Politico

Policy Hackathon: Recreating America’s downtowns


When Covid-19 arrived early last year, the virus struck first in America’s city centers — the downtowns of cities like New York and Seattle where offices, shops, restaurants and bars are clustered together in a concentration that creates vibrancy in normal times but became deadly in a pandemic. Then, as the virus radiated out through the country spreading cases and deaths, the economic damage it wrought became most visible in downtowns: Commuters, tourists and business travelers disappeared, office buildings emptied, the businesses that once catered to them foundered and storefronts were boarded up.

More than a year-and-a-half after those stay-at-home measures, vaccination rates are climbing and lockdown orders have largely lifted, sidewalk restaurants are filling, and museums, music venues and sporting arenas are slowly opening their doors. But city centers have yet to fully recover.

That’s largely because office workers—the population that once provided the economic bedrock of many downtowns—haven’t returned. Office occupancy in 10 American major metros is at 36 percent of pre-pandemic levels, according to Kastle Systems, which has been tracking keycard entries at office buildings where it operates. And while major companies are still debating how to get employees back into the office, many restaurants and shops that closed their doors will never reopen.

The reality is that some of the changes the pandemic wrought are permanent. Some portion of office work will remain remote, shrinking demand for office space. Stores that anchored downtown districts have shuttered and online shopping will only grow. Zoom is now a real alternative to business travel.

America’s downtowns will never be the same, but what will they become?

To answer that question POLITICO convened a virtual “policy hackathon” with a group of city leaders from around the country who are actively planning for that post-pandemic future. In an hourlong Zoom session, we asked them what challenges and opportunities the pandemic has created for their downtowns, where their cities are going next and what needs to happen to get there.

“We have been thinking about really not restoring our communities, but transforming our communities, because we want to think forward in terms of where we want to go,” said Vince Bertoni, director of planning for the city of Los Angeles.

In the course of the hackathon we learned that cities as different as Los Angeles, Madison, Wisc., and Spartanburg, S.C., are facing some very similar problems: empty office buildings, shuttered retail and a rise in homelessness. The pandemic, along with the racial justice protests ignited by George Floyd’s murder last year, also made obvious longstanding equity and access issues and at the same time opened a once-in-a-generation opportunity to re-imagine downtown spaces.

“It’s amazing the commonality of the issues,” Chris Story, Spartanburg’s city manager, told us, noting that when he looks out his office window, he sees a Black Lives Matter mural and people eating outdoors on car-free streets.

“The pandemic is going to prove to be a pivot point for us,” he said.

Here are the key takeaways from the conversation.

PART 1: HOW THE PANDEMIC CHALLENGED AMERICA’S DOWNTOWNS.

This isn’t the first time that American downtowns have had to re-imagine themselves. Downtowns as we classically imagine them — tall office buildings clustered together, dotted with a high concentration of amenities like restaurants, stores and museums — actually took shape largely in the years following World War II when many former city dwellers bought cars and moved to the suburbs.

In response, cities fashioned their urban centers into buzzing hubs of work and nightlife, built around the needs of office workers and commuters along with other visitors including tourists and business travelers. Even before the pandemic, that model was evolving; in the past two decades, people have been migrating back to live in urban centers, away from suburbs, leading to a revitalization of many downtowns.

But then Covid arrived and the density that made downtowns so alluring and economically important became a deadly liability. Here’s how that looked on the ground.

Commuters and office workers disappeared.

Our experts all described a similar scenario in which city workers disappeared from downtown streets overnight. But the damage went deeper: College towns lost students. Big gatherings like concerts and conventions were canceled. Tourists disappeared.

“The impact of Covid in our retail, office, tourism and hospitality has been significant, particularly from a workflow standpoint,” said Ted Carter, deputy mayor for community and economic development in Baltimore.

The loss of office workers had a ripple effect. All of a sudden, the rhythms of downtown — busy with workers during weekdays and tourists in the evenings — were completely disrupted.

