Revitalizing downtowns means focusing on the basics

Salt Lake City

Downtowns across the country have struggled to rebound from the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic. Commercial office spaces in particular have remained vacant at high rates. In the first quarter of 2023, downtown Los Angeles saw vacancy rates of 26% in the first quarter of this year. Downtown Portland and San Francisco have seen their vacancy rates top 30%.

It’s a scenario unfolding in downtowns across the U.S. after a pandemic that turned millions of Americans into remote workers, afflicting cities with vacant storefronts, crime concerns and fiscally strained transit systems,” reports Bloomberg. But it’s not just a matter of empty offices. People are spending less time in many downtowns.

Foot traffic in many of the biggest cities in the western United States remains down compared to before the pandemic. According to research from the School of Cities at the University of Toronto, downtown Los Angeles experienced 17% less foot traffic in March through mid-June of this year compared to 2019. By comparison, downtown San Francisco’s foot traffic is down 33% and Portland’s foot traffic is down 39%.

While broad trends can be observed, there are probably no one-size-fits-all solutions to the problem of stagnating downtowns. Different downtowns face different political, economic and geographic dynamics. Still, there may be some broadly useful ideas for bringing life back to them.

Thinking beyond the old downtown model

One starting point for revitalizing downtowns is rethinking what downtowns should be. “Many downtowns were reborn in the 1980s as gigantic office centers, and that’s just not going to work anymore,” William Fulton, UC San Diego Design Lab visiting policy designer, told Axios. “Downtown has to have a tremendous diversity of activities in order to succeed from now on.”

That seems right and it’s a lesson many cities are adjusting to. One highlight is Salt Lake City, which the School of Cities reports experienced 139% of the foot traffic in the spring of this year than it experienced in 2019. “I’ve seen a huge relocation from coastal cities and other areas, and I think that’s a credit to the livability and the economy here,” Dee Brewer, executive director of the city’s Downtown Alliance, told Axios.

To that point, one analysis of downtown Salt Lake City’s relative success suggests that a big factor was the deliberate attempt by local policymakers, during the pandemic, of ensuring businesses stayed open as much as positive while mitigating COVID risks. The city also benefits from the economic diversity of both the state of Utah and the surrounding counties which helped the region withstand the economic fallout of the pandemic and bounce back stronger.

But within that advantageous context, the city itself has focused on making downtown Salt Lake City a place people can live. Reported Governing in July, “Developers currently have about 3,100 apartment units under construction in downtown Salt Lake City; that is likely to bring an additional 5,000 residents” in the next few years. This was aided by the long-term focus of Salt Lake City leaders in making their downtown a place people can access and live in.

“Salt Lake finished connecting its light rail system between downtown and its airport in 2013,” reported Vox. “Around that time, the city also re-zoned the areas around its transit stations downtown to encourage denser development, and reduced or eliminated parking minimums – requirements that new construction come with a certain number of parking spaces – which drive up the cost of new housing.”

That speaks to one obvious avenue for revitalizing downtowns, which is deliberately focusing on making them a place not only for commercial activity, but places where people can buy or rent a home. This in turn can help spur businesses which one ordinarily doesn’t associate with downtowns to pop up to serve the needs of local residents.

My colleague Kenneth Schrupp highlighted in a Free Cities Center article another city which seems to be broadly doing things right in the same vein as Salt Lake City, which is San Diego.

“Cities should look to the San Diego model of deregulating housing development in their downtown cores,” Schrupp argued. “By eliminating height limits, parking minimums and ‘inclusionary zoning,’ these once-empty downtown areas can be transformed into thriving communities of full-time residents who will hold city officials accountable for maintaining safety and improving essential public services, such as schools and public transit.”

Maintaining order 

To Schrupp’s latter point, cities must work to ensure their downtowns are places where people feel safe and not some dystopian version of their old selves.  Cities like Los Angeles, Portland and San Francisco have unfortunately developed a reputation, thanks to social media and the on-the-ground experiences of residents and visitors, for crime and quality-of-life problems.

Reflective of how bad Portland city leaders allowed the problem to get, Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek recently established a task force specifically devoted to revitalizing downtown Portland. The first meeting of the task force in August focused on some pretty obvious problems, namely, “open drug use, mental health crises and inadequate social services to help those living on the streets.”

Among Portland Mayor Ted Weaver’s first requests: the deployment of about 100 state troopers to help patrol the city. While the governor wouldn’t send that many, some Oregon state troopers have begun patrolling downtown Portland. If there’s a lesson to take from Portland, it’s to not let your law-and-order problems get that bad. You can’t have a thriving downtown if people are dying on the streets.

Watch this new Free Cities Center video about homelessness. 

Listen to this Free Cities Center podcast about the Free Cities Index with Pacific Research Institute senior fellow Wayne Winegarden.

Cities need to ensure they get ahead of these sorts of basic problems in an efficient and expedient way. Both Los Angeles and San Francisco are gradually coming to terms with this realization as well.

In the case of Los Angeles, local leaders have recently become serious about the need to ensure the transit system is safe. Safe and reliable transportation systems are important in downtown areas, especially if there are plans to allow for more people to live there. San Francisco has also had its own reckoning, recalling progressive District Attorney Chesa Boudin and occasionally boosting police presence (and the National Guard) in the downtown area.

But problems in all three cities persist. Los Angeles, for example, has squandered considerable sums of money intended to build housing for the homeless with costly developments often made costlier with union handouts.

Get back to the basics

Every downtown is different, but for those struggling to regain their vibrancy there are some basic recommendations. One is that cities should be willing to make downtowns livable again. This can be done by making it easier for housing to be built or convert no-long-necessary office spaces or malls into housing, so that people have a real choice to live in downtowns.

Related to that, cities need to ensure their downtowns have some sense of order so people can feel good about living in or spending time in downtowns again. That requires getting serious about perennial problems like homelessness and crime. If the goal, for example, is to get homeless people off the streets and into homes, cities shouldn’t be setting finite money on fire with costly developments as Los Angeles is doing.

And cities need to ensure their transportation systems are in working order to serve the needs of people who want to live in, work in or visit downtowns. People should have confidence that transit systems will actually work to get them around and that they probably won’t feel threatened while using them.

Sal Rodriguez is opinion editor for the Southern California News Group and a senior fellow with the Pacific Research Institute. He is the author of Dynamism or Decay? Getting City Hall Out of the Way, published by the Pacific Research Institute.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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