EconSouth (Third Quarter 1999)
popular song from the '60s claims that "You can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares and go downtown." But worries and cares seem to have taken up residence in many cities' downtown areas, and Southeastern cities are no exception.
The 1940s and '50s were seemingly the heydays for downtowns, with living, working, entertainment and shopping existing in a general state of equilibrium. But for a variety of reasons beginning in the 1960s, the allure of downtowns began to wane, and many residents and businesses began to leave cities for the perceived safer, newer and cleaner world of suburbia with its large homes, sprawling yards and shopping malls. Downtown districts became synonymous with boarded-up storefronts, high crime rates, homelessness and dwindling numbers of full-time residents.
To rejuvenate their downtown districts, many communities throughout the nation beginning in the 1960s began to embark on downtown revitalization projects. Some cities' projects included more planning and foresight and were more comprehensive than others, but in each case the general intent was the same — to create an environment where residents, businesses and, in some cases, tourists could support each other to achieve an attractive, livable and workable environment.
In the Southeast, a number of cities have undertaken revitalization efforts. Some have turned to entertainment complexes and attractions. Others, more recently, have worked to include housing in their downtown districts, believing that it is difficult for a city to have a successful downtown area without full-time residents.
But revitalization projects are complex, with no easy answers or guaranteed results for cities. In the Southeast, revitalization efforts have achieved mixed success.
Life's a beach in Miami
From the 1940s through the 1960s, Miami Beach was one of the top tourist destinations in the United States. But the area began to decline in the '70s, and by the '80s Miami Beach, particularly the South Beach art deco district that dates to the 1920s, was near rock bottom, featuring one of Florida's oldest populations with among the lowest per capita income rates in the state.
Ironically, it was the near destruction of the art deco buildings the area is famous for that launched the first revitalization efforts in the mid-1970s. The art deco district was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1979, but it wasn't until local laws were passed several years later that the art deco buildings were fully protected. These developments were important because they helped the area retain its history and character that provided a solid base for revitalization.
In an article in the Miami Herald in 1987, the mayor of Miami Beach at that time described the South Beach area revitalization efforts that were just beginning to gain some momentum. "This isn't the land of milk and honey, but it is a land of opportunity. We are looking for new people who are willing to leave the suburban comfort zone and take a chance on the city. We have some great deals here, deals that wouldn't exist if things were perfect."
Eventually, people and businesses did move into the area, but not without the combined work of the city, the private nonprofit Miami Beach Development Corp., a host of developers and citizen groups. Through these efforts, South Beach has been transformed into one of the most trendy and popular destinations in the Southeast. But the revitalization of South Beach was not quick or easy, and there are some areas of South Beach that are still in need of improvement. However, with more time and funding, the area appears well on its way to regaining much of its 1920s splendor.
A river runs through it
Chattanooga, Tenn., began the process of revitalizing parts of its downtown and environs in the 1980s. The turnaround for Chattanooga took a long time, but the city had a long way to go. In fact, Chattanooga in the late 1960s was known as one of the dirtiest cities in the United States. The Tennessee River running through the city was anything but scenic and was bordered by buildings abandoned by industries that had left town.
Through a process called Vision 2000, a 20-week series of community meetings that sought citizens' input on the city's future, Chattanooga began its comprehensive revitalization plan. The ambitious strategic effort involved more than 800 Chattanooga citizens. Over time the group considered hundreds of potential revitalization programs, but they eventually narrowed their emphasis to projects centered on the Tennessee River.
The city contributed the seed money, including road improvements and an overhaul of sewers. The private sector, which has provided much of the funding for the city's revitalization, helped to transform riverfront wastelands into parklands. Other investments in the city by both public and private interests included the $45 million Tennessee Aquarium, the refurbishing of the Walnut Street Bridge and the development of shopping areas housed in old factory space, such as a downtown outlet mall featuring designer shops.
Through these cooperative efforts, Chattanooga can now offer its residents and businesses a more livable and workable downtown district. The city also provides tourists a venue that is appealing as a regional destination and not simply interstate exits they pass on the way to somewhere else. As proof of Chattanooga's appeal to travelers, in Hamilton County, where the city is located, tourists spent $466 million in 1997, compared to $335 million in 1990 — an increase of 36 percent — according to the Travel Industry Association.
A tale of two projects
Atlanta has seen both the ups and the downs in two of its revitalization efforts during the past decade. The city's downtown received a major boost from the revitalization in preparation for the 1996 Summer Olympic Games, but the city has also been disappointed by another reclamation effort, Underground Atlanta.
One of the oldest sections of downtown, the area that came to be called Underground Atlanta had been home to a variety of businesses after Atlanta was rebuilt following the Civil War. During the 1920s, the construction of a system of viaducts in that area raised street traffic to the second-floor level and left the "underground" first-floor level for service and storage. In the late 1960s, Underground Atlanta was designated a historical area by the city and was converted into an entertainment center. After an early success, Underground closed in 1980, facing a variety of financial and security problems.
A major effort aimed at revitalizing the Underground district gained momentum in the mid-1980s. Underground's champions stated that their goal was to "make Underground Atlanta the town center for the metropolitan area." These supporters also envisioned that the area would be a linchpin for downtown Atlanta, linking the government section of town with the CNN Center, the Georgia World Congress Center and the business and hotel district — ambitious goals for what was then one of the most neglected areas in the downtown district.
Using approximately $142 million of combined public and private financing, including $85 million in city revenue bonds, Underground opened in 1989 as an entertainment center. It featured restaurants, bars, fast-food establishments and small to medium-sized retail stores, similar to centers in other southeastern cities like New Orleans and Augusta, Ga. The development was heralded as a success story in public-private redevelopment — but somewhere along the line Underground veered off course.
A variety of reasons for Underground's less than successful performance have been cited, including poor design, low attendance and spending from Atlanta's population, a perceived lack of security at the complex, interference from city government and claims that Underground's management did not operate like a real business. Whatever the reasons, Underground has not lived up to the initial projections for success. Although Underground has brought some new development into an area of the city that was in great need of help, it has also struggled to repay the debt amassed for its redevelopment.
Currently, Underground Atlanta is in the process of its third makeover within 30 years. Whether this latest installment can be financially successful is unclear. But another Atlanta effort to renew its downtown has been more successful — the revitalization that began in preparation for the 1996 Summer Olympics.
An Olympic effort pays off
While the revitalization of its downtown was not the motivating force that made Atlanta seek to host the Olympics, downtown's renewal was a by-product of the city's work to put its best foot forward for the 1996 Summer Games.
When the International Olympic Committee announced in 1990 that Atlanta would host the 1996 Games, residents in the city, while ecstatic, were probably as surprised as anyone in the world. That's because much of downtown Atlanta's infrastructure had been somewhat neglected for decades. Bridges and viaducts were crumbling, sidewalks were in disrepair, the city's water and sewer capacity was inadequate, parks were unkempt, and, along with its office towers and hotels, the downtown area contained a mishmash of empty, dilapidated buildings. With the Olympics on its horizon, the city had to address these problems.
A variety of different city, state and private groups, which came to be known by their acronyms, like ACOG, CODA, COPA and MAOGA, were involved in planning, developing and carrying out the preparations to get Atlanta ready for the Olympics. While the Games generally were privately funded through entities like corporations and television networks, significant city, state and federal public funds were required to prepare the city and then to put on the Olympics.
As a result of these combined efforts, the 1996 Summer Games left a legacy on which the city can continue to build into the next century. Among the downtown improvements for the Games was a new park, called Centennial Olympic Park, around which new development is currently taking place. The park replaced a section of old buildings and warehouses, many of which were abandoned. The park provides an attractive public space for residents and tourists and a transition area for conventioneers between the hotels near Peachtree Street and the Georgia World Congress Center.
Other improvements throughout the city included a new baseball stadium, physical improvements in several inner city neighborhoods, new downtown dorms for two local universities, renovation of the city's airport, and new signage, sidewalks and lighting in the downtown area.
