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Thread: Off-center downtowns - a liability?

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    Cyburbia Administrator Dan's avatar
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    Off-center downtowns - a liability?

    I was thinking about cities where the downtown area is not in the geographic center of the region. There's a number of factors why it might not be there; natural features, political boundaries, and so on.

    Some cities have such a large critical mass that the location of the CBD really isn't a factor - see Chicago, San Francisco or Seattle, for instance. What about more "normal" cities, though? Do you think that, among cities of an equivalent size and economic health, off-center downtowns are at a disadvantage compared to those with more "centered" downtowns?

    Some examples ...

    Indianapolis - centerered downtown

    Denver - geographically centered downtown, development in northeast burbs a bit stifled

    Columbus - centered downtown

    Buffalo - offset downtown (Niagara River/Lake Erie/Canada to west, stunted development in Southtowns/snow belt compared to booming Northtowns)

    Cleveland - offset downtown (Lake Erie to north, all development south of city center)

    St. Louis - offset downtown (dominant growth pattern to west and northwest, Mississippi River and lightly populated Illinois side to east)

    Atlanta - offset downtown (dominant growth pattern to north, perception of Ponce de Leon as a cultural boundary)

    Johannesburg - offset downtown (most "formal" development to north and east of city center)
    Growth for growth's sake is the ideology of the cancer cell. -- Edward Abbey

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    Cyburbian Emeritus Chet's avatar
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    Milwaukee has the same offset issues that Cleveland has - except to the east, of course. That discussion actually comes up alot esp. when talking about dispersal patterns and drive times. Is it a hinderance, yes, the western highways are bearing the brunt of commuter sprawl.

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    Cool question, Dan.

    It's possible that a centered downtown could lead to the more equitable distribution of development throughout a given city, but I think it's more dependent on a city's physical place and role in the context of a region.

    For example, Chicago's south side and west side have never kept pace with the development of the rest of the region, largely because they were the location for all railroads entering and leaving the city. The south side rail lines handled trains between Chicago and the East Coast; the west side rail lines handled trains between the western plains and prairies and Chicago. As a result, both areas became the location for the majority of industrial development from the 1860's to the 1960's. People moved to the north side to be away from the noise and grit of the trains, factories and slaughterhouses, and those were usually the people who could afford to do it. So the north side developed as more of a middle class destination.

    You could've moved Chicago's downtown a couple of miles inland, more to the center of the city, and trains would've still needed to go through the south side for East Coast access, and through the west side to reach the Plains. If Chicago was going to grow as an industrial powerhouse in the 19th Century as it did, I don't know if it could've happened any other way.

    In other cities that weren't so transportation/distribution oriented, a centered downtown might make more of a difference.

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    BTW, if you take Chicago and turn it on its side, with Lake Michigan to the north instead of the east, the city's development patterns look very much like Cleveland's. For example:

    - Chicago's large black population on the south side would be where Cleveland's east side is;
    - Cleveland's west side would compare favorably with Chicago's north side;
    - Cleveland's airport and O'Hare would be in the same relative position.

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    Cyburbian oulevin's avatar
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    Chicago and Cleveland

    Keen observation, pete-rock. Only, there is a smattering of wealthy burbs on the east side as well, along I-271, such as Pepper Pike, Gates Mills, and Solon. I don't know if there are any pockets of wealth on Chicago's southside.

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    Cyburbian masafer's avatar
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    Re: Chicago and Cleveland

    Originally posted by oulevin
    Keen observation, pete-rock. Only, there is a smattering of wealthy burbs on the east side as well, along I-271, such as Pepper Pike, Gates Mills, and Solon. I don't know if there are any pockets of wealth on Chicago's southside.
    There are a few pockets of wealth on the South Side, particularly Hyde Park, which has remained stable with the University of Chicago. Just to the north, Kenwood was once the city's premier neighborhood, and though it's fallen on hard times, it's starting to make a comeback, and still has amazing housing stock. There are a number of other areas, that are still solidly middle class, such as South Shore, Hegeswich or Chatham (I think... 87th st. or thereabouts).

    The region as a whole has been hit pretty heavily by industrial disinvestment, but the Southside is often unfairly maligned by the frankly dismal conditions in the traditional "black belt" and around the housing projects.

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    Cyburbia Administrator Dan's avatar
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    Interesting observation regarding Chicago. Buffalo has similar issues; railroads east from NYC, south and southwest to Pittsburgh and Chicago. Industrial development rollowed the railroads, locating at sidings and close to freight yards. Lots of belt lines and terminal railroads, splitting what would otherwise be large, parcels of land into tens of small "iron islands." Swamps immediately south of the Buffalo River. Wind blowing off the lake to the southeast, beinging lake effect snow and the smells from industry located along the shore.

