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Mobility Shifts in Downtowns

12 Jun

Cars, Pedestrians and Downtown Districts

Several years have passed since I last visited one of my favorite midsize cities, Charlottesville, Virginia. But I often think about the magnificent pedestrian mall that graces the downtown of this city. Known as the “Historic Downtown Mall,” it is the area’s heart of civic activity, featuring more than 120 shops and restaurants located in pristinely maintained historic buildings surrounding Old Main Street. Eclectic in feel, it reflects the ethos and vibe that define this university town.

For years, pedestrian thoroughfares experienced great appeal as centers of community vitality. Their beginnings date back to 1959, when Kalamazoo, Michigan, became the first American city to adopt one for its downtown area. From there, the pedestrian mall concept gained momentum as 220 cities followed suit, closing downtown thoroughfares to traffic and paving them with cobblestones. With retail establishments and eateries serving as points of attraction for residents and visitors, foot traffic and pedestrian vibrancy became abundant.

As early as five years ago, there was talk of a changing paradigm for these thoroughfares. A number of urban experts were quick to exclaim that pedestrian malls had lost their luster due in large part to the Great Recession. Examples abound of the decline of these walkable areas, leading to a lack of activity along what once may have been a vibrant pedestrian area.

Citing the popular belief at the time that automobile traffic serves as a magnet for economic activity, a number of cities such as the aforementioned Kalamazoo, Michigan reopened many of their downtown streets to vehicular traffic. The argument here is that retail activation tends to work better when there is vehicle access, visibility and parking near storefronts.

Today, there has been a resurgence of interest in pedestrianism and walkability within downtown corridors. Accompanying this fundamental shift in the way people ambulate around districts are new mobile phone-based technologies that facilitate pedestrian mobility from place to place. These tools are also useful in helping users identify area sites and amenities.  They include mobile based apps such as Fourquare, Yelp, Google Maps and Walkscore. Much of this has emerged in response to the desires of millennials and baby boomers alike seeking civic intelligence information, directing them to their local desires and interests.

For downtown leaders, this should be seen as good news. Why? In addition to cultivating an environment that encourages consumer foot traffic and economic activity, walk-friendly locales provide a forum for promoting healthy lifestyles and wellness. These new patterns suggest the advancement of good ole “foot power” as the new common denominator for place-based initiatives; one that downtown leaders and planners will increasingly be called to address in the years ahead.

Many downtown experts note that the on-the-go millennial crowd is largely behind this rapidly developing mind shift. Automotive industry company reports that young adults aged 18–34 purchased 30 percent fewer cars in 2007 than in 2011. And since the late 1990s, the share of automobile miles driven by Americans in their 20s has dropped from 20.8 percent to 13.7 percent. Bottom line: Growing numbers of young adults are choosing to nestle within and in close proximity to downtown center-city districts where density favors walking, bicycling, and other non-traditional modes of transportation. In their words cars “suck”; two feet “ROCK.”

Surprisingly many empty nesters are also walking in record numbers. Many are opting out of their restricted suburban ways and embracing downtown areas that offer easy walking access to dining, arts, sports venues and other lifestyle interests. Here, many are also capitalizing on the health benefits that ensue from active physical movement.

James Shaffer, president of Streetscapes, Inc., a Denver-based firm providing pedestrian amenities for public spaces, believes that downtown leaders and planners must keep a close eye on the mobility shifts occurring within their districts. This, he says, involves striking a delicate balance in terms of the coexistence of cars and pedestrians, both of which are vital to sustainable downtown vibrancy. “Creating a well thought out infrastructure that supports these two modes is vital. It is critical though to keep in mind the importance of creating inviting environments that truly engage those you are seeking to attract,” says Shaffer.

Shaffer has had first-hand experience with these issues through his stint as board president of WalkDenver, a nonprofit advocacy group dedicated to improving the pedestrian experience in Denver. And while acknowledging the value of mobile apps to facilitate downtown district walkability, he believes traditional wayfinding signage and directionals hold equal importance, particularly for those baby boomers who are reluctant to adopt mobile technologies.

