The keys to creating a vibrant downtown include trees, transportation


For the seventh year in a row, Nashville’s downtown residents cited the “urban experience” as the primary draw for living downtown. Many cities, like Louisville, are trying to hone in on that experience as they work to revitalize their downtowns.

The Nashville Downtown Partnership organization hasn’t really defined “urban experience,” but it’s been on its annual survey for several years, according to Andrea Champion, its communications director.

“I think it’s just that people like to be in the thick of things, being able to walk everywhere,” Champion said.

“Urban experience” outpaced “central location/convenience,” “nightlife,” being “close to work” and “arts and cultural events” in the survey.

The report asserts that baby boomers and millennials, the two age groups most likely to live downtown, are looking for cities that offer jobs, affordable housing options, walkability, and desired amenities such as alternative modes of transportation.

Survey respondents said they’d most like to see more grocery store options, chef-owned local restaurants, movie theaters and clothing stores.

For cities looking to revitalize their downtowns, a Brookings Institution report presents a 12-step plan, including developing a strategic plan and public-private partnerships. It calls for creating an urban entertainment district, including arenas, restaurants, specialty retail and festivals; building a rental housing market; and later, creating “for sale housing.

“Having an established for-sale housing market is the ultimate test of whether the downtown has achieved critical mass,” the report states.

While Louisville hasn’t always kept up with a growing rental market, there are plans recently announced for a $48 million, seven-story apartment building near Slugger Field, and the second phase of apartments are nearly done at RiverPark Place.

That leaves the planned 16-story condo tower at RiverPark Place among the few luxury high-rise developments in the works.

John Gilderbloom, director of the University of Louisville’s Center for Sustainable Urban Neighborhoods, predicts the RiverPark Place project will be “a huge success.”

“What they need is more walkability – to more businesses down there,” he said.

According to his team’s analysis, investment in the project will create 1,549 jobs – directly and indirectly related to the project – over one year, with 155 permanent jobs created through operation of the building as well as commercial activities such as the restaurant and other nearby businesses.

Louisville presents a difficult environment to gain funding and develop projects downtown, says Gilderbloom, who says he’s worked as a consultant for companies that have decided to focus on cities such as Cincinnati and Indianapolis instead.

Site_View_East_Elev-650In his “Ten Commandments of Green Planning,” Gilderbloom cites factors that Louisville and other cities can play up to make downtown more appealing, such as restoring the tree canopy and promoting walkability, bicycling and other alternate modes of transportation such as light rail.

“If you look at the 10 cities with the best public transportation, they’re also the hottest real-estate markets,” he says.

While he praises the mayor’s bike lane initiative, he goes on a rant against one-way streets as a hindrance to creating attractive neighborhoods. (Actually, it’s not his only rant: He also claims the city relies on outside planners rather than consulting its own academic experts right down the street.)

“There’s a lot of conflict here between old-school suburban thinking, which is, ‘Let’s get people out of the city as fast as possible versus the new green look,’” he says. “Market Street and Main Street just feel like freeway on-ramps … Nobody wants to build on a fast street. … One-way streets are designed to get you out of downtown and into the suburbs.”

A multi-year U of L study of two downtown Louisville streets — Brook and First — that were converted to two-way streets in 2011 found fewer accidents, increased property values, and reduced crime.

As for planting more trees, he says, “We know that when there’s lots of tree canopy, people are happier, home values are stronger.

“One great asset Louisville has is its historic properties. Just the fact that people are organizing [to preserve them] is a great thing,” he says. The most viable, appealing places have strong community groups advocating for them.