Today, many of these once extinct downtowns are thriving. Communities are investing in their downtowns because they know a vibrant downtown is key to attracting new businesses, entrepreneurs, and young professionals. Downtown Durham is a great example. From 1980 to 2010, downtown Durham’s vacancy rate has decreased from 70 percent to below ten percent. More than 48 projects have been completed during this period totaling over $1.1 billion in investment by the private and public sectors. Today, downtown Durham is a thriving space attracting residents and visitors with some of the City’s most popular restaurants, desserteries, bars, and events.
Other downtowns continue to remain dormant. Some say these downtowns will never be vibrant because they do not have a ballpark, a college, or a river. While the presence of these three assets has helped some downtowns, they are not the “holy grail” of downtown revitalization.
Take for example Asheville. Devastated by the loss of businesses to a new suburban shopping center, Asheville’s downtown vacancy rate ballooned to 75 percent in the late 1970s. Pat Whalen, President of Public Interest Projects (an Asheville-based developer that has completed more than 18 projects in downtown Asheville), describes their downtown at that time as having more pigeons than people. Today, Asheville’s downtown has emerged as the City’s third tourist attraction, alongside the Biltmore House and Blue Ridge Parkway.
Although a river is located close by, Asheville’s redevelopment work over the last 30 years is not fixated around this river, a ballpark, or a college. Additionally, these initial efforts did not target tourism. Instead, these efforts focused on an underutilized asset: Asheville’s historical downtown buildings.
The turning point in the decay of downtown Asheville was a proposal to bulldoze eleven city blocks to construct a new downtown commercial center. Advocates for the preservation of Asheville’s downtown used it as a rallying call to change the perception of downtown. Instead of seeing buildings as vacant and lifeless, these advocates argued the historic architecture was the better asset the City should use to revive downtown instead of the proposed downtown commercial center. This proposal eventually died when residents rejected a General Obligation bond referendum to fund the City’s portion of the project two to one. The City then refocused its attention on using these historical buildings as the foundation of its redevelopment efforts.
Much of the success in the renaissance of Asheville’s downtown is attributable to the City, according to Anderson, Brown-Graham, and Lobenhofer in “Public Leadership of Asheville’s Downtown Revitalization.” The City’s leaders at the time promoted inclusivity and expanded its capacity to manage the redevelopment.
The City also made key investments in the revitalization efforts to support the historic renovation of its assets, improve walkability, and create active public spaces. These investments were not made with the “if you build it, they will come” approach. Instead, the City invested through public-private partnerships. For example, early on in the mid-1980s, a developer proposed a $3.6 million historic renovation of several buildings along Wall Street, an alley behind a major commercial street. In partnership with this developer, the City invested $450,000 to complete landscape, street, and sidewalk improvements. These investments have helped Wall Street become a popular shopping and dining destination.
Just as important, the City also made investments outside of these partnerships. As Anderson, Brown-Graham, and Lobenhofer discuss, the City kept its offices downtown. When the City’s School Board Central Office needed new space, the City purchased and renovated a historic building downtown. These investments not only confirmed the City’s support for the success of downtown, but also added more jobs to downtown that were needed to support the new restaurants, retail stores, and residential units.
Jordan Jones, a UNC-Chapel Hill graduate student pursuing a joint master’s degree in Public Administration and City and Regional Planning, is a Community Revitalization Fellow at the School of Government.