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Cities Reborn, Cities Rebuilt 

12-09-2015 17:35

Much is being written and said these days about the renewal of cities. Considerable new construction is visible in many places. The number of tourists, commuters, and daily visitors is up, along with the national economy. The crime rate is down. Media attention to all of this has changed a negative perception about cities that more than anything else has kept people away from downtowns. Yet does the return of tourists, commuters, and suburban visitors mean a rebirth? Does the construction of big, headline-grabbing, costly projects represent rejuvenation? A distinction must be made between downtowns rebuilt and downtowns reborn. In Cleveland, Ohio, more than $2 billion has been invested in big projects, but the population of Cleveland is still hemorrhaging with a reported 7,000 residents a year abandoning the city. The huge projected tax revenues that were to go for essentials like hospitals and elderly housing never materialized. The city school system is in bankruptcy. In fact, the day before the city council approved yet another new stadium, this one for the Browns football team, the public school system announced it would cut $52 million during the next two years, laying off up to 160 teachers among other things. Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena is, in contrast, a city reborn. Thirty years ago Pasadena cleared a historic site in the center of town and built an enclosed mall to "renew" the city. The mall failed and is now almost vacant. Plans are underway to open the streets again and remove the roof. Meanwhile, without any public investment or big developer projects, nearby Colorado Boulevard was reborn building by building, some of which were restored historic structures, some modest new ones. Small businesses and chains coexist, cafes are overflowing, pedestrians crowd the street, and Colorado Boulevard is the place to be. Pasadena is being reborn. St. Louis, on the other hand, is a city rebuilt. St. Louis tore down its economic heart in the 1950s to build the Saarinen Arch, a great tourist attraction, and has been tearing down more of the city ever since to build several stadiums and an arena, all in the name of renewal. New York’s Bryant Park is a park reborn. Like many parks, Bryant Park had become a haven for drug dealers after it was redesigned years ago in a manner hostile to users. Yet based on the user friendly ideas of Holly Whyte, Bryant Park was recently transformed back into the traditional gathering place it once was, attracting 8,000 visitors a day since it reopened in 1992. Key to the park’s success are cheap movable chairs that enable people to personalize the space. Ironically, none of the parks around the country trying to imitate Bryant Park’s success will risk including chairs that might get stolen. Yet this park in big, bad New York has hundreds of chairs. Some broken. None stolen. So many city leaders lack confidence in the inherent value of their existing downtown retail districts that they seek big financing and big investment to reinvent, rebuild and replace them. This kills a genuine downtown. The replacement never matches the quality lost. In Scranton, Pa., for example, a historic retail district was replaced by an enclosed mall. Scranton has been rebuilt, not reborn. New York’s Sixth Avenue is a historic retail district reborn. For years planners and other experts declared the once-famous department stores of Ladies Mile an anachronism. The stores were left untouched while economic activity gravitated to other city neighborhoods and historic preservationists fought to save these buildings from being torn down. Then one developer was persuaded to convert the first empty building into a store again, Bed, Bath and Beyond, and the rest followed. No public monies were spent for this genuine rebirth. So many downtown streets are rebuilt to discourage pedestrians, ending up with few people other than smokers forced to leave their offices and stand on the street to have a cigarette. In downtown St. Louis, for example, a mammoth parking garage was built without even a modest inclusion of street level retail, thus inviting more cars and taking people off the street. The mammoth Renaissance Center located in the heart of a rebuilt Detroit was built in 1974 for $375 million. It was reorganized in 1983 after losses of $100 million and recently sold to GM for its downtown headquarters for $72 million. In spite of these dismal figures, the project has still not been declared a failure. The center was the ultimate rebuilding project—office building, hotel, retail center all in one. The renaissance in its name, needless to say, never came. Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica is a retail street reborn. A highly touted enclosed mall designed by Frank Gehry and built in the 1980s, divided Main Street and killed one end of it. The street came back, step by small step, with a farmers’ market, used book stores, and other local businesses. The street was narrowed, the sidewalks widened, and car access was limited to delivery hours. Now the promenade is at the heart of Santa Monica’s rebirth and is reviving the enclosed mall. Many corporate offices built downtown today look the same in cities across the country. When you wonder where people have gone from downtowns, visualize a typical glass block office building with no street level activity generators and clearly not designed for pedestrians. Yet when nothing is done to interfere with the kind of varied assortment of uses and scale of the traditional city, the return or enhancement of a vibrant street life has a chance. So many downtown streets are misdiagnosed as dead. This is not necessarily true; they may be a little crippled