Here's why I set this out again: It's tempting, if you haven't seen the varied stages of this process, to imagine that some cities just "naturally" have attractive and successful downtowns, and others just don't happen to. It's like happening to be located on a river, or not.
But in every city we've visited with a good downtown, we've heard accounts of the long, deliberate process that led to today's result. The standard discussion will go: "See this restaurant [bar / theater / condo / Apple store with surrounding retail outlets]? Ten years ago, you wouldn't have [dreamed of coming here at night / seen anyone but crack addicts / been able to rent a condo, or wanted to]." We've heard variations of this account so often we now feel a little let down if we don't get the "this used to be a crack house" speech when visiting a nice hotel or downtown tech-company headquarters.
That's the context for the note below, from a reader in Seattle, responding to the ongoing accounts of Fresno's attempts to restore its downtown. "Everyone knows" that these days Seattle has one of the country's great, lively downtowns. The reader, who grew up in Seattle in the 1950s and 1960s, explains why this was the result of more than pure happenstance:
The Fresno story reminded me of a little-remembered deliberate urban planning effort in Seattle.
Around 1970 the mayor and his aides visited Cleveland and were appalled when they went out to dinner. They recognized that Seattle, too, had become a city with a downtown completely dead and deserted at night. Everything was moving to the suburbs; the movie theaters had been Seattle's only nighttime downtown attraction and they'd moved to the suburbs and offered free parking, as did the retail.
So the mayor and his aides sat down and consciously focused on what to do to assure a vibrant nighttime downtown, for itself and as a key component of urban health.
Dozens of elements were required, including making downtown attractive to residents as well as businesses, hotels, etc.; and transit had to be adapted for the purpose, too.
It took a long time, but for nearly 50 years this effort has carried on, successfully I think, but hardly anyone recalls that the origins of the effort were very deliberate and came about when the nighttime downtown was the precise opposite of what it is today, and few people probably think of it as involving a conscious goal then or now. They just think "that's the way Seattle is." But Seattle wasn't.
PS I hope the Fresno folks think about the downtown-residence part. It seemed a pipe dream in Seattle once too. But it's been key.
Now, of course, it is a self fueling boom: young folks in tech. You saw Expedia just announced its move from Bellevue to Seattle because as the company stated young people want to live in the city now, where it is all happening, not on the Eastside, so moving to the city aids recruiting and retention.
On this final point: yes, in every place we've been, every one we've talked with about downtown recovery stresses the crucial importance of getting people to live there. Here's a recent news release from Columbus to exactly that effect.