12 Strategies That Will Transform Your City’s Downtown

Does your city have a long-range downtown plan?

Does your city have a downtown development corporation, a downtown alliance, or similar non-profit organization that is focused solely on promoting downtown as a destination for businesses, residents, and development?

Does your city have public policies (like tax abatements, grants, and other special incentives) to promote downtown development?

Hopefully, you answered ‘yes’ to the questions above.  But even if you answered ‘no’ to each question, and your city doesn’t have any official program in place to help make your downtown a more vibrant urban place, there are still lots of strategies your community can pursue to improve the urban vitality of your downtown.  That’s what this post is all about.

Below are 12 strategies that can transform your city’s downtown into a thriving urban district.  For each strategy, you’ll see a concise explanation of how the strategy will make your downtown more vibrant and one or two examples of cities that have successfully implemented the strategy.

By the way, if you’re interested in reading more about the importance of downtown to your city, please see my 3-part blog series on The Most Prosperous Downtowns of the 21st Century where I analyzed how the downtown areas of the 100 largest cities have fared over the past decade.

 

Vibrant Downtown Strategy #1

Turn one-way streets into two-way streets.

King Street: Charleston, SC

Why?

One-way streets are great if your only goal is to channel traffic through your downtown, but they are bad for pedestrian activity and retail opportunities.  Two-way streets create a more comfortable pedestrian environment and have been shown to increase property values.

There is a good reason that the Main Streets that sit at the urban core of small towns and cities across the U.S. are almost always two-way streets.  From Wichita, KS to Charleston, SC, cities across the U.S. are realizing the benefits of two-way streets in their urban cores.

 

Vibrant Downtown Strategy #2

Establish a regularly occurring public event with showcasing downtown merchants, music, and food.

Union Square Farmers Market: New York, NY

Why?

Ongoing public events help drive positive awareness of your city’s downtown.  Bringing people from your entire city downtown on a regular basis, once a week or even just once a month, serves to make citizens aware of the unique amenities that exist in the central part of their community.

Events like a weekly farmers market (like the Union Square Farmers Market in NYC) or a monthly art walk (many cities have a “First Friday Art Walk” like the one in Denver) can draw thousands of people to your downtown on a regular basis.  And many of these people do not live or work near downtown, so by creating the event, you can expose a wider portion of your community to the unique assets located in your urban core.  These citizens are then more likely to visit downtown for shopping/dining/entertainment on other occasions and are more likely to consider living downtown or perhaps locating their business downtown.  An added benefit of these types of events is that they engage local merchants, artists, and entrepreneurs, helping to make these businesspeople champions for downtown revitalization.

 

Vibrant Downtown Strategy #3

Create more land for development (landfill into a body of water, remove land from a floodplain, take back land from a freeway, etc).

Battery Park City: New York, NY

Why?

If you could literally expand your city’s downtown by creating more land area for new downtown development, you would jump at the opportunity, right?

Well, if your city is one of the lucky ones that sits next to an ocean, you might be able to use landfill to expand the land area of your downtown, as New York City did with its Battery Park City neighborhood in Lower Manhattan.  In fact, Battery Park City was built on 90 acres of landfill created from more than 1.2 million cubic yards earth that was excavated from the original World Trade Center site.

But this isn’t the only way to create more land for development.  How about that floodplain land in your downtown?  You could make some infrastructure investments that take some of that land out of the floodplain, opening up more acreage for downtown development.  That’s what Austin is doing with its Waller Creek project, a major initiative that will rejuvenate the currently underutilized waterway that runs through the eastern section of the city’s downtown.

Or what about that massive freeway that runs along the edge of your downtown?  You could tear it down and build a park in its place like Portland did in its downtown.

Or you could sink it and cover it with a park like Dallas did.

Or you could sink it and cover it with a park and a convention center like Seattle.

 

Vibrant Downtown Strategy #4

Make under-utilized public land available for private sector development

Seaholm Power Plant Redevelopment: Austin, TX

Why?

