The New Vibrant Downtown

By Bradley, Richard | Nation's Cities Weekly, June 10, 1996 | Go to article overview

The New Vibrant Downtown

Bradley, Richard, Nation's Cities Weekly

All over America -- in fact, all over the world-- aspects of a new and revitalized downtown are taking shape. In big city downtowns, blockbuster museum shows, new sports arenas, and a new generation of "urban entertainment retail" stores are symbols of this new vibrancy. In small downtowns, new restaurants, restored movie heaters, and a new generation of "interactive" libraries are bringing people back to town centers.

The story of downtown success is teeing told in many places. In its year-end edition, New York magazine proclaimed on its cover "New York is Back" The cover story proclaimed "the death of the city has been declared so often that almost no one realizes life here is actually getting better-safer, nicer, tastier, cheaper, snazzier, more sensible and exciting than it has been in years -- New York is back."

More recently, The Wall Street Journal ran a lead story entitled "More Stores Spurn Malls for tile Village Square." It reported on how national retailers are setting up shop in a place they have long neglected--Main Street. The story points out that stores, ranging from the Gap to Starbucks, are beginning to look at investing in smaller downtowns and affluent suburbs. The article quotes Steve Guttman, president of Federal Realty Investment Trust which has been buying stores in many downtowns, as saying, "customers are getting tired of malls." He adds, "People want to be outside. There is entertainment-value in being outside on the street on a nice day."

Not only are retailers rediscovering downtowns, but industry giants are also moving back to Main Street. General Motors recently announced plans to move its corporate offices back into downtown Detroit, choosing to locate its new global headquarters in the Renaissance Center Towers It follows other corporate giants, like the Disney Company, which has announced plans to build new theaters on 42nd Street in New York City's Times Square.

While downtowns of all sizes may be riding the crest of new interest in entertainment retailing, the renewal of downtowns is based on a set of deeper values and stronger economic forces.

Americans, it appears, want what they had years ago and what Europeans appear to have maintained: a livable community center. The old notion of the downtown as tire central business district is giving way to a vision of downtown as a community gathering place.

In a recent annual report, the Downtown Denver Partnership described its downtown in terms of undergoing a "metamorphosis," evolving as a complex set of centers including: business; housing; education; arts, entertainment and culture; special events; sports; shopping; government; tourism and conventions; heritage; and accessible population centers. In short, it describes itself as "a growing, vibrant and safe urban community."

Even downtowns smaller than Denver, such as Charleston, S.C., and Holland, Mich., where the downtown may have served primarily as a retail and business center, are now evolving and adding cultural tourism and history to the mix in downtown centers.

As many American cities are experiencing, downtowns foster a variety of uses--commercial, residential, and governmental. Key economic and social activities such as retail, culture, entertainment, and education are integrated in a pedestrian-friendly environment, poised to meet the needs of residents, workers, and visitors alike.

The Economic Forces Revitalizing Downtown

Downtowns appear to be on the leading edge of a major economic change for the 21st century, where information and knowledge will become primary commodities. The International Downtown Association has identified three key economic forces, common in most communities, that are propelling an expanded downtown economy. They are information, entertainment, and tourism.

Information. The information marketplace for downtown takes many shapes, and includes business activities which provide both knowledge-based and value-added services to customers. …

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