By Brent Zeigler, AIA, IIDA, Dyer Brown
Urban-revitalization success stories can be inspiring to those who love great cities, especially when the unique character of a neighborhood or district is preserved and even celebrated. Cincinnati provides a perfect example. In recent years the city’s Over-the-Rhine section countered a decades-long decline into crime and urban decay. Development efforts reconnected the area to the neighboring business district, which encouraged new economic activity. Simultaneously, community and city leaders stressed social and cultural diversity and preservation of iconic buildings and Victorian-style row houses. The result is a resurgent Over-the-Rhine that makes “hot spot” lists in real estate and lifestyle journals, and a neighborhood believed to be one of the largest urban historic districts to remain predominantly intact—almost 1,000 notable buildings on more than 3,600 acres.
Learn more about developing successful urban-revitalization projects in our interview with Brent Zeigler.
This one example does not mean all revitalization projects will be successful. However, in our experiences with several Boston neighborhoods, these four factors played a major role in project success:
• Start with good bones. To ensure a broad appeal for commercial and residential uses, the location needs to have good bones, i.e., fundamentals that sustain a vibrant community. Parks are one such essential, as are transit options and K-12 schools. Having a solid, existing building stock helps, too, especially if the buildings help define the local character. Less essential—but certainly helpful—are cultural spaces such as theaters, churches, symphony halls, and/or community centers.
• Promote density. Residents and community organizations looking to re-energize their urban neighborhood often resist attempts to increase population density. This misses the point—economic development goes where the people are. Communities and interested developers can work with architects, preservationists, and other experts to determine avenues to sensible adaptation of the existing building stock and context-sensitive new construction.
• Make a Main Street. Residential communities and developers will find the notion of a new retail zone enticing. There are proven ways to create a Main Street-feel while reducing the risk of empty storefronts just a few years down the road. An important consideration is adjacency to those same good bones. The key is to build near existing transit hubs, parks, churches, schools, markets, and cultural facilities that already attract visitors. For example, the recently opened Tapestry restaurant, in Boston’s Fenway neighborhood, includes a street-front outdoor seating area that leverages nearby attractions and transit offerings. Any new developments should avoid relying on retail and restaurants to sustain new economic activity, however. Cities also need new commercial, professional, and healthcare office space to make Main Streets hum with activity.
• Offer a warm welcome. To encourage new and return visits, sidewalks and street-facing buildings should be well illuminated and provide visibility to interior spaces. The idea is to create a space for foot traffic that is welcoming and safe, promoting a sense of connection to the businesses inside. Our recent redesign of the 116 Huntington Ave. building in Boston introduced inviting and visible retail spaces, a well-lit and appealing pedestrian arcade, and a 25-ft. glass façade offering unimpeded views of a redesigned lobby. The result has transformed this stretch of Huntington Avenue by making the block more inviting to pedestrians and retailers.
Of course, all cities and neighborhoods are different, and have their own challenges. But these elements will help pave the way to successful revitalization projects.
Brent D. Zeigler, AIA, IIDA, is president and director of design for architecture and interior design firm Dyer Brown, Boston. An active member of the Boston Society of Architects, Zeigler’s experience includes the design of a broad range of hospitality, retail, office, restaurant, residential, and mixed-use spaces.