Smart Growth America: (Re)Building Downtown

By Sheryl Hamlin

Smart Growth America (SGA) is not your ordinary planning group. Realizing that Millennials and Boomers both want to live in authentic, affordable neighborhoods in cities and towns served by transportation and connectivity, SGA focuses on the creation of a sense of place. “Americans want to make their neighborhoods great”, says SGA.

Building upon the downtown Renaissance movement, the desire to preserve farmland and open space, and the desire for walkable cities, SGA has created a blueprint for revitalization.

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The December 14, 2015 webinar featured speakers with hands-on experience in revitalization and redevelopment:

  • Chris Zimmerman, 18 years elected official in Arlington, VA
  • Alex Morrison, Macon GA, Macon Action Plan, Executive Director Urban Development Authority
  • Mayor John Engen, Missoula, MT
  • Will Schroeer, Executive Director, East Metro Strong, St. Paul, MN
  • John Robert Smith, 16 years Mayor Meridian, MS

Chris Zimmerman spoke about the demand to rebuild downtowns into “walkable places” with “legacy Main Streets” as targets for (Re)Building. The guide developed by SGA presents a seven step process which is applicable to large and small “places”.

Step 1:  Civic Engagement. Research, compile data on market feasibility. Talk to constituents

Step 2:  Create an attractive, walkable “place”.  Temporarily beautify empty spaces until facilitated redevelopment. Include transportation options.

Step 3:  Diversity the economy downtown. Add housing to make it lively day and night.

Step 4:  Plan for equity so success benefits everyone. Avoid displacement of long time, less affluent residents. You cannot do this after the fact.

Step 5:  Improve government regulations and the processes for making it easier to revitalize and redevelop.

Step 6:  Finance Projects creatively. Public Private Partnerships, joint ventures, concessions, public land, catalytic investment vehicles.

Step 7:  Establish an on-going “place” management team for maintenance, marketing, stakeholder communication and performance assessment

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Alec Morrison, Macon, Georgia, described the Macon Action Plan (MAP) for the urban core, which comprises about 10,000 residents in century old neighborhoods. For Step 1, they used Facebook, Instagram, a website, open houses, questionnaires, Post-its, surveys, twitter and focus groups. Through the citizens, they learned that a planned road project would isolate the old neighborhoods from the urban experience, so instead turned the road into an urban plaza. Mr. Morrison said the first step in the seven step process is the most important. Their Heritage Trail built a sense of place when they extended it out into the neighborhoods. Century old streets that previously had been turned into four-lane thoroughfares were returned to classic use with two lanes and parking pads, new lighting and sidewalks bringing people to these areas and thus increasing the desirability for housing and shops. They added all types of housing with diversified uses and affordability.

Mayor Engen, Missoula, Montana, described a multi-decade redevelopment which started by turning the riverfront into a park. In the 1970’s a regional shopping center left, so the city talked of rezoning it into some other use. Luckily, the mayor was invited to the Mayor’s Institute on City Design where they created a downtown master plan including the repurposing of the shopping center. The merchants and true believers founded the redevelopment group and carried it forward. In 2008 the plan was ratified by the council including an implementation plan where they also spent two years revising 70 year old zoning codes. The city planners are charged with managing to this plan. Missoula’s population is about 68,000.

Will Schroeer, Executive Director of East Metro Strong, described how the east side of the St. Paul, Minnesota corridor had languished with abandoned gas stations and strip malls. In this 10 mile corridor, there was blight and no sense of “place”. They started the redevelopment with a new light rail system which has eventually brought in $2 billion in development into this ten mile corridor that formerly was a drive-by but is now becoming a destination with a sense of place, according to the Executive Director.

John Robert Smith, 16 years mayor of Meridian, MS, described a classic story of a small town with a loss of focus. They started with a multi-modal transportation center with a retail component which became a driver to bring people to town. They restored the 1889 Grand Opera Center and made an arrangement with the Kennedy Center to bring entertainment. He said the business community wanted to demolish this structure for a parking lot, but they prevailed. He said that people have subsequently bought other old buildings in the area and are restoring them into apartments and stores bringing life to town after 5:00 pm.

In the Q&A session, the first discussion was about how to accommodate commuters in cars. In reality, long distance commuters will take the interstates, but when streets are redone into “complete streets”, commuters will like them, said the planners.

One question was asked about the biggest challenge in Macon. The answer was communication. Through a grant, they hired a communications director who brought the project into the community by getting it on the agenda of every possible meeting of every possible group in the city: planning, church, clubs, social, schools, political. By taking the project out to as many people as possible, the end result was improved.

The size of the city or town, which could benefit by the seven step program, was questioned. The answer was than even a “place” of 10,000 would benefit by the 7 Step plan. 40% of Millennials say they like small places providing there is connectivity to transit and communication. Retiring Boomers appreciate authenticity. 2000 people in a town in South Dakota are engaged in “place making” right now.

What is the trade-off between demolition and renovation of old buildings? This question is common, but the answer lies in economics. Surface parking does not carry the same economic value long term as a developed piece of property, but this must be shown to the constituents. The municipality must have in place guidelines for renovation and reuse and a historic preservation office. It is essential to save the buildings that give identity to the “place”.

To view the webinar, click here.

To download the planning guide, click here.

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*Featured Image: Smartgrowthamerica.org City of Franklin, TN

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For more information about the author, visit sheryhamlin.com

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