Downtowns: Malls with Ownership Problems
Someone once told me that downtowns are just malls with ownership problems. Our downtowns are often seen as the heart of a city, offering a vibrant mix of shops, restaurants, historic buildings and cultural attractions. However, downtowns continue to face increasing competition from malls and shopping centers. While usually characterless, these suburban developments offer a wider range of stores, more parking, and often lower prices. As a result, many downtown businesses have closed, leaving many downtowns struggling to survive and finding it difficult to attract similar businesses. This has resulted in downtowns where when there is low vacancy, the ground floor real estate is occupied by non-traditional downtown businesses (such as clinics, real estate offices, and service providers) that do not create a sense of activity and safety.
One of the biggest challenges facing downtowns is the ownership problem. Unlike malls and shopping centers which are typically owned by a single entity which can curate and market the entire destination, downtowns are often made up of a patchwork of privately owned properties. This makes it difficult for downtowns to coordinate development and attract new complementary businesses. In addition, downtowns often have a higher cost of doing business than malls and shopping centers, due to factors such as higher rents, infrastructure and taxes.
Despite these challenges, downtowns offer a number of advantages over malls and shopping centers. Downtowns are typically more walkable and transit-friendly, making them more convenient for shoppers. They also tend to have a more diverse mix of businesses, offering a wider range of shopping and dining options including many local-flavor businesses and entrepreneurs. In addition, downtowns are often seen as more vibrant and interesting places with character.
In order to compete with malls and shopping centers, downtowns need to coordinate and make it easier for businesses to operate. They need to focus on creating a more vibrant and attractive environment. This includes investing in public spaces, improving walkability, and attracting a mix of businesses that will appeal to a wide range of people, especially Third Places.
Downtowns can be the best development type for quality of life and a great place. However, they need to play offense to overcome their competitive disadvantage against malls and shopping centers in order to thrive and be great places once again.
Here are some specific ways that downtowns can address their ownership problems:
- Create a downtown development authority or similar entity that can coordinate development and attract new businesses.
- Offer tax breaks and other incentives to businesses that locate in downtown.
- Work with property owners to improve the appearance of downtown and make it more inviting to shoppers.
Here are some specific ways that downtowns can create a more vibrant and attractive environment:
- Invest in public spaces, such as parks, plazas, and sidewalks.
- Improve walkability by making it easier for people to get around without a car.
- Attract a mix of businesses that will appeal to a wide range of people, including restaurants, shops, cultural attractions, and office space.
By addressing their ownership problems and creating a more vibrant and attractive environment, downtowns can compete with malls and shopping centers and thrive.