“Our downtown is our business sector and people weren’t going to work. It’s our cultural center with many cultural venues. It’s our hospitality sector with restaurants and so all of those struggled with having no one there,” Eugene Mayor Lucy Vinis said.

Small businesses suffered and many closed.

Without the office workers and tourists that they usually rely on for foot traffic, many smaller restaurants and retail outlets struggled. Many tried to stay in business by going online or offering curbside pickup. But that wasn’t easy — after all, most restaurant owners aren’t web designers — and many found they couldn’t survive after months and eventually more than a year of low sales.

The pandemic “hit really hard our small businesses in the downtown area, because what our downtown has relied on is events and our anchor, which is our baseball stadium,” said Esmeralda Soria, a city council member in Fresno, California. The Fresno Grizzlies got downgraded from a Triple-A baseball team to a Low-A baseball team, a huge blow to a city that had been trying to recover from the pandemic.

Equity and racial disparities became more visible.

Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, which occurred just months into the pandemic, sparked a racial justice movement across the country. But the issues that ignited those protests were there well before Floyd died, our policy experts said.

“We were the catalyst with the murder of George Floyd but it’s moved everywhere,” said Andrea Brennan, director of community planning and economic development for the city of Minneapolis.

During the pandemic many of our experts became more aware that their downtown spaces had become racially and economically segregated. “There is a whole segment of our community that feels like downtown isn’t for them,” Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway said. “Like many things, Covid just exposed the underlying flaws.”

In Baltimore, like many cities, business closures disproportionately affected communities of color, said Carter.

Bertoni said Los Angeles last year saw a convergence of multiple crises in public health, the economy, racial justice and homelessness. Many of those issues had been there all along, but Covid made them far more visible than before.

“It made us think about who these places and spaces belong to,” Bertoni said.

Homelessness increased and moved out in the open.

All the policy hackers said they noticed an increase in homelessness in their downtowns as people who lacked shelter congregated in now abandoned downtown spaces.

“The pandemic has triggered a high spike in homelessness and the visibility of homelessness; and a sense of abandonment of the city core,” Vinis said.

Homelessness had been growing before the pandemic, but once Covid threw people out of jobs, that threatened many families’ economic stability. While this year’s numbers are hard to come by, all the city leaders in the group said they’d seen an increase in homelessness in their cities.

“Homelessness has always been a challenge for our downtown because when the downtown isn’t vital and busy it becomes a place where people are just there, because they have no place else to be,” Vinis said. “I have likened the city to an emergency room. We didn’t create homelessness, but it lands on our streets and we have to address it.”

Many of our policy hackers said that the lack of affordable housing has exacerbated the crisis in their cities. Even Spartanburg has had similar issues, Story said.

In California, the issue is even more acute. In January 2020, before the pandemic, about 28 percent of the country’s unhoused population was in the state, more than double California’s share of the U.S. population, according to federal statistics. The situation has only worsened in the past year.

Fresno is working now on “reducing the homelessness that is causing some of the blight that exists,” Soria said.

PART 2: HOW TO BUILD A NEW KIND OF DOWNTOWN AFTER COVID.

While the pandemic presented major challenges, it also sparked an urgency to rethink the role of downtowns. With daily life and rhythms upended, the city leaders in our hackathon said the pandemic has opened a historic opportunity to re-imagine how they want their downtowns to operate, to shift from an office-centric economic model to one that relies on more kinds of economic activity and brings in a broader diversity of residents and visitors.

Here are seven strategies they identified for shaping that post-pandemic future.

1. Create and maintain outdoor spaces.

As soon as it became clear that Covid was transmitted most easily indoors, cities took quick action to create safer outdoor spaces. They closed streets, setting up pedestrian zones and outdoor restaurant space. But as the weeks and months dragged on, it turned out that many residents liked the changes, and our policy hackers said that many of them should be made permanent.

