Saturday, March 18, 2006

Learning about a great downtown

Learning about a great downtown

Gary Ferguson
Ithaca Journal stories/20041013/opinion/1403201.html


What makes an outstanding downtown? What can we Ithacans learn from other successful downtowns that might help us build a stronger, more vibrant center?

The Ithaca Downtown Partnership has launched an ongoing initiative to study best practices from communities regarded as possessing outstanding downtown centers.

We will be inviting representatives from some of these select communities to visit Ithaca. They will share their stories with us. Sponsored by our "Friends of Downtown" program, the first of these stories will be presented tonight, when Teresa Sparacino of State College, Pa., visits Ithaca.

Sparacino is executive director of the State College Downtown Improvement District, regarded by many to be the best small-city downtown in Pennsylvania.

The Friends of Downtown program will also sponsor future sessions. Plans call for bringing to Ithaca experts from such cities as Boulder, Colo., Burlington, Vt., and Manayunk, Pa. to describe their programs and discuss their plans and challenges. The public is invited to participate in these presentations to the fullest extent possible.

As we begin this series on great downtowns, let me offer my own short list of top five attributes that may contribute to creating and sustaining outstanding downtowns.

First, downtowns should be memorable places. Quite often, this is simply not the case. The Third Street pedestrian mall in Santa Monica, Calif. is one such place. I vividly recall the seemingly non-stop music from street performers throughout the mall, even on a Sunday evening. I also recall the large topiary statues of dinosaurs located at the entrances to the pedestrian mall, post-card quality symbols of their downtown.

Second, downtowns should have pedestrian orientations. They should be places where you would want to leave your automobile and explore on foot. The unique, one-of-a-kind artistic benches of downtown Chattanooga, Tenn. need to be experienced as a pedestrian, not as a motorist.

Third, great downtowns stimulate our many senses. They offer a collection of colors, shapes and designs to engage our sight. They offer up sounds and smells that captivate.

Fourth, great downtowns have a number of contiguous traffic generators -- attractions that lure and entice visitors. These attractions act as magnets drawing people into the downtown experience.

Attractions can be wide and varied, ranging from retail businesses, to eating and drinking establishments, to museums, cultural institutions and entertainment venues.

The more attractions and the greater their proximity to each other, the more dynamic the downtown. Contiguity is key. Unless traffic generators are close together, they lose much of their attractive powers.

Fifth, great downtowns tend to be dense, multi-functional areas. Density provides a critical mass of activity and life. It also encourages multi-functionality, where many different uses occur simultaneously. Dense, mixed-use areas exude a different aura than single-purpose areas. This is the difference between a truly great urban place and a shopping mall or office park.

As we listen, share and learn from other communities, we will be able to verify and hopefully add to initial list of attributes of outstanding downtowns. Our goal is to examine "best practices" from around the country and apply their lessons here in Ithaca.

The first session will be held from 7:30-9 p.m. tonight at the downtown Holiday Inn at 222
. Cayuga St.

Sparacino will provide an overview of downtown State College along with a discussion of the plans and projects they are undertaking to ensure that they remain a strong and vibrant center.

Among these projects are a downtown multiplex cinema and market-rate housing. I encourage the public to learn with us by attending these Friends of Downtown "Outstanding Cities" presentations.

Ferguson is director of the Ithaca Downtown Partnership.