Revitalizing Urban Downtown
Since the 1970s there has quietly emerged a program that brings this revitalization
process on a wide scale to communities seeking alternatives to devastating
change. With impressive results that defy standard measuring criteria, the
Four-Point Approach "has slowly grown since its inception in 1976 into
one of the most successful national redevelopment programs.... It is a program
that offers useful directions instead of easy answers, that values instincts
of citizens as highly as expertise of professionals, that respects the inseparability
of the economic and physical environment, the accumulated character of place....
What's happened to America's neighborhood Downtown?
Downtown has changed. Once the vibrant center of a neighborhood's civic
and commercial life, neighborhood commercial districts began experiencing
difficulty several decades ago. With the passage of the Interstate Highway
Act of 1956 people started moving to the suburbs - and businesses and jobs
followed, cutting the economic underpinnings of neighborhood commercial
districts. Faced with tough competition from new suburban shopping options
and confronted with profound changes in consumer lifestyles, geographic
mobility and shoppers' expectations, Downtown businesses were poorly equipped
to compete with these new economic threats. Businesses closed. Property
fell into disrepair. Jobs disappeared. Crime increased. Civic leaders and
neighborhood residents gradually lost confidence in Downtown's viability.
But there are answers to these complex problems. Throughout
the nation, hundreds of towns and cities are proving that getting back to
basics, working cooperatively, and incorporating a historic preservation
ethic into their planning decisions-an ethic of conservation, of recycling,
and of building on a community's underlying assets-is breathing new life
What is the Revitalization program?
The Revitalization program is a common sense process for dealing with all
the problems and opportunities facing a neighborhood commercial district
in a comprehensive, incremental manner. The Revitalization program provides
a framework for rebuilding a community's economic foundation and restoring
its economic viability, then maintaining these positive changes.
The Revitalization program concerns continuing threats to Downtown's historic
commercial architecture, we will call it-The Downtown Project-to develop
a comprehensive revitalization strategy that would stimulate economic development
in traditional commercial districts.
Using the downtown of three small Midwestern towns as laboratories for
three years, the causes of economic decay in traditional commercial districts
was discovered and documented. The Project's participants found that most
approaches to revitalizing traditional commercial districts had failed because
they were too narrow in focus -- dealing only with the physical manifestations
of economic decay, for instance, rather than uncovering the root causes
of decay and developing holistic, integrated strategies for treating all
the causes. They concluded that, in order to strengthen commercial districts,
both the public and private sectors had to be actively engaged in the process,
working collaboratively to make maximum use of their respective resources.
They found that reinvestment in physical improvements had to proceed incrementally
in order to prevent rents from escalating too quickly and from displacing
small businesses. They found that Downtown revitalization effort must have
strong support from both the public and private sectors, with professional
management and active volunteers. And they found that few communities were
capitalizing on the intrinsic economic value of one-of-a-kind historic commercial
districts to differentiate Downtown from other shopping and investment
The Downtown Project was a surprising success, generating $11 in new investment
for every dollar the project cost.
The Downtown Project's success is based on a comprehensive strategy
of work, tailored to local needs and opportunities, in four broad areas-the
Design: Enhancing the physical appearance and the performance of
the commercial district by rehabilitating historic buildings, encouraging
supportive new construction, improving infrastructure, enhancing maintenance,
and developing sensitive design management systems
Organization: Building consensus and collaborative partnerships among
the many organizations, constituencies, agencies, and individuals who have
a stake in the commercial district's viability
Promotion: Marketing the commercial district's assets to customers,
potential investors, new businesses, local citizens and visitors
Economic restructuring: Strengthening the district's existing economic
base while finding ways to expand it and to capture new opportunities
Work takes place in each of these four broad areas simultaneously, because
the factors that affect a traditional commercial district's economic health
are integrally interrelated. Investing in building renovation projects,
for example, affects the district's rent structure - which in turn affects
the sales volumes its businesses must achieve, which in turn affects the
district's marketing and promotional strategy. Recognizing that cataclysmic
actions usually trigger uncontrollable changes, the Downtown revitalization
process begins with small, achievable tasks that gradually grow to complex
and ambitious projects as community organizations master revitalization
skills and build true collaborative partnerships. And, because the Downtown
Four-Point approach is a framework for maximizing existing resources,
not a formula, it can be adapted to meet the needs of any community.
To date, more than 1,200 towns, cities and neighborhoods have taken part
in 43 statewide, regional or citywide Downtown programs since 1980. Cumulatively,
these communities have experienced almost $31 of new investment for every
$1 spent to support the local Downtown program- making the Downtown
program one of the most successful economic development strategies in America.
· Dollars invested: More than $7 billion reinvested in physical
· Building rehabilitations: Over 39,000 projects completed
· Jobs: A net gain of 143,000 new jobs
· Businesses: A net gain of 40,000 new businesses created
At the core of any Downtown Project is a strong commitment to help community
leaders develop the skills needed to revitalize and maintain the economic
viability of their traditional commercial centers, provides comprehensive
training in all aspects of commercial district revitalization, and in addition
provide assistance in diagnosing problems, developing resources, and evaluating
local program performance. Any Downtown Project must emphasize development
of a full range of revitalization skills and identification of market opportunities.
As the local Downtown program matures, the Downtown Project must shift its
emphasis to helping communities develop the advanced skills, financing,
and partnerships they need to tackle more complex challenges.
Conferences: Setup training courses from general to highly specific,
covering all of the four points of the Downtown Four-Point approach to commercial
Research: Build on the experiences of the communities actively engaged
in successful revitalization, gather research on such critical topics as
the impact of local planning policies on commercial district revitalization
activity and the economic impact of revitalization-then make the results
of this research available to the public, so that everyone can learn from
it and strengthen their own local revitalization efforts.
Training materials: Gather and distribute materials designed to assist
in the development of local, preservation-based commercial district revitalization
Questions and answers about the Downtown Project
How does Downtown Project work? Typically, interest in developing
a local Downtown Project comes from business or property owners, city government,
the chamber of commerce, a community development corporation, a historic
preservation organization, or another civic-minded group. Community leaders
from both the public and private sectors discuss goals, establish a program,
raise money to hire a Downtown manager, and create committees and a board
of directors to carry out the work. Once established, the program's participants
examine the commercial district's needs and opportunities and develop a
long-term, incremental strategy to strengthen its commercial activity and
improve its buildings.
How long does a local Downtown Project last? Commercial district
revitalization is an ongoing process. Just as a shopping center has a full-time
staff and works constantly to ensure proper leasing, management and marketing,
downtown and neighborhood commercial districts need ongoing attention, too.
Who should be involved in the local Downtown organization? Everyone
with a stake in the commercial district and its future should be involved.
Merchants, property owners, the chamber of commerce, industries, local government,
and private citizens all benefit from a healthy local economy and from a
historic city core that reflects the community's heritage and ideals. A
solid partnership is crucial to the Downtown program's success. In fact,
a 1988 study of successful downtown revitalization programs in America,
conducted by the National Downtown Center and the Urban Institute, found
that programs which were funded primarily by local sources were much more
likely to be successful than those that relied heavily on state or federal
funds. In addition, it is important that both the public and private sector
support the program financially, demonstrating their commitment to its goals.
How can we get started?
One of the best ways to get started is to sponsor a Downtown assessment.
Meet with community groups and individuals, examine the commercial district,
identify major needs and opportunities, explain the Downtown Four-Point
Approach, and organize guidance in establishing a program or strengthening
an existing one.