All types of government (federal, state, and local) own real estate assets.  Sometimes these “assets” are not doing any good for the government entity that owns them or for the community they sit in.  Structures like vacant government office buildings, abandoned power plants, and other obsolete public facilities in your city’s downtown are often prime candidates for redevelopment by the private sector.

Check out how Austin is using its defunct Seaholm power plant as the centerpiece of a new mixed-use downtown development.

Or, take a look at what the private sector has done with a former elementary school in Portland, turning it into a hotel/microbrewery (this one is not downtown-specific but illustrates the strategy so well, I had to include it).

 

Vibrant Downtown Strategy #5

Consolidate regional economic development partner organizations into a single downtown location.

Business Resource Center: San Angelo, TX

Why?

It may seem like an inconsequential decision but the location of government offices and community-serving organizations matters.  This is even more important for organizations that interact with the outside business world like chambers of commerce and economic development organizations.  Of course, public decisions to place jobs downtown are beneficial, but in this case, we’re talking about the image that is portrayed to the outside world.

What type of message do you think it sends when a city’s economic development corporation is located in a big-box strip center, or when the local chamber of commerce is housed in the upstairs of a convenience store?  (Yes, I’ve actually seen both of these examples in the wild!).  Take a look at what San Angelo, TX did.

San Angelo’s regional economic development partners chose to a construct a new consolidated facility in a strategic central city location to help spur further downtown revitalization.  And the added benefit from this decision is the synergies gained by housing several cooperating organizations under a single roof.

 

Vibrant Downtown Strategy #6

Create a permanent public market.

Pike Place Market: Seattle, WA

Why?

The most successful downtown districts have many major functions (employment, residential, entertainment, shopping, etc.).  A key ingredient for creating a diverse downtown district is to have major destinations that draw people to downtown for reasons other than employment.  Many cities have pursued professional sports teams for this reason, but this approach only yields intermittent benefits, because major league stadiums/arenas lie vacant much of the year.

On the other hand, a large public market can attract thousands of downtown visitors on a daily basis.  Seattle’s Pike Place Market is a great example of such a public market.  An estimated 8,000,000 to 10,000,000 annual visits are made to the market.

 

Vibrant Downtown Strategy #7

Open a downtown satellite campus of a local university.

UTSA Downtown Campus: San Antonio, TX

Why?

Downtown campuses can be a win-win for universities and for a city’s downtown.  Major universities are often landlocked, and have trouble meeting their needs for facility expansion.  Opening a downtown satellite campus can be a great option to expand the university’s reach.  And the creation of a downtown university campus can do wonders for a city’s downtown.

The introduction of several thousand college students to a downtown can provide a major boost to the diversity of a downtown district, especially if student housing is included as part of the expansion.  Downtown Phoenix benefits immensely from Arizona State University’s downtown campus.  And the University of Texas-San Antonio downtown campus is a major asset for downtown San Antonio.

 

Vibrant Downtown Strategy #8

Build a streetcar line connecting your downtown to an adjacent urban neighborhood.

Portland Streetcar: Portland, OR

Why?

Adding a streetcar line that connects your downtown to nearby urban neighborhoods will expand transportation options in your urban core, a good thing.  But the biggest benefit from streetcars isn’t transportation-related, it’s an expanded potential for development.  In fact, this is what streetcars were initially intended to do.  In the early 1900s, it was standard practice for residential real estate developers to create streetcar lines that connected their land plots to the center city so that land values and development potential would increase on their property.

Modern day streetcar lines prove the time-tested benefits of streetcars for urban revitalizationPortland and Seattle offer good examples of streetcar lines that have more than paid for themselves in the way of new real estate development.  In Portland’s case, the new streetcar line led to $3.5 billion in new development within 2 blocks of the streetcar line in only the first 7 years after the line opened.

