15 ideas to revitalize ‘lifeless’ downtowns in the work-from-home era

Cities globally are grappling with a common challenge: while tourist numbers are bouncing back post-pandemic, office workers are not returning at the same pace. As a result, downtown areas are in need of a new identity. Traditional symbols of wealth and vibrancy, such as imposing office towers, no longer carry the same significance. The Post Editorial Board has advocated for a seemingly straightforward but challenging solution: the conversion of offices into residential apartments. However, revitalizing downtowns requires more than just this one approach.

Since this issue was highlighted, we have received an overwhelming response from readers of all ages and backgrounds, each offering their unique and creative ideas to breathe new life into downtown areas. A recurring theme in the feedback is the desire for fewer cars and more public spaces, such as parks and events, that foster a sense of community and bring people together. While some suggestions, such as the implementation of bike lanes and congestion charges, have proven controversial, they still remain part of the broader discourse.

Ultimately, as we explore these 15 innovative suggestions, it becomes clear that the challenge lies not only in converting office spaces but also in creating vibrant public spaces, promoting alternative modes of transportation, and addressing the various concerns and controversies surrounding property taxes and congestion charges. By embracing these ideas and incorporating them into a comprehensive urban revitalization strategy, cities can begin to forge a new and inclusive downtown identity that meets the evolving needs of their communities. 

1. Limit the number of cars downtown

I think cities should invest much more heavily in public transit. Overreliance on personal cars, especially in downtowns, limits the number of people who can access the area, makes such areas unpleasant with excess noise and pollution, unnecessarily takes up huge amounts of valuable space, and results in people being isolated from one another in their vehicles. It is the antithesis of how a vibrant urban core should operate. Paris is rapidly limiting vehicular traffic and encouraging people to enjoy the delights of the center of the city by making it a more pleasant place to be.

Kenneth Lay, Brooklyn

2. Fill empty office space with bars and restaurants

Let bars and restaurants occupy empty office space. I’m inspired by Japan where a whole six-story building can have dining and drinking establishments scattered across every floor. For example, there could be little one-room bars with one owner and employee, a very niche theme that will appeal to a small number of dedicated people, and seating for 10 people max, requiring reservations. This would allow many small entrepreneurs opportunities they would not have otherwise, and they would not have to cater to the lowest common denominator. It’s similar to the food truck concept.

Zoning codes might need to change to allow this, but other barriers often exist such as minimum floor area per establishment, availability of off-street parking, and the difficulty of getting liquor licenses. These barriers should be eliminated.

John Minot, San Leandro, Calif.

How to revive D.C.’s downtown? 4 teens weigh in. | Opinion
The Editorial Board asked teenagers what they would do to revamp D.C.'s downtown. (Video: Shih-Wei Chou/The Washington Post)

3. Make downtown safe — and child-friendly

A child plays in a bubble fountain before outdoor movie night at Alethia Tanner Park in D.C. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

There’s a long list of what cities need to bring people back downtown.

  1. Safety
  2. Lots of green space with ponds, fountains, and indoor atriums with gardens.
  3. Child-friendly areas.
  4. Affordable living.
  5. Accessibility to medical services.
  6. Aesthetically pleasing buildings.
  7. Few tall buildings.
  8. Family-friendly amusement areas such as water parks, skating rinks, good public swimming pools, arts and crafts areas, nice libraries, and public art.
  9. Easy, affordable transportation, including lots of bike paths.
  10. Lots of light-fare gathering spots with cafe-style seating.
  11. Easy access for tourists and suburban people to visit.

Pamela Michaels, Smithsburg, Md.

4. Raise property taxes for homes worth over $1 million

When CEOs look to relocate their companies, they look for cities with low taxes, a strong public school system, low crime, affordable neighborhoods, and a pro-business environment. D.C. has none of the above right now. There is an opportunity — and a need — to do something bold to attract residents back to D.C. My proposal is to shift a portion of the tax burden from personal income taxes to residential property taxes and general sales taxes.

The current D.C. tax rate is 10.75 percent for top earners and 8.25 percent for corporations, ranking 48th in the nation in the Tax Foundation’s 2023 State Business Tax Climate Index. D.C. is driving the highest taxpayers out of the city to nearby Northern Virginia. The city should increase the residential property tax rate from 0.85 percent to 1.11 percent. Properties valued under $1 million would be fully protected from the increase. I also propose increasing the tax rate on multifamily properties, which are currently assessed as residential properties. Tax them as commercial buildings, which they are. Next, increase the general sales tax rate from 6 percent to 7 percent. These changes would enable the city to bring in sufficient revenue to meet its needs while allowing a reduction in the individual income tax. Critics will claim this is merely a handout to the rich, which is wrong. My plan merely transfers the tax burden from all income taxpaying residents to those who own expensive homes.

I grew up in D.C. I want it to succeed, but we have to do more than build more apartments downtown. Lowering income taxes is a way to get people back into D.C.

Paul C. Dougherty, D.C.

The writer is president and founder of PRP Real Estate Investment Management.

5. Bring colleges downtown and create an arts district

Add walkable outdoor amenities for vibrancy: dog parks, skate parks, cafe seating, farmers markets, and music venues (indoor and outdoor). Target a neighborhood and build out from there. If amenities are spread too thin, it doesn’t achieve the goal. Moving colleges downtown would also help restore vibrancy. The arts district where I live in Portland, Maine, has 10 music venues of all sizes within a 10-minute walk. It draws people to restaurants and hotels outside the more touristy Old Port neighborhood.

