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Shovel Ready: Razing Hopes, History, and a Sense of Place:
Chapter 3: Character, Image, and Other Reasons Downtown is Important

Go back to: Shovel Ready Home | Schenectady's Downtown Story | ahead to: Urban Renewal and Yesterday's "Town of Tomorrow"

[This information is from pp. 39-47 of Shovel Ready: Razing Hopes, History, and a Sense of Place: Rethinking Schenectady's Downtown Strategies, a master's thesis in city planning by Christopher Patrick Spencer (MIT, 2001), and is reproduced with his permission. It is in the Schenectady Collection of the Schenectady County Public Library at Schdy R 711 Spe.]

Downtown symbolizes the city for Americans. It is the image by which a city measures its progress and projects to visitors… bustling crowds and traffic congestion convey its vitality and excitement… older [rundown] buildings and vacant lots reflect the flight to the suburbs… an American city does not consider itself successful without a magnificent downtown.

Edward Muller, "Distinctively Downtown" (1)

The image many of us hold of a city is closely linked to that of its downtown. When we observe a failing downtown, we invariably, and too often correctly, assume it to be a failing city as well. A downtown filled with empty storefronts and streets that appear lifeless implies a city filled with despair and devoid of hope. In contrast, a downtown exhibiting variety and vitality tends to stand for a city that is equally spirited. The downtown can also have a powerful effect on the rest of the city — positively or negatively influencing such things as real estate values, people's attitudes towards the city, and the city's ability to retain or attract investment. In many ways the downtown plays a crucial role in improving the livability of the city by providing civic, residential, economic, and cultural opportunities that may not be found in the outlying suburbs or nearby towns. The downtown should be thought of as the heart and soul of the community and a shared asset for residents and visitors alike. In paraphrasing Jim Kunstler comments on city parks, it might be said, Good downtowns belong to everyone, while bad ones belong to no one.

The Identity Crisis of Placeless Spaces

Fig 3.01 [enlarge]

A brochure for a conference at Hofstra University on a growing area of study — Redefining the Suburbs.

To appreciate further the importance of a downtown and the sense of identity and central focus it provides, it is worth considering the ongoing discourse about placeless towns and auto-dependent suburbs in the graduate schools and professional firms engaged in issues of city planning and urban design. One of the vital questions being discussed is: How can places that have grown up around the automobile and large-scale, single-use developments be redesigned to create a sense of place, identity, and focus — thereby increasing their livability? The idea is, in part, to create a place-based rather than name-based identity — one that encourages rather than prohibits a variety of people and uses from coming together. For some, this may imply creating something more similar to the traditional Main Street than the shopping mall to give the community a sense of ownership and place to call home. For most, it means creating some place of lasting character and value, a place that people care about and care to be in — one that is worth building on rather than constantly rebuilding.

Many suburbs and sprawling towns have begun to consider their individual identity crisis and lack of center by defining new focal points or developing new areas of mixed use and activity that give their residents some sense of shared ownership. Modifying the town square concept, some suburbs have created community cul-de-sacs that combine civic buildings (i.e.,the town hall, post office, or library) with retail shops and professional offices. By locating these buildings within largely retail and commercial developments, they have at least begun to understand the importance of mixed-use areas (although not yet mixed-use buildings) and started to address the idea of shared public space. But often, these attempts show no understanding of what makes a memorable or lively public space. A vinyl-sided town hall capped with a poorly proportioned cupola and despoiled with phony out-of-scale Palladian windows, plastic corner quoins, pre-molded broken scroll pediments, and other tacked on historical or architectural references, hardly conveys a building of permanence and lasting presence (other than the half-life of the building's materials). Buildings such as this add little to the character of the place or the seriousness of the attempt. The addition of a gazebo, antique street lighting, or public benches nearby does little to improve the situation, especially if the location of such a center requires that everyone access it by car. Town centers that are not close enough to a vibrant residential community often fail to create any activity on the streets other than increased vehicular traffic.