 

Vibrant Downtown Strategy #9

Create an awesome downtown playground to make your downtown more kid-friendly and family-friendly.

Imagination Playground: New York, NY

Why?

There is no question that downtowns across the U.S. are undergoing a major renaissance, especially in the way of new residential development.  But, this resurgence has been fueled almost entirely by singles, young professionals, and empty nesters.  Even the downtowns with the highest amounts of residential development in the last decade (Chicago, Seattle, Miami), struggle in their efforts to appeal to families with children.  Check out this Huffington Post article which highlights the big-picture challenges associated with designing downtowns for families.

Many cities have high-quality downtown children’s museums but very few have playgrounds of equal caliber.  Creating a top-notch downtown playground can be a truly transformative strategy, particularly if it’s part of a broader initiative to make your downtown more family-friendly and kid-friendly, because so few cities have an urban core that really appeals to families.

One example of a really unique downtown playground is the Imagination Playground in NYC’s Financial District.  (Side note- The Imagination Playground was under construction when I lived in Lower Manhattan, but at the time our son, Gavin, was a newborn.  We moved to Austin when he was only 2.5 months old, right after the playground opened, but on a visit to NYC back in 2012, Gavin – nearly 2 years old by that point – spent a good deal of time at this playground, especially in the splash pad section.)

San Antonio is another city aiming to make its downtown much more kid-friendly.  The city is currently designing some major changes as part of the redevelopment of HemisFair Park (a large park named for the city’s 1968 world fair).  The redevelopment plans for HemisFair Park aim to reshape the park from a largely underutilized asset into a regional destination for families.

 

Vibrant Downtown Strategy #10

Create a branded downtown entertainment district.

Bricktown: Oklahoma City, OK

Why?

Downtowns that offer a new, exciting district – even if it’s just a small area of a couple of blocks – provide residents with a reason to check out what is going on in the center of their community.  A major upside of this strategy is that it can help to turn around the perceptions and reality of downtowns that have are not vibrant.

Perhaps the best example of this strategy is Oklahoma City’s Bricktown, a large mixed-use entertainment district that has transformed OKC’s one-time “dead-after-5pm” downtown into what is now hailed as a 24/7 attraction.  Bricktown, which makes up the eastern section of downtown OKC, was filled with abandoned buildings as recently as the 1990s.  Today, thanks to major infusions of public and private investments, the district is home to dozens of restaurants and bars, thousands of hotel rooms, and a growing number of residences.

Kansas City’s Power & Light District is a similar success story (though on a smaller scale than Bricktown) of a new entertainment district that breathed fresh life into that city’s downtown.

 

Vibrant Downtown Strategy #11

Establish maximum parking standards for new downtown developments, or at least remove minimum parking requirements for new buildings.

SFpark variable rate parking pilot: San Francisco, CA

SFpark variable rate parking pilot: San Francisco, CA

Why?

Unfortunately, the majority of U.S. cities impose parking minimums instead of parking maximums, even in their downtown districts.  This means that real estate developers are forced to provide a minimum level of parking when building new downtown offices, hotels, or residential structures, ignoring the market demand for parking.  While these policies are generally intended to enhance or maintain access to downtown districts, they have the unintended side effect of fostering an over-dependence on auto travel while making downtown areas less walkable and less transit-supportive.  Fortunately, there is a growing movement in large cities to abolish minimum parking requirements in downtowns.

Austin’s city council recently enacted an ordinance that removes mandatory minimum parking in the central business district.

And a few cities are really blazing a bold new path by not only removing parking minimums, but actually going the extra step to establish maximum parking standards which place an upper limit on the amount of new parking spaces allowed in downtown areas.  You can read a fascinating account of the transformation of San Francisco’s parking policies over the last few decades here.  In 1985, San Francisco first began experimenting with the removal of parking requirements for downtown commercial properties.  Since then, San Francisco has increasingly adopted public policies that are aimed at reducing the amount of parking throughout the city, especially in the downtown area.