Madison, for instance, like many other cities, plans to keep in place its “Streatery” program, launched in June 2020 to help restaurants expand outdoor dining. In Los Angeles, the effort to reclaim roads and parking and turn them into public spaces is also going to stick around.

“A lot of time, we do the same old same old, but [the pandemic] really forced us to think outside the box,” said Soria of Fresno. We provided “grants to do more outdoor dining, thinking it would be temporary,” she said. Now “we’re seeing these things are going to be here for the long haul.”

Baltimore’s downtown revitalization will rely on using public green spaces for “festivals, food and fun and community,” Carter said. “Intentional outdoor programming will be the order of the day,” he said.

In Eugene the pandemic provided the city an opportunity to “act on some of our long-held priorities,” Vinis said. The city built a 3.5-acre park that connects its downtown to the Willamette River and is now building a permanent home for its downtown farmers market.

2. Convert office space to residential housing.

The pandemic shrank our lives into the space of our homes or apartments — work, school, leisure all became crammed together. Even though we’re now venturing out of our homes, our experts said that people no longer want to deal with long commutes and more work that used to be done at the office will now be done at home.

With demand for office space shrinking and demand for homes on the rise, many of our policy hackers said they wanted to find ways to convert commercial space into housing. That could transform downtowns into places that aren’t just busy 9 to 5, Monday through Friday, but throughout the day, night and week. It would also create an opportunity to build more affordable housing, which many of the hackers cited as a significant, long-term challenge.

There will now be a “prioritization of affordable housing in our downtown that hadn’t been there pre-pandemic,” Spartanburg’s Story said. “I’m excited for how that can all come together to create a dynamic that hasn’t existed in this part of the South, but I think we have the potential to create.”

Even though office occupancy rates haven’t taken a nosedive in Spartanburg, the city is seeing a huge influx of multifamily units in its downtown area, Story said. “We know our headcount is growing in the 24/7 vision of downtown,” he said.

What that means in Los Angeles is that the city is planning to build “up” rather than out to create more affordable housing, with the hope of fostering more urban density, Bertoni said. Twenty percent of the growth will be in 1 percent of the area.

Other cities, including Minneapolis and Eugene, are experimenting with transforming vacant hotels and motels into temporary shelters.

“I will be very interested in a longer term conversation and federal investment in how we could convert commercial office space into housing and what that would actually take,” Vinis said. “It sounds expensive and complicated and I’d like to know more.”

3. Eliminate or reduce parking to create space for other uses.

Baltimore plans to be more “creative with zoning” to repurpose parking spaces for other uses and rely on tax credits to convert commercial space into residential units, Carter said. He believes that downtown Baltimore will see more of a mix of generations.

Los Angeles’s new downtown plan no longer mandates parking — developers can put it in but aren’t required to, Bertoni said. The Minneapolis’ 2040 plan also eliminates parking requirements in the city, Brennan said. That is something that Madison is looking at too, Rhodes-Conway said.

“I look at our parking lots as land banking,” Vinis said. “What we’re moving towards is not having people drive downtown and instead living downtown.”

4. Improve transit and other alternatives to the car.

Our policy hackers said a key strategy for rebuilding downtowns is to ensure that people who live and work downtown don’t need cars, and that residents from other neighborhoods can also travel downtown easily without a car at all times of day. That will boost accessibility and walkability along with increasing density.

Planning for that future means fostering other forms of transit: bike lanes, pedestrian zones and bus rapid transit. BRT, where roadways are dedicated for buses to bypass traffic, can help cities quickly scale up public transit options without having to build costly light rail systems. Plus, buses can run more hours of the day, serve more neighborhoods and easily shift schedules and routes.

Carter said in Baltimore there is a plan to convert one-way streets into two-way streets to slow down traffic, but he also supports bike lanes.

Eugene is planning to expand bus rapid transit. “I do see a downtown five years from now, in which there’s much more housing, there are many more people on bikes and electric bikes and scooters and walking,” Vinis said.

Soria said that bus rapid transit “worked well” for Fresno. “As our city continues to grow, figuring out how to connect through public transit and other modes of transportation is going to be extremely critical for a city like ours,” she said.

Looking ahead, Bertoni said, city leaders will also need to look to the sky and prepare for aerial transportation.

“It’s really, really wild,” he said. “It’s going to change the location of where anything can go.”

5. Promote cultural uses of downtown spaces.

Our policy hackers also suggested that cities need to use arts and culture — not just business — to drive downtown growth. Minneapolis has established seven “cultural corridors” throughout the city in its 2040 plan with the goal of preventing the displacement of residents with low incomes and driving economic development.

“There is a real craving for connection to authenticity about what makes a city that’s unique,” Brennan said.

Madison is working on creating experiences that are unique to the city with a focus on the history of minority populations and a broad appeal to both local residents and visitors.

“We were finally able to do some things we wanted to do because people started to feel the urgency,” Rhodes-Conway said.

6. Draw more kinds of people to downtown.

Pre-pandemic, downtowns catered to office workers and middle-class residents, our policy hackers said. Not everyone felt welcome downtown in downtown spaces.

“Redlining was invented here in Baltimore,” pointed out Carter, recalling the federal housing problems that segregated Black residents in lower-income areas.

All of our policy hackers agreed that equity had largely been missing from plans to revitalize downtowns. “We haven’t thought about building the middle class and those minorities and people of color to really have a shot at getting to the middle class and building generational wealth in our communities,” Soria said.

That’s now set to change in the cities in our hackathon; our city leaders said they would be far more intentional in attracting a broad range of residents and small businesses to live, work and enjoy their city centers.

Rhodes-Conway said that she had been wanting to boost the number of pop-ups — small, short-term retail outlets — for about a decade, but the idea only came to fruition in the wake of the pandemic’s devastation. Now she said there are 11 pop-ups operating out of two previously empty storefronts downtown, part of an effort to increase minority business ownership in the city.

“Equity is not only a moral issue and foundational to the promise of America, and it is now a key component of competitive advantage for a city,” Carter said.

7. Emphasize public-private collaboration.

Our experts agreed that the economic crisis born from the pandemic pushed cities to intensify or start partnerships with the business community and nonprofits to maximize resources and work in concert to make downtown areas vibrant.

Carter, who spent the first year of the pandemic working in Cleveland, said that he was “very pleased to see how quickly new alliances and partnerships formed in the midst of Covid.” In Cleveland a public-private partnership is now taking the lead on remaking the downtown lakefront.

“We can’t do it all in the public sector,” Bertoni said. “There’s just not enough there. And what are we going to do through our powers in cities to really bring in the investment from the private sector that we really need to achieve all these things?”

Cities also got money during the pandemic from the federal government through the CARES Act and the American Rescue Plan, which they used to invest in solutions to homelessness or other major problems. The hackers said the two bills currently being debated in Congress around infrastructure and social spending will provide funds crucial for achieving their visions.

Child care, in particular, is a key area for public-private partnership since providing child care will be important to getting people back to work.

“The [child care] model is broken,” Rhodes-Conway said. “We’re not paying child care workers enough, but we can’t pay them more, because parents already can’t afford it. So this is a broken market and that’s where you need government to step in.”

CONCLUSION: BACK TO THE FUTURE?

Overnight the pandemic completely changed how downtowns function, creating opportunities to start from scratch. That gave our policy hackers the chance to re-imagine the role of downtowns in American society.

“It has recalibrated our definition of success in a very healthy way,” Story said.

In the end, the post-pandemic American city could look very much like an improved version of its past, with a return to an American downtown without cars and where people live and work and shop in close proximity. This time around, city planners are focused on making sure these are spaces that are also diverse and sustainable.

“I find it ironic that we have gone full circle,” Vinis said.

“Even though we say we’re going forward, we are actually going back, we are going back to the downtown of the ‘50s,” she said. “It’s the new iteration.”

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