How viable is your local “downtown”?

I live in a medium city. When I was growing up, the downtown was a lively place with some nice restaurants and a “fancy” five story department store, a library in a beautiful old building, a decent repertory cinema showing cool movies, some nice ethnic restaurants in nicer malls, and a small but pretty art museum.

The historic buildings and architecture are still there. But many of the buildings are “for lease” and the department stores, repertory cinema and library are long gone, like many of the upmarket stores. Most of the buildings at the town main intersections are boarded up. Though it does not seem very dangerous, at night a general air of desperation becomes a little worse. It used to be quite nice - though few lived downtown. It still has some pleasant parks and river views. There are some nice summer festivals, though most of them seem very similar, somehow.

Other nearby downtowns have convinced people to live there once they restored “old factory” buildings and made them into attractive condos. This led to pleasant markets, grocers, restaurants and other services. In my town, people seem more interested in building student apartments for a population that may be more on-line than in-person, and that would often prefer houses to boxes anyway.

But just as often, maybe more so, the new malls and big boxes are built on the outskirts of town. And people, ultimately, do not yet want to live downtown where there are fewer general services (though perhaps enough coffee shops, pubs, tattoo parlours and head shops).

Our downtown still has attractive parks and one strip popular with students and business people. But this too is looking worn, even before this disastrous COVID year which has hit most people hard. Some decisions about construction, bike lanes, busses and parking have also proved controversial.

So - what is your downtown like? Getting more pleasant or less? Why - what changes did they make, or what changed do they need to?

Portland’s downtown has been vibrant in the past, with good restaurants, excellent public transit, a riverfront park that has concerts during the year, and lots of shopping areas. It’s getting more and more unpleasant, however, with the burgeoning homeless population. Businesses have moved out of downtown (or closed) because customers are harassed by some of these folks and the messes on the sidewalks also keep them away. There are some efforts underway to improve things, but it’s a slow slog.

It doesn’t help that imported assholes are still causing problems with vandalism and graffiti at night. While some of them have been arrested and prosecuted, there needs to be a more concerted effort to discourage this activity.

I live in a fairly big city, but we don’t have a downtown. The city was formed by a merger of five other cities around 65 years ago, and there are centers of those places, but they are basically busy streets with some stores on them. There have been sporadic efforts to create a downtown near city hall, but they haven’t gotten very far.

Downtown Boston circa 2021 is great if you want to go to a restaurant or bar. Or if you’re in the market for a $4,000/month apartment. However, if you want a bookstore, department store, used record store, clothing store, etc., my advice is to get a time machine and set it to 1975 or so.

I live in a suburb of a provincial New Zealand city. When I moved here 15 years ago our one block ‘downtown’ had a supermarket, a hardware store, several clothes shops, at least two shoeshops, a post office, one bookshop and six bank branches.

The hardware store closed first, with a big superstore opening on the fringes of the city. The supermarket moved to a big new site one suburb over to be replaced by a big convenience store. Only one clothing store and shoe shop remain. The post office closed, with the bookshop taking over as an agency. Several of the bank branches have gone.

All replaced by various charity shops, three cheap dollar store type places, two vape shops and a rotating array of various food outlets. The bookshop still seems to be going okay, but the space devoted to actual books has halved with all sorts of general gift things taking over. The three chemists seem to be doing well, but by and large the whole area has gone cheap and nasty.

I’ve lived here for around 15 years and for a medium sized city the downtown is tiny - almost as small as viable downtown in small cities in Upstate New York. There are plenty of bars and restaurants but there are also quite a few specialty retailers. Unfortunately there isn’t even a medium-sized grocery store in walking distance, so while there are luxury apartments springing up, and I briefly contemplated going there, it wouldn’t be any more convenient than smack in the middle of suburbia.

Also, several times a year they would close down Main Street to car traffic and have an arts festival and/or concert, but now they barely manage to do it once a year.

I’m curious as to what the downtown area of Chicago would be. The Loop? River North?

Toronto has a very viable downtown. There has been a lot of changes over the years with a lot of older run down spaces either converted to or torn down and replaced by condos. Along with condos come services like grocery stores where previously there had only been smaller corner stores.