A relatively new innovation out of San Francisco is the SFpark pilot program, which introduced demand-responsive variable parking meter pricing with real-time information in multiple neighborhoods.  A handful of other cities are experimenting with similar variable-rate approaches to on-street parking, including New York with its PARK Smart pilot project.

 

Vibrant Downtown Strategy #12

Set up a downtown bike share program.

Divvy Bikes bike share program: Chicago, IL

Why?

Any strategy that results in more transportation choices available within a downtown is a good thing if you’re aiming for a more vibrant urban core.  And bike share programs – which have been spreading like wildfire across large U.S. cities in the past couple years – are certainly a good option for enhancing transportation access.  But what makes this strategy so valuable is that it also provides indirect marketing and branding service for your downtown.

Bike share programs, with their highly visible stations and riders, broadcast a continual message to casual observers that downtown is a place for recreation and entertainment.  Divvy Bikes in Chicago and Citi Bike in New York are two of the largest and most successful bike share programs in the U.S.

Lastly, bike share programs are highly flexible in terms of how they can be implemented and managed.  Some systems are managed by non-profits, others are owned by local transportation authorities, and many are sponsored by major corporations or wholly owned and operated by the private sector.  This flexibility in ownership/management models can help explain why the bike share craze has spread so quickly in such a short time.

 

Bottom Line 

Admittedly, this is by no means a complete list…there are dozens, no hundreds, of different approaches to downtown revitalization.  And you may have noticed that I chose to focus primarily on achievable strategies that are very much within the realm of the public sector.  So, what’s the big takeaway?  Whatever state your city’s downtown is currently in, there are many actions that can be taken to boost the vitality of your community’s urban core.

What is your city doing to make its downtown more vibrant?

John Karras (24 Posts)

John Karras believes that all communities have the potential to become more vibrant. John’s professional passions are aligned at the three-way intersection of urban planning, economic development and transportation policy. John founded urbanSCALE.com to empower urban planning and economic development professionals with the knowledge and tools needed to make their communities more vibrant. John is also the creator of the urbanSCALE Rating System, the first comprehensive measure of how urban a city is on a scale of 1 to 10.


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Comments

  1. says

    Your comments are great for large cities, but difficult to apply for small cities with only a few streets.
    I look forward to learning more about small cities and rural community centers.
    Thanks,
    Becky

    • John Karras says

      Becky-

      You’re right…some of the strategies (bike share and streetcars in particular) in this post apply mostly to mid-size and large cities. You can also check out this post which highlighted some smaller cities that are out-performing big cities in some pretty interesting ways.

      I appreciate your feedback!

      • John Karras says

        Thanks for sharing your analysis! Great to hear your ideas on Anchorage and glad that there is some progress and much potential for most of the strategies.

        I understand your concern that Anchorage is too cold for a bike share program to work, but take a look at Madison, WI. Out of the 100 largest U.S. cities, Madison has the second highest rate of bicycle commuters (behind only Portland, OR). And that’s despite having the 4th coldest average annual temperature among the 100 biggest cities, warmer than only Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Anchorage. You never know…it sounds kind of crazy but might be worth a closer look.

        • says

          We actually do have a ton of bikers on the trail system. The trail system goes through the entire town and acts as a mini highway of sorts. I use it to ski to work in the winter and run in the summer. These winter bikes http://fatbackbikes.com and they are all over town. That being said, we get so much snow that often the sidewalks and streets (particularity downtown) become impossible to bike. I think it’s less of a cold issue (Alaskans are pretty tough) and more of a snow removal issue.

          • John Karras says

            Thanks for educating me on this…makes a lot of sense. Wow skiing as a mode of commuting! Not too many cities can claim that as a viable travel option.

    • John Karras says

      Heather-

      Thanks for the feedback! Sounds like St. Louis is doing some of them. STL’s downtown residential population more than doubled from 2000-2010. If you’re interested, here’s another post on downtowns (part of a 3-part series), which highlights population and job growth in the downtown areas of the 100 largest cities.

