Types of Downtowns

In my last entry (What is a Downtown?: Changing Definitions for Changing Times), I included my definition of downtowns, which attempted to draw out the similarities between traditional and non-traditional downtowns of different shapes and sizes. While developing a single definition of a downtown provides a way to distinguish downtowns from other commercial areas, identifying the types of downtowns assists government officials and business groups in determining comparable downtowns and best practices for downtown planning. Since the word “downtown” may be applied to a major city’s central business district and a tiny rural crossroads, observers should be careful when comparing them.

Frequently, downtowns are divided up by the size of the city or the metropolitan area. This method is reasonable since city and metropolitan area population is easily determined through U.S. Census Bureau figures, but ignores two aspects of downtowns: (1) the size of the “community” the downtown serves, which may or may not align with the city limits or Census Bureau Metropolitan Statistical Area boundaries; and (2) property ownership within the downtown, which tends to differentiate traditional from non-traditional downtowns. The following provides a classification of downtowns based on the community served by the downtown and the property ownership patterns:

  • Regional downtowns:  Regional downtowns, such as Downtown Los Angeles and Downtown Reno (NV), serve and represent a region as a whole. Typically, regions have only one or possibly two primary regional downtowns. These downtowns typically have the region’s principal financial, government, and cultural uses and uses with national and global significance. Most regional downtowns lack the strong retail core they had in decades past, though there are notable exceptions (including Portland, San Diego, San Francisco, and Seattle). Large regional downtowns have historically had a relatively small residential population due to high property values, but they have recently become more popular residential areas for singles, couples with no children, and retirees. Restaurants are popular because of the daytime (and growing nighttime) population.
  • City downtowns:  City downtowns such as Downtown Davis (CA) (outside of Sacramento) occupy the wide geographical gap between regional downtowns and rural downtowns (described below). City downtowns serve a community that is primarily developed and typically have local financial, civic, cultural, and retail uses. Property values are not usually as high as in regional downtowns, so they often have multi-family and single-family residential uses within or adjacent to the downtown.
Downtown Davis (CA), a city downtown, serves the City of Davis and surrounding area and contains a mix of local financial, civic, cultural, retail, and residential uses

Downtown Davis (CA), a city downtown, serves the City of Davis and surrounding area and contains a mix of local financial, civic, cultural, retail, and residential uses

  • Rural downtowns:  Rural downtowns serve a mix of developed and undeveloped areas. Rural areas devote less space to commercial, industrial, and residential uses than in urban areas; consequently, rural downtowns have a greater variety of uses (for example, an automotive parts store may be in the rural center) and tend to strongly reflect the dominant local industry(ies), whether agricultural, fishing, forestry, government, health care, manufacturing, mining, or tourism. An example would be the Town of Yountville, which serves the predominantly agricultural and tourist economies in the Napa Valley, or City of Patterson, the “Apricot Capital of the World” in California’s Central Valley.
  • Neighborhood downtowns:  Neighborhood downtowns such as Downtown La Jolla in the City of San Diego are smaller commercial areas that serve a neighborhood within a larger city. Depending on their size, they may include a range of retail, services, and offices or only a few businesses. Neighborhood downtowns tend to strongly reflect the personality of their respective neighborhoods, particularly ethnic, class, cultural, and economic characteristics.
  • Non-traditional downtowns:  Traditional downtowns have historically developed on many small private parcels built by many developers with public streets, plazas, and parks. By contrast, non-traditional downtowns tend to develop on a few large private parcels, are planned, designed, and built largely by a single private developer or a few private developers, and often include private streets and spaces. The difference between traditional and non-traditional downtowns reflects the transformation in development patterns between the first and last halves of the 20th century. The Las Vegas Strip, a 4.5-mile-long string of large resorts and smaller businesses, has the characteristics of a downtown, including compact form, higher densities, a growing variety of uses (though offices tend to stay off of the Strip), and reliance on multiple transportation modes. Examples of non-traditional downtowns include Santana Row in San José (CA) and Downtown Brea (CA). Downtown Brea was built on the site of the City of Brea’s traditional downtown. Developers have the space to build self-contained districts, so non-traditional downtowns tend to lack interaction with adjoining properties. I do not consider development projects such as The Grove in Los Angeles and Victoria Gardens in Rancho Cucamonga (CA) to be non-traditional downtowns. They mimic the appearance and function of a traditional downtown, but lack a mix of uses and do not fully incorporate multiple transportation modes.
The Las Vegas Strip, a non-traditional downtown, has the characteristics of a downtown using large private parcels

The Las Vegas Strip, a non-traditional downtown, has the characteristics of a downtown using large private parcels

Many downtowns are a blend of different types.  California’s Central Valley includes a few regional downtowns – Sacramento, Stockton, Fresno, and Bakersfield – and a string of smaller downtowns that include elements of both regional and city downtowns.  In many areas redevelopment in traditional downtowns has led to the creation of large private parcels, which allow a single developer or agency to plan and build a non-traditional downtown.

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