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 into Downtown.

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 alternatives.

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 Four-Point Approach:

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 improvements

· 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 district revitalization.

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 programs.

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.