Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Reviewing the URBAN RENAISSANCE By Lucia Mouat, Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Those who shop and work in downtown Des Moines need more than the usual stamina and patience these days. The heart of the city is torn up by construction work, and getting around means picking one's way carefully past street barricades and around sacks of cement and piles on concrete blocks.

But what is going on here is more than routine street repair. It is a major effort for downtown revitalization. Like many other American cities where population, jobs, and shopping have moved farther and farther away from the central core, Des Moines is making an all-out pitch for downtown survival.

About these ads

Some of the nation's once thriving centers of commerce have watched silently as anchor department stores fled to suburban shopping malls and new offices and factories sprang up on cheaper land just outside the city.

Feeling powerless to do much about it, a few cities have simply settled for a new status as empty shells of their former selves, becoming virtual ghost towns after 5 p.m. and on weekends.

Though ringed by three outlying shopping malls and occasionally a ghost town itself on weekends, Des Moines has no intention of joining that group of resigned onlookers. Its pride and joy is the recently completed Civic Center Auditorium, where the players earlier this summer ranged from the cast of "Chorus Line" to political delegates meeting in statewide party caucuses. Des Moines civic leaders who recently trekked to Minneapolis-St. Paul and Kansas City in search of valuable redevelopment pointers are finishing construction downtown of a huge city parking garage and a retail-commercial complex. Next they plan to build a downtown senior citizens center, six skywalk bridges, and a new shopping mall complete with parking. A new 30-story hotel downtown is almost finished, and most of the current local debate is over where, not whether , to build a new convention center.

Will all this activity be enough to make the crucial difference?

"We're optimistic," Charles Webb, executive vice-president of the Greater Des Moines Chamber of Commerce, insists. In his view the very reason that Des Moines has had to make its renaissance bid largely without federal aid -- because the Iowa per capita income and employment levels are higher than the nation's average -- is also the reason he expects the downtown project to succeed.

Robert T. Swanson, vice-president of the Merle Hay Mall, a large and long-established shopping center just north of Des Moines, is more skeptical:

"If Des Moines can get conventioneers in, it will do all right," he says. "But the only downtown successes I've seen are in cities that rely on tourism or convention traffic. Just look at Detroit. It isn't the general Detroit shopper who's going to Renaissance Center."

About these ads

Most larger cities -- from Chicago with its Water Tower Place and State Street Mall to Minneapolis with its Nicollet Mall and elaborate skywalk system -- have already made major efforts to revitalize their downtown cores.

It is the small and medium-size cities of 300,000 and under, such as Des Moines, which in many ways face the roughtest challenge. Chain store and shopping center developers are looking more and more at the outskirts of such cities -- particularly thosw with populations of 50,000 and under -- for their next expansion moves.

"These are cities that aren't really big enough to be enough of an attraction to keep going in a retail sense, yet they're small enough to feel the impact of every shopping center that comes along," says Douglas Porter of the Urban Land Institute, an organization of major builders which has published a handbook of advice on downtown revitalization.

The revitalization challenge facing America's cities -- large and small -- has its roots in the depression of the 1930s and the lack of construction activity during World War II. New highways, more cars, and cheap energy after the war helped spark the great suburban exodus that sharply reduced city tax bases. Older buildings the were left behind deteriorated, becoming housing for those who came in search of jobs and found them hard to find.

Some urban observers insist that cities have simply become obsolete and that no rescue approach can really make much of a difference. But few cities willingly accept that verdict. In recent years hundreds of them have staged a determined and united comeback fight.

Even the small and medium-size cities have stepped up community and cultural activities and built convention centers in hopes of luring more people downtown.Virtually every dollar inducement, from reduced taxes for businesses to free bus service and special downtown sales for consumers, has been tried. Des Moines, for instance, recently had a construction day sale at which employees wore hard hats boasting, "I helped build downtown Des Moines." The city plans a follow-up in the fall.

"We were trying to take what some saw as a weakness and turn it into a strength," explains Rick Phillips of the Greater Des Moines Chamber of Commerce.

In some ways, conditions have never been better for an urban renaissance.

Although suburban malls continue to mushroom, attracting many by their more convenient hours, acres of parking space, and greater security, the speed of suburban growth in retailing, jobs, and residents is slowing. Higher construction costs in the suburbs, rising energy costs, and the fresh appeal of city living to young working couples are combining to help revitalize many city cores.

"Cities are still losing population, but not as fast," observes Norman Krumholz, head of the Center for Neighborhood Development at Cleveland State University in Cleveland. "We are seeing signs of stabilizaton in our neighborhoods that it was impossible to even imagine five years ago."

New interest from Washington in the plight of the cities is also helping. Urban renewal programs of the last few decades have aided by adding offices, hotels, apartments, and government buildings. Yet officials say that even as their cities have been helped, many federal highway, housing, and sewer grants have worked against urban progress because of their suburban tilt. Washington accordingly is striving for a more consistent investment policy. Mayors, for instance, now may ask for a community-impact analysis of any federally funded project.

Retailing is the newest and in some ways most vital part of the city revival effort.

"more than anything else, the city is a marketplace," Mathias DeVito, president of the Rouse Company, says. Rouse is a major developer that turned from the suburbs to the city six or seven years ago and counts Boston's Faneuil Hall Marketplace, Baltimore's Harbor Place, and the Gallery at Market East in Philadelphia among its successes. "The essential glue of the city, the fuel that can truly fire the renaissance, is the strong return of retailing downtown, " Mr. DeVito says.

