearl District in Portland, Ore., which has drawn billions in private investment and whose lessons are applicable to much smaller efforts.


The Hanger at Town Square in Kenmore, Wash. (Photo: Andrew Pogue)

Third, hire someone to program the space with activity. That kind of programming — from Andean pipe bands to board games to free tax advice — is what turned around Crossroads Mall in Bellevue, Wash., a conventional mall that probably would have been torn down if not for that programming and re-tenanting that better catered to the needs of local residents. Pioneer Square, the oldest part of Seattle, is now offering the same kind of programming, albeit more targeted at the tech workers in surrounding buildings. Pre-pandemic, those offerings included outdoor movies and World Cup matches.

Finally, think of your downtown not just as an "entertainment zone" but as a central business district that meets everyday needs. A study by Nelson\Nygaard's San Francisco office found that four small downtowns where people can park once and walk to a variety of uses needed just half as much parking as if those uses were standalone. That reduction in parking is a major cost savings for both the public and private sectors.

The competition for downtowns is no longer the mall but Amazon, Netflix and TikTok. After the pandemic ends, people will be hungry to connect with family and friends, and your competitive advantage is the potential for face-to-face encounters. The important thing is to not plan and plan, but to seize that opportunity to attract visits while people are still rediscovering their surroundings and resetting their habits. Experiment with events and minor changes that get them downtown, and in doing so you will build up your staff's and your own understanding of how to market your place. There's still a role for experts, but you will make yourself a much better client.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.

Principal with Business Street
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