Why Downtown Development is Crucial for American Cities

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Every year, mayors from cities of all sizes share their visions for the upcoming year in their state of the city speeches. NLC has analyzed trends in these speeches for the last five years, and it should surprise no one that economic development has remained the most popular topic.

But this year, the subtopic of downtown development edged out all other economic development issues for the top spot, coming up in more than a third of the 160 speeches NLC analyzed. This makes it the seventh most frequently mentioned subtopic overall.

A number of mayors articulated clear goals for downtown development. Some examples include:

  • Clarksville, Tennessee: Mayor Kim McMillan championed a downtown performing arts center to enhance the entertainment scene as well as provide meeting space for conferences and other events.
  • Cohoes, New York: Mayor Shawn Morse noted the expansion of a park that would both serve as a modern gathering and event space, and broaden programming to spur additional visitation, recreation and investment in the downtown area.
  • Tonawanda, New York.: Mayor Rick Davis mentioned plans to add mixed-use buildings to the city’s commercial downtown area.
  • Durham, North Carolina: Noting the importance of using public land downtown to leverage affordable housing, Mayor Steve Schewel praised a recent city council vote to provide two acres of land next to the Durham Station development, and up to $3.8 million, to support the construction of 80 affordable units.

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The themes that these plans and projects touch on include:

  • Catalyzing private investment in downtown through public infrastructure improvements and development incentives;
  • Public acquisition of sites that have been abandoned or neglected;
  • The role of public spaces like parks and plazas, as well as cultural facilities, to support community needs and tourism;
  • The role of new residential development in making downtown vibrant and growing the market for commercial uses; and
  • The outsized importance of downtown development projects in enhancing the city’s overall fiscal health and tax base due to the higher tax revenues generated.

Strikingly, the themes highlighted above come up frequently among participants in NLC’s Daniel Rose Fellowship, which for the past nine years has provided technical assistance to large U.S. cities nationwide who wish to further develop their downtowns.

Over the years, the Rose Fellowship has shared and learned a number of lessons about downtown development, and our Rose Fellow mayors have similar goals to the mayors highlighted in our State of the Cities report:

  • Former Oakland, California, Mayor Jean Quan and current Rochester, New York, Mayor Lovely Warren wanted to bring new retail and shopping destinations to their downtown, which had experienced a renaissance in residential development, to turn it into a true mixed-use neighborhood that could meet the needs of new residents.
  • Omaha, Nebraska, Mayor Jean Stothert sought to attract infill development to North Downtown — which at the time was a mix of large, event-based sports and convention centers and vast surface parking lots — to create a unique mixed-use neighborhood that could also support the numerous arts-based enterprises popping up in its abandoned industrial properties.
  • Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell sought to refresh the cultural heart of the city, the aging Blaisdell Center, with new culture and arts facilities as well as a supportive new arts district around them.
  • Former Birmingham, Alabama, Mayor William Bell and current Richmond, Virginia, Mayor Levar Stoney sought to properly restore their significant historical sites to create a tourism-driven economic development strategy that would help provide sustainable funding for their cities.

It is heartening and encouraging to see smaller cities tackling these same challenges. However, proper downtown development requires a tremendous amount of staff technical capacity, deal-making savvy, community support and political will to execute well. To add an extra layer of difficulty, downtown development is very visible, which means these projects entail more political risk and require bolder (and more informed) leadership from public officials.

All of these examples illuminate how critical downtown remains to the future of our cities. While jobs have clearly been moving further outside metro areas over the years, our downtowns’ history, cultural amenities and easy access to transportation make them a special place to live and work. Ultimately, they give our cities a vibrant and relevant identity as they evolve to meet the challenges of the future.

Gideon-Berger-small.jpgAbout the Author: Gideon Berger is the program director for the Daniel Rose Fellowship at the Rose Center for Public Leadership in Land Use, a program of NLC in partnership with the Urban Land Institute.