    The north and northeast areas, on the other hand, don't have such handicaps. No railroads directly conecting downtown with those areas, which means no iron islands ... but also no corridors suitable for transit or commuter railroads. Land is flat, there's few natural or manmade boundaries, and Buffalo's original gentry settled north of downtown. Amherst and Clarence today are just extensions of the Delaware District, Parkside and North Buffalo.

    A highway map of Buffalo is especially interesting to look at. There's lots of expressways to the Southtowns, where there are relatively few people compared to the Northtowns.

    (Map centered on downtown Buffalo)
    Growth for growth's sake is the ideology of the cancer cell. -- Edward Abbey

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    Re: Re: Chicago and Cleveland

    Originally posted by masafer


    There are a few pockets of wealth on the South Side, particularly Hyde Park, which has remained stable with the University of Chicago. Just to the north, Kenwood was once the city's premier neighborhood, and though it's fallen on hard times, it's starting to make a comeback, and still has amazing housing stock. There are a number of other areas, that are still solidly middle class, such as South Shore, Hegeswich or Chatham (I think... 87th st. or thereabouts).

    The region as a whole has been hit pretty heavily by industrial disinvestment, but the Southside is often unfairly maligned by the frankly dismal conditions in the traditional "black belt" and around the housing projects.
    Ditto. BTW, a quick look at U.S. Census maps of the Cleveland region shows that Pepper Pike, Gates Mills and Solon are in the same relative position to Orland Park, Tinley Park, Frankfort and New Lenox in the Chicago area. They are all fairly wealthy, recently built-up suburbs of Chicago.

    One more thing: All these observations about centered downtowns, railroads and "underdeveloped" areas of cities are probably true of most cities in the northeast and midwest, but I'd bet that southern and western cities, being more "polycentric" and recent in their growth, have had a different experience and a different pattern.

    Also: just like in Buffalo, lake effect snow is way more prominent on the south side of Chicago, too.

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    Cleveland questions

    Cleveland has always been an interesting city to me (an ex-midwesterner from northern Indiana)

    I remember some of the "Western Reserve" towns like Gates Mills and Hunting Valley being particularly green and lush. Is there really anything as nice on the west side of Cleveland? I know Rocky River and Avon Lake are solidly middle class, but I don't remember anything as nice as Shaker Heights or Hunting Valley.

    Just curious.

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    Cyburbian Seabishop's avatar
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    I think being off-center is not a liability because you're off center for a good reason - usually a waterfront. Although, it seems harder to serve the entire city well with transit when downtown is at one end of the city.

    Most off-center riverfront cities probably wish they owned the prime waterfront land across "the river" where all the new condos and restaurants are going.

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    Cyburbian masafer's avatar
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    Originally posted by Seabishop
    I think being off-center is not a liability because you're off center for a good reason - usually a waterfront. Although, it seems harder to serve the entire city well with transit when downtown is at one end of the city.

    I'm not sure that being off center necessarily makes it more difficult to provide transit, other than the increased travel times from the most distant suburbs. But you have that with autos as well. You basically just provide half of a hub-spoke system, like Chicago, or Philadelphia.

    Most off-center riverfront cities probably wish they owned the prime waterfront land across "the river" where all the new condos and restaurants are going.
    Yeah, all those wonderful new condos and restaurants in East St. Louis and Camden

    Perhaps those are special cases because of the different states involved, but in those cases, the river has seemed to be a barrier to development, and in St. Louis and Philly, most of the new upscale commercial and residential development seems to be going west.

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    Originally posted by Seabishop
    I think being off-center is not a liability because you're off center for a good reason - usually a waterfront.

    Most off-center riverfront cities probably wish they owned the prime waterfront land across "the river" where all the new condos and restaurants are going.
    Has any city in the U.S. ever completely moved its downtown from one location to another? Again, knowing what I know of Chicago, I know the Loop "moved" a couple of blocks in the 1880's from being centered at Michigan Ave. and the Chicago River to State and Madison, which is supposedly the center of downtown. But that wasn't a conscious policy decision.

    For instance, I just read on Planetizen that a new geological fault was discovered beneath downtown LA. What if it had to move? And where would it go?

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    Development "across the river"

    On the other hand, there is Cincinatti, with all of the glitzy new development across the river in Kentucky.

