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Urban Downtown Revitalization and Historic Preservation: Meeting the Challenges of the 1900s 

12-09-2015 17:35

The recent change of administration in Washington has raised the expectations of observers and practitioners of urban downtown revitalization. Appointments of advocates of federal assistance to key positions in the Department of Housing and Urban Development and other agencies offers hope for the nation`s largest cities during the final decade of the twentieth century.

While federal policy is still being formulated, the National Trust, other preservation organizations, and preservationists are examining the roles that historic preservation can and should play in urban revitalization in the 1990s. This is a daunting task, but one filled with rich possibilities. The problems facing urban areas, particularly their central business districts, are myriad. High vacancy rates, particularly in office buildings, deteriorating infrastructure, lack of affordable housing, and high crime rates are but a few. Many of theses problems increased in intensity in the 1980s despite substantial private and public investment in urban districts.

Many of the urban issues facing America today directly affect people who have not been traditionally involved in historic preservation or continue to view preservation as an impediment to solutions. At one end of the spectrum are such financial institutions and agencies as the RTC, which hold bankrupt downtown property. In many cases their rush to unload the property appears to make them insensitive to the concerns of preservationists. At the other end of the spectrum are the disenfrancished--recent immigrants, illegal aliens, the homeless, and others--who are rightly more concerned with decent housing, personal safety, and job opportunities than preserving buildings.

The difficulty in defining roles for historic preservation in urban downtown revitalization in the 1990s is compounded by the diversity of interests and skills among preservationists themselves. Many are professionals in traditional preservation activities: managing historic properties and museums, surveying and listing historic buildings and districts, preserving historic, landscapes, and restoring historic buildings. Relatively few active preservationists have skills in providing low-income housing, implementing comprehensive plans, or managing urban central business districts--all needed to revitalize urban areas.


Today, many urban-revitalization professionals view the 1980s with nostalgia. Billions of dollars were spent to rebuild and revitalize America`s urban cores. Tens of millions of new jobs were created---particularly white-collar jobs--fueling economic growth. To house these workers thousands of new office buildings were constructed, many in urban downtowns. In fact, the demand for office space was so great that more than fifty percent of all office space constructed in the United States in the past 21 years was built during the 1980s.

The tremendous growth of white-collar jobs also created a huge demand forth other building types located in urban center New forms of retail buildings--for example vertical malls and festival marketplaces were developed to house new forms of retail activities. Dozens of cities built new, greatly expanded existing convention centers as the number of trade and business conventions increased almost twofold. Hundreds of new and rehabilitated hotels were built to accommodate these and other visitors to urban areas. Such new entertainment/recreational facilities as sports arenas, ballparks, and aquariums added new dimension to downtown. The public sectors, flush with new tax revenues, also invested heavily in rehabilitating existing and constructing new civic buildings, public-space improvements, and offices.

Historic preservation played an active role in the revitalization of urban centers during the 1980s. Projects such as Union Station in St Louis, the Terminal Building in Cleveland, and the Grand Avenue Project in Milwaukee combined the rehabilitation of significant historic buildings with new development. Other projects, such as the revitalization of Miami Beach`s Art`s Deco hotel district and the reopening of Underground Atlanta, brought vitality back to marginal areas of urban central business districts.

Equally important, if not more so, than these and hundreds of other rehabilitation and restoration projects was a shift in attitude by many urban decision makers about historic preservation. At the beginning of the decade it was not an oversimplification to say that many public officials, developers, planners, and other decision makers viewed historic preservation as an obstacle to development. After all, didn`t preservationists block the demolition of "old" buildings, demand tedious design review of new projects, and force the public and private sectors to waste money on mitigation and recordation of archaeological ruins?