Kirsten Springer, Portland, Maine

6. Look at examples around the world

The rejuvenated inner city of Christchurch on Feb. 17, 2021. (Marty Melville/AFP/Getty Images)

Christchurch, New Zealand, is a good model for other cities around the world. Christchurch brought people back through parks, foot transport, and more apartments.

Geoff Canham, Tauranga, New Zealand

7. Prioritize parks and pedestrians. Golf carts are preferable to cars.

Eliminate cars. Put parking garages around the edge of the city and provide communal electric golf-cart-style vehicles and bike sharing inside the city. Put in lots of parks and pedestrian accommodations, and implement mixed zoning everywhere so people can live, work and shop within walking distance.

Tom Horsley, Delray Beach, Fla.

8. People want green space and pop-up markets

As someone who grew up in a small town (Dahlonega, Ga.) and lived in many different cities of all sizes (New York, Atlanta, Alpharetta, Ga.), I think that two things that help all downtowns remain strong are plenty of green space and open recreation space. This means parks, sidewalks, lawns, benches, and a touch of nice landscaping and outdoor artwork. Shops, dining, and attractions alone aren’t enough to keep people coming downtown and sticking around. Sometimes something as simple as closing off a road that’s immediately in front of the heart of a downtown shopping and dining area is enough to generate significant benefits. We’ve seen that in Spartanburg, S.C., also, downtowns need ample parking.

Andrew Wilson, Spartanburg, S.C.

9. Close streets on weekends for cafes, markets, and events

Pedestrians walk down a street closed to traffic Aug. 21, 2022, in D.C. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

We need to turn American downtowns inside out. We need more sidewalk cafes and street closures for pedestrians on weekends. Encourage buildings to face outward, not inward like malls. It creates a sense of energy that becomes magnetic and draws people to the core of the city. The rest will follow. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Look to Paris and Rome. We need to invest in our public works to create attractive magnets to the city core. Huge fountains and an American version of Madrid’s Plaza Mayor. Think about fresh food markets and entertainment instead of Mcdonald's and KFC. Show the citizens what is possible. Hold urban planning contests for the best ideas and get out of the way.

Bob Chapman, D.C.

10. Don’t forget older citizens. They want mixed-use living, too

Accommodate older citizens with safe, walkable streets, easy transportation, and senior activity centers. Don’t be automobile-centric. We need intergenerational mixed-use developments for living and working. San Antonio has been heroic in this respect after insightful leadership. Downtown residential projects are booming, including mixed-use developments such as the Pearl, a former brewery that’s now a public space.

Robert Ferre, San Antonio

11. It’s time for cities to levy congestion charges

Pedestrians in downtown Toronto on June 17, 2022. (Christopher Katsarov Luna/Bloomberg)

Plan and redesign downtowns around non-car users and make them enjoyable places to be with much more green space and pedestrian amenities. Vehicles and their drivers have a near-monopoly on space and cause noise, pollution, injury, and death. Charge for the privilege of taking up space and fouling the air for everyone else. Congestion charges and much steeper parking rates need to be introduced. This will pay for better public transit and the rapid expansion of pedestrian space and bike lanes. Look at Montreal where entire streets are given over to pedestrians from spring to fall. Traffic signaling is centered on pedestrian safety, not vehicle convenience, and there are separate bike lanes. Paris is also at the forefront of taking space from cars to improve mobility, safety, and enjoyment for everyone else.

Tom Ponessa, Toronto

The writer is the director of Canada’s Green Building Festival.

12. Encourage street performers

Stop adding so many bike lanes. I see it every day where more people ride their bikes in the regular lane than they do in the bike lane. I would also add street performance spaces because I believe the people that show off their talents on the streets are a big part of why D.C. is so lively. A dog park or water park would be cool, too.

Lyndze Jenkins, D.C.

13. Turn parking lots into parks

Make cities safe, yet lively and interesting, by reducing cars and traffic. Pay or encourage street performers. Cities need life, not cars and office buildings. Amsterdam and Paris are good models. Yes, the United States can institute similar policies by eliminating many of the parking spaces and lots that ruin downtowns. Cities can disincentivize driving through higher parking rates. Turn parking lots into parks.

Scott Gray, Portland, Ore.

14. Let’s get creative with big events and better PR

A ferryboat departs as Seattle's 175-foot Great Wheel and the Port of Seattle are seen on the waterfront on March 11, 2022. (John Moore/Getty Images)

City governments should sponsor a promotional campaign to encourage both residents and visitors to visit the city center. The campaign needs to give reasons to visit downtown and look forward to doing so. Such events could include free family activities (i.e. block parties, exercise classes, dance lessons or parties, concerts featuring local artists, and fun competitions with prizes). Seattle has consistently kept residents and visitors informed of how its waterfront is being renovated and about the new facilities, features, and amenities that are available for people as the renovation progresses. The city government has an official website to inform people of the progress that has been made. Information is distributed via email distribution lists and local news.

Tosin Arasi, Seattle

15. Bring back the nightlife

Downtown seems very dead at night. I would like to have more reasons to go downtown, especially at night. We should encourage more restaurants, bars, performance spaces, etc., to open in what are now empty office buildings. I don’t think we need more pedestrian walkways or bike lanes.

Nicholas Gionis, D.C.

Post a Comment

Previous Post Next Post