Building Boom Reshapes City Skylines

Urban planners turn to culture, recreation, and entertainment to reinvent downtowns

"Hog Butcher for the World, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with Railroads, and the Nation's Freight Handler."

This description, penned early in the century by the poet Carl Sandburg, captured the essence of Chicago at the height of the Industrial Age.

Like most American cities then, this was a bursting commercial center swollen with immigrants, shrouded in factory smoke, rising girder by girder toward the clouds.

Today, after a generation of decline, many of America's urban cores are marching again toward grandeur. From Los Angeles to Boston, Dallas to Detroit, civic leaders are making quiet progress in efforts to make downtowns livelier and more livable, to wrest lost business back from suburbs, and restore crumbling neighborhoods.

It's an enormous job with great implications for the future of urban life in America and the nation's long-term economic viability. It's a process complicated by past failures, by the changing nature of commerce, and a shrinking federal budget.

But this round of restoration, unlike others, seems to prosper from a notion Sandburg might never have imagined: That the growling and muscled cities of decades past might reinvent themselves as centers for entertainment, culture, and recreation.

"What we're seeing now is a major shift in the idea of what a downtown should be," says William Howard, an urban studies professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "It's a more holistic point of view that a downtown is not just a collection of office buildings, but a place where people live and work and play as well."

For many cities, this new concept is paying dividends. Downtown amenities, often centered around new stadiums or waterfront districts, are credited for enlivening once-stagnant industrial areas in Cleveland, Denver, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Dallas, and Baltimore. Even cities like Chicago, Seattle, Portland, Boston, and San Francisco - which are known for vibrant urban neighborhoods - have concentrated development efforts on "mixed-use" districts composed of shops, offices, restaurants, parks, sports facilities, theaters, museums, and apartments.

The new approach reflects a maturation born of countless failures. In years past, experts say, the most common urban development strategy revolved around a single megaproject - often a convention center or high-rise office complex - financed by government or big corporations. Such projects, the theory went, would serve as magnets for peripheral growth.

"The urban renewal movement of the 1960s and '70s decimated downtowns," says Betsy King, president of the International Downtown Association in Washington. "The idea was that if you build something huge and clear the land around it, developers will come. More often than not, it didn't play out that way."

According to Ms. King, the days of the monolithic project are largely over. At present, she notes, skyscraper construction has nearly ground to a halt, and the federal government has backed away from its prior role as chief urban financier.

Most downtown development associations, she adds, now tend to seek broad input from government officials, private investors, paid consultants, and neighborhood residents. In many cases, these partnerships have provided private interests with the confidence to invest in cities they once viewed as bureaucratic labyrinths.

By all accounts, a roaring economy has eased the burdens on cities. As suburbs grow more crowded and begin to show signs of decline themselves, many investors are shifting their focus back downtown. A new generation of powerful and pragmatic mayors is restoring faith in city halls. But the most important factor driving urban redevelopment, experts say, is the ability of civic leaders to adjust to the changing realities of American society.

In the 1960s, about 25 percent of families raising children in metropolitan areas lived in the suburbs. Today, that percentage has tripled, and shows no sign of abating. Studies show the chief reasons families leave are crime and the poor quality of public schools. Although crime rates have dropped in recent years and many cities are taking steps to improve public education, there is little hope that these problems can be solved quickly and that cities will attract many middle-class families.

In the meantime, the most successful cities are focusing on luring people who find the suburbs stifling. Across the nation, mixed-use developments have often created a strong demand for urban housing among small-business people, young professionals, artists, and empty-nesters. As technology allows more people to work at home, and as the baby-boom generation begins to retire, cities will likely benefit.

"There are some demographic groups that won't live in a loft," King says. "Cities aren't going to capture one of everybody, but they can still create enough activity downtown to dramatically improve the quality of life."

In coming years, these new principles of development will be tested in two of the most challenging markets imaginable: Los Angeles and Detroit. At present, Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan is preparing a $3 billion plan to build a vast complex of government buildings, museums, restaurants, retail outlets, entertainment venues, and apartments in the heart of the city.

Detroiters are embarking on a similarly ambitious plan to build mixed-use developments in several neighborhoods, and to construct two new downtown stadiums, three casinos, and a riverfront complex on the site of an asphalt plant. If these cities can usher in a new sense of vitality, they might set the stage for an urban revival even Sandburg might find remarkable.

"When we look at the global picture, we can already see that business goes to places with a high quality of life," says Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, dean of the University of Miami's School of Architecture. "Great cities are the mark of a great society."

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