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Citistates Report: Several clues to downtown success

By Alex Marshall And Neal Peirce
For the Salisbury Post
What’s the successful formula for downtown Charlotte and the region’s centers, both historic and new ones? How, beyond the clear need to expand bus and rail lines to connect them more easily, do the downtowns build on recent successes to become the centerpieces of a green, great, global region?
Banish the gray
First clue: Be green ó seriously! Centers too easily take on a cement-gray aura. There are easy, eye-catching fixes.
– Install networks of planters, summertime flowers and winter greenery, and not just downtown, but out in the neighborhoods too.
– Plant and maintain trees ó lots of them, even for busiest downtown streets.
– Include vest-pocket parks, fountains wherever you can afford them.
– Install energy-saving LED streetlights.
Remember: downtowns are inherently green, more energy-saving and less polluting. Residents drive fewer miles than most suburbanites and are more likely to live in smaller homes or multifamily buildings, which use substantially less fuel for heating and air-conditioning.
Rethink transit, save farms
Secondly, and in line with a green agenda, recognize that the right regional transportation strategy will enhance downtowns. This means putting less money into highways, particularly on the periphery, and more money into all types of mass transit, from light rail to commuter rail to inter-city rail to express bus service. Over time this will pull growth toward the centers, and away from the periphery.
A complementary program is to establish a set of farmland preservation policies, which would include purchase of development rights. Such programs complement a regional transportation policy, because development rights will be much cheaper to buy if a new highway is not being built through the corn fields.
Enhance livability
Third, have a set of more targeted place-specific programs to facilitate downtown development in a fashion that builds a walkeable, livable center. These include “form-based” zoning that nudges new development toward an approved vision of a place, tax credits for locating a business downtown, and other types of incentives. There is no shortage of such programs. The challenge is to pick the right set of incentives for a particular location.
Be attractive, vibrant
Fourth clue: be attractive, lively people places. Show a friendly, welcoming face.
– Encourage (OK, require) buildings that come right out to the sidewalk ó no big pretentious driveways.
– Protect and recycle historic buildings for new uses.
– Discourage big blank office walls.
– Install street art, for fun and decoration.
– Encourage farmers’ markets and festivals in an “urban commons” at the heart of the community.
Emphasize play
Fifth: Make downtowns a place to live, not just work or play. It’s great news that 13,000 people now live in uptown Charlotte, and the number’s rising. But catching up with competitor cities won’t be easy. The anticipated 2010 figure for downtown residents in Chicago is 153,000, Philadelphia 85,000, Seattle 34,000, even 25,000 in once-feared downtown Atlanta.
When lots of people live downtown, it assures 24-hour activity, “eyes on the street,” plus a constituency for full livability. Bars, restaurants, bistros are great and vital, and Charlotte already has plenty. But there’s more to life than eating and drinking. The nonprofit Charlotte Center City Partners advocacy group is focused on the still-unresolved “retail problem” ó how to recruit the hardware, office supply, clothing, household convenience stores people want nearby (so they don’t need to drive out to a suburban mall).
Streets are for people
Sixth: Focus on streets for everyone. That means cars and delivery trucks, yes, but just as important are people on foot, transit users, cyclists, indeed anyone who’s not, for the moment, encased in a vehicle.
After years of debate, Charlotte’s City Council last year finally OK’d a set of “Urban Street Design Guidelines” that matches a new national “Complete Streets” movement. The goals are “safety, convenience, comfort” for all users, plus aesthetics and livability (wide sidewalks, shorter blocks, planting strips and saving the tree canopy, for example).
But even those “complete,” safe and livable streets won’t prosper ó either in uptown Charlotte or the region’s other town centers ó without lively public input. How about a campaign to turn most one-way streets into calmer places, not highway-like sluices for cars? Other smart cities, like Chattanooga, are doing just that.
It’s a credit to Charlotte that such plans are already on the drawing board and being imiplemented for some of uptown’s streets. Other streets should benefit, too.
It’s true nothing humanizes hostile streets more than people riding bikes, whether it’s a child, a young woman in a dress or even a businessman in a three-piece suit. But to encourage cyclists, how about going beyond painted bike lanes and building fully protected bike pathways on major thoroughfares, or that head out to neighborhoods ó emulating the system of bike boulevards in Portland, Oregon? The “boulevards” are remakes of residential streets that had become degraded by motorists using them as cut-throughs. With a minimum of traffic-calming devices such as speed bumps and traffic islands, cut-through traffic has been effectively excluded, and property values enhanced.
Or take a look at London. It’s building a system of two-wheeler superhighways connecting popular residential areas to the city center and cutting a swath through traffic. It’s also building special cycle networks around 15 suburban towns, connecting residences with schools, train and bus stations, parks and shops.
Perhaps most important is changing the legal rules governing interactions between motorists and cyclists. Folks on bicycles need more protection from errant drivers, and a good way to do that is to give cyclists the legal right of way when mixing with car traffic on streets.
Don’t worship parking
Seventh: Stop genuflecting to the gods of parking.
As public transit expands and downtown residences proliferate, the downtowns can start reducing the huge reserves of parking spaces they’ve built in recent decades. With less parking, people are encouraged to use public transit. Further, more land becomes available for stores, housing, office buildings ó the things that help create lively streetscapes.
There are many ways to de-emphasize parking. An easy first remedy is, as parking guru Donald Shoup advises, to convert all minimum parking requirements into maximums. Rather than requiring developers to build parking, which is in effect a subsidy for driving, a city would put a ceiling on the amount of parking that could be built for any one project.
Create great schools
Eighth: Aim for great schools. More and more parents are wanting to live in a walkeable community with children, and this includes downtowns. And with more people of all economic classes living in and near downtowns, if the public schools are good they can reach a tipping point where many families with choices realize they’re places they want their children to be part of. And that’s to everyone’s advantage.

Related Stories

Citistates report: Two scenarios for region’s growth
Sunday, October 12, 2008 3:00 AM

Citistates Report: Charlotte’s uptown, outlying downtowns share vital connections
Sunday, November 16, 2008 3:00 AM

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