      Yes, I’m familiar with . They’re a great resource for communities.

  2. says

    your comments seems like a Handbook to revitalize deteriorated areas of cities. I agree and support these activites which have many implications and influence regarding commerce., employment, dwelling, mix income population, buiding community, entertainment, leisure etc. Whar are the criteria to use these 12 excellent ideas in a certain place? are ther any prioritization to implement one or the other?

    Are these ideas fit revitalization of disadvantaged neighborhods? Could you give some examples?

    • John Karras says

      You bring up a great question: How should a community go about prioritizing among these 12 options?

      It depends on each city’s unique needs, but I’d say to go with the easiest “low-hanging fruit” first. That way you can build some positive momentum in your downtown.

      Regarding the appropriateness of these ideas to revitalize disadvantaged neighborhoods: Most of the strategies are downtown-specific (or at least inner city focused), but still, many of them would be a great solution for this. Strategies like #4 (making under-utilized public land available to private sector) could potentially help revitalize all sorts of neighborhoods. And #8 (new streetcar line) is also a great tool for revitalization, though it could be any form of rail transit (light rail, commuter rail, heavy rail). Here’s a great article from Kaid Benfield with several examples of revitalization of disadvantaged neighborhoods.

  3. says

    Thank you for sharing this article.

    I hope you don’t mind me sharing a bit of information on our organization ?

    As a project manager / property manager for a Non-Profit Redevelopment organization (The Laurel Redevelopment Corp) in Laurel Delaware, I have seen many positive changes in our downtown business district take place over the past 20+ years. (www.laurelredevelopment.com)

    The mission of the Laurel Redevelopment Corporation, a non-profit corporation, is to enhance the quality of life in the Town of Laurel by obtaining, rehabilitating and revitalizing properties which will increase economic development for the Town.

    LRC History: http://laurelredevelopment.com/index.cfm?ref=20300

    The LRC, a 501(c) (4) non-profit corporation, is managed as a conservative business enterprise, with community benefits the measurement of success. LRC Directors and Officers are all non-paid volunteer community leaders, except for two independent contractors who function as property manager and financial secretary . They have met regularly since the organization’s inception in 1992. The LRC has been a responsible steward to the citizens of Laurel and the State of Delaware. We have always committed our own funds to projects before asking others for financial assistance. The State of Delaware has provided significant economic development funding to the LRC during these past 22 years, allowing the LRC to multiply its $300,000 seed money tenfold. The LRC has no debt. The LRC has never needed to approach any governmental entity for its day-to-day functions. In fact, every year since its founding, operations have been entirely funded internally, and the anticipated $150,000 spun off annually from net rental income will continue to be used as matching funs for future grants and new development projects. The LRC pays all property taxes and related municipal fees, as well as county and school taxes, for every piece of real estate it owns, even those properties that have been designated public parks. In short, LRC pays its own way, and in the process contributes to the financial well-being of every level of government and our schools. (copied from our web site)

    The economic benefits which flow from these investments are not only measured in bricks and mortar. LRC projects (and related investments by the Town of Laurel, the State of Delaware, and LRC-supported local start-up entrepreneurial firms) have provided direct economic stimulus approaching $12 million through the last 22 years, with these funds multiplied many times as they are spent and re-spent throughout the local economy. LRC commercial properties are providing business opportunities to 20 young and growing firms and professionals, and these firms are supporting more than 100 private-sector jobs. Perhaps just as importantly, these enterprises are providing new goods and services to our community, encouraging a more complete and supportive commercial mix, and making for a better quality of life in Laurel.

    As you can see, it is possible for a small town to make a difference. We still have a long way to go therefore we are constantly working on new projects, ideas, and strategies to improve our community.

    All It takes a few like minded individuals to work together to get things started who are willing to meet on a regular basis to keep it all moving in a positive direction.