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    Cyburbian H's avatar
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    Response to: Atlanta - offset downtown (dominant growth pattern to north, perception of Ponce de Leon as a cultural boundary)"


    Atl. started as a center downtown but grew N for many reasons. One is the cultural boundary of Ponce, you are correct, you commonly hear older people say things like, “I just don’t go south of Ponce”. The original “rich” street/neighborhood in Atl. was built along Northside Drive running north out of downtown and naturally everyone wanted to be as close to that as possible for reputation reasons and that tradition spread. In fact, one of the premier real estate companies in Atl. is named Northside Realty. So when you move to Atl. you find out fast that this is where you “want” to be if you are “anybody”.

    But there are other factors as well, that push people who care about more than reputation. For one the Atl. boom started about the same time as the HUGE airport on the south side. It is only natural to grow away from that (noise and industry) when able. Also Ponce is not only a cultural boundary, but a geographically boundary. North of Ponce starts beautiful the rolling hills, creeks and hardwoods leading up the Appalachian Mnts. To the south of Ponce starts the flat farmland with skinny pine trees instead of thick shady hardwoods. That is also the start of the Knat population, which is a bother if you plan to do anything outside in the summer.

    Unfortunately Atl. has no geographical boundary stopping the growth to the north and continues to spread toward the mountains like a virus.

    Being form this area it all makes me so sad.

    Now I live in Miami, it as well is a little off center, but for obvious different reasons…the water.
    "Those who plan do better than those who do not plan, even though they rarely stick to their plan." - Winston Churchill

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    Originally posted by Huston
    [BBut there are other factors as well, that push people who care about more than reputation. For one the Atl. boom started about the same time as the HUGE airport on the south side. It is only natural to grow away from that (noise and industry) when able. [/B]
    I'd disagree with this. While that's true of Atlanta and other cities (Detroit and Philadelphia come to mind), there are many instances where the major growth areas are right next to airports. In the Chicago area, O'Hare sits near the intersection of the northern, northwest and western suburbs that have exploded since the 1980's. Also, the glitzy hotels of the Las Vegas Strip are smack dab against McCarran Airport. And Dulles in northern Virginia has drawn new development toward it, through Fairfax and Loudoun counties.

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    Cyburbian H's avatar
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    In response to pete-rock: In the Chicago area, O'Hare sits near the intersection of the northern, northwest and western suburbs that have exploded since the 1980's.

    I can’t speak about the other examples, but the first thing that comes to mind in CHI is the timing. Is it that the boom around O’hare did not start until the 80’s because there was land elsewhere and they finally ran out and started using land next to the airport in th 1980s?

    This is the case in Atl., the south suburbs have started to takeoff in mid to late 90s because the northern suburbs stretch so far and cost so much more.

    Just a thought.

    But, I will go on record as saying that I (personally) would not wish to live next to a major airport, but you do raise a good point. Should we start a poll?
    "Those who plan do better than those who do not plan, even though they rarely stick to their plan." - Winston Churchill

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    Cyburbian biscuit's avatar
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    Another factor that probably helped push Atlanta north is race(ism?). When the interstate highways were constructed, much of the of the residential downtown of the city was torn-up or paved over (underground Atlanta is part of this)and many of the black residents who lived there were displaced. The north side of the city was already considered a wealthy area so many of the displaced black residents settled to the south of the city - where once again they were saddled with a massive construction project (ATL-Hartsfield International) When the development boom started, the newer more affluent suburbs naturaly sprang-up around the white upper-class areas of the city. This is the story I heard.
    Last edited by biscuit; 08 Apr 2003 at 5:00 PM.

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    Cyburbian biscuit's avatar
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    Originally posted by Huston
    Being form this area it all makes me so sad.
    Huston:

    Are you from the North Georgia Mts. or the Gainsville north Atlanta area?

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    Originally posted by Huston
    I can’t speak about the other examples, but the first thing that comes to mind in CHI is the timing. Is it that the boom around O’hare did not start until the 80’s because there was land elsewhere and they finally ran out and started using land next to the airport in th 1980s?

    This is the case in Atl., the south suburbs have started to takeoff in mid to late 90s because the northern suburbs stretch so far and cost so much more.
    There was plenty of land west of O'Hare, but the areas east and south of it were well developed. All of the area developed as the airport grew in stature and importance. Getting back to the start of this thread, the O'Hare area might now be considered Chicagoland's downtown -- the northwest burbs have almost as much office space as the Loop.

    But, I will go on record as saying that I (personally) would not wish to live next to a major airport, but you do raise a good point.
    Neither would I, but there are many well-to-do people who live directly under O'Hare's flight lanes.

