Value of a mixed-use downtown

Last week, my husband and I traveled to Minneapolis for the first time.

While our main reason to visit was to watch cross-country ski races, we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to explore a new northern-latitude city.

Staying in the northeast section of town, we explored the coffee shops and restaurants that dotted the residential neighborhood.

When we went into the main part of the city along the Mississippi River, we were surprised by how separated the city felt. The main “downtown” area seemed primarily large, corporate offices with skyways keeping people off the sidewalk, with few major hotels interspersed. A local resident we met shared that the original historic district was mostly razed in the 1960s to make way for those new corporate skyscrapers that had little first floor activity that would make a person want to walk around and linger.

The post-World War II period changed the way small and large cities alike were organized and experienced across the United States.

Previously compact, centralized cities now stretched out into the outskirts of the town. In Alpena, areas like Ripley Boulevard, U.S.-23 South, and M-32 West became attractive for development, with large amounts of land, new modern buildings, and plenty of parking. In that period, churches, fraternal organizations, businesses, and even schools relocated from the city center to those newly formed districts. The now-vacant buildings were often left to deteriorate or eventually be demolished for parking.

Community leaders and residents alike have always grappled with what its city center (its downtown) should be. What is the right mix of businesses? How many offices should be there? Should we become an entertainment district, a foodie haven, a retail corridor?

In Alpena, a 1964 plan that was developed by the city suggested that the Central Business District (downtown) should function as a pedestrian-focused retail center, similar to a shopping mall. Parking would be concentrated on the outskirts, and all non-retail uses should go outside the district. The downtown district as experienced in 1964 was deemed unsightly because of its “lack of uniformity of uses and structures.”

What would our downtown be today if all non-retail uses had been banished?

Cities and downtown districts must be balanced to remain healthy. An ecosystem with a variety of pieces and uses: nonprofits, restaurants, shops, essential services, offices, housing, arts organizations, entertainment, service businesses, parks.

A district with too much of one use becomes a monoculture — not only is it uninteresting for people when they experience it, but it becomes too susceptible to the diseases of changing consumer habits and economic trends. Imagine if our downtown was only shops. Only restaurants. Only offices.

The diversity of our downtown is what makes it strong and vibrant, and the variety of uses allow each to benefit from being in close proximity to each other.

Office tenants frequent restaurants. People going to a salon stop in the neighboring store. Visitors to the library grab a coffee. Some parts of the ecosystem will carry more weight and “anchor” the district, but each contributes to the strength as a whole.

If one piece of the ecosystem closes, others still exist to allow a new one to take its place.

The whole does not die.

It is easy to romanticize the past days of the city, when all services and businesses were consolidated downtown out of necessity. That past isn’t possible or even practical to recreate — but we can learn from it.

As we look to the future of our downtown district, it is essential we keep that balance of uses, not becoming too reliant on one industry or use, identifying where there are gaps, and ensuring the ecosystem as a whole can thrive.


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