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Thread: Why do some downtowns die?

  1. #1
    Cyburbian michaelskis's avatar
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    Why do some downtowns die?

    I have been wondering what variables influence the success or failure of community’s or city’s downtown district.

    We hear of new ideas to revitalize many of these urban cores, but what caused them to become that way in the first place, how are those variables corrected, and what can be done to change the perception of downtown districts.

    Before everyone pipes in and says urban sprawl, I am going to ask why is in that there are many downtown’s that have been able to sustain their existence if not thrive even with after the area has sprawled out.

    Sometimes I think that too many of us will look so far into the future, we miss the entire point as to why the downtown is the way that it is today.
    Not my monkey, not my circus. - Old Polish Proverb

  2. #2
    Cyburbian DetroitPlanner's avatar
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    taxation, racism, inablitlity to react to the market place, perceptions of crime, lower income folks left concentratated in the market areas of the downtowns, and the loss of giant anchor department stores as major draws are among reasons why some downtowns do not do so well when compared to the areas around them.

    A good case in point is well Detroit, you notice Detroit is a sprawling gigantic urban area, now overtaking Ann Arbor. This area contains several giant regional malls that seem to be quite healthy, yet downtown Detroit is not as healthy as the others. Ann Arbor however has a viable downtown. It is certainaly no longer a traditional downtown by anymeans. Most of the businesess seems to cater to those out to have a good time and willing to pay exhorbinant prices for food or beer, yet it is healthy. It is healthy because they have adapted to the region's needs and markets itself well. It does not try to be a shopping center.

    Detroit tries to be everything, and in that it succedes to be a little bit of everything and a jumbled mess. The recent centralization of General Motors and Compuware offices have brought a surge in retail and restraunt trade though. However, it is still meager for a downtown the size of Detroit's. This has to deal with its more local maket area being so poor. This is changing rapidly however as new housing is coming in to fill up the old areas and the poor are slowly getting displaced.

  3. #3
    Cyburbian jread's avatar
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    I agree with the above post for reasons why downtowns fail.

    I'm glad that we have a very thriving downtown here in Austin. There is a lot of push for downtown development: commercial, residential and entertainment. I think this is what is vital to making downtown a desirable place.

    http://www.downtownaustin.com/

  4. #4
    Cyburbian nuovorecord's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by jread
    I agree with the above post for reasons why downtowns fail.

    I'm glad that we have a very thriving downtown here in Austin. There is a lot of push for downtown development: commercial, residential and entertainment. I think this is what is vital to making downtown a desirable place.

    http://www.downtownaustin.com/
    Agreed. It is a local and regional decision (either active or passive) to continue to invest in downtown areas, or let them go into decline. As long as a place is safe, vibrant and desireable, people will continue to go there.
    "There's nothing wrong with America that can't be fixed by what's right with America." - Bill Clinton.

  5. #5
    Okay, well let's look at some Philadelphia suburbs: Doylestown, Norristown, and West Chester. They all sit around the middle of their respective counties (the first two are county seats), and were all founded back before they truly functioned as "suburbs" in the commute-mode sense. They're all mid-sized towns that were originally self-sufficient in that they had a small but thriving downtown area, where most residents walked to do their shopping or go to work. Today they're all surrounded entirely in sprawl, and they function very differently, but none of them are "dead."

    Modern-day Doylestown is ultra-chic. It abounds with little yuppie shops and restaurants, a historic movie theater that shows foreign and independent films, a Starbucks occupies the ground floor of an old grand hotel, and the sidewalks are abuzz with properly-groomed men in polo shirts and women in tennis skirts. It is 98% white and wealthy. Its public schools are considered among the best in the burbs. Gap, Talbots, Banana Republic, and other classy staples are here, and they draw customers from all over central and northern Bucks County-- because the nearest shopping mall, the dinky Montgomery Mall, is a good 20 minute drive without traffic (and traffic along that stretch of 202 is pretty bad during rush hours so forget it then). Doylestown is the end of the R5 rail line into the city, so most of the town can walk to the station and be at their office in Center City Philadelphia in just under an hour. A small stream of low wage earners from North Philly ride up to Doylestown on the early trains to help man the shops and do construction. Doylestown is surrounded by a gratuitous amount of residential sprawl; the new cookie-cutter McMansions outnumber the historic homes in the old borough (many of which now house law offices). Most of the shoppers at the used bookstore on Main Street on a Saturday afternoon live in the Township or nearby Buckingham. But retail strips are a bit of a drive, so the quaint downtown survives as a quaint, boutiqued remembrance of its old self. Doylestown is surrounded by a limited access loop highway so through traffic doesn't have to traverse its streets (its clientele would never stand for such noise), and the nearest Target, McDonalds, etc. are 15 minutes down route 611 outside of the loop.

