America’s downtowns are where the action is today. They are increasingly becoming the place we want to shop, recreate and, yes, even live. Having survived the postwar blues of sprawl, re-muddling and malls, downtowns have surged in recent decades.
Downtown revitalization obsessed me as a graduate student and graduate architect in the late-1980s. I became involved in the redevelopment planning for the downtown of my hometown – Stuart, Florida, on the southeast coast. This was an incredible learning experience. As the town’s redevelopment unfolded – from planning, to rebuilding, to becoming an award-winning, vital place, I had the privilege of watching from the inside as a participant.
Looking back, downtown Stuart’s success came about through a sequence of discrete steps. Each built upon the previous one. Over time, wishes-and-concepts became bricks-and-mortar. This was one case where a plan, rather than lying dormant in fallow ground, blossomed into reality.
Admittedly, the process wasn’t easy. Getting several thousand people to agree to anything is tough. The downtown had languished for decades, its condition bad enough to qualify as “blighted” by state agencies. After 5 pm and on week-ends, a ghost town.
But, it turned itself around.
Stuart’s process can be replicated in other communities. It entails five steps:
- Form a downtown redevelopment agency
- Join the National Main Street Program
- Create a Master Plan
- Build an infrastructure of walkable paths, outdoor places and vital civic buildings
- Nurture and sustain a thriving private sector – retail, office and housing
1. Form a Downtown Redevelopment Agency
This should be appointed by the city government and contain representatives from downtown businesses and residents. Its role should be to solicit public opinion, create consensus, engage in preliminary planning with public participation, and recommend actions by the city.
Such entities can catalyze grassroots downtown revitalization movements by:
- Legitimizing their cause
- Engaging the local public sector
- Sponsoring workshops to develop a shared vision
2. Join Main Street
Main Street is a private non-profit program centered on the National Main Street Center, a subsidiary of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. A downtown becomes a designated Main Street organization through its state government. It hires Main Street Manager and adopts the Main Street Four-Point Approach and Eight Principles.
The Main Street approach can be highly effective. Members become part of the National Main Street Network with access to powerful resources including information and consultants. The downtown becomes part of a broader community.
Most importantly, the Main Street approach enhances public awareness of historic preservation. It provides local grassroots preservationists with an advocate. It demonstrates the added value that preserved old buildings bring to the downtown by sustaining place identity and, in many cases, keeping property prices and rents affordable.
3. Create a Master Plan
A Master Redevelopment Plan documents and visually communicates the community’s vision for the downtown. It typically focuses on graphic representations – diagrams, site plans, streetscape elevations, perspectives, etc. – which show the plan at a range of scales, from the entire downtown to an individual building façade.
The process is as important as the product. A community will typically hold a series of charrettes: workshops lead by professional environmental designers who create shared vision among participants by visualizing it in images. The process builds a community of stakeholders.
A Master Plan can also document long-term commitments by the public and private sector. It becomes a benchmark by which citizens and officials can monitor the follow-through on these commitments, and measure progress.
Master plans are often accompanied by planning and architectural guidelines with specific directives for redevelopment. While these may be either voluntary or mandatory, the latter is usually needed to maintain a consistent level of high quality design. Economic incentives are also effective. Ideally, the guidelines should be implemented by the city government with participation by downtown citizens sitting on an advisory board. Enlightened volunteer design professionals can bring greater design awareness to the process.
4. Build a Vital Public Infrastructure
Typically, redevelopment plans focus on walkability and an enhanced pedestrian milieu. This includes renovating the public infrastructure: streets, sidewalks, street landscaping and outdoor spaces such as parks.
A critical part of this is to create a set of vital civic buildings across the downtown – museums, theaters, etc. These may be new buildings but should include restored prominent historic buildings.
At this point, the detailed design work and construction work begins. This will typically entail applications for grants and other types of fundraising. The city redevelopment entity and the local Main Street program become key agents for this and act as liaisons between the public sector and private sector.
5. Nurture a Thriving Private Sector
Build a great downtown and the people will come. Developers, businesses and residents will be attracted to a burgeoning, well-designed, and vital downtown.
If managed correctly, this fine-grained, piece-by-piece infusion of capital and street life will happen in a holistic – not piecemeal – way. Synergies can be fostered between the parts – restaurants attract potential shoppers, housing attracts diners and shoppers, restored old buildings attract sightseers (who shop and dine).
Synergy is also the key to the success of these five steps. Most importantly, cultivate a growing community of participants who implement the steps, together. Smaller groups – downtown business groups, historic preservation groups, arts societies, etc. – will come together and embrace common goals. Rebuilding a downtown is a daunting task, but there are no limits to what can be accomplished by an informed, organized, and persistent community!
© Donald E. Armstrong and Material Practices, 2014