Challenges notwithstanding, the reintegration of cars into pedestrian-friendly locales has a great deal of momentum behind it. However, there are still a number of holdouts in terms of exclusively walkable streetscapes. Pearl Street Mall in Boulder is obviously well known. Third Street Mall in Santa Monica, California represents another success story, with much of its foot traffic attributed to a highly targeted tourist market. And in another twist, the city of Montreal, Canada just announced that it will bar motor vehicles on a number of their vehicular stretches just for the spring and the summer, converting them into pedestrian havens for the enjoyment of those frequenting the area.

So in terms of this autocentric versus walkability convergence, clearly the more things change, the more things stay the same. But as the great urbanist Jane Jacobs once remarked, “Downtowns are for the people, not for the cars.”

Maybe that settles the score.


Michael Scott is the head content creator with Social Buzz For Cities, Inc. He writes white papers, blogs, and targeted thought pieces for a variety of clients in the urban/economic development space. He can be reached at or

Why Downtown Matters

25 Jul

forloveofcitiesGuest author Peter Kageyama (For the Love of Cities) will be speaking at DCI’s annual conference, Vibrant Colorado Downtowns, September 10-13, 2013.

For the past several years I have been lucky enough to travel all over the US and the world and I can tell you that the “9 to 5” downtown is seen all over the world. A generation ago as people and businesses fled to the suburbs, leaving their once thriving downtowns as the proverbial ghost towns. Today we are seeing renewed interest in downtowns, especially amongst young people who love the walkability of these areas, the authenticity of them and even the grittiness of them. And businesses are keen to go where they know they can recruit talent, especially this young talent. Remember, downtowns are the psychic centers of our communities.

If downtown is moribund, lifeless after dark and unlovable, it becomes much, much harder to improve our suburbs because our core is not healthy. I often hear from city leaders how they get heat from their suburban constituents who say that too much attention is being paid to downtowns. They ask me my opinion and I tell them: not enough attention is paid to our downtowns. That may be politically difficult for some to embrace, but the numbers do not lie. Downtown urban areas are the economic engines for regions. Invest a dollar in downtown and you get a significant multiplier on that dollar. Less so with our outlying areas with much more diffused populations, diffused businesses and spread out infrastructure. In a time of limited resources, you want to make investments with the best returns and an investment in downtown is a high yield investment.

Independent Retailers Create Unique Downtowns

Despite this renewed interest in downtowns, retail in the heart of our cities has proven to be problematic. Retail behaviors have changed along with the attendant technologies that make downtown retail a challenge but one that is worth taking on. We may like the convenience, selection or pricing of the big box retail outlets, but they are not distinctive. They are the same from place to place, country to country.

Downtown retail, also know as “High Street” throughout the commonwealth countries, cannot directly compete with Home Depot, Best Buy or Walmart. When did you last see a hardware store downtown?  But these shops can provide unique and authentic retail experiences that you would not be able to get elsewhere. If you look at the retail that works in your downtown you will find that it is not based on better prices or greater selection. It will often be local, custom, quirky and unreplicable by those big box retailers. If the offer is good enough and interesting enough, people will come.

Free Parking at a Price

Inevitably conversations about downtowns also become conversations about parking. Some see parking fees as an impediment to more people downtown. They say that the big box retailers have plenty of free parking so we should not disincentivize folks from coming downtown by having high parking fees, or even any parking fees.

Donald Schoub argues compellingly in his book, The High Cost of Free Parking, that free parking has an externalized cost–paid for by the people who will use downtown. While it seems logical that more cars downtown would mean more people, I do not believe that is the case. More cars downtown actually has an alienating effect on those of us who are on foot, on bikes, and engaged with our downtowns. Simply put: cars are not people. I can hear the outcry – but cars are driven by people. True, but once you get behind the wheel of your car, you cease to be a person and I can prove it to you.