but rarely beyond renewed life. In many rebuilt neighborhoods in cities such as Detroit, garage doors are more prominent than front doors, and fences, gates, and guards separate and isolate homes from the adjacent community. In some cities, the South Bronx for example, picket fences and lawns can be found only a few blocks from restored townhouses, upgraded tenements, renovated apartment houses, and a vast city transit system. Yet rebuilding schemes inappropriately suburban are popular developer replacements for retrievable urban neighborhoods. Suburban density and style replacing the urban mix kill the potential for genuine urban rebirth. In Savannah existing housing was renewed and a neighborhood reborn through historic preservation. The Manchester neighborhood in Pittsburgh, is another neighborhood reborn. New infill brick housing exists side by side with restored historic housing. In another reborn Pittsburgh neighborhood, The Hill District, almost totally demolished for urban renewal projects, developer-built Crawford Square combines new multiple, single and two-family housing for varying income levels, recreating the appropriate urban density of a fully functioning urban district. Where a place remains to let it happen, where people exist to make it happen, where local economies are reborn or nurtured, rebirth happens. People may find farmers’ markets quaint, but they are a growing and thriving business bringing in $1,000 a square foot at Pike Place Market or $1,200 a square foot at Vancouver’s Granville Island. Farmers’ markets are the first and the most successful tool for economic regeneration of a community center. They do more to sustain and strengthen surrounding regional small farm economies than any government subsidy program. If done right, new local businesses spontaneously emerge around them. Home grown businesses seem insignificant to people who think the national and international economy is all that counts. Yet if the aim is to rebuild downtown America, the local economy counts the most, and locally-owned businesses are the backbone of Main Street. The Vitrix Co. in a Corning, N.Y., storefront, the Dean James Glass Works in an Ybor City, Fla., storefront, and the Simon Pierce Glass Works in a hydro-powered old mill in Quechee, Vt., are all producers—yes, in fact, manufacturers—of specialty glass items but they are growing businesses of only a few years, occupying downtown buildings that were empty and exhibiting interesting expansion potential. Foodworks, a small business incubator in Arcata, Calif., and the Hudson Valley Foodworks in Dutchess County, N.Y., are food businesses that are significant in their local economy, an important job source, and a greatly undervalued resource. Creative food enterprises are a leading start-up form showing up in many downtowns. Food is one of the fastest growing sectors of the national economy. The Penn Wells Hotel in Wellsboro, Pa., the Township Stores in Bonaparte, Ia., the Richland County Carousel in Mansfield, Ohio, and the Brickner Woolen Mills Building in Sheboygan Falls, Wisc., all started as community projects to which many local people contributed time and money. Yet they resulted in substantial economic anchors, new businesses and job creators, and rebirth catalysts for their downtowns. These individual successes reflect American ingenuity at its best, the fundamentals of American entrepreneurship and know-how. Increasingly, large corporations are rethinking their lack of investment in repairing the fabric of downtown. Yet why are there not more enlightened corporations to fill the void the way the Corning Glass Works did in Corning, N.Y.? In the mid-1970s, Corning invested in a downtown restoration program that showed what Main Street America was still capable of. The transformation of Corning’s Market Street did for small town Main Streets what Boston’s Quincy Market did for urban America. Market Street is the ultimate American Main Street that so many had given up on. Recently, Crayola of Binney & Smith gave the downtown of Easton, Pa., just the boost it needed. Easton, a small gritty city at the confluence of two major waterways, is where Mrs. Binney invented Crayola in 1903. For years Easton struggled to gain momentum for its exceedingly slow regeneration. Local energy, interest and citizen participation were in abundance but sustained, directed leadership remained lacking. Then Crayola moved its visitor center from the Crayola Factory outside town to downtown’s Centre Square and opened its first and only retail store in the ground floor of an empty office building next door, enabling city hall to move into the floors above. The visitors’ center is in a new building, shared with the National Canal Museum. Downtown Easton is on the rebound. In Wooster, Ohio, 20 residents purchased a three-generation, locally-owned department store in danger of closing. The store was renovated and its operation upgraded and made economically viable. More investors upgraded another derelict building, donated it to the city and then convinced the Rubbermaid manufacturing company to move downtown and open its first retail store, Everything Rubbermaid. Both Crayola and Rubbermaid are reaping benefits way beyond expectations and, at the same time, serving as catalysts for downtown rebirth, similar to the pattern set more than 20 years ago in Corning. The businesses and programs that make downtown unique and successful reflect the personality of local people, not the formula chains or national corporations. The spotlight on change rarely focuses on the individuals who make positive things happen in small, steady, incremental doses, but they are what really makes it happen. Such catalysts for enduring change are the true heroes of downtown rebirth as illustrated by the following examples:

