This article appeared in the March 2017 issue of the Georgia's Cities newspaper.
Government offices and civic buildings have traditionally been built in the center or downtown areas of cities and towns. This configuration is seen all over the world. The location of civic buildings and functions in a centralized downtown area was a naturally occurring logistic that created a highly accessible place to do business, live and shop. With changes in housing trends, retail habits, automobile dependence, increased internet shopping, telecommuting and a rise in land costs and rents in downtown areas, it can be argued that there are fewer reasons to maintain government functions exclusively in a city or town’s downtown area. In fact, the decentralization of city functions and the relocation out of the downtown area is not a new occurrence; it has been a practice for over four decades. Decentralization was initially sparked by the increase use of automobiles, the trend of suburban living and the development of extensive road networks.
Despite these trends, decentralization of civic buildings is not considered a best practice for downtown revitalization. The effects are damaging if not severe to a town or city’s downtown economy.
Communities that are dedicated to downtown revitalization build on the foundation that downtowns have traditionally been the centers for economic growth, government, cultural development and community activity. One of the most effective ways to revitalize a downtown is to maintain or further develop the civic and public places that are already there. Many communities have seen economic and social benefits when the post office, municipal building, public library or other important public buildings stay or are expanded downtown. These buildings house workers and bring in foot traffic.
“A typical public library draws 500 to 1,500 people a day,” said Robert Gibbs of Gibbs Planning Group in Birmingham, Mich. “That’s close to the draw of a small department store. A typical town hall draws 200 to 500 people a day.”
Foot traffic is critical to the survival of downtown businesses and civic buildings and functions are destinations that facilitate that need.
Local, state and federal government leaders are taking the lead by recognizing the import role that civic buildings play in downtown revitalization efforts. Donovan Rypkema, principal of Place Economics said, “It’s important to have the institutional leadership of a community based in the downtown because they can work together there, benefiting the community as a whole. If the downtown looks neglected and the institutional leaders, including government, are not located there, any business that’s considering moving to the community may notice their absence and conclude that the community lacks leadership.”
The state of Georgia has one of the largest Main Street Programs in the U.S. and has dedicated programming to assist cities in bringing economic vitality back to their downtown areas. According to Jessica Reynolds, Director of the Office of Downtown Development, Georgia is uniquely situated in that about 90 percent of our local programs are housed in local government. “This secures a public/private partnership approach that demonstrates to communities that downtown development is a priority to both elected officials and citizens in each community,” she said.
Another strategy for cities to explore is to create public/private partnerships. Some communities bolster their downtowns by mixing government operations and for-profit enterprises in new or rehabilitated buildings. Mixed-use downtown developments create jobs, and if a housing component is included, the added density further supports downtown businesses. A municipality’s Downtown Development Authority can also play a significant role in obtaining partnership development ventures with private investment and businesses by financially assisting with the rehabilitation of historic buildings, building infill and recruitment of retail, restaurants and other businesses back to the downtown area.
Civic buildings assist in creating a sense of place. When people have good memories about their downtown and its buildings, they want to return to renew and share those experiences with others. Peter Kageyama, community development consultant and author of “For the Love of Cities” said, “The emotional attachment placemaking creates can even elevate a community’s ability to attract and retain its desired workforce. As such, placemaking is increasingly recognized by the broader business community as an important economic development tool.”
It is imperative that as stewards of towns and cities that we strive to not merely maintain the civic building or function in the downtown, but that we are actively engaged in preserving, creating, and promoting a healthy downtown economy with all available tools. Our civic buildings are a key component of any town or city’s economic tool box.