Downtown Revitalization for Almost Free

The last five to six years have been peculiar for American downtowns. Continued evidence shows that developers, local governments, businesses, and the public have rediscovered downtowns as places to shop, work, experience culture, and live. At the same time, public revitalization efforts are becoming more difficult due to the slow pace of the economic recovery and government budget cuts. California downtowns have been particularly hard hit due to the State government’s 2012 termination of local redevelopment agencies.

The current challenge for local governments and organizations working in downtowns is to provide meaningful benefits with limited financial resources. With this in mind, California Main Street Alliance Executive Director Laura Cole-Rowe and I prepared a session at the 2012 American Planning Association, California Chapter Conference called “Downtown Revitalization for Almost Free” that discussed economical planning, design, regulatory, and financial tools for a variety of downtowns.

I outlined three main strategies to make planning and implementation efforts efficient and effective in the current economic climate:

  1. Developing community ownership for the downtown vision.  Local businesses, local institutions, and members of the public will be more likely to help implement the downtown vision when they feel ownership of the vision.  Leaders can develop community ownership through early and multi-pronged outreach (such as discussions with community organizations, newspaper articles, and web-based surveys), collaboration with a variety of groups and institutions, and the development of graphic, easy-to-understand documents.  A good recent example is the Downtown Fort Bragg (CA) vision poster.  Continuing community involvement through implementation can help sustain momentum for revitalization efforts (Roberts 2006).
  2. Making it easy for the private and public sectors to fulfill the vision.  One of the primary purposes of public downtown revitalization efforts is to stimulate private investment, so the planning and implementation process should pursue actions such as simplifying the processing of desired projects, identifying vacant and underutilized sites, and providing incentives to developers and businesses that provide amenities.  Local governments can work with public and private institutions to identify joint projects.  The City of Angels, California partnered with the non-profit Destination Angels Camp to installed pole banners, free public Wi-Fi service, and bicycle racks in Downtown Angels Camp.
  3. Creating a detailed implementation program. An implementation program breaks strategies into small steps and identifies the scope, cost, responsible party, timing, and, most importantly, priority for each item. The implementation program should determine how different strategies can complement each other and where there is opportunity for coordination. Unified downtown marketing efforts such as those in Downtown Alhambra (CA) are a prime example of where the resources of different businesses can be combined for greater efficiency and effectiveness.

Banner in Downtown Angels Camp (CA)

Banner in Downtown Angels Camp (CA)

Continued budget battles at the federal and state level mean that government officials and community and business organizations will need to be more innovative in their approach to improving downtowns. Future entries will highlight how frugal downtown revitalization techniques work in different communities.


Roberts, Michael Blake. 2006. Making the Vision Concrete: Implementation of Downtown Revitalization Plans (Dissertation). University of California, Irvine.

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