If I correctly remember where @Dr_Paprika is based, I went to university there and lived downtown in the early 90s on the main E/W street about 4 blocks east of downtown and it was starting to get seedy as the new mall sucked for traffic from the smaller stores as well as the older mall. With the collapse into bankruptcy of the developer a few years later it continued to fall apart, although I have not been back for more than 2 decades to see it myself.

Small but growing Southern City.
The Town Square is growing rapidly.
Few close store, large skyscrapers going up.

What do you consider the “downtown” of Boston? I think of Boston as similar to New York City where Downtown is roughly equivalent of the central business districts in Manhattan (Midtown/Times Square and Wall Street / Financial District) with assorted self-contained neighborhoods like Back Bay or the North End.

The town of Hoboken, NJ where I live (for all intents and purposes, a “neighborhood” of New York City) has vibrant “downtown” in the form of Washington Street, the main avenue of shops, bars, and restaurants that runs the length of the town. But when people say “downtown” or “uptown”, they are really describing more the south or north part of town.

Neighboring Jersey City has their “Downtown” neighborhood sort of in the middle /eastern part of town on Grove Street, which is a similar vibrant street of trendy businesses. All the neighborhoods along the water (Exchange Place, Pavonia Newport, etc) are also pretty well developed. The great wave of Hudson County gentrification hasn’t really made more than a mile or so inland.

our downtown has a renaissance with boutiques bars and restaurants opening up … .although a lot of people are saying its due to the leader of the towns biggest private investment group becoming mayor of the city

here’s the official page for it

The town I live closest to is very small - the population is only 4,500. The downtown area is a historic business district which has always done fine in the the 20 years I’ve lived here. Small shops, restaurants, grocery co-op, etc. plus the county library is there, along with the county court house. Obviously very walkable, and quite attractive.

Drive a mile south and you’ve got your typical ugly commercial sprawl where the gas stations, fast food places and so on reside.

I think the one thing residents here would like to have is a movie theater, but so far no luck on that.

The poor state (or non existence) of downtowns in US has been a bug bear of mine since I moved here, just shy of 20 years ago. It really is one of those things that makes it jarring to move here from the UK (and emphasizes there are some fundamental cultural differences).

My experiences in places I’ve lived or visited frequently is the general trend of improving, though from pretty awful starting point. That’s mainly Northern California (specifically SF Bay Area) and DC-area.

My current downtown (suburb NE of DC just over border in MD) is definitely on the up, with actually a decent range of restaurants, bars and breweries, though working though the limitations of road network which is the typical US spiderweb of multi lane roads and freeways which are clearly designed for cars not human beings.

The city I live in has no downtown. It’s simply the entire civil township originally mapped out less a tiny bit that was part of a much older city that actually has a downtown. The closest thing to a downtown might be the city hall area, but it’s all governmental buildings, including schools, library, police station, city hall, and a park, with no private businesses.

I do drive every day through the downtown of the small city I work in - the building I work in is not really downtown, but driving through it is the fastest way to get there. It consists of 4 blocks on Main street, with a few things perhaps located on other streets parallel to Main, but most of the consumer businesses are on Main. There’s definitely a strong sense of keeping the downtown viable. Most of the shops are specialty boutiques or independent restaurants. The only chain I can think of downtown is Tropical Smoothie Cafe. The gas station doesn’t really count as downtown as the unbroken line of buildings has already stopped by then. There’s also a Penn Station in a strip mall very close to downtown, but again, there’s no continuous building until the other side of the street it’s on. This summer it was obviously not very busy, but as things have warmed up and more people get vaccinated and places open up, there’s a few people on the streets when I leave work and I sometimes even have to stop for them to make my one turn.

As to downtown Detroit, which I live effectively 18 miles due north of, I really don’t know. I’ve not been there in a while, but apparently it’s really gentrified and there’s expensive lofts to live in down there that get to good access to all the entertainment and restaurants in the area. Some major companies still are downtown, and living there makes your commute really simple. Of course, you probably don’t want to stray very far from the inner downtown area, as many of the neighborhoods are completely abandoned by normal residents, and the city stops providing services to those areas to cut down on costs. The pandemic led to a lot of remote working which turned off their income tax flow from working commuters, and they’re probably pissed at the refunds they have to give people on their tax returns when they can justifiably claim they only worked 8 weeks of the year in the city.