Some communities have also experimented with the idea of locating a number of town functions and offices within local shopping malls. Part of the reasoning behind this may be to build off the identity of the shopping mall, and perhaps create something of a town within a mall. Another possible motive might be to provide a more convenient way for community members to access municipal services and departments within a space that is already being heavily used by its community members. The fundamental problem with this is that it removes public services from the public realm. In The Geography of Nowhere, James Kunstler points out that a mall isn't really a public space at all. It is a "private space masquerading as a public space." When civic uses are contained within private buildings, any sense of shared public space or community ownership goes out the window. Whether towns and suburbs want to create public squares, a new Main Street, or even develop a new design typology, they should ensure that access to municipal services remains convenient and truly public.

The Name Game

A number of suburbs have abdicated their responsibility and handed over the task of engendering any sense of the public realm to private developers. But for many developers, their experience is more relevant to place calling than place making. For some developers, borrowing from the urban and small town lexicon to create shopping areas whose names bring to mind some great civic vision, is the extent of their working within the public realm. Even the word mall, once defined and thought of as "a public area often set with shade trees and designed as a promenade or as a pedestrian walk," has become as debased as the places it now represents. (2) Developers have also resorted to using words such as common, square, or plaza to increase the palatability of the insipid private worlds they have created and to imply a sense of community and shared ownership. Others have even gone so far as to attach names which are part of the local heritage to give places something of an instant history.

Using that approach, even in towns with no real center or image, developers have created spaces that have only a verbal sense of place. Near Schenectady, in the town of Colonie where there is no real town center, developers in the 1970s created Colonie Center, a large shopping mall. In the town of Niskayuna, with no real Main Street or town square, developers have used the name Niskayuna Commons for their shopping plaza. And in nearby Latham, the name of a new sprawling big-box development is used to preserve the memory of what it once was, Latham Farms. Few developers, however, have used names that more closely approximate the real image or purpose of the place that they have created, such as Shoppers World, or Shoporama. With that kind of honesty, we would invariably have to drive by places with names such as Parking Heaven and places like Latham Farms might now be more appropriately referred to as Asphalt Acres. Perhaps the reality of those names would be harder for people to deal with than the reality of those places.

Despite the name games that mall developers play and the more recent attempts to incorporate other traditionally downtown, non-retail functions, malls cannot be a downtown or Main Street. But neither can downtown be expected to replace the big malls anytime soon. The lesson that cities should take from all of this is that communities and developers all around them are trying to replicate the characteristics that are inherent, but often taken for granted, in distinctive and healthy downtowns. By recognizing the potential of their own downtown and building on it as an asset, cities such as Schenectady can position themselves to capitalize on their uniqueness and heritage — offering something to the area that none of the malls, outlying shopping districts, or newer communities will be able to match.

Learning From Las Vegas, Again

Fig 3.02 [enlarge]

The character of the Las Vegas strip, a unique example of the character defining qualities of a place.

In 1972, Robert Venturi's Learning from Las Vegas challenged architects and other experts "to question more closely how we look at things." (3) It was written at a time when the roadside architecture and the signage of Las Vegas were under attack as a vulgar and crass form of vandalism. The renowned architectural critic wondered what would be left after the design commissions and review boards were done "beautifying" the strip with classical fountains, unified design standards, and trees — obscuring all signs of the "visual pollution" that acted as a didactic symbol of the city. Few at the time understood the iconographic quality that the signs and buildings, as a collection, added to the character and meaning of the place or their impact as a uniquely Las Vegas trademark. Because of Venturi's provocative work, however, those landmarks were transformed — at least in many people's minds — from profane erections to commercialism into sacred symbols of time and place. Although a number of places have learned from Las Vegas and begun to respect not just their high-style landmarks but their less-than perfect vernacular, Las Vegas in many ways has not yet learned from itself.

