Cities Quietly Revitalize Downtown

With reduced budgets and earlier large-scale failures, cities opt for smaller-scale projects. STREET-FRIENDLY DEVELOPMENT

FADS are not just for fashion-conscious dressers. Cities follow them too, says urban planning expert Bernard Frieden. ``Aquariums seem to be the latest rage,'' he says. ``They're a status symbol that draws tremendous crowds - and you don't have to be on the ocean anymore to get one.''

Cities from Monterey, Calif.; to Orlando, Fla.; and Mystic, Conn.; to Baltimore have had aquariums for years. Boston is negotiating for a new larger site for its New England Aquarium. Cambridge Seven Associates, the Massachusetts architectural firm that designed that aquarium recently completed another in Osaka, Japan, and is working on two more - for Genoa, Italy, and Chattanooga, Tenn. Both will open in 1992.

The aquarium surge is just one small part of what Dr. Frieden considers a remarkable and still largely unrecognized urban achievement: the rebuilding of the downtown core of as many as 30 of America's major cities.

``Most large cities have poured a lot of resources and effort into rebuilding their downtowns,'' he says, ``and most of them are in much better shape than 10 to 20 years ago.''

Frieden, Ford Professor of Urban Development at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, currently on sabbatical as a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley, says the rebuilding has been a long, slow process.

As recently as the early 1970s many academic experts and political leaders considered downtown revival efforts a failure. The demise of federal funds for such projects and the often disastrous experience of routing low income and minority residents from their homes to make way for massive federal urban renewal or highway projects figured in that conclusion, he says.

But by the mid-'70s the situation began to turn around. Cities had a harder time finding money for downtown rebuilding, but most grew more resourceful.

Many cities found they had unused land, such as waterfront property and old warehouse districts. Rather than auction it off, cities realized the land could be developed for greater public benefit and city return if cities were involved in the development.

Public highway and transit systems have also discovered that they can lease or sell land in ways that help urban development, says Frieden. The Washington, D.C., transit system, for instance, has several commercial projects around major stations, while some state highway departments have begun to promote development around interchanges.

The new city development projects tended to be smaller, more manageable, and often more strategically located, says Frieden. And cities made faster progress by their new ability to cut federal red tape and write the rules themselves. They began to work much more closely with developers.

``Cities could bounce their ideas off the developers and discover what was feasible and what subsidies were needed,'' he says.

A boom in downtown office development, partly in response to the shift to a more service-oriented economy, was a key factor in the success of the revitalization, says Frieden. ``That gave the cities a solid economic base,'' he says. In ``Downtown, Inc.,'' a 1989 book now in its second printing, he and co-author Lynne Sagalyn, also of MIT, report that 1,325 office buildings - or the equivalent of 250 new Empire State Buildings - were built or started downtown in the 30 largest urban areas during the 1960s and 1970s.

Though at first eager for more such business activity, urban leaders soon realized they also needed the kind of development which could keep their streets active and safe at night and on weekends. Malls, often combining shops, offices, movies, restaurants, and hotels, were seen as one way to do it.

Frieden notes that since the early 1970s, more than 100 cities have built downtown malls. To succeed, as many have, they have had to compete with suburban malls, which often offer acres of free parking and more uniform opening and closing hours. Some, like Boston's Faneuil Hall Marketplace, have competed successfully by offering unusual store combinations, a variety of fast foods, or unusual architectural approaches that integrate historic buildings into the project.

Downtown malls, says Frieden, may attract as many as 20 million visitors a year - about the number of tourists that annually visit Britain. Some smaller cities, such as Burlington, Vt.; Ithaca, N.Y.; and Boulder, Col., also have successful downtown malls, says Frieden. He notes that all are university towns with a built-in clientele ready to enjoy the entertainment atmosphere of a mall.

Some, such as Boston's Copley Place, which has high windowless walls that face the streets around it, have been criticized for not encouraging the open flow of traffic that keeps streets busy. Yet Frieden notes that when many cities began building malls in the 1970s, many people regarded city streets as dirty and unsafe. They preferred to be surrounded by something ``artificial,'' he says.

Noting that architects and cities have learned from the experience, he points to San Diego's Horton Plaza, an unenclosed downtown mall with wide entrances, as a newer, more street-friendly example.

In addition to malls, says Frieden, many cities rushed to build convention centers. In 1970 only 15 cities could handle a trade show of 15,000 people. By 1985 the number of accommodating cities had jumped to 150. Most convention centers lose money. The desire to outbid the others often prompts them to charge prices that do not cover actual operating and development costs. ``The real purpose of convention centers is to generate business for the rest of the city,'' says Frieden.

Downtown development has spawned other urban benefits, he says. Some city development agencies now require developers of prime downtown projects to invest as well in other, needier sections of the central city. Green or open spaces are often included by design in new developments.

City residents can also gain on the job front. The Rouse Company's Harborplace in Baltimore set a starting requirement that 20 percent of the mall's businesses be minority-owned. San Diego stipulated that a substantial share of jobs created by Horton Plaza be reserved for residents of the city's poorer neighborhoods.

But Frieden says the help offered to date does not begin to keep pace with the need.

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