According to Google Maps, downtown Little Rock is a lot bigger than I would have thought. More than twenty years ago, the city put a lot of effort into revitalizing the the Riverfront area. They converted a warehouse into the main library, there are a lot of boutiques, some decent restaurants, and very often there’s something going on at Riverfront Park.

Outside the Riverfront area, we have a myriad of museums including the MacArthur Museum of Military History (his birthplace), The Arkansas Arts Center (currently under renovation), The Mosaic Templars Cultural Center (museum), the Old State House, and the Historic Arkansas Museum. There are also some pretty good restaurants including Fassler Hall (German), and places where you can get sushi, pizza, and beer including Doe’s Eat House which was one of Bill Clinton’s favorite spots.

A lot of buildings have been converted to condos over the last twenty years as well. If I wanted to spend $120,000 to live in an apartment I guess it’s an option. But I’d rather have yard and more privacy for the same amount in the suburbs.

Obviously, I feel obliged (see username) to respond.

Downtown Chicago is doing great. When I moved here 40 years ago, we were concerned, but the beginning of this century saw a huge influx of student residents, and continued steady growth of high-end apartment towers. By some definitions, 120,000 people now live downtown.

Recent events have given us some prominent street-level retail vacancies, with some big-deal vacancies on the Magnificent Mile. But as soon as the students and tourists come back— and they soon will— something will fill those. Tis true that people don’t come downtown on the streetcar to shop for Christmas toys at Marshall Field’s or buy a refrigerator at Sears any more, and the total square footage of downtown retail space is probably only half what it was in 1960, but nonetheless it’s still pretty dynamic, even nights and weekends.

Office space demand will probably be a bit soft over the next decade, but I remember the crepe-hanging that followed 9/11 and I’m not concerned that our way of life has been changed forever. The smart kids born since 1980 just don’t seem to be interested in jobs in the suburbs, and many are not interested in living there.

Toronto has always emphasized a livable urban center and it’s helped make downtown a vibrant and interesting place with lots of nearby residential areas. It’s been helped along by lakeshore redevelopment and a large amount of natural green space. Alphabet (Google) chose Toronto for a massive Sidewalk Labs project a few years ago which unfortunately collapsed due to various political issues, which is a shame because it aimed to build an experimental “smart city” of the future on approximately 190 acres of waterfront land. But waterfront redevelopment is still a major impetus for the city. Waterfront aside, I know many people who are devoted urban residents with nice houses close to the core of the city. These days I’m used to the outer reaches of suburbia and urban living isn’t really my style, but I can appreciate what they see in it and I do feel somewhat nostalgic every time I visit the city. My former house was a great combination of lots of surrounding green space while being close to so many amenities, including a subway line that ran straight downtown.

When I moved to the Chicago area, in '89, and worked in River North (but lived in the suburbs), I noted that downtown was usually a ghost town on the evenings and weekends, and I’m sure that a big chunk of it was that relatively few actually lived downtown back then.

I live in a suburb of Chicago (Arlington Heights, if you must know.) And yes, suburbs have downtowns.

I live a block away from the AH downtown. I chose to live at a slight remove because the downtown sometimes gets overly lively, especially on summer weekends.

But, the liveliness is a two-sided story. The restaurant scene was going gangbusters before the pandemic, and even last summer, during good weather, there were tons of people eating outside on the sidewalks. (They blocked off the streets for outdoor dining, which is all you were allowed at the time.)

But retail, on the other hand . . . is either dying or dead. So many of the local shops go out of business, sometimes before you even realized they were there. I’m not sure whether long-term you can build a downtown out of restaurants alone.

The Chicago suburb where I live (Brookfield) really doesn’t have a downtown; it has a couple of business corridors, one of which is only about a block and a half long, and the other, a few blocks away, is on a busy street (Ogden Avenue), so it doesn’t really feel “downtowny.”

On the other hand, a couple of miles away, the suburb of La Grange has a pretty vibrant downtown. It’s not all restaurants, either (though there are a fair number of those) – there are a number of successful retail places, many of which are small local places (a bookstore, a game shop, hair salons, clothing stores, a movie theater, etc.) It’s a bit more wealthy of a suburb, compared to my suburb, and they’ve done a lot to help make it a destination, with parking lots and pedestrian-friendly side streets.