    • John Karras says

      Brian-

      Thanks for sharing your perspective from a smaller community. Great to hear you and your colleagues are seeing some significant progress. Small cities and towns often lack a large amount of financial resources to tackle downtown revitalization in a big way, but as you point out, all it takes is a few visionary people to start the wheels in motion toward long-term positive changes

  4. says

    Very good article. As with any list, not all strategies are appropriate everywhere all the time. But it’s a good starting point. As John notes in a comment, each city or town will need to analyze these strategies within its own unique context. A few of the strategies were provocative to me:

    PARKING: John is correct about parking maximums (in lieu of minimums) and about performance-based parking meter pricing. Cities thrive on proximity and excessive parking creates distances and dead spaces that disrupt a vibrant urban fabric. Creating a “reasonable” supply of parking and matching the price according to demand is key to encouraging access to downtown by all modes of transport and to ensuring that each mode performs efficiently.

    STREETCAR: Transportation is key. But the mode and the technology need to be carefully matched to *the specific needs and constraints of specific communities. Portland had tremendous success with its streetcar. BUT THE STREETCAR WAS ONLY PART OF ITS REVITALIZATION EQUATION. Simply building a streetcar is not going to give other cities a similar result. (And remember, if a tree falls down or if there is an auto crash,, buses can go around it. Streetcars cannot.) Jarrett Walker has several books and articles about how to match transportation technologies and design with the unique circumstances of individual communities.

    CREATE MORE LAND FOR DEVELOPMENT and MAKE UNDERUTILIZED PUBLIC LAND AVAILABLE FOR DEVELOPMENT should really be one strategy — to MAKE GOOD USE OF SCARCE URBAN LAND. Today, many prime urban sites (both public and private) sit underutilized. Vacant lots and boarded up buildings are like the missing teeth in someone’s smile. Yet, strangely enough, we penalize owners who construct, improve or maintain buildings with higher taxes and reward owners with lower taxes when they allow buildings to deteriorate. Owners of vacant lots and boarded-up buildings typically pay less tax than their more responsible neighbors. Some cities and towns use “value capture” to turn their upside-down property tax right-side up.

    For details about infrastructure funding techniques that can also benefit the vitality and sustainability of cities and towns, see “Funding Infrastructure for Growth, Sustainability and Equity” at
    http://media.wix.com/ugd/ddda66_d46304b5437c178e2f092319a6f30364.pdf

    • John Karras says

      Rick-

      You’re right that these strategies are not a “one-size-fits-all” solution. And while the Portland Streetcar has been a huge success, you are correct to point out that it is certainly not the sole reason for the city’s urban vitality. Yes, Jarrett Walker of human transit.org is one of the preeminent thought leaders on transit.

      Thanks for sharing your white paper. Your recommendations for additional user fees in lieu of general taxes sound like a very reasonable approach that should be considered by more governments.

  5. says

    You are RIGHT one here. These are some of the exact strategies we have used to dramatically change the fate of our post industrial rust belt small city here in Mansfield, Ohio. If a community like Mansfield, one of the lowest cost of living in the US can implement these goals, than I really believe any one can. Check us out – http://www.downtownmansfield.com Thanks for this!

    • John Karras says

      Jennifer-

      Thanks for the comment…and great to hear your community is focusing on downtown as a primary economic development strategy. Good point about any community having the potential to become more vibrant. You don’t even need a growing population in your city or metro to make strides in downtown revitalization and transit-oriented development. Cleveland proved this with their HealthLine Bus Rapid Transit corridor: $6 billion in new development along the line in just a handful of years.

Trackbacks

  1. […] “12 Strategies That Will Transform Your City’s Downtown,” by John Karras has some good ideas and concepts to think about. Not everything will work or be beneficial for every city. Some things Abilene is already doing, but we could spread the word more. Anyway, this article gets the juices flowing. […]

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