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Lessons Learned: Downtown Planning for Small and Medium Sized Towns and Cities

By Armin A. Preiksaitis, BES, ACP, FCIP

“It takes time, money and real effort to prepare a meaningful downtown plan. The plan and the planning process leading to its development must be based on real facts. Solutions and implementation strategies must be pulled together in a unified concept. Furthermore, the plan must be dynamic…allowed to grow and change within accepted parameters.”
– Center Plan, City of Winnipeg, 1993


104marketThis quote from the Winnipeg Downtown Plan has relevance not only to downtown plans for larger cities but also to smaller communities. Although competing suburban and highway commercial developments has eroded the economic vitality of many downtowns, downtown areas that are properly planned, designed, developed and managed still hold tremendous economic development potential, with the resurgence of “main street retailing” a community’s downtown areas often provides a unique local identity and sense of place that creates a special environment for development that can not be duplicated in new communities with regional and trip malls. Enlightened civic leaders, property owners and developers recognize downtowns must be designated, developed and marketed as a ‘differentiated product’ that can attract, retain and accommodate business and mixed-use developments.

Although population size and characteristics, strength of competing retail centers, strength of the downtown real estate market, and other factors vary among communities, those that have been successful in their downtown development and revitalization efforts have the following common elements:
1. A Shared Vision of Downtown of the Future
A vision building exercise is an important first step that ensures that key stakeholders such as the citizens, elected officials, and those working, living and conducting business downtown understand its strengths, weaknesses, and differential advantages to reach consensus on key development issues and objectives. Presentation of preliminary background inventory and analysis, and experienced workshop facilitation are important to an effective visioning process.
2. Market Driven Solutions
Downtown plans not grounded in the realities of the marketplace are unlikely to achieve results. Successful economic development and planning is predicted on an objective evaluation of retail, office, service and residential potential in the market within which a downtown competes. Solid research and analysis is a necessary component as an economic ‘reality check’ for downtown planning efforts.
3. Meet The Needs of the People
Downtown is everybody’s neighborhood. No downtown plan will be successful unless it reflects the values, aspirations and objectives of residents and users. Cyril B. Paumier expressed this best-

“The basic objective of revitalizing the downtown economy is to attract more people more frequently and hold them there as long as possible by creating a variety of reasons to come and stay downtown.”
-Principles for Developing a Downtown Market”, Urban Land, 1988

4. Good Urban Design
Quality and diversity is essential in an attractive downtown environment. A well thought out and exciting urban deign concept can yield a unifying physical fabric and theme for the downtown to help boost shopper patronage and investor confidence downtown. But for a main focus for a downtown revitalization effort -physical improvements alone cannot compensate for basic economic weaknesses for downtown and its market area.
5. Building Public/ Private Partnership
Downtowns are primarily built by private investment, but private investment decisions are greatly influences by public policy and infrastructure investment. Given the cost of land assembly, parking and higher construction costs typically found in downtown areas, municipalities should be prepared to consider zoning incentives, tax benefits, and improve public infrastructure to create a positive climate for private investment. In return, private developers must be prepared to design projects that meet public objectives and fit within the downtown plan.
6. Effective Downtown Management
Downtown retail operations must be competitive. A major advantage of the shopping mall over downtown retailing is its centralized management controlling and coordinating business hours, retail mix, security, parking, marketing and special events. In Alberta Business Revitalization Zones (BRZ’s) provide a vehicle for organizing and funding similar centralized management in downtowns and older commercial areas.
7. Patience
In conclusion, there are no quick fixes! Successful downtown plans take years to develop and implement. A community must have strong municipal and business leadership to sustain support. In today’s economic climate the approach has to be incremental, organic, and entrepreneurial. It is important to start where it is the easiest, aim for small scale results, and celebrate your successes.

*Originally published in CIP Planning Digest Volume 1, Number 2, 1997

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