How to Revitalize Your Downtown in 5 (Admittedly Not Easy) Steps



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:

  1. Form a downtown redevelopment agency
  2. Join the National Main Street Program
  3. Create a Master Plan
  4. Build an infrastructure of walkable paths, outdoor places and vital civic buildings
  5. 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

In Praise of Roadside Ruins



WHATEVER is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling. . . .

When danger or pain press too nearly, they are incapable of giving any delight, and are simply terrible; but at certain distances, and with certain modifications, they may be, and they are, delightful, as we every day experience.

Edmund Burke (1729–1797), On the Sublime and Beautiful

Although traditions of the sublime tend to exalt the ruins of monuments, there is also cause to praise the ruins of common buildings. One type of these is the abandoned prewar wood-frame farmer’s house. These houses dot the highways of the rural landscape, usually sitting adjacent to cropland or pasture land.


THE taste for . . . . picturesque decay cannot thrive without a sense of progress for which it fulfils the role of brooding, sometimes gleeful, unconscious. . . .

“Ruin lust: our love affair with decaying buildings” Brian Dillon, The Guardian



RUINS embody “the triumph of time over strength, a melancholy but not unpleasant thought.”

Lord Kames, Elements of Criticism (1762)


TARKOVSKY had a particular fondness for ruins, especially the color and texture of old walls, and would point out choice specimens to her on their walks around Moscow; the results of the researches can be seen in all the films . . . . the ruins perform a narrative function, are visually fascinating in their own right . . . strike sympathetic chords in our own subconscious . . .

The Films of Andrei Tarkovsky: A Visual Fugue By Vida T. Johnson






The house depicted in the above photos is located near Beauregard, Alabama. It was likely a sharecropper’s house. The faux-brick asphalt siding cladding the walls was one of the materials used to renovate these houses during the Great Depression by the Alabama Cooperative Extension Service (ACES).

© Donald E. Armstrong and Material Practices, 2014


Tadao Ando’s Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts





Man articulates the world through his body. . . . The world articulated by the body is a vivid, lived-in space. . . . the body is articulated by the world. When ‘I’ perceive the concrete to be something cold and hard, “I’ recognize the body as something warm and soft.

Tadao Ando, “Shintai and Space,” Architecture and Body

Japanese architect Tadao Ando designs reinforced concrete buildings which follow the principle of béton brut. French for ‘raw concrete,’ this is concrete left unfinished, its surfaces bearing the imprint of its formwork.

These imprints include:

  • The grid created by the joints of the modular plywood sheets used as forms
  • The imprint of the plywood’s raised wood grain
  • Rows of small concave cylinder-shaped pockets where formwork fasteners were located

Surfaces reveal subtle imperfections of hand formwork: seam lines, gradations of color and texture and other characteristics. This is architecture which derives beauty from its constructive logic.

Béton brut is a form of structural expressionism. It is based on modern architecture’s tenet of truth to materials, the belief that a material’s role should be based on its essential nature and that it should be left unfinished and exposed.

Several years ago I visited Tadao Ando’s building for the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts in St. Louis.

The following are some photos I took that day, including sculptor Richard Serra’s ‘Joe,’ itself an exemplar of truth to materials with its torqued spiral of weathering steel.


















Seaside and the Reinterpretation of the Wood Frame Vernacular House



The town of Seaside, located on the Florida panhandle, is widely acknowledged as a significant work of town planning. Designed according to the principles of the New Urbanism, it is an influential exemplar of urban planning.

However, Seaside is also an important laboratory of building design. It’s particularly known for its house designs which reinterpret the southern wood frame vernacular.

For those of us interested in studying these houses there’s a great website available, The Seaside Research Portal, a collaboration between the University of Notre Dames’ Hesburgh Libraries and School of Architecture. The Portal is an archive of photos and drawings of Seaside buildings, and information about the architects.

Some of the entries document all phases of the design process, from preliminary sketches to construction drawings and presentation models.

The following are a few examples from the Portal – of Seaside houses which reinterpret the wood frame vernacular dwellings found along the coastal South.


Giant’s Roost (Architect: Deborah Berke)

seaside (berke)




Rainbow House (Architect: Deborah Berke)






Shady Lady (Architect: Deborah Berke)






Blakey Residence (Architect: Braulio Casas)






Latitude (Architects:  Samuel Mockbee & Coleman Coker)



Sources Cited:

The Seaside Research Portal


© Donald E. Armstrong and Material Practices, 2013

Architectural Sketching: Seaside, Florida


Seaside, Fl

It was the early 1980s and I was working in my studio at UF. Ron Haase, one of my thesis advisors walked in and showed me some documents he brought back from a recent trip to Seaside, Florida.

Seaside, the groundbreaking New Urbanism town in the Florida panhandle, was literally breaking ground. Winner of a recent PA award, Seaside was already getting the attention of architects and planners around the country.

