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 September 1, 1997

Downtowns provide link between cities’ past, future

Vibrant centers reflect community’s pride in itself

In the good old days, downtown neighborhoods served as the commercial and social centers of our communities. In contemporary society, they may remain these things, but they have also become the cultural repository of a community.

When they are really successful, they build upon and take every advantage of their traditional role as the community’s cultural classroom and trendsetter.

Our downtowns and older residential neighborhoods preserve a community’s spirit. In the magnificent bank buildings, courthouses, opera houses, museums, the manors and estates, we can touch base with the powers that molded our hometowns.

These buildings express the egos of their original owners and the aspirations of the community. They demonstrate the astounding creativity of architects, designers, engineers. They track the history and evolution of a community through changing styles, engineering innovations, and in all the tragedies and triumphs played out behind their walls.

Successful central business districts serve as the keeper of a community’s history and heritage. They confirm for us and they recreate for succeeding generations the physical, intellectual, and emotional icons which define home and sense of place. But this is really only the minimum they do.

Truly great downtowns go way beyond being a museum or cultural repository. Truly great downtowns have always been and always will be the inspirational centers, the heart and soul, of our communities. They are the home to the living as well as the historic; the performing arts, stage, modern architecture, film, galleries, locally owned (and therefore unique and usually above-average) retail, restaurants, entertainment centers.

Writers and intellectuals make downtowns their literal as well as cultural home. Downtowns remain the centers of government and financial power where great and awful decisions are made, where money is loaned, bankruptcies declared, where careers can soar and where they are also are ruined.

Truly great downtowns, to stay that way, must inspire creativity, and they must accept the expression of that creativity into the existing historic fabric and community heritage. Truly great downtowns are almost painfully vibrant and exciting, bold and daring (I.M. Pei’s glass pyramid in the middle of the Louvre courtyard in Paris is a good example). They are centers of art and creativity. They encourage these attributes and allow for their expression. They respect and protect the creations of past inspiration, and they most certainly foster and openly receive contemporary expressions of creativity.

In the centrally planned world we live in today, downtowns are an island where the shackles should be loosened. Downtowns should be the one place, the safe haven, where the new and the old can interact, where they can define and enliven each other. Downtowns should be the one neighborhood where such a relationship is always encouraged.

Of course, there are much more pragmatic reasons why downtowns are important to communities. For instance, most are old enough to have long ago paid for the cost to build their public infrastructure (i.e. sewers, roads, sidewalks, electricity, etc.). This means that for years, most of the property- and sales-tax revenue collected in a downtown neighborhood has been used to improve other parts of the community – to build parks, schools, roads, fire stations.

Downtowns are also great business incubators. The aggregate debt on downtown real estate tends to be less than that in the newer suburban commercial areas. This means rents are less, which attracts new business ventures. Such businesses grow and, whether they stay in a central business district, they contribute to the long-term economic vitality of the community.

A culturally vibrant, physically attractive, historically rich and economically active downtown reflects the pride and commitment of the residents of a community. These qualities attract like-minded people and like-minded businesses. This perpetuates a community’s well-being. This is good for us and good for our kids. Many generations have invested in their downtowns.

Out of respect for the past and on behalf of the future, it is worth our while to build on that investment. Our contributions continue the process of building a hometown. They provide the bridge connecting a community’s history to its future.

Chip Steiner is president of the Steiner Co. in Fort Collins and recently completed a study of downtown Greeley.

Vibrant centers reflect community’s pride in itself

In the good old days, downtown neighborhoods served as the commercial and social centers of our communities. In contemporary society, they may remain these things, but they have also become the cultural repository of a community.

When they are really successful, they build upon and take every advantage of their traditional role as the community’s cultural classroom and trendsetter.

Our downtowns and older residential neighborhoods preserve a community’s spirit. In the magnificent bank buildings, courthouses, opera houses, museums, the manors and estates, we can touch base with the powers that molded our hometowns.

These buildings express the…

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