By the end of the decade many of these same decision makers were touting their contributions to historic preservation and the field`s contributions to urban revitalization. Some of the change in attitude was certainly a result of the financial and popular success of preservation-based development projects. Another factor was probably preservation`s influence on the design of new buildings--a move away from the setpiece unadorned buildings of the International Style to the more elaborate evocative design of postmodernism. A third factor was the realization that design review and incentive zoning, traditionally used by preservationists to protect historic buildings in urban areas, could also be used by the decision makers to attract higher-quality new development and give the public sector more control over the visual appearance of new development. Another new zoning technique, used to revitalize many urban business districts during the decade--MXD or inclusionary zoning--is based on the historic nature of downtown. Prior to Euclidian zoning, instituted in many cities in the 1920s and 1930s, downtown buildings often housed a variety of uses; and a single block in downtown might contain almost every use. A final aspect of the shift in attitude was the realization by both urban decision makers and preservationists that successful downtown revitaLization is a result of the management of the process; it did not happen on its own.

During the 1980s many different forms of managing downtown revitalization were attempted. Two forms or strategies emerged as the most successful. The one most often used in large urban central business districts has been called the catalyst strategy.1 This strategy relies on a major development, such as a new festival marketplace or the rehabilitation and reuse of a major historic building, to be the catalyst for additional projects. It is typified by a public/private partnership assembled to develop and finance the project. During the decade, successful catalyst projects relied heavily on both front-end subsidized financing such as grants, land right downs and low interest loans, and back-end financing techniques such as tax credits (including the historic preservation ITCS), tax abatements, and freezes. The other major approach, successfully used in some urban communities and many small towns and cities during the 1980s, is termed the incremental strategy. It relies on a series of small, interdependent projects being implemented within a particular district or area rather than a single large development. Critical to the success of this strategy is a long-term management organization that can successfully address many issues, not just development and financial. Among the issues typically addressed these management organizations we street cleaning, public safety, promotion events and business retention, expansion and recruitment. Organizations such as the hundreds of local Main Street program found in towns and small cities,2 the Downtown Partnership in Baltimore, and the Milwaukee Redevelopment Corporation are but a few that successfully employed the cremental strategy during the last decade

The catalyst, and to a lesser extent, the incremental strategy were instrumental revitalizing office, specialty retail, convention, hotel, and the entertainment/recreational sectors of urban downtowns during the 1980s. The incremental, and to a lesser extent the catalyst, strategy had some impact on urban issues such as cleanliness an safety of public areas. Neither strategy, however, was effectively employed on a consistent basis to address such issues as decent affordable housing, traffic congestion, air pollution and other negative aspects of daily life in urban central business districts.


In the first three years of the twentieth century`s last decade, the urban revitalization juggernaut has been dramatically slowed. There are a number of reasons, often cited, for this downturn in the fortunes of central business districts, including the state of the general economy, financial excess of the past decade and overbuilding, particularly of office and hotel space. Public sector investment in buildings, infrastructure and downtown amenities has also dramatically slowed as cities, states, and the federal government wrestle with drops in revenue and deficits. Issues not addressed during the halcyon days of the 1980s, such as decent affordable housing, continue to become more difficult.

Since it is likely that current economic problems and weak markets for already built space are to be hallmarks of the 1990s, a paradigm shift in the approach used to revitalize our urban downtown needs to occur. In particular, a shift from the reliance of large catalyst projects to a long-term management strategy is required to continue the revitalization efforts. Emphasis should be placed on coordinating all aspects of the economic life of downtown, from marketing and leasing of vacant space to assisting existing businesses to expand. At the same time, emphasis must be placed on creating quality downtowns rather than creating individual buildings. How new and existing buildings fit together in a physical, social, and cultural environment should be the hallmark of urban central business district revitalization in the 1990s.

One can see examples of this paradigm shift already occurring in some urban areas. The Milwaukee Redevelopment Corporation and the City of Milwaukee, for example, are attempting to reverse the development pattern of the 1970s and 1980s that ignored the river running through the heart of downtown by creating incentives to enhance pedestrian use of the water`s edge. Baltimore Downtown Partnership, created at the end of the last decade by merging three downtown organizations, and the city have recently completed a vision for the downtown into the next century. The document containing that vision, "The Renaissance Continues," articulates downtown as a series of mutually dependent neighborhoods providing for the wants and needs of all citizens. It emphasizes quality rather than quantity and shows a deep concern for how the various aspects of the downtown can build on what has gone before. Many of these aspects are not physical, but rather social or cultural. For example, such problems as street cleaning and public safety are being addressed through the implementation of a self-taxing (BID) district.

The shift from individual projects to a holistic quality of life will place renewed demands on developers, planners, and architects to design new and rehabilitation projects that are good neighbors. More attention will be paid to creating buildings that add to the architectural richness of the environment and public-space improvements that are used naturally by people. Part of this aspect of the shift will be a result of the 1980s realization that architecturally rich environments "sell" better than sterile, stand-alone projects. Part will come from the increased use of such public regulatory tools as design review, inclusionary zoning, and other mechanisms that encourage an integrated environment.

Another challenge of the 1990s that must be addressed is the continued diversification of downtown`s economic base. Newly emerging growth sectors of the economy that can contribute to the downtown`s economic and social mix, such as health care, medical research, biotechnology, communications and data handling need to be attracted to urban central business districts.

Perhaps the biggest challenge for urban downtowns in the last decade of the century is to address the long standing issue of providing decent affordable housing. Providing housing for white-collar workers will contribute to reducing air pollution and traffic congestion and begin to address the notion of a twenty-four-hour community. Housing for the middle class will also stimulate the demand for the return of goods and services to downtown that followed the white-collar workers to the suburbs.

Providing decent affordable housing for the elderly, low-income citizens, and the unemployed is also part of the housing challenge. Traditionally provided and managed by the public sector, the cuts in federal programs aimed at providing this type of housing in the last decade led to the creation of nonprofit corporations to take up some of the slack. Some of the most successful were neighborhood-based or operated by religious institutions. A few were associated with a preservation organization. However, despite their valiant efforts, the demand for this type of housing far outstripped supply.

Historic preservation, preservation organizations, and preservationists can play substantial roles in urban central business district revitalization in the 1990s. With the movement`s traditional emphasis on quality, attention to detail, and diversity of interests, preservation has the philosophical attributes necessary to capitalize on the paradigm shift. Preservationists` concern for contextual design; their growing understanding of how to harness regulatory mechanisms such as zoning, design review, and financing; and their successful track record in incremental revitalization in towns and small cities can make them players in urban central business districts.

To be effective, historic preservation, its organizations, and its supporters must build on their strengths and recognize their weaknesses. Historic preservation must continue to be integrated into local planning and decision making, finding roles in a city`s vision, its comprehensive plan, and daily zoning decisions. Preservation organizations must learn to transfer their skills into such areas as downtown management in small communities to existing management organizations in large urban areas. They must seek to form partnerships with other organizations not traditionally associated with the preservation/conservation arena, to address problems such as affordable housing, traffic congestion, and public safety. Preservationists must seek ways to influence the decisions of growth areas of downtown`s economy, such as health care and medical research, not noted for their sensitivity to historic buildings.

The paradigm shift from individual catalyst development to overall quality management of urban downtowns presents a unique opportunity for historic preservation to move closer to the center of the revitalization process during the 1990s. It remain for preservationists and preservation organizations to pick their challenges.


  1. Miller, Ted and Richard D. Wagner. Revitalizing Downtown: 1976-1986. Washington, DC: National Trust for Historic Preservation, 1988.
  2. Over 700 local Main Street program in 35 states have been established with the assistance of the National Main Street Center, a program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Primarily operating in towns and small cities, Main Street`s preservation based incremental strategy has been successfully applied to a few dozen urban neighborhood business districts since 1985.

Publication Date: September/October 1993


Author(s):Richard D. Wagner, AIA, Ph.D.

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