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How Downtown Plans Can Create a Framework for Revitalization Efforts: Part 1

Model of a downtown development

Downtowns across the country are still reeling from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Those that were healthy prior to pandemic are faring better than those that were already struggling; however, most are still grappling with empty storefronts and other issues that are perpetuating the absence of shoppers, workers, and families.

To create downtowns that can truly recover and thrive after a major unexpected event, communities must be intentional about planning for their success, outlining both near- and long-term steps in their downtown plans. In the wake of the pandemic, cities are using these plans to chart a vision for reimagining and revitalizing their downtowns through creative and innovative approaches.

In this two-part blog series, I’ll take a deeper dive into revitalization strategies from downtown plans across the state. While not an all-inclusive list, this series provides ideas to consider when engaging your community to create a revitalization vision for your downtown. We’ll be writing more about downtown revitalization over the coming months.

Key Revitalization Strategies in Downtown Plans

Downtown plans have long served as a framework for building successful, vibrant, and healthy spaces. Typically included as part of a city’s comprehensive plan, downtown plans are developed with a robust community engagement process and include goals, policies, and actions around topics like jobs, housing, mobility, urban design, public spaces, and more. These elements work together to foster walkable, mixed-use downtowns that serve as the economic, cultural, and civic center of a community and region.

Newer plans not only continue to address these concepts, but they also have an even stronger focus on issues exacerbated by the pandemic, like more vacant office spaces and different travel patterns. In this blog series, I’ll provide summaries and examples of the following revitalization strategies from downtown plans:

  • Diversifying Uses
  • Activating the Public Realm
  • Supporting Transportation Options
  • Fostering Safety and Security

Part 1 of this series will focus on the first two strategies: Diversifying Uses and Activating the Public Realm.

Diversifying Uses

With the pandemic came a stark shift in how and where employees work, resulting in higher vacancy rates for office and commercial spaces, including those on ground floors. To keep these spaces full and increase the vibrancy of street life, cities are allowing more creative ground-floor uses, like small-scale manufacturing (makerspaces or shared kitchens), housing, and public spaces.

Spokane's Downtown Plan recommends encouraging adaptive reuse with street-level cultural uses or residential units at the building exterior. Pasco's Downtown Plan identifies building codes as a common issue with adaptive reuse. To address this barrier, cities should consult with their building officials on solutions and discuss whether they can use Chapter 12 of the International Existing Building Code, which includes some exceptions for code requirements when the building has historic value. Also, earlier this year the state adopted HB 1042, which promotes the conversion of commercial and mixed-use buildings to multi-family housing (see 2023 Planning Legislation Impacting Local Governments for more information) through provisions like allowing density bonuses and prohibiting new parking spaces.

Seattle’s Downtown Activation Plan also recommends allowing more street-level uses, including offices, conference rooms, lab spaces, and amenities for residential buildings. The plan introduces the idea of vertical neighborhoods within buildings, with spaces for schools, childcare facilities, community gathering spaces, retail shops, and families.

Pullman's Downtown Master Plan recommends activating ground-floor spaces through public-private partnerships on temporary art installations, incentives to keep storefronts occupied, and storefront re-leasing (e.g., direct underwriting of lease rates or making connections between potential tenants and landlords). Marysville's Downtown Master Plan recommends design standards that can accommodate a “flex shell” ground floor that is ready-made to accommodate microbusinesses and nonprofits to reduce their initial financing needs.

Increasing densities and uses (both residential and otherwise) allowed in areas beyond ground floors allows a downtown to serve as an economic hub and also meets the needs of its growing community. Pullman recommends highlighting opportunities for Washington State University-affiliated and artisanal/maker spaces that support commercial uses. Stevenson’s Downtown Plan includes a focus on more entrepreneurial commercial and residential uses as a means of creating a more equitable and interesting downtown. To do this, it proposes reserving places for creativity by removing barriers for incremental infill development like food cart pods.

Bothell’s Downtown Plan notes:

Promoting new housing within a half mile of the Downtown Core is one of the most critical and strategic opportunities in the effort to substantially reinvigorate Downtown Bothell. Increasing the number of households in downtown is the surest way to support downtown businesses and activate the street.

Bothell also notes that the city’s Housing Strategy Plan includes several strategies related to affordable housing that could be applied to the downtown area, like shared and/or reduced parking and waived or reduced fees. Marysville's plan recommends exploring residential density or height incentive programs to implement its recommended zoning changes to increase densities and types of housing. It also encourages missing middle housing types like townhomes and duplexes in certain neighborhoods.

In conjunction with strategies to create a more vibrant downtown through additional density and activity, planning efforts can include anti-displacement and equity strategies to counter negative impacts on certain businesses and residents. For example, Beaverton, Oregon, developed a Downtown Equity Strategy to understand the potential negative impacts of redevelopment activities and investments on Black, Indigenous, and people of color, as well as low-income residents and business owners. Anti-displacement strategies include technical assistance, storefront and tenant improvement programs, marketing, programs and events, partnerships, and simplified grant application processes.

Activating the Public Realm

Providing new and exciting opportunities for people to be downtown both day and night helps create a sense of place and provides patrons for restaurants and shops. Cities can activate the public realm (e.g., streets, sidewalks, alleys, and parks) through strategies like art walks; pop-up wineries; temporary street closures (see San Franciso’s Sunday Streets); conversion of on-street parking spaces to other uses (e.g., seating for adjacent restaurants); and amenities like public art, landscaping, and seating for sidewalks and public plazas.

Pasco's plan includes right-sizing and enhancing downtown streets for activity and mobility through four catalyst projects, one of which is a festival street with parklets and the flexibility to close the street to vehicles for larger events. Longer-term, the block could be redesigned to become a curbless street with features like artistic paving, lighting, landscaping, and seating.

In another example, Seattle’s plan proposes temporarily closing certain streets and alleys to create more pedestrian-friendly experiences, including special events such as night markets, concerts, and sports events. The plan also recommends temporarily waiving the Seattle Department of Transportation’s (SDOT’s) street-use fees for small-to-medium street and sidewalk events. Originally envisioned as a one-time event through a street closure, SDOT and the Seattle Parks and Recreation Department recently hosted a pickleball tournament at a newly-unveiled public plaza court.

In Part 2 of this series, I’ll review two more revitalization strategies in downtown plans: Supporting Transportation Options and Fostering Safety and Security.

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

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About Lisa Pool

Lisa Pool joined MRSC in June 2021. Most recently, she served as a senior planner for Bellingham. In this role, she primarily focused on long-range planning projects, including the city’s comprehensive plan and new housing-related regulations. Prior to moving to Bellingham, she worked on regional sustainability and transportation issues for a metropolitan planning organization and conducted development review for cities and counties in the Midwest.

Lisa holds a Bachelor of Arts in environmental policy and a Master of Urban Planning, both from the University of Kansas in Lawrence. She has been a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners since 2009.