While downtowns are inherently attractive to many demographics, the existing infrastructure may not accommodate the needs of all age groups. Downtowns offer unique architecture and affordable spaces that are well suited to all types of uses, but properties that have not been well-maintained or recently renovated require both inspiration and capital to translate existing spaces into move-in-ready apartments and retail storefronts. Not only are these projects potentially costlier than opening in a newer white-box space, they also require more know-how, since building code and occupancy changes inject significant variability into the process.
Communities can facilitate locally driven renovation of downtown projects in several ways, including both technical and financial assistance. Many options exist for support of residential options downtown, such as Historic Preservation Tax Credits for renovation of existing spaces, new Opportunity Zone Tax Credits or various locally initiated programs, or through the development of new infill senior, affordable or market-rate units that are cropping up in communities of all sizes. For existing buildings, identifying a municipal staffer to serve as a liaison for renovation projects can reduce cost and risk, removing a common source of frustration. Similarly, more than 40 percent of property owners who undertook a renovation project relied on one or more local financing programs to facilitate the project in the short term, making municipal lending an effective tool for promoting investment.
Downtowns also include ample public spaces within their boundaries. Municipal parks and downtown infrastructure designed for daytime-oriented employment districts or staid civic ceremonies, or under building codes that predate the Americans with Disabilities Act, may lack sought-after elements for today’s demographics and/or pose an actual physical barrier for seniors with limited mobility or younger families with small children or strollers in tow. While it can be prohibitive (physically or in terms of cost) to address infrastructure limitations, making small changes, like increasing walk timing or adding benches to allow for rest, can have significant positive impacts. The 8-80 Cities initiative highlights various strategies and success stories from communities that have actively created spaces where young and old people alike feel welcome and comfortable. Suggestions include assessing the physical environment to accommodate walking, biking, rest and recreation by all age groups, as well as more specific planning for parks and streets that connect and engage.
Downtown renovations always incorporate significant unknown elements.