  • A Blytheville, Ark., bookstore owner decided to restore the facade of her downtown store. She invited children and adults in the community to design tiles, which are now part of the tiled storefront, based on their favorite book. One thing led to another and new community traditions were born and a downtown store evolved into a community center.
  • High school biology students in a South Central Los Angeles neighbor-hood, a stone’s throw from riot-torn Crenshaw Boulevard, turned a class project garden into a farmer’s market enterprise and then a bottled salad dressing business, Food From the Hood, that is funding college scholarships and giving hope to a depressed community.
  • A former Brooklyn police officer saw economic potential and aesthetic value for small-shop manufacturers in an empty Civil War warehouse and took a risk in rehabilitating the building in the face of disbelieving city planners. The planners assumed such buildings lack future use and believed erroneously that manufacturing is an enterprise in irreversible decline. Old manufacturing neighborhoods could be replaced with new uses and big projects, they reasoned. Forty businesses now occupy several revived buildings around this warehouse.
Cities have been losing manufacturing and their blue collar jobs for decades because planners and elected officials with limited vision operate on the misguided assumption that manufacturing has no future, and they do not know how to sustain or nurture its growth. Yet these new manufacturing enterprises are providing the financial boost that economic development experts have been trying to achieve for years. The success here is based on giving birth to new local businesses instead of trying to lure mature businesses from outside the local economy at great expense and without enduring success. This is how vibrant economic life in cities started. There are many downtown rejuvenation issues, large and small, such as the importance of keeping public buildings, like courthouses, post offices, libraries downtown; the value of having educational institutions in a downtown and how they can be good neighbors; the trend toward collective community investment; the regenerative value of entertainment facilities; the need for a historic preservation component and for some form of downtown organization; and the essential strengthening of local character through the nurturing of the local economy. And, of course, the importance of adapting the vacant upper floors of downtown buildings for apartments and live-work spaces, reintroducing the round-the-clock residential component missing for decades with inexpensive housing created in the process. The truth is that rebirth is happening and it is happening in small, modest steps. Just as deterioration occurred in small bites, rebirth occurs in small bites. It is happening in traditional neighborhoods and old districts where the urban fabric has not been eviscerated by parking, enclosed malls, stadiums, convention centers and other replacement mega projects. It is happening where people are moving in, opening new businesses, making modest investments, repopulating once-vibrant areas, generating 24-hour activity and street life. SoHo in New York City is the star model nationwide of this downtown renewal. Surely it is one of the biggest. SoHo is so much the model that other cities mimic its name. LoDo in Denver’s Lower Downtown. SoMa in San Francisco’s South of Market. SuHu in Chicago’s South of Huron, SoDo in Seattle’s South of the Dome. Omaha, St. Paul, St. Louis, Cleveland, Providence and so many others have loft districts where space is marketed as a SoHo loft. Few people fully understand how SoHo grew out of the defeat of a big Robert Moses highway plan and how it evolved organically without public investment and despite skepticism and official resistance, and how it spread naturally around New York City and across America. It is the blueprint for much of downtown rebirth across the country. The emergence of SoHo changed the way the nation views cities. In downtowns where gritty urban districts, historic neighborhoods, and trolley-car suburbs survive, urban rebirth is currently occurring slowly, just as it did in SoHo, attracting young and old, married and single, new professional and retiree, black and white, native and immigrant. Contrary to the opinions of many experts and in contradiction to the trends of recent decades, without big, overwhelming development but with varied and modest development, without huge public investment but with genuine government encouragement, urban life is reappearing. This is where true urban rebirth is occurring and where downtowns are being reborn, not just rebuilt.

Publication Date: Winter 1999


Author(s):Roberta Brandes Gratz

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