What is Your Town's Vision?

Each town is a unique entity with different strengths and weaknesses. Some towns have a strong building stock, some have strong retail and others have little of anything. The focus on what your town has to offer can many times be overlooked.

When a town first starts the revitalization process, many times there is a visioning session in which people convey what they feel is their vision of the downtown. These multiple views are then melded together to come up with a combined vision for the downtown. Many times these visions get lost when the document is put on a shelf as part of a library of plans, aspirations and documents relating to the revitalization.

A visioning document usually outlines the hopes and dreams of the public as to where they want to see the downtown move to in the future. This is an important element of the revitalization because you are moving through the “process of revitalization” that focuses on where you want to be and sometimes outlines issues relating to how you want to get there.

Usually these documents outline what the strengths of a town are and attempt to build upon them. The problem comes in when these documents ignore the constraints that will be encountered by the committee as they attempt to get from point A to point B. I have conducted many of these sessions and found them to be interesting in how they can often move to being a large complaint session if the facilitator is not strong enough to stem the tide. At times these complaints can be constraints, but most of the time they relate to a minor issues that ignore the larger picture.

I always like to stress the realistic positives as they relate to a central business district. You look at what you have and decide how to strengthen it. Building stock is always a good place to start. The town is a collection of buildings and how they look. How you utilize them is a big part of what people thing about your downtown. Although the town is not just a collection of buildings, that is, to a certain extent, how you define your town.

If you have a great concentration of large buildings that once housed department stores and corporate headquarters, you need to look at how the adaptive reuse of those buildings will be addressed. Does that affect your vision? Sure it does … because in order to make your town vibrant you need to come up with solutions.  Many times that solution seems to be government related, as in “where can we get money to fix this?” In some cases that is the answer, but in most cases you will need a private developer to make the project happen. 

Government solutions are not always the best solutions, but can provide the necessary gap funding to make a project go. Most downtowns seek retail on the first floor to create an interesting visit to the downtown. Retail and restaurants usually go together as the first step in revitalization in a visioning process. After all, downtowns were the original shopping destinations, and people will always view the downtown as combining that component with other uses.

Large spaces on the top floor of buildings are always problematic when you are trying to creatively readapt the uses of these larger buildings. The government funding may have conditions attached that will allow for the second and third floor space to be adapted to housing, but it may come at a cost. There will be income limits on the occupants who are allowed to occupy the space. In some communities, that may not be a problem, but in other communities it may be contrary to what you are trying to achieve.

Utilizing the upper floors for housing, when government assisted programs provide you with a low-income clientele, could jeopardize the content and feel of what you are trying to achieve. Sure it is better to have the upper floors utilized, but if the plan is to make the downtown more upscale, that will present a problem. If you already have a large population downtown that is not subsidized, it will be less of an impact. You cannot always just follow the money.

There are other things that you can do with the second and third floors of some of the larger buildings, which could fit into a vision. There could be a conversion to office space. Most times this will involve creating a space for an elevator in a building to make the offices handicapped accessible. Sometimes the upper floors of buildings are still in the original condition. If the original use was office, it makes it a whole lot easier to create viable office space. This is not only due to the fact that there are less demolition and conversion costs, but also you have a customary use of offices in the building. 

Another interesting approach is to use the upper floors for the arts. I have used this strategy in a number of towns, and although it will not generate the same income and traffic as apartments or offices, it creates a different vibe in the town.  The arts have no real time limits on when they create people traffic. Offices normally create daytime foot traffic, and housing normally creates evening foot traffic. The arts on the other hand could be either daytime or nighttime or a combination of the two. 

The strong selling point for creating art studio space on the upper levels is that the rehabilitation need not be extensive to create the use. The use might not pay the investor a great return, but there are fewer expenses up front because the building rehab costs less. Some downtowns have more of a demand for the second floor space, which will exclude the arts as an option. 

Each of the options outlined above are totally dependent on the building owner and what he or she wants to do with the building, and what kind of money they want to expend and receive. It has been my experience that most of the building owners will buy into a strategy … a vision … of what the town wants to be.  “Isn’t that what we want to do” is a common comment from a building owner when a vision has been detailed to them and made plain and simple.

Visions for the downtown could be just that … a vision … an idea of what you want. If there is buy in by all members of the community into a vision, you will have an easy time getting people to go along with the vision. If the vision is put on a shelf with the other plans, documents and aspirations and is not articulated into a short one or two page document, there will never be buy-in by the property owners and investors in the town. It has to be simple. It can have complex elements, but the vision must be straightforward. This is not real easy to do but it can be done. To do this you need a strong revitalization committee with diversified leadership. It has to become an idea as part of a group visioning process or else it becomes “Joe’s idea for the town” or “Betty’s idea of what the town should be.” Consensus and group participation, and a constant reinforcement of what the group decided, is essential for success.