on May 31, 2017
Five Lessons for Planners on Revitalizing your Downtown
For New York State’s Downtown Revitalization Initiative (DRI), HR&A led the development of Strategic Investment Plans for three downtown communities awarded $10 million each in State funds: Plattsburgh, Jamestown, and Jamaica (Queens). The program – the first of its kind in New York State – seeks to transform formerly struggling downtowns into places where tomorrow’s workforce will want to live, work, and raise a family, through targeted public investments with the potential to leverage and catalyze private investment and create jobs.
Partner Kate Collignon, who spearheaded this assignment on behalf of HR&A, shares lessons learned and recommendations for how to spark investment in downtown districts that face similar challenges.
1. How did the HR&A team craft a vision for the future for these downtowns? What were their main differences?
A key step in our visioning process involved working closely with local planning committees. These committees were integral to the development of diverse, cohesive visions. Their participation ensured that there would be stakeholders positioned to advance the eventual projects and their input helped us transform the community goals into plans that were catalytic, achievable, and fiscally feasible.
Many of the most striking differences between Plattsburgh, Jamestown, and Jamaica involved the demographics, economic circumstances, and physical fabric in each community. However, all shared a recognition that to drive future economic development, especially during a time when jobs are likely to follow talent, they needed to invest in placemaking projects. They understood that investment in a combination of new development initiatives and improvements to the public realm would: enhance the experience of their downtowns; attract new residents, visitors, and workers; and strengthen their ability to attract and grow jobs.
2. What are the main challenges that these downtowns must overcome? In your experience, are these common challenges to downtown revitalization – in places big and small?
Plattsburgh and Jamestown were established around industrial anchors. As these anchors moved on and the industrial economy waned, so did local jobs. In recent years, both cities have made tremendous strides in bringing employment back by partnering with institutions that allowed them to pivot from their industrial past. Plattsburgh has partnered with its State University and invested in their airport to strengthen their economy. Jamestown, with support from the State of New York, has made large investments in its downtown especially around the National Comedy Center, capitalizing on its fame as the birthplace of comedy legend Lucille Ball.
While Jamaica is home to significant local economic activity, the downtown is still not capturing its full market potential because of the intense competition with other New York City neighborhoods. While it is a major transportation hub with connections to JFK, Jamaica’s key challenge is creating the right mix of retail and experiential opportunities that will elevate the downtown from a thoroughfare to a destination, and ensuring that nearby residents have the skills and access they need to participate in that economic growth.
3. For areas with smaller markets and limited local capacity, what are some high-impact projects you recommend?
Targeted placemaking can significantly strengthen the character and appeal of a downtown to residents, workers, and visitors—especially if focused on locations that already have strengths to build from. However, it is important to ensure that a community is not taking on more than it can sustain from an operations standpoint. To help offset costs and capacity limitations, creative and visible partnerships with major institutions can generate high impact growth.
Additionally, denser housing attracts retail and other amenities to downtowns. By increasing the number of residents living downtown, spending also goes up, which sustains the retail and attracts shoppers from outside of town, fueling the market for more housing and positioning for downtown revitalization.
4. How has local engagement with stakeholders and the public led to more effective plans?
Local residents and community members are the best resource for insights and direction – they are downtown every day and are able to reveal nuances we could never ascertain from data alone. The community teaches us about issues the downtowns are facing and where the greatest opportunities exist. Plus, where there is excitement and enthusiasm for a project, there is momentum for implementation.
5. What key lessons or strategies from these projects might be useful for local planners and stakeholders looking to revitalize their downtowns?
- Recognize how your use of public resources can play a role in building value within a downtown. Whether you focus on enhancing the quality of a space or reducing costs for development, make sure your public investments are done in a way that allows you to leverage as much follow-on private investment as possible in the future.
- Target your investments by focusing on key assets. There are many opportunities to invest when growing a downtown, but it is important to avoid diluting the impact of your efforts by spreading those investments too thinly across too broad an area.
- Individual projects should build to a greater whole. One-off buildings won’t alter the economic course of a community. However, a combination of programs that overcome obstacles to development can make a downtown more appealing by creating a place that continues to attract people and investment. In this era of e-commerce, this experience of place and community is the competitive advantage that a vibrant downtown can offer to a city’s economy, future efforts to retain and attract talent, and employers.
- Build for today’s residents and businesses with a view towards the future. The community members who are focused on a downtown’s revitalization need to be part of and see themselves in its future. Revitalization generally calls for growth, and the addition of new residents and businesses is a sign of success. But growth also needs to translate into improved circumstances for those who have long supported downtown.