Downtown revitalization must include historic preservation, expert says
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.