On the night of October 27, 1993, before hundreds of thousands of onlookers, the old and famous Dunes resort was detonated with great fanfare and pyrotechnic precision to make way for the new. "Most longtime Las Vegas observers mark the event as the symbolic end of the old Las Vegas and the ushering-in of the new, featuring large family-oriented theme resorts." (4) It also signaled an end to Las Vegas's being unique because of itself, and its transition into a city that is becoming "unique" because of its collection of everywhere else. Visitors to Las Vegas can now go from Treasure Island to the Egyptian Pyramids, from Monte Carlo to New York or even Paris without ever leaving Las Vegas. In fact you could spend days in Las Vegas without ever feeling like you've been there. The problem with Las Vegas is not quite as some have said about some cities, "that there is no there, there" but instead there is just too much everywhere else there.

Meanwhile, the downtown of Las Vegas has continued its slide into obscurity. Despite a public-private partnership which spent $70 million on the "Fremont Experience" in 1996, "intended to help revitalize the flagging fortunes of downtown Las Vegas…" (5) Mayor Oscar Goodman recently announced plans to build a downtown — apparently forgetting that they already had one. One observer described Las Vegas as a "postmodern urban nexus surrounded by golfing greens but devoid of a center…" (6) But as a developer pointed out, "Las Vegas is now large and sophisticated enough that it demands a focal point." The real residents of the city, another developer explained "are hungry for a core, a center, a communal place where they can come together." (7) Does this mean that the City of Sin wants to find its soul? Probably not. The proposals to date include few ideas that would help create any place of genuine community. They are largely big development proposals aimed at attracting even more tourists and seem to offer little if anything for current residents. But as the Mayor stood on the edge of a vast tract of land to be redeveloped, he excitedly exclaimed, "We're going to have a city," perhaps implying that despite its explosive growth, without a real vibrant downtown, Las Vegas is not yet a real city.

Low Rents and High Hopes

Because a downtown is built up over time, it is typically a mix of buildings — old and new, restored and rundown, large and small, convenient and inconvenient — all providing opportunities that malls don't provide. The rents of malls can be prohibitively expensive for all but very established businesses or nationwide chain stores. The range of buildings that typically make up a downtown create opportunities for start-up or entrepreneurial businesses that cannot afford the higher rents of a suburban shopping mall. (8) When national chain stores, established local specialty shops, or new entrepreneurial start-ups mix within a downtown, there are a number of potential benefits that each brings to the other. Each business may have a different customer base that typically would not have the opportunity to cross over when the businesses are located in the more homogenous environment of a shopping mall. A person who typically shops at a mall may come downtown to one of the chain stores that has a greater recognition, and in the process, discover local businesses that they would never find at a mall. And likewise, the customers of some of the local shops that typically don't fit into the big mall plan might also help support some of the mall-type stores when they are located in the downtown. For many of the local businesses, there is an added cross benefit that they enjoy when they begin to do business with one another by purchasing products or services. Perhaps this is less likely to happen with larger national chain stores because they are typically controlled by regional headquarters and are supplied through large regional distribution centers. Overall, this rich mix of businesses and eclectic collection of spaces that a downtown can provide creates an opportunity for a quite different shopping experience and range of products than are offered in most malls.

This mix of buildings in various conditions and with differing rent structures in the downtown, coupled with a city's other neighborhoods, also creates a greater range of residential opportunities than the suburbs can provide. In addition, it provides an opportunity for people who work in the downtown to live near their work, and perhaps be extricated from the bondage and expense of automobile ownership. Given the overall cost of owning one, the savings from this could be quite substantial — a particular benefit for those in the lower income brackets. For college students and retirees, an auto-free lifestyle may not be just a good financial decision, but a necessity too. A downtown with good access to public transportation as well as educational, recreational, and cultural amenities becomes a more exciting place for more kinds of people to live. And the greater the range of people living in or around the downtown, the greater the range of services and opportunities that will be available. In turn, this reinforces the livability and adds to the richness of the downtown.

A Different Kind of "Free Market"

Fig 3.03 [enlarge]

Lifeless parking lot in Schenectady.

Fig 3.04 [enlarge]

Ephemeral event giving life to an otherwise lifeless place.