Community Improvement Districts Hold Promise for Revitalization Projects
ver the past 15 to 20 years communities across the country have turned increasingly to community improvement districts (CIDs) as a source of funding for augmenting existing city services and enhancing infrastructure. CIDs provide additional funding where local government taxes are insufficient.
A CID is a geographically defined district in which commercial property owners choose to tax themselves to achieve a specific purpose or purposes. CID funds can be spent on a variety of projects. Georgia's constitution, for instance, allows for these projects to include street and road construction and maintenance, sidewalks and streetlights, parking facilities, water and sewage systems, terminal and dock facilities, public transportation, and park facilities and recreational areas.
Businesses find CIDs an attractive funding mechanism because commercial property owners vote on the self-imposed tax, and the cost is proportionately distributed across the district.
In Atlanta, the Midtown Alliance, a nonprofit, community-based group, is currently in the process of establishing a CID for the midtown area. Susan Mendheim, president and CEO of the group, explained why the CID is so valuable to the community. "CIDs augment what city or county governments are able to do," she said. "They also allow communities to decide where the additional tax money is most needed. Unlike impact fees or property taxes, the CID funds are controlled by a private, nonprofit board of property owners who have a vested interest in the area and its development."
Another initiative that has helped the city is the development of the Atlanta Downtown Improvement District, a nonprofit organization formed just before the Olympics. This organization implemented the Ambassador Force, a team of approximately 50 people who walk beats throughout the 120-block downtown district, providing directions and information for visitors, workers and residents. The presence of the Ambassador Force, combined with initiatives of Atlanta's police force, has contributed to the drop in crime in downtown Atlanta for three straight years.
Since the Olympics, a number of loft apartments, town homes and condominiums are being developed in downtown Atlanta. Georgia State University, located downtown, also recently began constructing and refurbishing classroom and arts-related buildings.
Whether or not this development will continue remains to be seen. But given the Atlanta area's problems in meeting clean air standards, the prospects appear good that more and more people will move downtown. While the city still has a long way to go in revitalizing its downtown area, progress since the Olympic Games may mean that the best is yet to come for downtown Atlanta.
While developing and implementing a revitalization plan is full of challenges, funding the plan can also be, literally, a taxing process.
Funding for revitalization is available from many sources. For instance, cities can apply for state or local money through a variety of programs; they can also obtain local or state funding and then apply for matching funds from the federal government. Sometimes local funding comes from an additional tax on certain types of expenditures or from the sale of bonds. Additionally, cities can seek private or corporate funding to help support projects for public use (see the sidebar).
But structuring funding is a complex process; some funds may not be appropriate for all revitalization projects since there may be restrictions on how the funds can be used. The key to developing a successful financial package for a revitalization project is to determine what type of funding works for each project, not just at the outset but for the life of the entire project. Ultimately, the success or failure of an entire revitalization effort can depend on the structure of its funding package.
One size doesn't fit all
Many people argue that the economic health of an entire region depends on the economic performance of the central city's downtown area. Others, however, argue that a downtown area is not in the least important to the overall economic health of a metropolitan area. Whichever view one supports, there is no argument that cities continue to place importance on their downtowns, striving to find ways, either through refined processes or shotgun approaches, to improve those areas.
Proving the popularity of this mindset, southeastern cities like Columbus, Ga., Orlando, Fla., Jacksonville, Fla., and Montgomery, Ala., have all tried their hands, with mixed success, at downtown revitalization in one form or another during the past three decades.
While some lessons can be learned from other cities' efforts, the revitalization process is an individualized process by its very nature. Just as there are no two cities that are alike, there also is no secret formula for achieving success that can be applied to each and every city. The path to success varies from project to project and city to city, and finding the right solution can be a hit-or-miss proposition.
In spite of the potential pitfalls, large and small revitalization projects that use public and private funds have more recently been launched in several cities, including Macon, Ga., Nashville, Tenn., and Birmingham, Ala. These initiatives and other evidence from throughout the Southeast show that revivalists are likely to keep trying until they get it right and are able to return their downtown areas to some of their former glory.