Cities Make Bold Moves to Reclaim Their Downtowns - "Lose the cars" - make downtowns for pedestrians, bicycles

In Portland, "we honor the pedestrian and not the automobile," Mayor Vera Katz said.

A couple take a bicycle ride along the shore of Coronado Island with the skyline of downtown San Diego in the background on Jan. 25. Downtown areas that prosper attract shop owners, wealthy developers, loft dwellers and artists on the streets.

Gannett News Service
The Olympian


Cities have been fighting to reclaim their aging, neglected cores, with varying levels of success, for the past 30 years. The downtowns that work have a common ingredient: people.

The mix includes visionary politicians, motivated shop owners, deep-pocketed developers, loft dwellers and artists performing for pocket change. Attracting them requires a combination of investment, safety and urban cool you won't find in a mall.

Some examples:

- In Denver, government support helped turn a dull warehouse district into a neighborhood of shops, microbreweries and dot-com startups.

- Portland, replaced a freeway with a park and drew a controversial urban growth boundary to focus development inward.

- In Indianapolis, corporate philanthropists played a major role in transforming downtown. The Lilly Endowment has spent $1.15 billion over three decades to redefine "India-no-place."

- In San Diego, a nonprofit corporation helped turn a sailor ghetto into one of the West Coast's most densely packed nightlife districts.

One of the most critical ingredients is enough housing for a 24-hour population base. Retail follows residents -- which attracts more people. Beyond that, a sense of place and special attractions help bring character and appeal.

Last year Olympia amended the shoreline master program to allow taller buildings downtown, which the City Council hoped would spur construction of middle -- and upper-income housing. The change created unprecedented public debate -- more than 600 people at a May 21 public hearing -- because of fear the taller buildings would obstruct views and change the character of the city's waterfront.

A South Sound group, Friends of the Waterfront, has submitted a petition to the Western Washington Growth Management Hearings Board seeking a reversal of the new zoning. A hearing is scheduled for April 29.

Denver: Juggle the mix

Allan Wallis, an associate professor of public policy at the University of Colorado at Denver, likened efforts in the Mile High City to building a "very elaborate stage set." The goal is to get the right mix of dancers "so you get music and not noise." The result in Denver, once referred to as a cow town, has been startling.

Its downtown includes trendy lofts, myriad restaurants, efficient transportation and sophisticated cultural attractions. Much of the progress would not have been possible without many citizen-approved tax hikes to help fund the projects, said Rich Grant, spokesman for the Denver Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Portland: Lose the car

In Portland, "we honor the pedestrian and not the automobile," Mayor Vera Katz said.

That's evident throughout the city, where myriad elements, from Portland State University to downtown shopping and offices are connected via light rail or streetcar. Someone can live on one side of downtown and easily walk or travel by streetcar to the other.

Progress has been deliberate, requiring perseverance and patience. Former Portland Mayor Neil Goldschmidt remembers vicious battles in the early 1970s to save unique neighborhoods from being razed by freeways meant to shuttle people to the suburbs.

"The core of our value proposition was that great cities require great neighborhoods," Goldschmidt said.

Indy: Partnership

Downtown Indianapolis had little to offer until Indianapolis-based pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly and Co. opened its wallet. The Lilly Endowment helped finance the Hoosier Dome, which lured the NFL Colts from Baltimore; a zoo and aquarium; the NCAA headquarters; and Indiana State Museum.

Total capital contributions to downtown and the rest of the city have totaled $383.7 million.

Yet the city is just starting to develop housing in its core. And just outside downtown are rundown neighborhoods and some of the worst schools in Indiana.

San Diego: Rebirth

In the 1970s, downtown San Diego, characterized by a stagnant economy, horrible crime and tattoo parlors, hadn't changed much since the turn of the century, when the area was rife with prostitution and other illicit activities.

"About 25 years ago, this place had liquor stores and X-rated theaters," said Teresa McTighe, executive director of the Gaslamp Quarter, which now has 100 downtown restaurants and nightclubs. The Gaslamp Quarter, with Victorian-era buildings and boutique hotels, became a redevelopment project for the city in 1982.

Today there are 21 cranes in downtown San Diego working on 113 development projects, said Donna Alm of the development corporation.

Olympian staff contributed to this article.


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