Monday, October 18, 2010

Arts Entertainment District Downtown includes Wayne Hotel

A person walks pass some of the murals painted at a closed building along Dexter Avenue in downtown Montgomery, Ala., on Friday, Oct. 1, 2010. (Montgomery Advertiser, Lloyd Gallman)
A person walks pass some of the murals painted at a closed building along Dexter Avenue in downtown Montgomery, Ala., on Friday, Oct. 1, 2010. (Montgomery Advertiser, Lloyd Gallman)

Downtown revitalization must include historic preservation, expert says

By Jill Nolin • October 11, 2010
Downtown revitalization was once talked about because it wasn't happen­ing. Now, it's being talked about because it's actually taking hold in Montgomery.

Montgomery's success, to date, in re­vitalizing its downtown is a major focus of the annual Alabama Preservation Conference that started Thursday and ended Saturday. Some of the sessions have offered analysis and commentary on what steps led up to the rebirth that sparked on the riverfront and is starting to push into the rest of the downtown area.
"I tell you, you are doing the right things in Montgomery, Alabama. It's not there yet, but it's never there," said Don­ovan Rypkema, who is an international­ly noted expert on using historic preser­vation as an economic development tool.
Rypkema, who was the keynote speaker at the conference this year, spoke Friday about the value of historic preservation in economic development, but more specifically, he talked about how historic preservation spurs sustain­able development.
"Downtown revitalization without historic preservation? It ain't happen­ing," Rypkema said at a luncheon held in the ballroom at 130 Commerce St. at Al­ley Station.
Montgomery's story of revi­talization has been years in the making, and even though the re­mainder of its story has yet to be written, city planners and deci­sion-makers are laying the groundwork today for what will unfold in the coming years.
That was the case with the Alley Entertainment District, which was an idea started years ago and that developed into an actual project in 2008. City offi­cials used about $1.1 million in proceeds from the Tax Incre­ment Financing District, which was created to help fund the downtown revitalization effort, to improve the public part of Al­ley Station. Private businesses have followed the city's lead.
City officials hope to get the same results now on lower Dext­er Avenue, where Montgomery is in the process of selecting a developer, or developers, to re­work nine city-owned historic properties.
"It's our commitment to not just make old, new, but make old, old," said Mayor Todd Strange about the conference's focus on the city's work to ac­complish economic develop­ment downtown through histor­ic preservation.

City officials also attribute a degree of the success downtown to a mandatory shift to Smart­Code zoning in 2006. They also would pin that achievement on Ken Groves, the city's planning director who passed away re­cently after a brief battle with cancer.

The zoning, which allows for commercial and residential uses in one location, and the use of historic properties have brought Montgomery to where it is today.
Rypkema said Friday that downtown revitalization is a sustainable growth for several reasons, including: it usually has strong local economic im­pact; it serves as a natural incu­bator for small businesses; it at­tracts a variety of activities in one area; and it fosters a sense of ownership in the community. Unlike large generic shopping centers, a downtown effervesces a sense of place for people who are likely to feel a commitment to see it succeed, he said.
"Downtown revitalization is not about fixing up buildings. It's about people, not buildings," Rypkema said.
Rypkema said cities that are working to bring new life to their downtowns and reverse the urban flight or "white flight" that occurred years ago also should work just as hard to retain businesses that stuck it out in downtown after others fled. After retention, the goals should be business expansion and then business recruitment, he said.
"And that's not sociology. That's economic development," Rypkema said.
Chad Emerson, who is serv­ing as interim assistant plan­ning director for the city, said Rypkema's comments about Montgomery's efforts in down­town have given city officials more confidence in what they are doing.
Even though Emerson said there is still a significant num­ber of "underutilized buildings" downtown -- he uses that des­cription instead of "vacant" be­cause some buildings have one tenant but could handle more -- the progress made during a re­cession gives city officials en­couragement for what is yet to come.

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