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Thinking Big on Main Street

April 12, 2012

As we consider how cities can thrive, we try to look at the big picture.  We often begin at the city level and think beyond it—creating economic linkages with foreign markets, addressing the global issues of energy use and climate change, and focusing on cities’ roles within their regional, national, and international context.

But last week, when I attended Rediscover Main Street, the 2012 National Main Streets Conference, in Baltimore, Md., I was reminded that cities are also working at the neighborhood, block, and even building level to produce very big results.  The National Main Street Center operates under the National Trust for Historic Preservation, but this is not your typical church ladies’ historic preservation.  The tone at Main Streets is not about preservation for the sake of preservation—a perspective that can trivialize the efforts—or even preservation for architectural merit.  Rather, Main Streets is a “preservation-based economic development tool that enables communities to revitalize downtown and neighborhood business districts by leveraging local assets—from historic, cultural, and architectural resources to local enterprises and community pride.”

As part of a session on “complete streets,” Executive Director of Dubuque Main Street Dan LoBianco presented the Historic Millwork District in downtown Dubuque, Iowa.  The comprehensive program, which began with the Main Street-style restoration of a series of historic warehouses, has been a catalyst for revitalizing the city.  As a result, it has attracted the attention of the U.S. Department of Transportation, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and Senators Chuck Grassley and Tom Harkin.  Talk about starting small to think big.

So how did Dubuque’s Historic Millwork District go from being a simple main street restoration project to a nationally, and internationally, recognized model?

  • Complete Streets.  The District underwent a “complete streets” transformation between 2010 and 2012.  The new street infrastructure accommodates drivers, public transportation users, pedestrians, bicyclists, the elderly, children, and people with disabilities.  This included a complete reconstruction of underground utilities (funded through federal TIGER and state RISE grants), permeable pavement, sidewalk reconstruction (including curbs and bump-outs), and historically-appropriate, energy-efficient street lighting.  In addition, Phase 1 of Dubuque’s Intermodal Transportation Center (DITC) is underway within the District.  The complete streets approach doesn’t provide funds, it simply changes the way existing funds are spent, so this effort paves the way for future smart growth development throughout the city.
  • Historic Preservation.  The Historic Millwork District was the backbone of the regional economy at the turn of the 20th century.  It was home to dozens of companies and 2,500 employees.  A National Register Historic District designation recognized the important cultural and regional history of the district, and the city responded with the use of Federal and State Historic Tax Credits and New Market Tax Credits, to rehabilitate many of the historically honored structures within the District into loft-style housing units.  The project seeks the continuation of the 26% Federal Historic Tax Credit for Disaster Recovery (FHTC), which has been a key funding source for making historic rehabilitation projects like this possible.
  • The Arts.  Newly renovated housing units and the urban lifestyle are attracting artists, craftspeople, cultural exhibits, and events.  The neighborhood is being reborn as a cultural hub for the region.
  • Partnerships.  Dubuque has 25 years of experience fostering revitalization through partnerships with community leaders, the Greater Dubuque Development Corporation, Dubuque Main Street, and philanthropic organizations. This commitment to partnerships continues with redevelopment of the Historic Millwork District with development goals created out of a shared community vision.
  • Housing Options.  With the recent location of an IBM customer service center in Dubuque and the resulting addition of 1,300 new jobs, the potential for economic revitalization has increased, but so has the need for affordable rental housing options, especially for transplants seeking an urban lifestyle.  The project is expected to add over 700 multi-family housing units to the downtown.
  • Sustainable Dubuque.  The city has committed to sustainability.  Sustainable Dubuque ensures a viable, livable, and equitable community for the next generations by embracing economic prosperity, social/cultural vibrancy, and environmental integrity.  The Historic Millwork District upholds this mission by creating high-skilled jobs through employer attraction and historic rehabilitation, increasing community knowledge, pride, and mobility, and creating utility systems that ensure healthy air and clean water.

As Dubuque Mayor Roy Buol joins an NLC delegation to the cities of Stockholm and Malmö, Sweden and Hamburg, Germany in just a few days as part of an International Sustainability Exchange, the city is sure to attract more positive international attention for its commitment to and achievement in sustainability.  But learning more about the Historic Millwork District was also an important reminder of the not-so-small efforts happening right there on Main Street and how they can help catalyze major progress.

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