Friday, June 23, 2017

News from downtowns

The evolution of downtown Cedar Rapids continues, nine years after our catastrophic flood. Work continues on the Smulekoff's Furniture building. The Early Bird coffeehouse has moved into an inviting new space, soon to be joined by an entertainment venue. Across the street is the parking lot that may yet become One Park Place. The CRST Tower is open for business. Plans to complete one-way-to-two-way conversions on 2nd and 3rd Avenues are in place (though taking longer to accomplish than had been anticipated). The Roosevelt Hotel sign will once again illuminate the night sky. And inside the Roosevelt, Mod's Market is opening a convenience store next month providing an option for light grocery shopping.

And Hibu has moved their HQ to the Town Center Buidling
Downtowns across the country are trying to catch the urban wave, with mixed results. Detroit, apparently rebounding after being flat on its back just a few years ago, is adding design amenities to encourage people to hang around. The northwest Arkansas town of Johnson is planning to create a downtown where there now is nothing; neighboring Bentonville has done this, I think, which is somewhat ironic given that Bentonville is the home of Wal-Mart, which is not known as a friend to downtowns new or old.

In other places, plans for urban development have run afoul of residents. The Denver suburb of Greenwood Village voted down an ambitious (too ambitious?) plan for development around a light rail station. The transit-oriented development (TOD) plan might have been too ambitious; it's hard to tell between the claims of this pro-TOD plan document and this anti-TOD video. Santa Monica, California, defeated an anti-development referendum, but is trying to thread the needle between downtown housing and traffic concerns of existing residents; its city manager doubts housing can ever be affordable in this swanky beachfront community.

Alan Mallach of the Center for Community Progress suggests a number of ways that state governments can support urban revitalization (Mallach 2017: 43-49):
  • Let local officials take the lead, rather than being too prescriptive. "Leaving aside direct state intervention, state urban policies err more often in placing narrow and often arbitrary constraints on local discretion; or, alternatively, in imposing the state’s preferences on local governments despite local officials’ judgement that those preferences are inconsistent with the city’s needs or policy goals" (p. 43).
  • Target resources to areas of greatest need, like central cities (and small towns) that lack the tax base of wealthier communities. He cites research by Jennifer S. Vey (Restoring Prosperity, Brookings Institution Press 2007) to the effect that not only are metropolitan areas the main economic drivers of their states, but that metropolitan economies track the economic health of their central cities.
  • Treat local regions as social-economic wholes rather than assortments of either rival municipalities--the city of Pittsburgh, for example, is one of 133 governments in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania--or disconnected functions like job creation, transportation, housing and so forth.
  • Make inclusion of all citizens an underlying goal, by supporting wages or adding conditions to economic development incentives (See Table 10, p. 42).
Of course whether state elected officials are inclined to Mallach's advice depends on whether they want to build their states' cities instead of undermining them and pre-empting everything they try to do.

Even where state governments are amenable, urban revitalization can be threatening to local residents concerned with the negative effects of change. The easiest change to sell would be the Detroit example, small touches that were privately funded. More large-scale change brings specters of crime, noise, parking shortages and drainage issues. Santa Monica city manager Rick Cole argues that the majority of people in his town are neither "pro-development real estate interests" nor "the organized older homeowners who oppose them."
They are interested in their jobs, safe neighborhoods, access to good schools and green parks, and places to start a life or raise their kids. They are concerned about air and water quality, they demand better transportation choices, and they have demonstrated a willingness to pay for them. They are equally tired of lousy city planning and half-baked ballot initiatives.
Is there a constituency for urban development done right? Brent Toderian, now in private practice but formerly a planner for the City of Vancouver, urges communities to take "NIMBYs" seriously--their concerns are valid, and sometimes their facts are right--but to have the political will to say no to them when they're wrong. "Often I will learn how to do yes better and address their fears, or at least mitigate them" (Roberts). Beyond that, Toderian has three basic principles for revitalizing urban areas:
Density done well has three components.
 One, it has to be of a very high design quality. I don't just mean aesthetics, although that can be part of it, but it's about profound relationships being addressed through smart design.
The second piece is that it has to be multimodal. In fact, it has to have active transport priority: walking, biking and transit have to be emphasized. If you try to design density around cars, it's a recipe for failure. You have to make walking, biking and transit not just available, but delightful. 
The third piece is amenities and a diversity of housing types, to make density not just compact, but livable and lovable. It's the difference between cramming people in and creating great neighborhoods. So, amenities such as parks and green spaces, public and people places, heritage preservation and integration, community and cultural facilities, civic facilities, even things like incubator space for artists. Amenities are the things that give communities heart and vibrancy. It also includes housing diveristy: rental housing and public housing.   
One big variable in city-building is the future of retail. The global financial firm Credit Suisse predicts over 8000 stores will close by 2017, the most of any year this century, and that the ultimate toll on malls will see a quarter of them close within five years (Peterson). Where will shopping go? Some is going online, a lot to discount stores... any significant uptick for traditional downtowns? The best case scenario has brick-and-mortar retail evolving in interesting new ways that would add life to downtown areas.

 Alan Mallach, State Government and Urban Revitalization: How States Can Foster Stronger, More Inclusive Cities (Lincoln Institute, 2017)
 Hayley Peterson, "Wall Street Bank Says a Quarter of Shopping Malls Will Close in 5 Years," Business Insider, 31 May 2017
 David Roberts, "Making Cities More Dense Always Sparks Resistance. Here's How to Overcome It,", 20 June 2017

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