A Successful Downtown District: Develop your Central SOCIAL District

Posted · Add Comment

You may be aware of your Central Business District, but how is your community’s Central Social District faring?

As malls are dying and people are increasingly digitally connected, downtown social districts are resurrecting some of the needs previously addressed by the town square and vibrant town centers decades and centuries ago.

In a webinar for the American Planning Association, downtown revitalization specialist N. David Milder, and planner Andrew Dane described the variables contributing to the need for a Central Social District, as well as those that contribute to its success.

The internet is firmly established as both an option for researching and purchasing goods, and this, combined with a shift in consumer spending away from wants to needs  due to the great recession, has had a negative impact on downtown shopping.  Similarities can be seen with office spaces, with increased telecommuting and decreased square footage per employee.

Some data bode well for downtowns as Americans are now spending more money eating out than at home.  This signals support for restaurants and eateries such as food trucks, carts, and pop-up events.  Outdoor dining can be a draw for coming downtown and allows diners to people watch and passersby to watch them!

Milder provided 3 case studies of communities which invested in parks to revitalize their downtowns.  One, Mitchell Park in Greenport, NY on the east end of Long Island, invested $14.9 million through local government funds and grants to build a carousel, marina, and ice rink.  There is a good amount of both tourist and local traffic and the $1 million annual operating expenses is covered by user fees.  Other potential funding sources include private donations and Tax Increment Financing.

Last year I worked with two communities in northwest Michigan, each of which proudly boasted their original downtown movie theaters.  These can be a wonderful advantage when rainy weather interferes with tourists’ plans to enjoy the natural amenities for which they came.  Milder encourages communities to act quickly to support these important institutions as they are an affordable form of entertainment and drive traffic to other downtown businesses such as restaurants.  As watching movies at home on DVD or through the internet has reduced theater going, some movie theaters have expanded their offerings with live opera broadcasts from Lincoln Center and special hours for mothers with small children.  Unlike many other entertainment venues with more limited operating hours, movie theaters are open day and night, weekdays and evenings. 

While formal entertainment venues such as performing arts centers can be a major regional attraction, they cost significantly more to operate than informal venues, such as parks (in some locations nearly 50 times more).  Parks can be great sources for people watching which is the ideal low-hanging fruit of informal entertainment.  Festivals and pop-up boutiques can also be offered in parks.  A former outdoor smoker’s lounge in downtown Appleton, WI was converted to a parklet and became an informal entertainment venue activating downtown.

One existing asset Appleton has is the very successful Fox Cities Performing Arts Center.  Eighty-seven percent of its operating expenses are recouped from event fees.  As ninety percent of visitors come from within one hour away, Appleton has the potential for drawing additional visitors from out of the immediate area.  Municipalities must be aware that while successful performing arts centers can be valuable assets, when they are closed they are potentially pedestrian dead zones.

Milder adds “The Fox PAC in Appleton is very unique in its ability to cover such a high percentage of its operating costs from ticket sales. The average PAC only covers about 42% and needs to raise the rest from grants and donations. The same is true for most nonprofit theaters. Also, the audiences for many high culture activities — opera, ballet and symphonic orchestras has ebbed, often drastically.  And corporate funding for the arts has declined significantly. Consequently, PACS, which are also relatively expensive to build and operate, are often living hand to mouth.”

Planner Andrew Dane cited the key principles for a successful CSD:

  1. Focus on people
  2. Lighter, quicker, cheaper–sometimes  (pop-ups, tactical urbanism)
  3. Mix it up!  Mixed use, diverse programming

Milder and Dane shared key steps for creating a successful CSD:

  1. What existing + potential strengths you can leverage?
  2. What short-term steps can you take?  For example, loosening codes to allow for outdoor eating.
  3. What long-term additions are possible for your community?
  4. What challenges will you need to overcome? 
  5. What innovative strategies can you implement?  such as public: private partnerships

To follow up with either David or Andrew:

David Milder





Andrew Dane





NEXT POST:  The features of Bryant Park of New York City