Yesterday I quoted a reader in Seattle who recounted the long, purposeful process through which that city's now-lively and attractive downtown was willed into existence. Reader mail on this point:
1) The wisdom of Jerry Brown. From a reader in the East Bay:
One to the things that Jerry Brown emphasized when he was Mayor of Oakland was a campaign to get 10,000 new residents downtown. I think that made a tremendous impact on Oakland, both in the downtown and just in reputation.
When I was interviewing Jerry Brown two years ago in his office in Oakland, for this article, he bragged about this same effort and urged me to look around the still-improving downtown. Which I did, and was impressed.
2) Tampa tried and failed. Asheville succeeded ... just because. From another reader:
Your reader's description of Seattle in 1970 applies, word-for-word, to Tampa (where I lived from 1953 to 1994 and have returned to many times visiting family). Yet no one in their right mind would describe Tampa's downtown as a success. The best you could say for it would be, "It's struggling to improve"—but that's what you'd say in 2005, 1995, 1985, and 1975.
The struggle has been long, and the improvement painful. The Franklin Street Pedestrian Mall has long been given over to abandoned storefronts and abandoned people, while the crown jewel of the early effort, Curtis Hixon Hall, was torn down 20 years ago. The 1980s-era Harbor Island and 1990s-era street car have both failed to meet their original goals, and the Harbor Island mall and people mover have long been shut down.
Downtown Tampa's main assets date from its earliest period: The Tampa Bay Hotel (University of Tampa) built in the 1890s, and Bayshore Blvd, first built in 1906 and reaching its present shape in the 1930s.
On the other hand, Asheville, North Carolina's, fabulous downtown (60 blocks for a town of 150,000, and just try to get a parking space after 6 p.m.!) seems to have evolved without any planning at all. Its physical structure dates from massive overbuilding during the 1920s Land Boom, but its current success comes from a large artists' community which occupied it during the 1980s due to ample space at low rent. (The artists community itself dates from private charities establishing crafts coops in the 1910s and 20s in the surrounding mountains.)
Curiously, the downtown district has become so successful that few artists can now afford it, causing an exodus to a 1920s-era factory district that was almost completely abandoned 20 years ago.
This tells me that there is no recipe here; an approach's success in Seattle is meaningless unless you understand why the same approach failed in Tampa. But as to massive, long-term, centralized intervention—Tampa indicates that it's not sufficient, and Asheville [below] shows that it's not even necessary.
We have not yet gone to Asheville (although we've flown near it many times on trips up and down the East Coast) precisely because it's so famously chic and successful a small-ish town. So I'm not in a position to assess the reader's claim that Asheville just naturally evolved its way into its current look. I await views from readers who know more about the story.