Your questions answered from "(Re)Building Downtown"

Thanks to everyone who joined us on Monday for the kickoff panel discussion of (Re)Building Downtown: A Guidebook for Revitalization. We had a fantastic conversation with our five panelists, and got to answer several questions from listeners during the Q+A session. We had so many questions remaining at the end that we decided to follow up on them in a blog post. Chris Zimmerman, Smart Growth America’s Vice President for Economic Development and one of the authors of the new guide, gave some insight into the questions listeners had. Here are the answers.

On Step 1: Understand your community

Q. How do you maintain momentum in a process that may take 10 years?
A: This is a big part of why a formal commitment to civic engagement is so important. You have root this project in your community more broadly, so that it’s not just a project of the current political leaders but rather something that the community wants permanently. This is why public engagement at the beginning is so important, and why ongoing public engagement is so important. If you do this part of the work well, community members will take a leadership role themselves. An on-going place manager can also help with this.

Q. Any advice on how to get consensus among local officials that downtown is worth revitalizing?
A. There are a few ways to do this. First, show them that there’s genuine community interest. Organize neighbors, businesses, everyone in the community who cares about this, and get everyone in the same room talking. Another strategy is to take your fellow elected leaders on a field trip to a town that has revitalized successfully — it can be helpful to look at the same thing together, and understand each other’s points of view. You can also do this in your own town — ask fellow officials to come with you downtown. Make it a structured tour with a map and markers of where you’ll stop. You can highlight specific areas with challenges or opportunities. This can help root the idea in their mind more than a meeting in a conference room might. Finally, we have lots of research on how smart growth development can benefit a city’s bottom line, and boost local economies. Maybe share those points with your colleagues, as well.

Q. In my community, we’ve had feedback that residents do NOT want downtown to be walkable—in part because Main Street is currently a major thoroughfare. Do we listen to that or move forward with a more walkable downtown despite it?
A. Listening is incredibly important. If residents are angry and upset about a revitalization project, it’s not likely that the project will succeed in the end. That said, try to dig in deeper on why they want Main Street to stay how it is. Ideally you would meet with concerned residents one-on-one at a coffee shop or other neutral place, and try to understand their motivations and share your perspective. Try to find common ground and go from there. They obviously already care about how your community works, and that’s not a bad place to start.

On Step 2: Create an attractive, walkable place

Q. I am working in a community where the redevelopment area is primarily privately owned and the landowners are holding out for big bucks. How do we convince them to be open to discussing how to improve the community?
A. This is not uncommon. Often the only publicly owned land downtown are the streets. But it sounds like the property owners are not clear on what’s going to happen, so what might be most helpful for the City to make its intentions clear. Make a plan so everyone knows what the opportunities are and what they can expect. When government’s intentions are known, that might make options more clear for the property owners. I also encourage you to focus on building a relationship with one or two key property owners. Sometimes getting just one or two property owners on board can be the tipping point that encourages other folks to join in. And make sure you are doing everything you can to encourage them to redevelop. Streamline public approval processes, talk with them about their challenges, etc.

Q. How do you deal with the inevitable non-retail frontages in front of apartments and offices?
A. Activate them as much as possible. Try to get retail or something retail-like to be on the ground floor. If you don’t have retail, you can beautify the building or activate the space around it. Facade improvement programs can help with that. Or if you have a big blank wall, maybe put a kiosk in front of it or a pocket park. Encourage or license on-street vendors, or maybe that’s a great space for public art. Anything that adds light, color, or activity is what you want.

Q. How do you encourage municipal leaders to work with the arts in their communities on redevelopment processes?
A. Where possible, include art in the planning phase of redevelopment. Work with an artist starting from the design phase and you can make art a built-in feature of downtown. That can result in really beautiful, unique and striking places. Also keep in mind that if done right, art adds to the visual appeal of a place, the authenticity of an area, and it can contribute to real estate value.

Q. Is there a natural balance between the amount of downtown that is defined by town planners and what is proposed by developers?
A. Getting the development you want in the place you want is definitely a delicate art. In general, you should make a plan that includes development, and stick to that plan. If your plan is out of tune with the real estate market, that’s a problem you should address. But if an individual developer doesn’t want to be part of the plan, that’s a different issue.

Q. I’ve heard that designating a property as a “brownfield” or blight automatically reduces its value. How do you recommend making such designations?
A. Well first, there are liability issues with not designating and cleaning up brownfields. That’s probably the primary reason you should think about getting a property officially designated (or at least considered for designation). The good news is that once it is designated, there are several state and federal programs—including technical assistance and financial assistance—to help clean up and redevelop these sites. Also keep in mind that contaminated sites won’t just have depressed value themselves—the can also drag down surrounding property values and hamper broader revitalization efforts.

