Trends in Downtown Revitalization
By Matthew M. Dugan
The author wrote this while an intern at the Virginia Main Street Program with the Department of Housing and Community Development. He was pursuing a master’s degree in urban and regional planning. He is now with the Timmons Group.
1. Life on the Streets—24/7
Downtown housing is starting to increase, which has led to an increase in foot traffic and purchasing on Main Streets before and after work hours. While each new downtown employee spends between $2,500
and $3,500 downtown each year, each new downtown resident spends anywhere between $7,500 and $14,000 annually in the downtown. Therefore, local government strategy for economic development should include attracting residents to downtown in addition to recruiting new businesses to downtown. Residents living downtown help encourage neighborhood oriented development like commercial services and retail.
Communities are seeing a growth in upscale upper story housing, and retirement and assisted living housing is also slowly opening up in downtowns. Movie theaters are making a comeback to Main Street. Theaters that show movies in the evening help increase the number of customers and energy in downtowns. Catering to working professionals, small retail businesses are increasingly open during evening hours.
Kennedy Smith mentioned an exciting new addition to the federal HUD program, HOPE VI, that will likely bring more housing to downtowns in the coming years. The HOPE VI program was created in the early 1990s, with significant input from the Congress for the New Urbanism. The program’s sole focus has been to provide funds to demolish substandard public housing and replace it with mixed income, mixed use communities. The results have generally been very positive. However, because HOPE VI is directly tied to existing public housing, smaller cities, which generally do not have either public housing or a public housing authority, have not been able to take advantage of the program.
A new “Main Street” provision has been added to the regulations that will fulfill the intent of HOPE VI, by providing high quality affordable housing (“affordable” housing could also include housing for the elderly, artists, et al.) in a mixed use environment. This is a departure from the way HOPE VI has worked in the past in that it will allow smaller cities to use HOPE VI funds to create affordable housing in existing buildings, such as upper floors, in downtowns. This means that HOPE VI could be used under the new “Main Street” provision even
  ocal government officials should be happy to hear that Main Streets are making a come back. According to Kennedy Lawson Smith, Director of the National Main Street Center, at a recent presentation for the Virginia Main Street Program, “there are some threats to downtowns, but also some of the best signs I’ve seen in over 20 years of working at the National Main Street Center.” Healthy downtowns generate more sales, property and other tax revenue for local governments than a deteriorated and vacant downtown and provide an important place for people to live, work and enjoy.
The Virginia Main Street Program, managed by the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development, hosted Kennedy Smith’s presentation on the latest downtown revitalization trends because of her recognized expertise and experience in downtown revitalization. Virginia Main Street works to revitalize the state’s historic downtowns by providing training and technical support
to help Main Street communities improve and beautify their downtowns and encourage private investment, business development, and tourism.
She began her presentation by outlining the Main Street “circle of investment:” (1) the first step in the circle is to help businesses sell more; (2) businesses can then afford higher rents; (3) this leads property owners to rehabilitate their buildings; (4) the district then looks more attractive; (5) more people visit the district, and then the cycle starts over again. Here’s what Kennedy Smith sees for the future of historic downtowns: