Designing a New Downtown by Dave Feehan

What would you do if you could design a downtown from scratch—not in a new suburb, but in the heart of a city that is more than 100 years old?

I’m currently working with a medium-sized Midwestern city that decades ago demolished much of its historic downtown in a desire to move rapidly into the changing urban world of the 1960s. This was the era of urban renewal. Federal dollars were flowing to cities to remove blight, and aging business districts were losing out to newly constructed suburban malls.iStock_000063161393_Large

Of course, not every city scraped clean its historic downtown, but some did and they are now faced with an unexpected opportunity; in many ways, they have a clean slate, a blank canvas on which to create something very new and different.

Approaching this opportunity from a parking perspective, what would you do?

Would you build a number of conventional parking garages? Above-ground or underground? Freestanding or part of mixed-use developments? What about on-street parking? Bike lanes? Complete streets? Would parking come first to induce development or would you wait until demand materialized? Would you consider automated garages? Or, given the trend toward walkable, pedestrian, and bike-oriented approaches to urban development, would you exclude cars altogether perhaps with parking only on the periphery? Given what we now know about autonomous vehicles, will people even own cars in 30 years when your building cycle is nearing completion?

These are not just academic questions. As downtowns become more dense, more residential, and more green, this city and others like it will lead the way in discovering how we are likely to live, work, shop, play, learn, and park for decades to come. One building that may show us how tomorrow may look is the Edge in Amsterdam.

Some cities like Green Bay, Wisc., demolished large sections of their downtowns to build suburban-style shopping malls. When the Port Plaza mall in Green Bay, built in 1977, proved unsuccessful by 2012, it was demolished. New development is planned.

Local leaders in the town I mentioned are now getting very excited as they begin to comprehend the opportunities that await them. Their city is manageable in size, and what happens there could well define a better future for many other cities around the world.

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