The public nature of a downtown allows for a number of ephemeral events and markets to flourish there without the added expense of infrastructure improvements. It provides a space for less formal sectors of the economy, such as open-air markets, push carts and food truck vendors to operate virtually rent-free. This "free market" system and its temporary nature provides an opportunity (in the downtown) to provide a constantly changing scene and improve the variety of products that are offered. Roberta Gratz and Norman Mintz in Cities Back From the Edge: New Life for Downtown note that "Farmers' markets are probably the most successful tool for the strengthening or regenerating of downtowns of any size, from the smallest Main Street to the most rubble-strewn inner-city commercial center." These markets assist the small family farm — helping them to stay in business and preserving the rural nature of the outlying areas. At the same time these markets provide easy access to fresh produce for chefs at local restaurants, save downtown office workers time and money, and bring consumers and tourists' dollars into the community. They offer something distinctively different from supermarkets and greatly add to the activity, visual variety, and life on the street.

Fig 3.05 [enlarge]

Eisenhower addressing throngs of supporters near Union Station in Schenectady. A community's cultural memory now has lost its physical context.

Public rallies, celebrations, festivals and parades are among the many other ephemeral events that are only possible in truly public spaces. These events need the downtown as much as the downtown needs them. Schenectady's Annual Christmas parade, billed as the Northeast's largest nighttime Christmas parade (and without fail the coldest) would be logistically impossible to hold in even the largest of the area malls. So would the many New Years' First Night celebrations, which use existing downtown infrastructure to bring people together with just the right mixture of performance, culinary, and fine arts, in an indoor-outdoor festive environment. The positive impact of ephemeral events on communities are much longer lasting than the events themselves. These events can also help to reinforce community traditions, bring families together, and instill a sense of civic pride. For well over 200 years the small Rhode Island town of Bristol has been celebrating the Fourth of July with the longest consecutively running Fourth of July parade in the country. The parade and the weeklong festivities attract people from all over, but more importantly they bring families and the community together. Family reunions are held that week and as the festivities pick up, business and regular activity in the town slow considerably. At the conclusion of the weeklong celebration, parade, and final night's fireworks, preparations begin for the next year's events. These kinds of events would be hard to imagine in a centerless development or sprawling town that has no real character or identity.

Environments of Opportunity

The density and efficiency of cities and their downtowns, when used effectively, help to retain the open space and rural characteristics of nearby communities. In the northeast, as in many areas of the country, while the population has been slowly increasing, or in many cases decreasing, the amount of land being developed has increased dramatically. This is true not just outside the cities, but within. Poor development decisions within communities often obliterate the few remaining areas of undeveloped land, even when there is an abundance of buildings and sites that could be adaptively reused. When cities and downtowns are able to offer more livable and exciting environments, they provide a viable alternative to the suburbs. As they do this, they will not only continue to grow as a regional cultural center, but they will also play a large part in improving the image and standards of the region. In the absence of regional cooperation or growth restrictions, livable cities and downtowns are one of the few ways that regions can reduce outward growth pressures and preserve more of the natural landscape of the outlying areas.

Conclusion

When a downtown is thought of in isolation apart from its city, it becomes an abstraction in much the same way as a building becomes less meaningful without some relation to its site, and other buildings or uses that border it. What happens in the downtown, affects the image and health of a city. Likewise, the city has a direct influence on the region. The downtown can therefore be seen to influence the retail, job, residential, cultural, and environmental conditions of their regions at large. Downtowns must therefore be appreciated as tremendous assets that require investments of time and money to prevent them from becoming a liability to the city or region.

Downtowns also represent a history of investment, and an infrastructure that would be impossible to replace. To consider the downtown as just a collection of obsolete buildings and an outdated way of life is nothing less than shortsighted. To constantly demolish and rebuild large sections of the downtown is typically an inefficient and often largely ineffective method for improving the image and character of a downtown. To recognize what makes a downtown a lively and interesting place is a start.

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