Downtown, baby!

Downtowns across the country are benefiting from “Renaissance zones” aimed at restoring old buildings and boosting pedestrian traffic. Programs are also being implemented to encourage more walking and less driving. We’ve seen a dramatic increase in bike share programs, like Nice Ride in the Twin Cities (and the potential for a similar program in the Fargo-Moorhead area). We’re also seeing pop-up shops featuring local crafts like Fargo’s own Unglued, or food trucks, like Taco Bros.

There’s a reason for this blossoming interest in cities. Public and private partnerships are on the rise. In these situations, city governments and private corporations, such as real estate development groups, are able to collaborate and create highly desirable and hip, albeit occasionally costly, spaces, like lofts in an old mill or large and open office spaces.

Chattanooga, Tenn. has witnessed a wonderful transformation thanks to the work of River City Company, a non-profit economic development firm, and local city officials. City visionaries in the late eighties and early nineties worked hard to build (at the time) America’s largest freshwater aquarium and developed the riverfront and art districts. By doing so, tourism in the city skyrocketed. When people visit Chattanooga, they’re struck by how nice it is. They see people walking everywhere, and as a result, find the city more desirable. Once a crumbling steel town, Chattanooga now has a very bright and sustaining future.

The most successful and bold Renaissance programs demand a public and private partnership. By doing so, communities encourage and maintain collaborative thinking, something that comes natural in a more dense environment. Unlike a company’s simple idea to build a new office in the middle of a field (think south Fargo), organizations with a deeper connection to the area in which they operate feel compelled to take on a more lofty challenge: reenergizing the downtown core. In Fargo, the Kilbourne Group has fostered such visionary moves in development.

When businesses locate in downtown, thanks to the close working quarters, they get to know their neighbors. This familiarity comes in handy when, say, a web firm locates next to a graphic design firm. They become acquainted with each other and are more likely to work together. Maybe a coffee shop is located next door, so now those organizations are able to meet there, allowing another business to thrive. Rather than driving from one end of town to another, just to park your car and enter your business, these companies allow individuals to walk or take the bus to work and along the way meet and work with so many more people.

Fargo’s development is on the rise. With the approval of the Business Improvement District, in just a few short months, we will notice more concerted efforts to keep downtown the best part of our city. A place that is clean, safe, and vibrant.

It’s not just public and private partnerships that are making downtowns the place to be. Efforts to reduce car use, such as bike share and improved public transit services, are being heavily invested—even locally. Several students in the area are working hard to bring bike share to Fargo. MAT Bus provides free rides in the entire metro area for students.

While it may seem—at least to some—easier to expand horizontally, building a large shopping mall on a vast portion of land in the outskirts of a city, it has harsh long-term effects on individual communities. The economic benefits it yields—attractive in the planning process and first few years of operation—soon fade away, replaced by a great amount of money loss for the city.

We must think differently about development. Vibrant downtowns have been, and will continue to be, our best hope.

1 Comment

  1. Nice work Matt. We should consider building fewer strip malls and find ways to redevelop our downtown neighborhoods. How do we sell this vision to our neighbors?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *