This paper discusses the downtown development across cities in the U.S. Downtown development is an activity that should not be taken lightly as downtown defines the kind of community found in a city. Downtown also forms the commercial hub of a city where most retail outlets, restaurants, movie halls and hotels are located. This makes downtown ideal for housing development. Traditionally, most downtown development has been mainly focused on large scale projects such as the construction of convention centers. However some cities are now shifting their focus on housing development in the downtown. This paper therefore focuses on the viability of the development of downtown housing.
Downtown is a term used mostly in the U.S. in reference to a the core of a city in a geographical, commercial and community sense. The term is speculated to have originally been used in New York City as early as 1830 to refer to the first commercial center of the city which was located on the southern end of Manhattan. The fact that the first commercial center of the city was located on the south meant that the only way the city could expand was northwards. From the conventional way of map design, north is always up and south is always down (Patton, 1993). Therefore, with the expansion of the city, the southern part of the city was referred to as downtown and the northern part uptown. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, the term was adopted by other cities across the United States and Canada to refer to the first commercial center of the city. Since early twentieth century, downtown has officially been used as the American English term for the central business district of a city.
The development and upgrading of downtown presents an exciting and alternative opportunity in real estate for investors. As a result of the real estate boom of 1989, many offices and retail shops relocated from downtowns of many cities across the United States. This created a situation where there was a lot of vacant office space and hence leading to slump in the prices of commercial buildings located in the downtown (Patton, 1993). The owners of these buildings were caught in a fix since they could neither sell their buildings nor rent them out as offices for businesses. As a result many buildings in the downtown have over the years been converted into residential buildings. Fannie Mae, which has since gone under after the meltdown in the real estate market, had seen this opportunity and was involved in housing developments in the downtown.
If the current demographics are anything to go by, then the future of downtown housing development looks bright. As baby boomers also known as, empty nesters, continue to age, their houses are increasingly becoming empty as a result of their children moving out. Their houses are becoming too big for their needs and they are less concerned with maintenance of their houses. Most empty nesters desire for an environment with a sense of community and with ample leisure activities to occupy their free time. In addition they have a lot of disposable income due to the fact that they no longer have children under their care. As a result many empty nesters adopt lifestyles that are suitable for downtown living (Patton, 1993). Downtown condominium units are therefore becoming increasingly becoming popular among people between the ages of 56-69. The downtown setting suits their lifestyles due to the proximity of coffee shops, stores, restaurants, libraries and theaters where they spend most of their free time. In general, empty nesters are looking for a place where they are able to enjoy life without the burden of having to maintain their homes. As a result, a sizeable proportion of empty nesters are relocating downtown leading to a significant increase in the demand for downtown housing.
The rise in the demand for downtown housing is also being fuelled by an increase in the number of young professionals. This mainly consists of individuals in their twenties and thirties who do not have family commitments that is they have no spouses or children to look after. According to projections by the U.S. Census Bureau, sixty seven percent of households in America are childless. This is projected to rise to seventy two percent by the year 2010. The young professionals can be classified into two categories; those who are less than 24 years and those who fall between the ages of 24-35 years.
Individuals who are 24 years and below living in the downtown areas are usually upward mobile professionals with a considerable amount of income and college students attending nearby campuses. Most of those who fall within this age group are people who have recently moved out of their parents homes and are looking for an urban lifestyle with a diverse culture. They are willing to trade space for convenience and can easily move houses from time to time. In addition most of them are employed in the downtown, work from home or attend colleges nearby. The amenities offered in downtown such as restaurants, entertainment spots and movie halls make them attractive to people in this age group. The cost of housing in this area is also friendly to their pockets (Patton, 1993).
The second category of young professionals which comprises of people between the ages of 24-35 years has a preference for downtown housing due to the convenience they offer. Most of these individuals are usually in full time employment with busy work schedules. They have a significant disposable income and tend to be very particular about their lifestyle. They prefer to live in condominiums and apartments which are close to their places of work and other services which they may need such as shopping outlets. In addition they do not have family commitments as they do not have spouses or children to look after. They like to spend most of their free time socializing with their fellow colleagues in entertainment spots. Their lifestyle therefore does not allow them to live in houses which require a lot of maintenance and care as they do not have the time for such things. Downtown housing therefore suits their lifestyle due to the convenience and comfort they offer.
In spite of the gains made in the recent part, the development of downtown housing is still slow. Obstacles such as housing regulations and zoning laws imposed by urban authorities prohibit the rapid development of urban housing. These laws regulate the number of housing units that can developed per acre of land. Most real estate developers also tend to shy away from downtown housing projects questioning whether they make any economic sense. However there are cities which are changing these laws in an effort to promote the development of downtown housing. The concept of mixed-use buildings in downtowns where offices and retail outlets occupy the lower floors and residential units occupy the upper floors has been developed with the aim of promoting downtown housing development (Patton, 1993). However this concept is still at the infancy stage and its impact on downtown housing is yet to be fully felt.
