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Stop Sprawl
Downtowns' Rare Moment of Opportunity

by Neal R. Peirce


(Copyright 1999 Washington Post Writers Group) reprinted by permission of the author. Sunday, October 10, 1999

America's downtowns and center cities, victims of gross neglect over most of the years since World War II, will enter the 21st century at a rare moment of opportunity.

Just check recent real estate market trends. Downtowns across America are reporting a strong increase in people choosing to live in the center city's residential towers, town houses or loft apartments.

The trend is most extreme in "hot" urban development spots like Chicago, San Francisco, Boston, Denver and Seattle. Chicago, for example, is up to 100,000 downtown residents, double the count a decade ago.

Denver in the late 70s had virtually zero center city residents and its historic Lower Downtown was close to abandonment. Today LoDo throbs with new shops, restaurants, parks and street activity. Some 19,000 people live downtown and they're increasingly affluent: 70 percent of downtown housing is now owner-occupied, compared to 30 percent in 1990.

The San Francisco Bay Area has an incredibly hot condo market. We're seeing reverse commuting, affluent young professionals working for Silicon Valley high tech firms who choose to live in exciting San Francisco rather than bland Santa Clara County. San Francisco's median condo prices have soared 42 percent in the last year.

But the turnaround isn't just in the hip cities. Take Kansas City, a town hit especially hard by suburban flight. A decade ago its city home prices were declining precipitously. By contrast, average home-sale prices in central Kansas City zip codes have jumped 28 percent since early 1996. The rate of home appreciation is higher even than fast-growing, affluent Johnson County, reports the Kansas City Star's Jeffrey Spivak.

Everywhere, people are asking-- What's happened? Why this shift now?

The first, clear reason: a booming national economy and low interest rates. That translates into plenty of investment capital for new urban restaurants, museums, parks, entertainment centers. With prosperity, cities are hiring more police, providing cleaner streets, better services. Crime is down sharply in practically every city, reducing peoples' fears.

Second: Suburbia is losing some of its allure. A prime reason: increasingly severe traffic congestion, with longer and longer commutes and disrupted lives. And as people sit stuck in traffic, they have more time to behold the sheer ugliness of sprawling, sterile strip malls, big-box stores and roadways lined by forests of franchise signs.

Then there's demographics. Every 7.5 seconds in America now, some baby boomer turns 50. The most affluent and populous generation in U.S. history, the folks who made suburbia succeed, are reaching empty nester stage. And all that downtowns and close-in neighborhoods need in today's market is a reasonable minority -- not a majority, just a reasonable share of these folks to be sick of the crabgrass, to find cul-de-sac life boring, and to opt for a life close to culture, art, good eating, places to walk.

None of this spells an American urban Nirvana. Part of the downtown housing value gains sound good because increases are calculated off urban values deeply depressed by decades of suburban flight. Many cities have poured huge resources, from street and park improvements, and have added police, sports stadiums and entertainment centers to their downtowns -- even while ignoring the need of mature older neighborhoods to receive a fresh wave of renewed streets, parks, schools.

There may be a downtown housing boom in most major cities, but not necessarily smaller cities -- the Daytons, Fresnos, Wacos of America. Cities are still forced to accommodate an incredibly disproportionate burden of America's poor. Many older, first-ring suburbs are now suffering. Quality problems continue to afflict city schools more seriously than those in the suburbs.

Still, the city comeback is reason for real celebration. Across the world, across the centuries, from rural to industrial economies, cities and their centers have been mankind's centers of commercial, public, civic life.

Only in America did we seriously entertain the idea that our center cities had become pass?, disposable commodities.

Shaking that idea, rebuilding our center cities for the new century, isn't just nice-- it's critical for our economy, and our soul.

Why the economy? Because our metro regions, our citistates, face a new century of immense competitive pressure. Their downtowns are their calling cards to the world. The downtown image sets an image that people across continents can grasp and recognize -- the region's product brand, if you will.

We need strong center cities for spiritual reasons too. We're in an age of anomie, placelessness, gated community exclusion, rootless tv-land and cyberspace. More than ever, the downtown serves as the common ground and meeting space for our sprawling citistates' classes and races and cultures.

Civic societies do require a shared place, one of some grandeur, quality, culture, stimulation, and fun. In our rush to the pleasures and life quality of suburbia, we almost forgot that. Today's downtown revival suggests we're remembering, just in time.


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