Review: A Management Framework for Downtowns and Commercial Districts

M. Bradley Segal

Review by: Scott C. Schuler

p.u.m.a.It is significant that humankind inherently understands how cities need healthy downtowns. This may be such a natural instinct on our parts that few people question it, except for those whose individual sense of frustration have led them to throw in the towel. The advantages provided by an urban heart, a central gathering place have been extensively studied over the years. I studied it myself, as an undergrad in the early 70's at a time when cities had undergone the first phases of urban renewal. The department stores were closing, streetcar tracks had been torn up, malls had become the retail norm, with suburban business parks as their office and industrial counterparts. Downtown was looking bleak. Even the sports stadiums and arenas were taking to the suburbs, New York, Houston, Dallas, Washington, Kansas City, and Miami being notable examples. The death of the city was being discussed, and by 1981 America was deemed by Hollywood to be ready for a movie called "Escape from New York," in which Manhattan had been converted to a prison. I can still hear the line that Jack Nicholson's Joker said in the first Batman film, speaking about Gotham City: "Decent people shouldn't live here. They'd be happier someplace else."

But we as a culture knew better. Cities need a heart, and forward-thinking, resourceful, persistent individuals found ways to revive its weakening pulse.

Mr. Segal has assembled a list of group approaches that allow downtown revitalization to proceed. The fact that such a list is possible reflects the truth that people can effect intentional and purposeful change in a city. Cities and their leaders, both civic and business leaders, need not wait for circumstances to somehow coalesce, like a nebula does when it ignites into a new star. In fact, it’s not that they need not wait; they ought not to wait. Downtowns throughout the world are gaining strength and cache. The natural inclination people have to gather is being satisfied in cities whose downtowns recognize it. It may be premature to say so here, but downtowns now not only are competing with the suburbs and the ersatz downtowns (that is, "lifestyle centers") that are cropping up; they are competing with other cities whose downtowns are beating them to the punch.

The author begins by identifying three stages in the evolution of a city’s commercial districts – whether downtown or ancillary districts. His identification of the three stages – stagnant, growing, and mature – includes definitions that make sense. The level of investment, occupancy levels, rental rates, new construction and other measures help to determine the phase that the district is in, which Mr. Segal says is important to know so that the proper approach to downtown revitalization can be used. Interestingly, he further ties the condition of downtown to the level of organization and involvement that is devoted to downtown’s advancement. Someone needs to get the ball rolling when a district is stagnant, enthusiasm is low and successes have been few. As momentum builds other groups become more appropriate and effective in promoting and guiding change. He introduces BIDs, for example, in growing districts, positing implicitly that BIDs are more effective at building momentum than creating it. Mr. Segal sees the public sector as being key players in the earliest stages, whether in public or quasi-public entities.

Community Development Agencies, as non-profits, are seen as useful tools here. Can BIDs be effective as the originators of momentum?

I would add another category to the author’s list of evolutionary stages. In short, the three listed categories are introduced as stages of a cycle, but they represent a continual flow from stagnation at the bottom, upward to the mature and well-functioning commercial district. As such, it needs another stage to "close the gap" and make this continuum into a cycle, and that is decline. Mr. Segal hints at this later in the article when describing the necessity of managing the mature downtown, implying that to fail at this is to risk decline. However, in some downtowns this has not happened and the downtowns are indeed losing ground. In my experience, this is a tough time to get things moving. Stakeholders in such downtowns tend to "believe their own press," that the downtown remains strong while misidentifying the signs in front of them that the downtown is losing ground. Sometimes, it seems, circumstances just have to decline pretty far before the need to go into a pro-active mode (as opposed to a maintenance mode) is appreciated.

Mr. Segal’s identification of the involved agencies is useful and, I believe, covers the bases. An element that I did not see mentioned deals with the various types of development downtown. It is an important charge to the various groups he identifies to understand how each type of development – retail, office, residential, hospitality, institutional, public – comes into play. This likely was beyond the scope of the article, but perhaps some entities, by nature, may be better equipped than others to understand how the various pieces work in concert for the overall betterment of the commercial district. If so, this could lead cities to favor one type of group over another when choosing how to approach downtown/commercial district revitalization.

Lastly, I point out a factor that the author rightly (I am convinced) comes into play: the private sector champion. At each stage of a commercial district’s evolution some involvement from private sector "spark plugs" is needed, the tireless individuals who believe in downtown, will fight to protect their investments (and those of others who benefit from a healthy district), and who know how to approach the district’s more apathetic stakeholders as well as prospective investors. In all cases, their involvement puts added force behind the district’s upward momentum. Building this group of important stakeholders, both in their numbers and in their experience, will be critical in moving downtown forward.

The article is a useful tool in a city’s toolkit in and of itself, helping cities and their advocates to identify the resources needed to make downtowns strong and to keep them strong in light of the many other options with which investors and patrons are presented.

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