The conservatism of many developers and city council officials has also downplayed the development of downtown housing. For quite some time, metropolitan development has always held suburban development and large scale urban renewal projects like construction of convention center as its priority (Patton, 1993). City officials as well as developers tend to favor these large scale projects downtown revitalization projects as opposed to downtown housing which develops on a smaller building by building scale. In San Diego, for instance, sections of downtown reserved for housing and mixed uses are now being used for the construction of a new ballpark, offices and hotels. This was after city planners felt that pegging the revitalization of downtown development to housing was bound to fail as it was not taking place according to the projected rate. In another example city officials in Cincinnati, have decided to build a new stadium as a downtown revitalization strategy. This was in spite of urban planners producing concrete evidence that downtown housing development will offer a better return on investment as well as economic development as compared to the construction of a new stadium.
Even in cities that offer incentives that are geared towards promoting downtown housing development, it is still difficult to convince developers to engage in such projects. The city council of Ventura, California has provided incentives that make it easier to develop housing downtown as compared to the outskirts where most suburban developments are situated (Patton, 1993). In spite of these incentives, many investors still prefer to build in the outskirts as they are unsure of the viability of downtown. At the same time, some cities face more challenges than others in their downtown revitalization programs. Each city has its unique challenges which have to be put into consideration when developing such programs. Cities which have been successful in previous revitalization programs such construction of convention centers and festival market places are more likely to succeed in downtown housing.
Apart from the biases city council officials and developers have towards downtown housing, other factors come into play which affects the development of downtown. The level of downtown concentration of employment also affects their development. For instance, in Los Angeles a very small percentage of metropolitan employment is located in the downtown. One of the best ways to promote downtown housing in such a place is to promote urban amenities (Patton, 1993). This has worked well in Denver and Francisco where most people live in downtown but work elsewhere. They live downtown primarily due to the lifestyle offered there. The bottom line is that there is no standard downtown revitalization strategy which can be universally applied to all cities across the U.S. Therefore it is upon the city officials to come up with a tailored and contextualized revitalization strategy to develop and market downtown housing in a manner that is most applicable to their city.
The success of downtown revitalization to a large extent depends on the local leadership. The continued presence of committed leadership in the city council is crucial if downtown revitalization is to be achieved. As much as the local leadership should be changed from time to time so as to bring in fresh ideas, efforts should be made to maintain good leadership once it is identified. Every downtown has a unique system of leadership where power is spread throughout town organizations including city and town government, the local chamber of commerce, citizen groups and merchants associations (Patton, 1993). For success downtown revitalization each of the downtown organization has to be an equal partner in the process. When one organization dominates the process the other groups feel sidelined and take a back seat. This demoralizes the citizens and hampers the revitalization process.
From every downtown revitalization program there must emerge an individual who is dedicated to the program commonly referred to as the town champion. The individual may be a town official or the chairman of a citizen group who is usually the primary source of ideas. He or she is also the person to consult in case of any problems. The town champion consults with other people in charge of the revitalization programs in other towns (Patton, 1993). . This enables them to share ideas, collaborate on large events and to have a network of support that enables them to address common problems. As mentioned earlier, for the revitalization program to be successful there must be committed leadership. The town champion facilitates this kind of leadership by leading the revitalization process from the frontline.
Mixed use development can also be used to promote downtown development. Mixed use development entails the development of residential, retail and office units in a specified area in the downtown. This will lead to better use of land in the downtown. The best example of mixed use development is where buildings have storefronts on the ground floor with offices and apartments on the upper floors.
Mixed use development enhances the urban feeling in the downtown as it creates more space for establishment of urban amenities. This leads to more economic activities and creates a down town core where essential services can be easily accessed. Therefore mixed use development can be a useful strategy in downtown development.
For the successful revitalization of downtown, transport issues must be addressed. A variety of transport options must be developed including public transit shuttle services, trains and bicycles. The basic idea is to develop alternative modes of transportation that will lead to a decrease of private vehicles congestion in the downtown urban core. There should also be measures put in place to ensure the safety of cyclists, motorists, pedestrians, bus riders in the downtown. This will make the downtown a safer place and promote the urban lifestyle.
Most cities developed from downtowns which were their initial commercial hubs. The vibrancy and robustness of most downtowns provide communities with a sense of belonging as well as a place to meet and socialize. Without a downtown, most cities would be lifeless as most people would be forced to go for shopping or entertainment elsewhere. Thus they would only be recognized as cities on paper while in essence they lack the lifestyle that comes a long with the name. Therefore the revitalization of downtown should not only be left to city council officials and businessmen. It is also the duty of residents and communities living downtown to ensure that the place remains vibrant.
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