The New Downtown: Five Critical Elements That Residents and Visitors Expect

For every downtown revitalization project or bustling city epicenter, there is another in dire need of repair, filled with abandoned warehouses and old mills, spaces that would almost look artsy if not for the busted out windows and caution tape. As city planners look to transform places such as these from their skeleton shells into places where residents can be proud to live, work and play, they often reach a crossroads marked by a critical question: What does a great downtown look like, and how can real estate professionals work in tandem with other industry leaders to create and cultivate a space that’s inclusive, exciting and accommodating all at once?

The reality remains that to bring in new investments and convince businesses to make the move there, a downtown must have certain qualities that make it stand out. Chiefly, it must be conducive to retail, dining and entertaining. In fact, according to a recent industry study, 80% of a town’s non-lodging tourism occurs in its downtown district.

Yet, before visitors can frolic to these destinations, residents must go there first. There must already be a happening, buzz-worthy scene in place to draw in that spending and capitalize on it. To this end, let’s take a look at five critical elements that can elevate an average downtown area into a go-to spot for everything from brunch to nightlife.

1. A Solid Plan and Groundwork

Communities don’t just happen overnight, and the same is true for downtowns. Rather, they come together only after a meticulous, lengthy and detail-oriented process takes place. Beginning with partners, founders, and stakeholders and branching outward, everyone with a touchpoint in the journey should be included. Throughout the meetings, an emphasis is consistently on branding, marketing and developing.

What sets this downtown apart from the one a few minutes away? Use the answers as the backbone of a mission statement and executive summary. Then, highlight the differentiators and expand on them. Anything that’s generic or vague gets tossed in favor of specificity and customization.

2. Clusters of “Like” Businesses

Sure, a downtown that includes one bakery, one pet shop and just one retail store might attract a loyal following of residents that come in for those specific needs a few times a month. Yet, it will ultimately fail to draw the consistent crowds that areas like this need to exist for the long term. Conversely, studies show that successful downtowns are those that incorporate blocks-long stretches of similar or “like” businesses.

For instance, within a three-block span, there might be 10 established eateries. These can range from coffee joints to four-course dining locations, but the goals is to cater to every need. Then, there may be a block of the same number of retail destinations that are specific to that locale. Merchants might sell local paintings, jewelry, confections, tools and more that buyers can’t readily get anywhere else. This helps to establish the downtown’s brand and attracts both residents and tourists alike.

While not always a necessary addition, experts also recommend having a handful (preferably 10 or more) locations downtown that remain open as nighttime venues, meaning they keep the doors unlocked after 6:00 in the evening. These can range from wine bars to nightclubs, but the intent is to keep the action alive past the usual closing time to give visitors a place to frequent.

3. A “Best of” Destination 

There are some places you read about in a magazine and would drive an hour or two out of your way just to go see. Does your downtown feature such a destination? If not, it’s time to establish one. In essence, this is your highlighted feature or your anchor location. It’s the spot or spots that sets your downtown apart and draws in visitors from around the state and even farther away.

It might be a restaurant that was featured on television or a merchant who creates handmade goods that have amassed a huge following thanks to social media. Regardless, feature this destination on your downtown marketing collateral and highlight it on all brochures. This will be the spot that draws them in, while your other establishments can help keep them there.

4. Places to Live and Stay

There’s nothing like waking up in your downtown condo or apartment building, then taking the elevator down to grab a bagel at the shop next door before catching your commute to work. An attractive downtown features residential communities, as well as hotel and other overnight lodging options such as bed and breakfasts.

As an example, take a look at how this company revitalized downtown Orlando. The New Orlando Creative Village not only features coffee shops, bars and retail establishments but also incorporates more than 1,000 apartment and condo units and more than 200 hotel rooms. For a downtown to thrive, there must be a place for people to turn in at the end of the night and begin it all again the next morning.

From loft apartments to upper-story studio rentals, there are myriad ways to incorporate residential options into existing buildings without the need to build new structures. Even older commercial buildings often find new life as renovated and refurbished arts district condos. Along the same line, for this concept to work, the downtown as a whole has to be pedestrian-friendly as well as biker-friendly, with plenty of accessible and reasonable parking options.

5. Public Gathering Spots

A plaza with a unique statue in the middle. A park where people on their lunch break can gather to eat and talk for a while. A water fountain that sprays every hour on the hour, attracting giddy children and seniors alike. These are just a few of the examples of a public plaza or gathering spot that can quickly turn into the heart of a downtown district.

Yours might be used as an outdoor farmer’s market with permanent tents and established vendor spots. Or, maybe it’s an amphitheater or an entertainment area with more than one stage. It may feature a public art installation or it might be a walking path to a gazebo that overlooks a scenic vista.

Regardless, these are the spaces that draw passersby together and help create a sense of community within your downtown, turning it from an en-route stop to a destination where people want to sit and stay a while.

Setting the New Downtown Up for Continued Success

Though these are some ideas on how to create a successful downtown where real estate opportunities are booming and tourism is up, the list is far from exhaustive. However, with proper planning and investments from the right businesses, even the most deficient district can be turned around. The key is involving the right stakeholders and ensuring a branded vision is established from the onset. Only then can city planners begin to adequately fill in the gaps with vendors, shops and restaurants that cater to the needs of the community.

Courtney Myers
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