Yet most downtown planners and developers admit that retailing has been the most resistant part of the downtown revitalization effort. Until recently there have been few successes. According to the most recent retail sales data of the Urban Investment and Development Company of Chicago, only Eugene, Ore.; Miami; Seattle; and Ann Arbor, Mich., among 37 cities surveyed, had an increase of more than 40 percent in retail sales over a recent five-year period. Some cities such as San Diego and Atlanta actually declined in retail sales during the 1972- 75 census period. In general, retail sales have tended to go up much more sharply in the suburbs than downtown.

One mistake some smaller cities have made is to respond in panic to the threat from suburban malls by trying to put an exact horizontal replica in the middle of town.

"Few cities can really afford to use expensive central-business-district land for a traditional enclosed suburban-style mall," William R. Hill, former executive director of the International Downtown Executives Association (IDEA), notes.

A few smaller cities that have gone that route have succeeded, but most have not. Some have bulldozed the heart of town of great expense and disruption to local residents, only to find that shoppers and department stores continue to head for the suburbs.

What is most needed, the experts say, is a fresh assessment of the purpose of downtowns -- to pinpoint what it is they do best and work on strengthening those assets.

Some suggest that the primary function of downtowns in the next decade will be to serve as centers for offices of every kind, from banks to government. In major cities most office space has a high occupancy rate despite the city core's declining share of area retail sales.

Before downtown retailing, which requires a market, can be expected to hold its own or expand, city revitalizers should first concentrate on building up office space and employment downtown, as well as more close-in residential housing, suggests the Urban Land Institute's Doug Porter, who has worked extensively in downtown planning.

He also suggests that for survival many retailers must increasingly cater, in the price and style of merchandise, to the demands of the inner-city resident. As one who worked in Memphis at the time of riots there in the late 1960s, after which most affluent white shoppers no longer went downtown, he says it became a matter of smart business to respond to the change.

"Retailers were forced to consider the inner-city market," he says. "Many survived, but not those who didn't change."

In many cities it is the mix of activities and services which brings people to the heart of the city. While suburban malls tend to be largely retail, downtown frequently offers a unique blend of cultural activities and such small business services as dry cleaners and shoe repairs, which often find mall rents too high. In healthy downtowns there is a hustle-and-bustle vitality not to be found anywhere else.

"People talk about turning downtowns into 24-hour-a-day people places," Mr. Hill says. "What they're really talking about is putting activities back there or strengthening those already there as an attraction. Improved access, which many cities now have, is great, but it doesn't do much good if what it accesses is not what people are interested in doing or seeing or buying."

The kind of downtown that emerges from the hard look inward may be quite different from the traditional one most Americans have known in the past. It is likely to have, for instance, more mixed-use complexes bringing offices, hotels, apartments and stores close together. The scale of downtown retailing is likely to be reduced and its focus placed more heavily on specialty stores (from office supplies to tourist souvenirs) and small businesses.

"Small business has historically tended to be downtown," Kent Moore, acting director of IDEA, notes. "And as retailing tends to grow more and more specialized, small restaurants, bakeries, and clothing stores may have even more of a future downtown."

Many cities reason that they need a department store for survival, but planning experts say the wish is unrealistic.

"The big department store is slowly but surely abandoning the central cities, " Frank So, of the American Planning Association, observes.

Downtown residents and visitors are also likely to see much greater use of existing buildings. While Boston's Faneuil Hall Marketplace will probably remain unique as a user of three 150-year-old market buildings, many cities are using vacant department stores and even abandoned movie theaters as centers of small-scale retailing.

One new project aimed at giving smaller cities a boost in practical advice on how to revitalize and on where to get the dollar help to do it, by working with 30 pilot communities, is the National Main Street Center, a team effort of nine private and public agencies. It is an outgrowth of the Main Street Project of IDEA and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which worked with three Midwestern communities over the last three years to develop model strategies that help the towns develop economically within the context of historic preservation.

Most experts agree that a successful urban renaissance requires not only money and a good plan but a united community effort, private and public.

"Not every project needs public support, but almost every one needs some kind of public stimulation or improvements," Mr. Porter says. "It's enough of a more difficult process than building in the suburbs so that cities really do have to put out an extra effort to allow private enterprise to do its thing."

City leaders are increasingly sophisticated about the depth of commitment in dollars and the less-tangible leadership required of them to make a project go. Most downtown land is already heavily occupied, and cities have the power to condemn property where needed, relocate existing tenants, and smooth access into the developed area.

Many cities are offering a greater number and variety of tax incentives as inducements to business to locate downtown. Baltimore officials have offered a "shopsteading" arrangement, by which vacant city buildings are sold at a bargain price on the stipulation that they open for business in one year and that the property is kept for at least two years.

The variation tried in Boston's Faneuil Hall development included the purchase and renovation of the three buildings by the Boston Redevelopment Authority and its lease of the property to developers under a special tax agreement guaranteeing the city a share of the profits. It is now considered one of the most successful developments in terms of sales per square foot.

Cincinnati is regarded as another successful redevelopment effort. Drawing on every possible source of capital and a sense of community loyalty, the city has managed to build a convention center and a sports stadium in the heart of town and a very workable system of skywalks, and it has persuaded four of the city's major department stores to stay downtown.

"Probably citizen participation is the key to its success," Charles Webb, who managed that redevelopment effort, says. "There was never any question but that downtown was going to succeed -- whatever it took."

"Cooperation is certainly the key to what's keeping all our projects going," Des Moines Rick Phillips says. He notes, for instance, that the city's Civic Center is built on city-donated land with funds from private sources which amounted to more than twice the value of the land. "We find each time one project gets off the ground, it spurs another."

Across the United States, there are signs of progress. But the final score card on America's downtown renaissance is not yet in.

"These downtown revitalization efforts certainly aren't new, but quite a few cities still have a very long way to go," Edward Lawrence, director of research at Chicago's Urban Investment & Development Company, observes.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.