Think about those driving behaviors we all (occasionally) exhibit: we honk our horns, we cut in and out of lanes, we speed, we yell obscenities and even flip people the bird. When was the last time you ever did any of those types of behaviors when you were walking or standing line somewhere?  Hopefully never. You don’t because you see the other person, you look them in the eye and as a result you behave better—more like someone who lives in a civilized community.

When you drive, you cannot see the other person. Wrapped in two tons of metal and plastic, they are not human but rather an impediment to you as you seek to get home, to work or to school.  More cars on the road encourage more of this uncivilized behavior. We need to find ways to get people out of their cars and interacting with each other and their environment. When this happens, lots of good things accrue in our cities, not the least of which is a healthier and ultimately happier citizen.

So if you are looking for a place to start, begin with the simple premise of increasing people’s ability to see other people and you will be well on your way toward a better, more vital downtown. We are social creatures, endlessly fascinated by each other, and if you can increase the people-watching opportunities, you start to improve downtown. This can be downtown seating, a dog park, more outdoor cafés or events. Bigger infrastructure and projects can follow but start with this simple notion.

PKageyamaPeter Kageyama is a community and economic development consultant based in St. Petersburg, FL.  Peter will provide the keynote address at the 2013 Governor’s Awards Gala and the closing address at the DCI conference. He is the former President of Creative Tampa Bay, a grassroots community change organization. He has spoken all over the world about bottom up community development and the amazing people that are making change happen. His book, For the Love of Cities, was recognized by Planetizen as a Top 10 Book for 2012 in urban planning, design and development. All full DCI conference registrants will receive a complimentary copy. Register now for DCI’s 2013 Conference, Vibrant Colorado Downtowns, to be held September 10-13, 2013 in Grand Junction!

Historic Preservation Month Feature: Cliff Theater in Wray

20 May


City: Wray, CO

Population: 2,300

Historic Structure: Yes, Colorado State Historic Registrar

Year Built: 1950

Public Non Profit: Cliff Cultural Community Center Inc.


The Cliff Theater was originally built in 1950 in a small town of 2,300 people in Northeast Colorado. For the last 60 years, this theater has stood as a landmark for the community in Wray, but in 2007 the owner realized that the theater was in jeopardy. The solution was to create a community center with 501c3 designation. The original board received a $25,000 financial commitment from a local trust for three years to get the Cliff Cultural Community Center Inc. up and running. They changed the business model and become a public non-profit, only to be jeopardized again five years later. In the fall of 2012 they learned that the movie industry would be going digital and they would have to do the same to survive.


In total it took about 14 months to gather enough money to fund a new digital projector. Three major donors, El Pomar, Gates Family and Kitzmiller Bales and Powell Trusts, contributed $85,000, and the Cliff Theater was able to raise another $45,000 through about two-dozen community fundraising events. These efforts were all small fundraisers like bake sales, donation buckets, silent auctions and letters.

Since May 2012 the theater has been run strictly by board members and volunteers. The community really rallied around the Cliff Theater because they understood that without the theater there were few options for family and youth to be entertained, without traveling more than 40 miles.


The Cliff Theater is not just a movie theater, but also a community center for Wray and Yuma. The Theater hosts events ranging from dance classes, youth group meetings, to birthday parties, and music shows.

Cliff Theater’s next steps are to further diversity the theater’s current programs by exploring licensing options for showing classic movies, developing the center as a live music venue, reinstating a children’s movie summer program, and adding programming from a digital broadcast network provider to show events like concerts and sports events.

For more information visit:

Historic Preservation Month Feature: Kress Cinema & Lounge in Greeley

13 May

Go Digital or Be Left Behind!
(Kickstarter Project Motto)

City: Greeley, CO
Population: 96,962
Historic Structure: Originally the Kress Department Store:
Year Built: 1920. Renovated in 2007 for theater.
Privately Owned

KressThe Kress Cinema & Lounge is a privately owned theater in historic downtown Greeley located within the historically renovated Kress Building that recently faced challenges imposed by Hollywood’s digital requirements.  The highly decorated, art deco department store was originally built in 1920 and with the historic preservation passion of the Thompsons, was renovated into a theater in 2007.  As a contributing structure to the Historic Downtown Greeley, the Thompsons saved everything they could, including the ceilings, floors and columns.

