Lessons for Any Downtown

By on May 14, 2019

From Next City:  EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is excerpted from “The Heart of the City: Creating Vibrant Downtowns for a New Century,” by Alexander Garvin, published by Island Press. In it, Garvin diagnoses why some downtowns have struggled while others have thrived, and he highlights the people, businesses, institutions and public agencies effecting change in downtowns across the United States. In this excerpt, he points to two essential tactics, among others, to re-energize downtowns: devoting more of the public realm to pedestrian- and bike-friendly spaces; and sustaining a healthy environment by expanding parkland and greening smaller concretized spaces.

Many 20th-century urban experts believed cities, and downtowns in particular, were obsolete. Their prescriptions for preventing them from withering away included redevelopment and reorganization in order to transform (presumably) obsolete downtowns into efficiently operating, modern districts; adding facilities designed to attract new customers whose spending would spill over into the rest of the city; or retrofitting the public realm to accommodate additional motor vehicles that would bring the goods, services, businesses, and people needed for continuing growth. However, each of these strategies was fundamentally flawed, because each one assumed that some particular end state would be the right means for achieving a properly functioning downtown.

A second group of experts, who dealt exclusively with a specific city, saw the future of downtown as a zero-sum game in which they were competing for business and people with other downtowns in the region. Their approach was to subsidize specific players directly, with tax rebates, direct grants, or below-market mortgage loans. However, if that subsidy continues in perpetuity, it cannot be a viable program for improving downtown. Rather, it is a program for purchasing, at taxpayer expense, the downtown presence of one particular set of residents, retailers, businesses, and activities that are deemed worthy of receiving subsidies.

Instead, urbanists should have been conceiving of ways to assist the downtown activists who are continuing to transform downtown America by attracting customers, improving services, altering the activities taking place in particular locations, erecting or converting buildings, changing land uses, opening businesses, and assisting the governments that are reducing the cost of doing business or living downtown.

How to Assist Downtown America

Very few urbanists still recommend the radical redevelopment projects that were prevalent in the 1950s and 1960s. The infrastructure subsidies now being proposed are devoted largely to rehabilitation, repair, and maintenance — not new highway construction — and only occasionally additional mass transit. Stadiums and other megaprojects are still being proposed but in fewer places, largely because of local opposition or spending constraints. Tax rebates and direct subsidies remain popular, however, and at the right time, for the right purposes, and in the right places they will be effective.

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