Wednesday, September 9, 2009

"Do you know what downtown needs?"

One of our committees had a great session last month, and the result of the meeting was that each person was going to come up with 5 Things to make living and working in downtown Wilmington easier.

For a little background, when I tell people what I do, they often ask, “you know what downtown needs … (fill in the blank).” I always, and I mean always say, “please tell me.” Everyone has different experiences, and the diversity offers us the opportunity to improve … if we listen. You never know when that light bulb will go off, or someone says something that makes me slap my forehead and say, “Wow, what a great idea.” Not to be cynical, or a Mr. Smarty Pants, but I hear this almost daily … “Hey John, you know what downtown needs?” This will probably become the running joke now, but I will keep listening, hoping for an incredible idea.

Why do I ask this question, well I love working in downtown Wilmington. I’m close to my house, it takes me 15 minutes to get to the beach, in traffic. I have too many choices for lunch, within walking distance. I can walk on the Riverwalk to many destinations, or Front Street offers great people watching opportunities.

These 5 things were clarified, no one could come up with “just 5 things” to improve downtown, that’s why we asked for things to make it easier to live and work downtown.

You see, we deal with perceptions a lot, and often perceptions are reality. When the reality does not meet the perception, your challenges become really tough. So that is one of my challenges right now? How do I alter the perception that living and working in downtown is too difficult? You can substitute difficult here with expensive, dangerous, too regulatory, etc.

When you look at other great urban centers, you notice a couple of striking things:
1) They have awesome green/open space. Sometimes referred to a park (note the sarcasm font).
2) They have eye catching architecture, either historic or really modern and cool.

This weekend, I’ll be traveling to Milwaukee to attend the International Downtown Association Annual Conference. Milwaukee is one of the great modern urban centers in our country. Their mayor is so awesome, he went to the state fair and defended a lady who had her purse snatched. He got beaten up pretty good, but he showed great leadership and perseverance.

Milwaukee has one of the most eye catching architectural structures in the world. They also have incredible green space in the center of their urban core that I can’t wait to see. Greensboro, NC also has a great Center City Park. I visited that two years ago and was blown away by what a community can achieve when it is motivated with great leadership.

So, would green space be one of the 5 things for you? It is on my list. Studies have shown that a well designed park will drive up investment in the surrounding area, encourage others to live in downtown Wilmington. Year round residents will, on average, spend twice as much in their neighborhood, than those who work in the same area. It is an economic study that has been studied time and again, particularly in downtown areas. That is why there has been such a push for residential development in the past few years. One thing those residents, both new and old have said is, we need park space downtown. A new, should I say, Riverfront Park is definitely on my list of 5 things. We need a space where kids can run around in circles, fall and not scratch their knees.

A park will encourage additional residential development and those upwardly mobile, young diverse professionals to live downtown. Some call them the Creative Class, hipsters, cool kids, the new yuppie, etc etc.

This brings the chicken and egg argument. Developers will tell you, build the residential, and the retail will come. Well, we need some retail too.

Typical residential investors ask, “where do I buy my groceries?” A grocery store is on my list, although I’ll still listen when a fellow party attendee says, “Hey John, you know downtown could sure use a grocery store?” Of the retail shops we need, many could make the list; grocery, pharmacy, hardware, dry cleaner, and more apparel shops. That’s five, so a single commitment to more retail will work too.

When trying to improve residential development, one person or organization can do little to change the marketplace. But I am interested in doing a few things, like waiving impact fees. The fact that a condo developer has to pay nearly $10,000 to hook up each unit to the sewer system is outrageous. This is particularly troubling when you know that connection is about 10 feet from the new building. The sewer and water infrastructure is already in the ground throughout downtown Wilmington.

I’d also like to consider waiving or abating taxes for a number of years, perhaps 10. Other great urban cities have done things like this (Milwaukee, Pittsburg, [so I’ve been told, still working to confirm] etc). Something needs to happen that draws the attention of the developers, potential residents and possible commercial developers. We could even tie this proposal to affordable housing. Having working class families live in your downtown is important, especially when you consider the ease of access to public transportation and jobs in the area.

My next thing is an equation of sorts, balance stricter historic preservation guidelines with looser design regulations on new buildings. I think new construction should represent it’s time in place, not what buildings looked like 60 years ago. Let modern architecture and construction happen, it creates a nice and unique urban fabric.

My list is never just 5 things, but I ask, “What 5 things do you think would make it easier to live and work in downtown Wilmington?” You can see that I want diverse architecture, a new Riverfront Park, infill development incentives and more retail. Tell me what you want, seriously, I’m listening.

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