Amidst all the political craziness at the national level it pays once in a while to pause and think about what crazy ideas local pols are promoting. Among the dumbest, in my opinion, is the “revitalize downtown” theme. I believe it is time to ask ourselves, isn’t “downtown” an obsolete concept? Why should local governments concentrate civic resources downtown instead of out where the people are? Shouldn’t civic amenities such as libraries, parks, government offices and such be located out in the neighborhoods where people live and work? I lived in Tucson for a year before even realizing that it had a downtown — which impressed on me how unimportant downtowns actually are.
Why did downtown happen in the first place? Simple, it was spontaneously created as a way for people to work and live without traveling long distances. But then, along came urban planners, who dictated that people should work here and live there. This wasn’t so bad as long the roads could keep up with the traffic, and it’s still how most of us choose to live now.
Meanwhile, downtown became obsolete and run-down. Buildings were old and needed a lot of work and money to maintain, not to mention the hassles of high taxes and expensive mandated code upgrades. Nobody wants to go where they have to circle the block a dozen times then park in a garage costing $5.00 or more per half hour. Few people really like filthy streets and bum infested alleys. Multi-story department stores became obsolete. Public transit broke down. Downtown is where nobody wanted to go anymore if there was an alternative. Only government offices remained downtown and it became a government ghetto. It became obsolete.
A few years back the city fathers of San Antonio decided to dress up a trash and weed-filled river bank with a “river walk” that would attract tourists, restaurants, and gift shops. The thing they had going for them was that the river walk originated at the Alamo – a premier tourist attraction. It was a nationally recognized success noticed and celebrated by urban planning types and local pols everywhere. And soon there sprung up a series of downtown renewal projects like those of Denver, Co., Long Beach, Ca. and Portland, Oregon. These focused on making streets into pedestrian malls, adding lighting and flower boxes and in some cases (Long Beach and Portland) light rail services. What all these projects had in common was that they were expensive, especially if they involved light rail. And although the projects are judged by most observers to be popular, and thus successful, they don’t necessarily make downtowns any less obsolete. These downtowns simply mimic shopping malls, but without convenient parking.
A good case study in downtown revitalization is Tucson, Arizona. Here, the city fathers were so bedazzled with the potential grandiosity of downtown that they persuaded the state government go loan them several billion dollars, to be partially repaid with a special taxing district — which they gerrymandered several miles up a main street to take in several distant shopping centers.
Tucson’s downtown plan, called Rio Nuevo, anticipated a “Disneyland” scenario involving a hotel, an event center to host cultural events (like motocross and demolition derby), a reconstruction of Spanish and American Indian settlements, an aquarium, and to top it off a university science center suspended over a freeway by a “rainbow bridge.” You can see it here. This bridge, whose cost estimates eventually exceeded $350 Million eventually broke the back of the whole project which was still-borne after 3 years and millions of dollars spent on planning. As a symptom of bureaucratic and political psychosis, this is textbook.
So what was the motivation for Tucson’s downtown plan? In my opinion it was, at its heart, a desire to glorify Tucson and by reflection the politicians in charge. It had little appeal to the citizens of the town. Now Tucson is back to square one and should never have left it.
The same “glory to the politicians” motivation applies to other cities, as it does to Tucson. Notwithstanding the “energy crisis” mania and the lobbying by politicians and enviro-nuts for public transit and compact development, downtowns are obsolete and nothing is likely to bring them back.