Q. Some of our community members are skeptical of pedestrian and bicycling initiatives like “road diets”? How do we shift the dialogue away from drivers vs. pedestrians?
A. Our program the National Complete Streets Coalition has some great resources on this topic, including talking points on the benefits of Complete Streets, and resources for community meetings. As with some of the other questions above, listen and be respectful of their perspective. Share your vision for a better downtown in a way that includes their concerns.

Q. How important is biking, really?
A. Well, you want to make it easy and convenient for people to get downtown any way they want. Biking is one easy and affordable way to do that. Plus, streets that are safe and convenient for people on bikes also tend to be safer and more convenient for people walking, and that always encourages downtown activity.

Q. Two beautiful historic buildings in our downtown just got torn down to build a chain coffee shop. Sigh. How do we change this paradigm?
A. This needs to be a grassroots campaign. Bring together a group of other concerned citizens and rally around the cause of historic preservation. Protecting the things that make your community unique — historic buildings, or natural features, or whatever it is — is a matter of economic competitiveness as much as it is about local pride.

On Step 3: Diversify your downtown economy

Q. We don’t have any housing downtown right now, and it’s hard to show that there’s demand for something that doesn’t exist. Help!
A. First, understand the market trends happening across the country and how they might play out in your area. Do other towns in your region have housing downtown? What is demand like there? Also be sure to look for signs of latent demand like high values and low vacancies in whatever downtown housing does exist.

On Step 4: Build in equity

Q. You avoid the use of the word “gentrification”. Why?
A. People use “gentrification” to mean a lot of different things, so we try to be more specific. If we’re talking about the fear of displacement of long term residents, let’s talk about that—and we do, on pages 21-23 of the guidebook. If we’re talking about concerns over bringing together people of different socioeconomic positions, let’s talk about that—and we do, on pages 2-5 of the guidebook. The more we can be clear about what we mean, the better.

Q. What methods you have used to address the homeless population in downtown areas (other than affordable housing)?
A. The best approach is to provide help directly to individuals who need it. When I worked in Arlington, the first official Business Improvement District (in the Rosslyn neighborhood) had as part of its mission providing services to homeless people. They partnered with local homelessness agencies and made a point to help anyone in the neighborhood who needed assistance.

On Step 5: Improve government regulations and processes

Q. What was the one most important change you made to downtown zoning?
A. I’m a big believer in form-based code. It made a huge difference in Arlington. Go to the Form Based Code Institute to learn more.

On Step 6: Finance projects

Q. We already have a Tax Increment Financing (TIF) district, but we’re thinking about turning it in to a Business Improvement District (BID). What are the pros/cons of that?
A. A TIF and a BID are different, and you can use them together or separately. TIFs use taxes from the incremental rise in property values to invest in infrastructure projects that in turn help raise property values. It’s a way to help neighborhoods grow and fund capital infrastructure projects that might otherwise not get built. BIDs on the other hand are a service, and should be paid for by the people and companies that enjoy the benefits of that service.

On Step 7: Establish on-going place management

Q. What entities should be responsible for facilitating and perpetuating downtown revitalization efforts and redevelopment plans?
A. We talk about this on page 30 of the guidebook: there should definitely be a dedicated stewardship organization of some kind. BIDs are probably the most common option. It can also be a non-profit entity, a public/private partnership, or a function of the local government. Different models are appropriate in different places depending on your community’s position.

Q. What if you can’t get merchants to buy into creating a BID? Many of our businesses are small.
A. A BID won’t work in all places — areas in the early stages of revitalization won’t be ready for a BID. A good alternative is a partnership organization where the local government contributes some money and private companies contribute some money. Even enough to hire one staff member is helpful; that person can coordinate work and even, potentially, help fundraise. Sometimes that person is formally a city employee, or sometimes they are the sole employee of a new downtown organization. Want to help the project along even further? Ask a company downtown to donate office space or provide it at low cost, to establish a physical presence for the effort even if it’s small at first.

About our workshops

Q. what is the cost to have a workshop in our local area?
A. We offer a number of difference workshops and their prices vary. We are happy to help you figure out which might be the best fit for your community. Drop us an email.

Q.How many workshops do you typically take on in a year and what is the biggest city you have worked with?
A. We do several dozen workshops each year, and have worked with communities as small as 2,000 people and as large as one million.

Q. Where can I learn more about your fiscal impact studies?
A. Right here.

Our new guidebook has lots of information for communities interested in starting or continuing their downtown revitalization work. If you want more hands-on help, learn more about our (Re)Building Downtown workshops. You can also email us at [email protected] and we’ll be happy to help you figure out the best fit for your community.

Thank you again to everyone for joining us earlier this week, and for your excellent questions. Good luck with your own #RebuildingDowntown!