Ron knew I’d be interested because my thesis project concerned writing codes for new development following the principles of traditional urbanism.

The following summer I traveled to Seaside and spent a few days photographing and sketching the emergent new town. I had the good luck to meet Seaside’s founder, Robert S. Davis who kindly answered my questions about the town.

In the years that followed I met Seaside’s town planners, Andrés Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk of Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company (DPZ). I was privileged to participate in one their famed design charrettes, to create a redevelopment plan for the city of Stuart, Florida. I also came to know Seaside’s town architect, Scott Merrill of Merrill, Pastor, & Colgan, through my AIA chapter. Scott gave me tour of another new urbanism town under construction, Windsor, near Vero Beach, Florida.

These were amazing experiences which left me with deep respect for these important architects and their work. This impacted my practice, in house design and historic preservation. It fired my design activism and informed my involvement in the revitalization of downtown Stuart. These will be topics of future posts.

Back to Grad school: New Urbanism was just emerging in the US when I visited Seaside. Influenced by the urban design theories of European architects such as Rob and Leon Krier, Aldo Rossi, and others, the US movement also drew on the planning principles of the prewar small town. The mantra was “all design is urban design”: the revelation that building form is always shaped by planning imperatives such as lot size and zoning requirements for setbacks.

The new urbanists’ response? Design the town as well as the buildings that go in it.

Here are a few of the sketches I made that day. A squall was blowing in from off the Gulf, a few drops landed on my drawings, hence the inky splotches.

Seaside, Fl

Seaside, Fl

Seaside, Fl

Seaside, Fl



© Donald E. Armstrong and Material Practices, 2013

Fairhope’s Sheldon Castle and Mosher Castle



The Sheldon and Mosher Castles are two neighboring houses located in Fairhope, Alabama. They signify the iconoclastic worldview that gave birth to the community in 1894.

The Sheldon Castle was built first, in 1946 by Craig Sheldon. According to a family member, it was built from stone from nearby Mobile Bay hand quarried and transported to the site. Contrary to the modern house styles which prevailed in the 1940s, it might be characterized as a whimsical version of medieval-revival, hence the appellation “castle.”

The Mosher Castle was built more recently by Dean Mosher (note the Mrs. Butterworth bottle embedded in the stonework).

These buildings are classic examples of bricolage and might have been used as illustrations in Levi-Strauss’ Savage Mind.

Mosher states:

Both the exterior and the interior are largely made of local materials. The stone facing is indigenous to the area, as is the underlying wall tile. Even interior trim is from trees felled on the site. In amongst the stones are pieces of glass and pottery as well as objects from around the world, including the Great Wall of China and the Berlin Wall.

Fairhope was founded as a single tax colony in order to:

to establish and conduct a model community or colony, free from all forms of private monopoly, and to secure to its members therein equality of opportunity, the full reward of individual efforts, and the benefits of co-operation in matters of general concern.

Fairhope’s School for Organic Education was acclaimed by famed educator John Dewey. The colony has attracted prominent creators such as Sherwood Anderson, Wharton Esherick, Carl Zigrosser, and Upton Sinclair.

The Sheldon and Mosher Castles, built side-by-side, express the Colony’s ethos of cooperative individualism.


 Sheldon Castle

Sheldon Castle


 Sheldon Castle

Sheldon Castle


 Mosher Castle

Mosher Castle


 Mosher Castle

Mosher Castle


Mosher Castle

Mosher Castle


 Mosher Castle

Mosher Castle


Sources Cited:  

Sheldon Castle – Fairhope Alabama

Mosher Castle



© Donald E. Armstrong and Material Practices, 2013

Architectural Sketching: Havana, Cuba


In 2002 I had the privilege of presenting an academic paper in Havana, Cuba. The event was the 2002 International Conference held by the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture. The trip offered a rare glimpse into the embargoed republic.

While there I took in the rich tropical-colonial architecture and urban spaces. The latter especially interested me as a subject to sketch, as it did in Merida, Florence, and Rome. In addition to life views, I made plan and section sketches of streets and squares, inspired by Camillo Sitte (by way of Rob Krier).

I also sketched “in-between” spaces. In traditional cities, the spaces which occur in-between buildings and urban spaces – colonnades especially – are very important. These liminal zones mediate the transition from the public domain of an urban space to the more private domain of the building interior. In hot climates they act as sunscreens and refuges from glaring sunlight.

Of course, in the aesthetics of Spanish Colonial architecture , such social and practical intentions are expressed through rules relating to proportion, material and light. And so, you’ll see that some these sketches include dimensions – the critical measurements of forms and spaces which, as Sitte put it, grounded the “artistic principles” on which early cities were planned.

Here are some of the sketches I made in Havana:



img093-001  img092-001  img094-001



© Donald E. Armstrong and Material Practices, 2013


5 Warm Modern Spaces



Warmth refers to an atmosphere of friendliness, concern and support that a successful home generates.

