I have to admit that I’m a sucker for imaginative plans to bring city centers back to life. Just give me a few ideas presented in creative prose, and my mind jumps aboard the “Revitalization Express.”
Creative Writing 101
Like these words, for example:
“Downtown must create a new new identity that is solely unique (unique is already “solely”) to the community and region. There are great opportunities to … position Downtown so as not to compete for the typical retail outlets and franchise restaurants; but more as a destination and niche market with an orientation toward culture, entertainment, and community gathering, with a healthy compliment of local shops and eateries. (Whew! The sentence in the draft report is even longer.)
Doing so will require a commitment to restore the market attraction and expand the existing urban fabric; which will require a combination of economic incentives and physical improvements to create a business-friendly environment that is both accessible and walkable”
In other words, a dose of planning for the buildings and streets, some open space and a few economic incentives might make the joint more appealing to the eyes.
City Center already has a start as an entertainment mecca.
Let’s do it! Do what? Oh yes. Create a niche market oriented toward culture, entertainment and community gathering. It’s an uphill battle, but there are positives. The city’s marvelous jazz fest was a terrific magnet for drawing people into the downtown area for a weekend. So was Uncle Dave Macon Days. We like the Saturday farmers’ markets in the square. But when you view the raw material we are dealing with, the task seems daunting. Look for yourself at the aerial shot in the study, looking south toward the McDonald’s on S. Church Street.
We can’t put it here because we hate copyright suits. You can view this chapter at http://www.murfreesborotn.gov/index.aspx?nid=755
Click on “Comprehensive Plan Chapters” in the sidebar at the left, select Chapter Two and meander as we did to the section on revitalizing downtown.
Potholes in dream projects elsewhere
Any planning study has an obligatory chapter on revitalizing the downtown area. For every success story, like Baltimore’s waterfront, there are at least two failures. Cincinnati’s expensive effort to create a downtown shopping mall with an elevated skyway comes to mind. Most of it has been dismantled.
In the 1970s, Lancaster, Pa., tried to establish a downtown identity, paving a couple of blocks in the city core with octagonal red bricks. The city also added a skating rink and encouraged street sculpture. When I went back to visit friends at my old paper there, they told me the paving stones kept coming loose, the major department store there moved to a suburban mall, and Hamilton Watch left the downtown after failing to win an army fuse contract.
Combat pay to walk to the Church Street McDonald’s
The civic plaza is a great start. But things go downhill fast. You can see it all in the report’s aerial shot of the streets south of the plaza, looking toward the McDonald’s on South Church Street. One day when I was researching at the election commission on the courthouse square, I took a break and walked over to that McDonald’s. It was not a pedestrian-friendly experience.
So let’s look at the consultant’s suggestions for getting from a demolition derby walk to McDonald’s to a niche market oriented toward culture and entertainment:
A downtown brand. But what is it?
The consultant, the Texas based Kendig Keast Collaborative, starts with the assumption that the downtown area can’t compete with mall areas for typical retail shops and franchise restaurants. Here are some of the steps that Kendig Keast thinks might work:
– Focus on vertical development with high-rise buildings that feature retail shops and restaurants. The multi-family units above the retail spaces would bring people back to the downtown area.
– Try to develop a “downtown brand” that gives the city’s core a positive identify in peoples’ minds. This theme could then be reflected in building plans, streetscape changes and signs.
– Establish a central business improvement district that could offer tax breaks to attract hotels and multi-family development. Those tax benefits would only be available in the central business area.
– Lobby the federal government to ensure that any new offices it builds in this area be located in the central business district.
Get the cars off street lots.
– Move away from parking lots along streets that chew up valuable downtown property without offering anything in return. Instead promote structured parking within buildings. Another option is to allow outdoor, street-level parking only in the middle of blocks.
– Allow more floor area relative to a parcel if a developer plans mixed-use vertical buildings, proposes to have indoor parking or agrees to build an energy-efficient, “green” building.
– Make the area more pedestrian friendly by designing streets to accommodate walkers, bicyclists and public transit. As a veteran of the walk to McDonald’s I wish them luck.
Parklets in our future
– Create parklets that might exist for anywhere from one day to year-round. A parklet could come from a couple of parking places, a median strip or other odd spaces that aren’t being used for much. They give people places to stop, relax and take in the city scene.
Already, I am dreaming of eating a sublet (small sub sandwich) seated on a chairlet in a parklet across the street from the McDonald’s on Church Street.