The intention behind them is usually honest and good; they're meant to encourage economic activity, bring people into previously ignored areas and help a community gather. They seem like a promising one-stop way to accomplish all these goals... And yet, "entertainment districts" and "lifestyle centers" are not the way to go about building strong towns.
Strong towns are built from the bottom up, with small, incremental investments because that is a much more resilient and affordable way to build. A developer who comes in and constructs hundreds of new apartment units, sports arenas, movie theaters, and rows of shopping and restaurants (typically with a hefty financial incentive package from the local government) is not going to help you build a strong town. It might look productive in the beginning, but an examination below the surface—and beyond the first few months of operation—often reveals a financial house of cards.
Just as we've written about the problems that come with building all at once to a finished state in suburban developments, we'd also like to shine some light on the problems with building faux-downtowns in one fell swoop. Here are five articles that show why entertainment districts and lifestyle centers have been misguided and problematic for cities across the country, and why they're not the best route for your community:
Kansas City's Power & Light District is an infill project in an urban area that connects with the original street grid, is walkable and the urban design is scaled appropriately. It sounds like the beginning of a success story, right? The reality is, it’s a financial drain and failing for numerous reasons. Naturally occurring downtowns are a much better option for your community.
"Lifestyle centers" like West Palm Beach's CityPlace are so often interchangeable. From the four-letter words and impossibly attractive 30-somethings in ads, to the Cheesecake Factories and towering luxury condos, these developments are no more connected to the neighborhoods they inhabit than the strip malls and convention centers that came before them.
Drexel Town Square in Oak Creek, WI may have the appearance of a "town center," but its inception, its financing and its long-term outlook are no different from any of the big box stores and cul-de-sac subdivisions that surround it. Drexel Town Square is not "just like downtown." And it's definitely not downtown.
Many towns seem to be under the false impression that if you back a dump truck of development money into an area that is not ready for it, it will instantly lift the neighborhood. This mistake is on full display in the College Town development in Rochester, NY, where developers inserted stores and restaurants in a disconnected area with little customer base.
Paris and Florence don’t have entertainment districts. Neither does San Francisco. Melbourne doesn’t either. What these cities have are spaces for people. In the Midwest, we don’t have a lot of these great places or a long urban or architectural history, and the areas that we do have need to be done well (and expanded). That’s not to say that the activities that take place in the Old Market should be regulated or banned, but they should be more open to other activities. There is nothing inherently wrong with a district that encourages bars or arts, but it must be done right. Whatever the case, it cannot become a single-use monoculture.
After you've read these stories and gotten a feel for the common pitfalls inherent in entertainment districts, it's time to turn your attention toward building a downtown that will truly give your community lasting economic prosperity—that will be a place for generations of residents to enjoy and gather in. Kea Wilson's article, "What Would Jane Jacobs Do?" is a great place to start. She writes:
What Jacobs preached—and what I think no organization understands better than Strong Towns—is that the secret ingredient to city life is life. More to the point, she knew that it was essential to “plan” our cities in such a way that you let them live and grow organically, answering the constant buzz of feedback from the people who live there, extending by inches rather than by skyscraper miles.
By focusing on life, feedback and organic growth, we can begin to build strong neighborhoods and strong towns; no big developers or tax incentives needed.
(Top photo source: mgwiki)