    Norristown, on the other hand, is one of the poorest communities in Montgomery County. Like Doylestown, it's a "Courthouse Town." Unlike Doylestown, most of the County employees leave the borough to go home as soon as the clock hits five. Its once grand Main Street is full of vacancies, and although its housing stock is a similar collection of rowhouses, victorians, twins, and quaint shacks, they're in decidedly worse condition overall. Housing prices are so low that Norristown has become the Mexican mecca between the surrounding wealth of Montgomery County. Many of the undocumented workers who do all the landscaping and construction in the nearby tony townships today call Norristown home (and breathe new life into the formerly-Irish Catholic parishes). Norristown is one of the less-revered of the suburban school districts. Norristown's transit connections to the city are even better than Doylestown's, with shorter headways on its R6 route and additional access to 69th Street via the 100 line. Its sidewalks are similarly bustling during the day, although the faces you see are more likely to be brown or black on the east side of town, and the people are more likely to be going to pick up a necessity, not having an afternoon stroll for the hell of it. The 80s were probably the borough's low point, and immigration has done much to revitalize its downtown. People in the nearby sprawl of Blue Bell and King of Prussia are mostly still afraid of venturing there after dark, but it boasts successful new restaurants that do draw a substantial crowd of the moneyed. So why does Norristown differ so much from Doylestown?

    1. Norristown had always been a more industrial town than Doylestown, and we all know what happened to that... The area between Main Street and the Schuylkill River doesn't seem to have ever been cleaned up since the time when industries operated on the waterfront.

    2. Remember when I said that people from the Doylestown area shop Downtown because the nearest mall is quite a drive? Norristown is directly across the river from King of Prussia, home of the biggest mall on the East Coast. Why would GAP want to take the gamble of putting a store on Main Street when all its peers are only 4 miles away in an enclosed shopping wonderland?

    3. Montgomery County uses Norristown as its section 8 dumping grounds. Most of the worst-maintained properties in the borough are owned by the county. Although there are some section 8 in Pottstown and Lansdale, the majority are all lumped in Norristown. Bucks County, on the other hand, lumps most of its section 8 in the eastern end of its county, around Bristol, and saves Doylestown from the scourge of too many "undesireables" for shoppers' pleasures.

    West Chester strikes a balance between the two. Not as exclusive and boutiquized as Doylestown, not as rough and dilapidated as Norristown, but it's got something neither of them have: a college. A giant captive audience of young folks with money to burn and limited transportation options. And I think that's the kicker. Creating a captive audience through geographic quirks, large institutions, or meeting unmet needs. Norristown is transit-friendly and provides affordable housing and ethnic stores (there's a Jamaican grocery painted with a mural I love-- Bart Simpson with a beer belly holding an American flag) amid a wealthy county of unaffordable, WASPy sprawl. Doylestown on the other end is too bougie for a mall. West Chester is hip by location. I'd say the three examples represent the three easiest (best? maybe not) ways for struggling downtowns to "remodel" themselves in the era of sprawl.

  6. #6
    Member Wulf9's avatar
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    One factor that led to decline of downtowns was rezoning the residential areas immediately adjacent to the downtown for commercial, or industrial use. This was typically done int he 40's, 50's and 60's before these uses have since became much lower value.

    What happened was that the functioning residential (often single family houses) was disrupted by an occasional retail store or auto body shop. People who had a choice did not choose to live in the "transition" areas, and left. They were replaced by people with not much choice.

    In addition, the transitional ring gradually pushes residents away from the core downtown, so there are fewer and fewer people within walking distance of downtown.

    It's amazing to see the number of downtowns ringed by these transitional areas that have been in "transition" for the past 60 years.

