Why Downtowns Fail and How They Can Come Back

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To many Florida developers in the last decade, downtown condo towers seemed to make a lot of sense. They were sold as the logical locale for active seniors and millennials, great affordable starter homes, and best of all, investments.  Reinvigorating downtowns became fashionable currency in many of Florida’s second and third tier cities. 

Sadly, many of these new structures have turned into hulking shadows today in places such as Delray Beach, Tampa, and Orlando. Many of Florida’s core urban districts suffer the dark windows, unoccupied balconies, vacant storefronts and wide open sidewalks that signify the opposite of thriving urbanity.  Repairing this false renaissance in downtowns requires city leaders to see the central business district for what it really is: just another suburb needing attention to stay healthy, safe, and productive.

Suburbs are heavily marketed by their developers with product launches, public relations campaigns and lavish sales centers.  Downtowns, on the other hand, produce websites, but rarely have more, relying instead on the desirability of a downtown address to fill up space.  Rental apartments in former condominiums are competing with the slickly marketed suburbs for people.

In terms of buying, the suburbs are winning, with the more desirable single-family detached dwelling now suddenly affordable.  Suburbs are comfortable, safe, and familiar to most buyers.  Downtowns are seen as edgy, transitional, and alien to many people, but they are attracting adventurous renters and a few buyers here and there who want to create a new scene.  A scene is one thing; a stable social network and a feeling of safety and security is entirely another.

What downtowns lack is the sense of neighborhood that many inner-ring suburbs have, and the outer-ring suburbs are effectively gaining.  Until downtowns start reinventing their identity, they will have a difficult time selling a sense of place among the empty lots and decaying infrastructure.  Touring the downtown residential properties today is like touring a movie set, with new developer inventory garishly contrasting with the older, grown-in building stock. Few dare to tread past the end of the fresh concrete sidewalk, and the urban infill efforts are sporadic and unconnected. But, unfortunately, this has always been the case.

Central Florida’s downtowns have languished for years, raising the question of their reason for existence.  Competing with, and often losing to, suburban fringe developments like Westshore in Tampa, the decline of these downtowns began years ago.  Sanborn maps (fire insurance documents from the early 20th century) reveal that neither Orlando nor Tampa ever really had fully built-out downtowns.  Warehouses, garages, residences and small hotels have coexisted with empty lots forever in these cities.  While their potential has always been high, they have never realized it.

Perhaps we ask too much from the current form of our cities.  Our urban core regulatory structure and property values are geared towards a level of development that never occurred, and might never occur, while the suburban fringe has no such constraint put upon it.  It is past time to think of our downtowns a bit differently, put aside our emotional ties to them as “centers”, and begin to look at them as neighborhoods.

Compared to suburban tracts, Florida’s downtowns have a stiffer regulatory environment, with downtown development boards and aesthetic police to prevent all but the most deep-pocketed players from entering the game.  These citizen-led authorities may be emboldened with pure intentions, but they tend to focus on nitpicky, hair-splitting trivia.  Arguments about the size of a fence or the color of a stucco band seem absurd to most people who wonder when an empty lot might eventually boast thriving businesses once again.  Downtowns, with their guardians of taste, may be preventing the horror of chain link fence in the district, but are unconsciously slowing the growth of any real soul as well.

Tampa’s “Channelside” expanded this city’s downtown eastward towards the Latin Quarter, Ybor City.  With one of Florida’s tiniest Central Business Districts at 1 square mile, Tampa saw grand marble bank lobbies go dark, repurposed to host blueprinters serving the local design and construction industry.  It was a post-apocalyptic experience to see industrial-size copy machines busy at work where a once proud bank traded money.  But such has been the fate of Tampa’s downtown, left behind by edge cities like Westshore and eastern fringe suburban development.

The hard work of downtown redevelopment, however, took second priority to the easier work of condemning empty industrial warehouse tracts between Tampa’s downtown and its port.  Selling off large chunks to developers, Tampa created a new Channelside district, where a lovely two bedroom condominium can be had for $157,000 .

Orlando’s downtown has no natural boundaries, but blends into 1920s historic neighborhoods, and it saw many condominium towers rise up as well.  Mostly rental units today, many of these have suffered through a phase when recent college graduates roomed together in granite countertop heaven, turning the luxury towers into post-college dormitories complete with drunken pool parties, busted drywall, and beer bottles littering the hallways.  Such behavior is characteristic of transitional residents, who have little investment in their surroundings and are for the most part barely past adolescence.  The downtown model isn’t working too well for adults, but it isn’t working too well for these post-adolescents, either.

Downtowns would do well to reconsider their model, relax the beauty boards, and allow a greater variety of development, mixing in affordable residential ownership.  People who come to stay downtown for the longer term will be the ones who can turn them into neighborhoods. Currently, the downtowns of Central Florida only have business or commercial interactions, with a few still going to church downtown. The idea of a network of social interactions easily fits into a suburban neighborhood, where neighbors see each other, their kids play together, and they casually meet and converse. This model does not fit a downtown in Central Florida at the present moment.

This function has to be transplanted into downtowns if they are to keep their relevance.  Rather than imagine the resurgence of the downtown as urban center – which never really took hold in much of Florida – cities need to realize that their next step is to start aggressively turning downtown into an alternative form of suburb.  Suburbs have consumer necessities like grocery and drug stores, conveniently accessible by driving; maybe in downtowns a bit of walking is OK.  Suburbs have consistent identities; maybe in downtowns a new set of sidewalks is in order.  Neighborhoods with loyal residents also have spontaneity and variety; maybe in downtowns the beauty police could give it a rest.  Suburbs have relative safety and security; in downtowns this must be provided also, and is non-negotiable.

Such an idea may be anathema to many of Florida’s urban designers.  Yet, what downtowns need is what makes the suburbs so successful: safety, continuity, and ease of contact with neighbors.  Recasting a downtown as a suburb simply acknowledges the sense of neighborhood that most people now can only find on the suburban frontier.

The exciting prospect of turning downtowns into neighborhoods may be the hard work of the next generation of urban residents. Achieving true neighborhoods again in the once-thriving cores of Florida’s cities means that the older building stock, mixed with the new, will begin to have meaning once again.   The heritage of these places and the stories these buildings tell is rich and vibrant. The ability to sustain them into the 21st century means that their contribution will not be lost.  Reintegrating our older centers with the rest of the city will make them some of the most interesting and varied places of all.

Richard Reep is an Architect and artist living in Winter Park, Florida. His practice has centered around hospitality-driven mixed use, and has contributed in various capacities to urban mixed-use projects, both nationally and internationally, for the last 25 years.

Photo courtesy of BigStockPhoto.com.



















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Interesting

Richard,

I enjoyed this.
I am thankful that my city is growing and people want to live in it.
Yes, the burbs are strong, but the core city is doing well.

Dave Barnes
+1.303.744.9024