Shortly after the opening in 2008 the theater was faced with the challenges from Hollywood and digital movie production.  Unfortunately, at the start of the renovation work the standards set by digital movies were not clear and the theater did not conform to the new changes.  The theater needed to convert fully to digital technology by 2013, which is when Hollywood will no longer be producing 35mm film movies.   The Thompsons turned to the community and the Kickstarter program for help, as they feared they would be closing the theater in 2013.


In 2012 the theater launched a Kickstarter program after seeing the success from the Lyric Cinema Café in Fort Collins.  The Kickstarter program brought the community involvement to the forefront of the theater’s survival.  As the only independent movie theater in Greeley and a valued business, it was important to the community to work together to raise the money.  A goal of the Kickstarter was to not only upgrade to the digital technology but to show that this was an investment in the community.

Through varying incentives and donor memberships, the theater exceeded their goal of $80,000.  Partnerships with the Chamber of Commerce, DD Authorities, local newspapers, and social media also played a role in the fundraising success.  The Kress Cinema has successfully converted to digital technology and meets the standards set by Hollywood.  The theater recognizes the importance of the community and is available for parties, weddings, receptions, business meetings, live comedy, community forums, fundraisers and weekly local music.  With a restaurant and bar within the theater there are more events available and the ability for several events to be held simultaneously.

Check out the Kickstarter Website:


The Kress Cinema intends to support and work with the community and partner with nearby businesses to integrate events and activities within Greeley.  Additional money raised will be used to purchase spare parts, repair furniture and to upgrade the kitchen equipment.  The theater offers a memorable experience for their guests with a full-service restaurant and bar, intimate Art Deco lounges and a newly converted digital theater.

For more information visit:

Historic Preservation Month Feature: The Grand Theater in Rocky Ford

6 May


City: Rocky Ford, CO

Population: 4,000

Historic Structure: Yes, Colorado State Historic Registrar

Year Built: Originally built in 1908, rebuilt after a fire in 1935.

Public Non-profit: Grand Friends

Grand Theater 1The Grand Theater has a tenuous past, but has been able to flourish over the past 20 years with the continued support of a dedicated community.  After many years of abandonment and vandalism the City of Rocky Ford finally bought the building in 1991 and appointed a Rocky Ford Arts Commission to manage it. Even in an economically depressed area, the community came together and decided to open it back up to create a place for all ages to gather, and funding s
Five years ago, the Grand Theater received information from their booking agent about the inevitability of a digital conversion. They were encouraged to join the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO) to stay informed and possibly get equipment cheaper. They did join the group but were able to fundraise and buy their equipment without NATO’s help.ources became available once they gained a spot on the Colorado State Historic Registrar.

Grand Theater 2


The Grand Theater has a fundraising organization called the Grand Friends. With this organization and additional financial support from El Pomar Foundation, they were able to raise $85,000 to upgrade the facilities and buy digital equipment. Much of the Rocky Ford community either supports the theater financially or volunteers their time. Community groups volunteer at the theater on a rotating basis and their names are published in the newspaper every week.

The Grand Friends send out annual letters to solicit support from community members and businesses and tell them how the money has been used, such as renovation projects and the digital conversion. Other fundraising techniques included summer musicals and free events with suggested donations.



The Grand Theater is an important community space and one of the only businesses in downtown Rocky Ford. With both a stage and a movie screen, the theater can hosts live performances, student musicals, political meetings as well as events like “Movie Bowl Trivia” and talent shows. The Rocky Ford and La Junta communities keep this theater alive through continued support, and the Grand Theater hopes to continue to preserve the theater as a vital piece of this community.


For more information visit:

Photo source: