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Stepping Up Downtown Revitalization

The Need to Step Up Downtown Revitalization.An old saying goes something like this: "one man's trash is another man's treasure." This saying applies to the places we live. While some people may love the South because of their mild winters, others may despise their humid summers. Some people may love to live downtown because of the great night life, while others would prefer a place away from the hustle and bustle of the city.

Some qualities, however, remain a constant in finding a place to live. Everyone wants a safe neighborhood, good neighbors, and proximity to schools and stores. Traditionally, all of these could be found in the downtown areas of our American cities. Unfortunately today, many downtowners find themselves living in substandard housing, in areas of the city that are obviously falling apart socially, economically and physically.Imagine how it would be to wake up every morning to the smell of dog urine, feeling a cold wind coming in from the broken glass of your window. You know that there isn't much for breakfast, so you decide to stay in bed.

Somehow, you think, maybe if you go back to sleep for a while, things will be better when you wake up.Or, imagine that you awake one morning to the smell of pancakes cooking and coffee brewing in the kitchen. As you get out of bed, your new bedroom carpet greets your feet.Is it any wonder that one of these scenarios is more likely to produce a person that will do well in school, find a good job, and be a productive citizen?.

Studies have shown that the environment in which a person lives can have a positive or negative impact on that person's behavior. For example, a person living in an area that is well cared for will be more motivated to do his or her part to take care of the area. A person who lives in an area that is falling apart will have less motivation to take care of the area, and could actually contribute to the area's degradation.Go into almost any modern suburb, and it won't be long before you see construction workers with their hard hats and leather gloves, building a new strip mall or Wal-Mart.

At the same time, there is another store closing its doors downtown and moving out, creating yet another vacant building in the middle of the city. This sounds crazy, until you stop and look at the bottom line. The stores are going to go where the people are, and the people are also leaving downtown for the suburbs. Why would someone want to live downtown, when it is falling apart and they can have a bigger house with a bigger yard in the suburbs?.Until lately, the government hasn't stepped in to do anything about this downtown decay.

In fact, states often adopt policies that encourage suburban sprawl, disinvestment in downtowns, and disparities. Few regions in the United States have incorporated government organizations for the strategic planning of cities. The government, like the person in the first example above, seems to be pulling the sheets over its head and hoping that all the problems will just go away by themselves.

Can we blame the government for what has happened over the last 40 years to our downtowns? Elected officials only hold their positions for a few years at a time, and investing big money in downtown revitalization may not produce the instant economic gains that are required to earn reelection. As stated by Beth Mattson-Teig in her article, Financing Urban Revitalization,

"Redevelopment is much more costly than building on open suburban acreage. Additional capital is required to assemble land, raze or renovate existing structures, and clean up any environmental contamination. As a result, revitalization projects typically involve multifaceted layering of bank and commercial mortgage financing, public grants or low interest loans, tax abatements, private equity, tax credits, and other forms of subordinated debt." (Urban Land, March 2002)
.

Even in a rough economy, some are seeing advantages of returning downtown. Retailers, who during the 90's were building stores rapidly without much consideration for location, are now becoming selective. The downtown areas are great for retailers, with relatively low rent for space and a good amount of potential buyers. Another idea that is working is that of renovating old warehouses and other buildings, creating multi-use structures.

There can be living quarters in the upper levels (apartments and condominiums), and commercial space on the first floor. This idea faces some opposition because many of the current two-dimensional zoning laws are not complex enough to handle multi-use buildings.Another ray of hope for downtowns comes in the form of its residents, both people and businesses. These businesses have a strong interest in keeping the downtown alive, because they need a quality city in order to attract quality workers.

Some civic groups have had a lot of success, assisting in the development of many key downtown projects or investing in the public school systems. Those interested in helping their downtown areas improve should become involved in these organizations or in local government.Downtowns are precious links to the history of cities, and at one time they were the place to be. Although downtowns have suffered, many cities are rediscovering the benefits of downtown revitalization. With increasing public awareness of the problems affecting downtowns, local and state governments are more likely to invest public money in much needed urban renewal projects. Hopefully, someday, we will be singing the old familiar tune:.

When you're alone and life is making you lonely
You can always go - downtown
When you've got worries, all the noise and the hurry
Seems to help, I know - downtown
Just listen to the music of the traffic in the city
Linger on the sidewalk where the neon signs are pretty
How can you lose?
.The lights are much brighter there
You can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares
So go downtown, things will be great when you're
Downtown - no finer place, for sure
Downtown - everything's waiting for you.

.Downtown, by Petula Clark.

.Alan Culwell graduated with a degree in Landscape Architecture from Purdue University in 2005. He is currently studying law at Brigham Young University and has an online landscape design business with his wife (http://www.makemylandscape.com).

By: Alan Culwell



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