Friday, January 18, 2008

How do we Avoid that Great Big Sucking Sound?

America's urban and downtown areas entered a period of decline in the 50's when a booming post WWII economy allowed many families to purchase automobiles and commercial activity shifted from downtown to suburban malls and shopping centers.

During the 60's and 70's, more families fled the city for homes in the suburbs and a number of downtown businesses closed because of population declines or pressure to follow customers who relocated to the suburbs. Bellingham also witnessed the decline of its downtown. Some blame Bellis Fair Mall for the decline, but most of us understand that shifts in demographics were responsible for the economic down turn. After all, why would someone pay for parking downtown when they can park for free at Bellis Fair Mall?

But rapid growth and a changing world economy have presented new challenges for Bellingham. The expansion of W.W.U. and increases in urban population are stimulating renewed economic interest in downtown. Many new retail establishments have opened - fast food restaurants, coffee shops, banks, jewelry stores, businesses, night clubs, furniture stores and other specialty shops have sprung to life in once abandoned buildings. The City is working hard to encourage economic growth by widening streets, building new sidewalks and providing an attractive gateway entry into our city.

But I worry that renewed economic interest in downtown will wane as the City and Port focus the lion's share of their attention and financial resources on Waterfront Redevelopment.

Last week, the Port of Bellingham released the third in a series of artistic renderings of the Port's vision for the New Whatcom Development. Many citizens were shocked and outraged by the size and number of tall buildings that circled the waterfront. I don’t think any of us envisioned the core of our downtown lost in the shadows of tall buildings that will destroy our city's historical connection to the bay.

With all of the Port and City’s energy going towards waterfront redevelopment, what will happen to downtown?

Will a lopsided waterfront redevelopment effort create a third decline in downtown economic recovery? Shouldn't the city balance economic redevelopment of the waterfront with revitalization efforts for the downtown core?

Research shows that a healthy, vibrant downtown boosts the economic health and quality of life in a community. Specifically, it creates jobs, helps small businesses grow and reduces sprawl. A bustling downtown is the symbol of a community’s pride in its own unique history.

If we hope to retain a healthy downtown core, the city will need to plan for a multi-functional downtown. In other words, we will want to attract a wide range of individuals by providing housing, work, shopping, culture, entertainment and tourist activities.

Success, in part, requires that we:

1. Attempt to develop a broad strategy for continued revitalization of downtown areas. Successful revitalization efforts target several areas at once; they do not use a piecemeal approach to development. No one should be left behind in community revitalization efforts.
2. Attempt to create partnerships between private business and government. Downtown revitalization requires cooperation of local government, private businesses, civic organizations and other key organizations.
3. Focus on developing the unique historical aspects of downtown.
4. Secure multiple sources of funding.
5. Get local governments involved in several areas. The Port is asking the City to provide significant financial support for its waterfront redevelopment. What is the Port willing to do to help offset potential negative effects of waterfront development for the downtown merchants?
6. Develop genuine, open public spaces. Careful planning can provide the community with public spaces that are inviting, and draw people downtown to shop and relax. Currently, we have very little public space downtown. In Boulder, Colorado, the City closed a main city street and turned it into a boulevard for pedestrians. The city also adopted a 50 foot height limit on city buildings.
7. Focus community attention on downtown, the heart and soul of our community.

Before we get carried away with waterfront redevelopment, we need to know what plans, if any are currently under consideration for downtown. Otherwise, we may be in danger (once again) of hearing that great big sucking sound as businesses flee our downtown core to relocate to the Port’s flashy new waterfront.

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