  7. #7

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    Of the countless things that could be said on this topic (most of them have probably been said if you search cyburbia's archives), I will say just the following:
    1. Downtowns in smaller to mid-sized cities, not to mention towns, are far, far likelier to be viable if it is a college town.
    2. Most downtowns that have survived, or even prospered, bear little resemblence to what they looked like back 50 years ago. They typically serve only a niche market, are very upscale, or touristy.
    3. The model that has done the most to produce vital downtowns is the strict landuse model adopted by Oregon (notice how I avoid saying anti-sprawl model?). Otherwise, it is hard to avoid the tyranny of the automobile, which demands ample parking or the appearance of ample parking, which is lacking in downtown (almost by definition).
    Economic decline? Racial issues? Deteriorating housing stock? These are also issues that affected virtually all cities and their downtowns, but some more than others.

  8. #8
    Cyburbian DetroitPlanner's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by passdoubt
    Okay, well let's look at some Philadelphia suburbs: Doylestown, Norristown, and West Chester. They all sit around the middle of their respective counties (the first two are county seats), and were all founded back before they truly functioned as "suburbs" in the commute-mode sense. They're all mid-sized towns that were originally self-sufficient in that they had a small but thriving downtown area, where most residents walked to do their shopping or go to work. Today they're all surrounded entirely in sprawl, and they function very differently, but none of them are "dead."
    What about the town of Chester? I was driving around Philly one and thought that geographically that would be a wonderful place to spend the afternoon. It was one of the most bombed out scary hellholes of a suburban downtown as I have ever seen. I would have thought where the Brandywine Valley met the Delaware River would be very scenic and be a top draw. Boy was I mistaken. I still have nightmares about that place, and mind you, I know some pretty rough towns, but that was by far the roughest I've ever seen.

    What about Reading? If Reading was in good shape, would the old station now be a convention center?

  9. #9
    Cyburbian Cardinal's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Wulf9
    One factor that led to decline of downtowns was rezoning the residential areas immediately adjacent to the downtown for commercial, or industrial use. This was typically done int he 40's, 50's and 60's before these uses have since became much lower value....
    I'm not sure I agree with you. Downtowns have historically been the original location of the community's industry, and its moving out may contribute to decline. Failing to provide room for the downtown to expand may be a factor in its decline. One of the best strategies available to some communities is rezoning and redevelopment that may allow new business to go into formerly residential redevelopment sites, or adaptive reuse that allows retail and offices to locate in the residential buildings edging the downtown.
    Anyone want to adopt a dog?

  10. #10
    Cyburbian michaelskis's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by DetroitPlanner
    What about the town of Chester? I was driving around Philly one and thought that geographically that would be a wonderful place to spend the afternoon. It was one of the most bombed out scary hellholes of a suburban downtown as I have ever seen. I would have thought where the Brandywine Valley met the Delaware River would be very scenic and be a top draw. Boy was I mistaken. I still have nightmares about that place, and mind you, I know some pretty rough towns, but that was by far the roughest I've ever seen.

    What about Reading? If Reading was in good shape, would the old station now be a convention center?
    First of all, dude you work in the second most dangerous city in the US... oh wait the 1st is across the river from Philly. But your right, Chester is shady.

    I think that PA in general is a great example of postindustrial cities that adapted to changing economic trends or their downtown died.
    Allentown PA for example is crazy. It has so much potential, but the storefronts are empty. Or at least last time I was there two and a half years ago.
    As for Reading and the rail road idea... lets just say the city and it’s residents would have to change their perception on things. Many of the residents and even many individuals in power still truly believe that the since the city was found on heavy industry with the rail roads, garment plants, and heavy manufacturing.
    The scariest thing is the railroad still owns more land than anyone else in that city, and they don’t want to give it up. The most frustrating thing when I worked there was that the City had so much potential. The architecture was phenomenal, it is pedestrian friendly, it has amazing historical neighborhoods, and has the infrastructure with road access, rail access, and even bike access to many other communities. It is also a short drive from both rural recreation activities and the urban and historical culture of Philly.
    Some people who lived outside of the city would drive out of their way to avoid going downtown. Yes it was not the safest place in PA but the fear that many of the residents had was truly the worst part about it. I would love to go back someday to see if anything has changed, or it if is sill the exact same.