David Seamon: A Geography of the Lifeworld


With its circle of warmth, the fireplace had once been the center of family life. Its dancing light, smoky smells and warm crackling created an ambiance that made a house more than a home. . . . the traditions around the hearth stretched back through the ages, connecting each house to deep cultural roots. What were the qualities of the hearth that made it so wonderful and so beloved?

Lisa Heschong: Thermal Delight in Architecture


Warmth – psychological and physical – begins in design.

I’m writing this post on 21 December, 2013, this year’s winter solstice. And so I thought I’d share some modern spaces which evoke warmth. Modern architecture is sometimes criticized for its lack of warmth, this is my evidence that examples of inviting modern spaces abound.







Sources: For more on these houses visit these sites:

1. Gamble House (Greene and Greene)

2. House (Alvar Aalto)

3. Bernard Schwartz House (Frank Lloyd Wright)

4. House (Chad Everhart Architect)

5. Studio Addition (Bohl Architects)


© Donald E. Armstrong and Material Practices, 2013

Architectural Sketching: Rome, Italy




In 2002 I had the good fortune to return to Italy, this time to visit Rome. A school sponsored trip, I brought several students from Tuskegee University’s Department of Architecture with me.

Sketching played a larger role than on previous trips.

We arrived at our hotel in the center of Rome, and I made sure each student grabbed their luggage from the taxi. After riding the cage elevator up to the hotel lobby, I double-checked – all luggage accounted for!

Except for one piece – my camera bag.

My road-worn camera bag, which had accompanied me on trips across the US, Mexico and parts of Europe, remained on the back seat of the taxi. In addition to my 35mm SLR camera and lens were my sketchbooks and pens. Finding the taxi, now swallowed up in the Roman night, was a lost cause.

The next morning I bought a cheap point-and-shoot camera, an Italian composition book, a pad of vellum and some pens.

Knowing that at best I would go home with a bunch of grainy photographs, sketching became a more important way of documenting my experiences.

The following are a few of the sketches I made on this journey, which included a day-trip to the archaeological site Ostia Antica.


 Fig. 1: The Pantheon, Rome, Italy, 2002

Fig. 1: The Pantheon, Rome, Italy, 2002


 Fig. 2: The Pantheon (analytical sketch), Rome, Italy, 2002

Fig. 2: The Pantheon (analytical sketch), Rome, Italy, 2002


 Fig. 3: The Pantheon (analytical sketch), Rome, Italy, 2002

Fig. 3: The Pantheon (analytical sketch), Rome, Italy, 2002


 Fig. 4: Piazza Navona, Rome, Italy, 2002

Fig. 4: Piazza Navona, Rome, Italy, 2002


 Fig. 5: Courtyard, Rome, Italy, 2002

Fig. 5: Courtyard, Rome, Italy, 2002



Fig. 6: Ostia Antica, Italy, 2002


© Donald E. Armstrong and Material Practices, 2013

Architectural Sketching: Florence, Italy



I was blessed with great in-laws.

For several months in 1999 my father-in-law, an Episcopal priest, filled in for the head priest of St. James’ Episcopal Church in Florence, Italy. During that time he and his wife occupied the rectory, a house on church grounds, a few blocks from the historic city center.

Knowing what a great opportunity this was for their son-in-law the architect, they sent me a round-trip ticket to Florence and invited me to come stay with them. It goes without saying, this was an experience of a lifetime.

During my stay I not only visited many of the great buildings and urban spaces of Florence, but also visited Pisa, Siena and San Gimignano.

During those jaunts I carried two sketchbooks. One, a standard artist’s sketchbook, for more finished sketches. The other, an old fashioned composition book, for thoughts and less polished conceptual sketches and diagrams.

Here, then, are a few of the sketches I made on that trip.


Fig. 1: Tower, Florence, Italy, 1999


Fig. 2: Tower, Florence, Italy, 1999



Fig. 3: Studies of colonnade, Piazza Uffizi, Florence, Italy, 1999


Fig. 4: Study of façade profile and weathering, Florence, Italy, 1999


Fig. 5: Studies of piazzas’ forms, Florence, Italy, 1999


Fig. 6: Colonnade interior along Piazza di Santa Maria Novella, Florence, Italy, 1999


Fig. 7: Colonnade study, Piazza di Santa Maria Novella, Florence, Italy, 1999


Fig. 8: Symbolism of tripartite organizations in Christian art, Florence, Italy, 1999


Fig.9: Piazza del Campo, Siena, Italy, 1999


Fig. 10: Study, alley, Piazza del Campo, Siena, Italy, 1999


Fig. 11: Towers, San Gimignano, Italy, 1999


Well, there you have it. In future posts I plan to develop some of the thoughts penned here. Most I’d forgotten until now, they’ve remained dormant – is it time to dust them off and see if they’re sturdy enough to inspire some extended thinking and writing?


© Donald E. Armstrong and Material Practices, 2013