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    Cyburbian H's avatar
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    Biscuit said: Another factor that probably helped push Atlanta north is race(ism?).

    Unfortunately, this is probably very true. I assumed that was the ‘cultural’ boundary of Ponce that was mentioned earlier.
    "Those who plan do better than those who do not plan, even though they rarely stick to their plan." - Winston Churchill

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    Cyburbia Administrator Dan's avatar
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    Re: Cleveland questions

    Originally posted by BKM
    I remember some of the "Western Reserve" towns like Gates Mills and Hunting Valley being particularly green and lush. Is there really anything as nice on the west side of Cleveland? I know Rocky River and Avon Lake are solidly middle class, but I don't remember anything as nice as Shaker Heights or Hunting Valley.
    For some reason, Buffalo's more bucolic southern suburbs just never took off.

    Buffalo's premier suburb is Amherst, the core of which is about 15 miles northeast of downtown Buffalo. It's flat and somewhat swampy, but the center of most high-end office development outside of downtown, and the center of most high-end retail development in the metro, period. Residential ... approaching buildout, and dominated by upper-middle income mom and pop built tract houses to custom "my God, does anyone really need eight bathrooms?" behemoths.

    Head southeast from downtown 15 miles, and you're in gently rolling, lush hills. Around you will be quaint villages, scattered with leapfrog residential development; usually $200K to $300K houses on one-half to one acre lots. Office develoment? Not much. Retail? Big boxen. Large houses, but not like the $1M barns that are going up in the Northtowns.

    I wonder what the shape of the metro area would be like if Ontario was part of the United States, or the US lost the Revolutionary War but Buffalo still emerged. Probably somewhat less sprawl to the northeast. If Buffalo followed KC to some extent, the "Westtowns" would recently emerge as some sort of residential promised land, with large suburban homes just a few miles from downtown, and commuters complaining about the wait on the bridge crossings. If it followed the St. Louis/Philly model, a down-and-out, seen-better-days, predominantly minority city of Fort Erie might be the result. Maybe a stronger downtown Buffalo, because population would be a bit more evenly distributed around it.
    Growth for growth's sake is the ideology of the cancer cell. -- Edward Abbey

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    Cyburbian H's avatar
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    Biscuit said: Are you from the North Georgia Mts. or the Gainsville north Atlanta area?

    I was born and reared in the Atlanta City Limits proper, Fulton County side, and that is north of Ponce since you were probably wondering.
    "Those who plan do better than those who do not plan, even though they rarely stick to their plan." - Winston Churchill

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    Cyburbian oulevin's avatar
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    In response to BKM: I remember some of the "Western Reserve" towns like Gates Mills and Hunting Valley being particularly green and lush. Is there really anything as nice on the west side of Cleveland? I know Rocky River and Avon Lake are solidly middle class, but I don't remember anything as nice as Shaker Heights or Hunting Valley.

    The burbs of Lakewood and Westlake are nice. Most of Cleveland's pro athletes live in the latter. I have to admit, though, as a planning student, I'm much more familiar with the east side, explicitly because of Shaker Heights, Euclid , University Circle, and Cleveland Heights.

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    Cyburbian Emeritus Chet's avatar
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    Originally posted by Huston
    But, I will go on record as saying that I (personally) would not wish to live next to a major airport, but you do raise a good point. Should we start a poll?
    My last place was literally at the end of Generall Mitchel International's longest runway. If I were a terrorist sleeper cell, it would have been a great place to set up shop with the RPG's. Very annoying when the planes took off facing away from you, and fortunately, it was a short term arrangement. My new place is only a mile and a half from the airport in beautiful Oak Creek Wisconsin, and it is in the "crotch" between the two runways. (no jokes please EG and Miked D!) Noise is not a factor at all.

    Its not proximity to the facility, its proximity to flight paths.

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    Cyburbian Habanero's avatar
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    He didn't say Tex!

    Originally posted by bturk


    My last place was literally at the end of Generall Mitchel International's longest runway. If I were a terrorist sleeper cell, it would have been a great place to set up shop with the RPG's. Very annoying when the planes took off facing away from you, and fortunately, it was a short term arrangement. My new place is only a mile and a half from the airport in beautiful Oak Creek Wisconsin, and it is in the "crotch" between the two runways. (no jokes please EG and Miked D!) Noise is not a factor at all.

    Its not proximity to the facility, its proximity to flight paths.
    Newsflash:
    BTurk reports noise not a factor while living in the crotch.
    When Jesus said "love your enemies", he probably didn't mean kill them.

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