    I almost think that it is a social/ psychological element that controls the success or failure of a downtown. People want to go to safe urban areas that offer a wide range of commercial, cultural, and social activities. But none of these would exist if people where not willing to go into a downtown, and then crime would fill in because of the lack of pedestrian interaction, causing even less people to want to go into an urban core, causing even less store to want to be there. It is a cause and effect case where people are the pinnacle. If you can give people a reason to go into downtown and they feel safe, then they will come back with friends, and more reasons for them to be there will start to pop up.
    Not my monkey, not my circus. - Old Polish Proverb

  11. #11
    I think Reading is far enough from Philly (Berks County is really Pennsylvania Dutch Country, not really the burbs... yet) to lack the critical mass of yuppie urbanites necessary to make it a destination for people who live in the sprawl around it. PA Dutch folks have always been an insular set-- afraid of different people, afraid of change. Berks County was historically one of the most homogenious parts of the state, something like 90% Germanic before the 80s. It's a hotbed of white supremacist groups. This is a big cultural contrast to Philly and its suburbs, where successive waves of immigrant groups pushed out to different neighborhoods (i.e. Italians in South Philly fled to South Jersey, Jews in West Philly fled to the Main Line, Irish fled to Delaware County, etc). You can see why the old guard of traditional Reading folks would react so to their city becoming the fastest growing Hispanic community in PA.

    And the new transplants to the area snatching up cheap housing to commute to the King of Prussia area aren't looking for an urban experience either, they more likely moved out there to escape all that.

    I'd put Reading in the same category as Norristown, but on a bigger scale. I think that ultimately Hispanic migration is saving it from a more complete abandonment too-- although Reading's latinos are mostly Puerto Ricans who've recently fled gentrifying New York and North Jersey.

  12. #12
    Cyburbian DetroitPlanner's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by michaelskis
    First of all, dude you work in the second most dangerous city in the US... oh wait the 1st is across the river from Philly. But your right, Chester is shady.
    I don't just work there, I live there - president of the scare club for men.

    I'm not just the president, I'm also a client.

  13. #13
    Cyburbian
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    Demographic trends and security first. Next, availability of other suburban office space, housing, and shopping alternatives.

    One of the world's best malls - if not the best - is located in my suburban town. 2 miles away, the 100 year old downtown is success by any measure - lots of apparel shops, restaurants, delis, a supermarket, apartments, and occupied office buildings. Also featured are amenities found in failed and successful downtowns - a post office, town hall, train station on line to cbd.

    There are lots of towns like this, especially between northern Virginia and Boston. Features in common are high incomes, high population density, and a police force that prioritizes an aggressive law enforcement presence that deters potential criminals. Availability of office, housing, and shopping alternatives is limited by geographic barriers like land shortages and political barriers like snobby community groups and government land use regulators.

  14. #14

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    Well, I'm back from my whirlwind tour home. Cincinatti remains one of my favorite midwestern cities-what an inbteresting place.

    But, of the 156 threads "unread" Ill comment on this one.

    One of the reasons not really mentioned is bad land planning decisions combined with the generally awful architedctural trends of the 1950s-through-1980s. Giant single use convention centers that squat as windowless monoliths, destroying any potential for interesting streetscapes. Ugly concrete "government centers, " Horrible pedestrian malls with bulky 1970s street furniture,ugly bank towers abandoned by banks or corporations consolidated or destroyed during the mergers and acquisitions booms. Wide, one-way streets which ENCOURAGE traffic to just speed through at a rapid pace. And, to paraphrase ablarc, parking lots. everywhere parking lots.

    why would anyone, for example, go to my hometown's downtown, which suffers from many if not all of these mistakes? Throw in serious crime and even moe dramatic physical decay, and you get desolation like downtown Toledo (sorry, B.U.N ) or Dayton. Even more appealing downtowns in much more affluent cities suffer grievously from the horrific "solutions" of our traffic engineers and visionary planners.

    For example, Lexington, Kentucky's downtown is totally marred by the bad buildings, horrificly fast moving one way pair system of Main Street and Vine Street, too many huge parking garages with blank walls, and bad 1970s-1980s corporate architecture. It is saved by the fragments of coherent streetscape (Victorian Village and parts of Main Street), but does anyone really shop there? (It seems MUCH more healthy than last time). And, the vast parking ocean for Rupp Arena is particularly well planned and attractive. Kentucky is HOT, man. How can they let that vast baking parking lot exist without at least trying to provide some shade trees? Even the lovely historic neighborhoods surrounding downtown are marred by too many parking lots, concrete block "service commercial" crap, and that ever-roaring traffic. At least Lexington is wealthy enough, chic enough, and sophisticated enough that the renewal is beginning to pick up steam-$700,000 townhouses in South Hills's otherwise incherent melange is a good sign.

    Still, there are nicer business districts, and the ubiquitous them strip malls, that will successfully compete. Ca

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