Downtown turnaround? In these places, yes.

Downtown Minneapolis (Photo: Dan Anderson)

For decades, “going downtown” meant something special – probably from its very first use as a term to describe the lower tip of Manhattan, which was then New York City’s heart of business, commercial and residential life.

Downtown was literally “where it was at” – jobs, shopping, cultural attractions and all.

But then, beginning in post-World War II America, many downtowns lost their luster, as people were drawn to the suburbs thanks to cheap land and easy means to traveling to and fro.

In some places, downtowns and the areas immediately adjoining them became places of high crime, industrial decay, shopworn appearances and various socio-economic pathologies.

Things hit rock bottom in the late 1970s, as personified by the Times Square area of New York City. But since then, many downtowns have slowly come back from those near-death experiences, spurred by new types of residents with new and different priorities.

Dan Cort, author of the book Downtown Turnaround, describes it this way:  “People – young ones especially – love historical buildings that reintroduce them to the past.  They want to live where they can walk out of the house, work out, go to a café, and still walk to work.”

There are a number of cities where the downtown areas have come back in the big way over the past several decades. Everyone knows which ones they are:  New York, Seattle, San Francisco, Minneapolis …

But what about the latest success stories? Which downtowns are those?

Recently, Realtor.com analyzed the 200 largest cities in the United States to determine which ones have the made the biggest turnaround since 2012. To determine the biggest successes, it studied the following factors:

  • Downtown residential population growth
  • Growth in the number of restaurants, bars, grocery stores and food trucks per capita
  • Growth in the number of independent realtors per capita
  • Growth in the number of jobs per capita
  • Home price appreciation since 2012 (limited to cities where the 2012 median home price was $400,000 or lower)
  • Price premium of purchasing a home in the downtown district compared with the median home price of the whole city
  • Residential and commercial vacancy rates

Based on these criteria, Realtor.com’s list of the Top 10 cities where downtown is making a comeback are these:

  • #1 Pittsburgh, PA
  • #2 Indianapolis, IN
  • #3 Oakland, CA
  • #4 Detroit, MI
  • #5 Columbus, OH
  • #6 Austin, TX
  • #7 Los Angeles, CA
  • #8 Dallas, TX
  • #9 Chicago, IL
  • #10 Providence, RI

Some of these may surprise you. But it’s interesting to see some of the stats that are behind the rankings.  For instance, look at what’s happened to median home prices in some of these downtown districts since 2012:

  • Detroit: +150%
  • Oakland: +111%
  • Los Angeles: +63%
  • Pittsburgh: +31%

And residential population growth has been particularly strong here:

  • Pittsburgh: +32%
  • Austin: +25%
  • Dallas: +25%
  • Chicago: +21%

In the coming years, it will be interesting to see if the downtown revitalization trend continues – and spreads to more large cities.

And what about America’s medium-sized cities, where downtown zones continue to struggle. If you’ve been to Midwestern cities like Kokomo, IN, Flint, MI or Lima, OH, those downtowns look particularly bleak.  Can the sort of revitalization we see in the major urban centers be replicated there?

I have my doubts … but what is your opinion? Feel free to share your thoughts below.

It’s Official: Older Cities Take a Beating in the Latest U.S. Census

Abandoned housing stock in Flint, MI
2009 street scene in Flint, Michigan.

While there’s been evidence of significant shifts in U.S. population growth over the past decade, the decennial census performed earlier this year gives us an opportunity to learn precisely what’s been happening and end some of the “speculation.”

And now, with the U.S. Census Bureau releasing its preliminary population reports, we’re seeing how this has played out in cities across the country. While it’s true that the American population has grown pretty steadily at about 2.5 million people per year, some areas have grown much faster than others as a result of being better positioned through the education of their workforce and/or their business- and technology-friendly environments.

Alas, other areas haven’t merely stagnated, but actually lost residents because of failing industries and unattractive business climates, sparking net out-migration of their residents.

Interestingly, many of the cities in the “industrial heartland” of America have managed to stay on the positive side of population growth – even if just barely. But some cities have experienced such hardship that their populations have dropped dramatically in the past decade.

New Orleans tops the list … and who’s surprised about that? After all, Hurricane Katrina effectively robbed the city of one-third of its residents – with most of them electing not to return after establishing new livelihoods in Houston, Shreveport, and other localities further yon.

But New Orleans surely represents a “special case” if ever there was one. Other cities have suffered greatly due to their dependence on industries that took a beating over the past decade. And really, any city with a major focus on traditional manufacturing saw thousands of jobs disappear.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Census report on the nation’s largest cities — ones with 100,000+ population — the seven experiencing the biggest percentage declines in population over the past decade are:

1. New Orleans, LA – Dropped by ~129,000 to ~355,000 (-27%)
2. Flint, MI – Declined by ~13,000 to ~112,000 (-11%)
3. Cleveland, OH – Fell by ~45,000 to ~431,000 (-10%)
4. Buffalo, NY – Dropped by ~22,000 to ~270,000 (-8%)
5. Dayton, OH – Declined by ~12,000 to ~154,000 (-7%)
6. Pittsburgh, PA – Dropped by ~22,000 to ~312,000 (-7%)
7. Rochester, NY – Declined by ~12,000 to ~207,000 (-6%)

[I was a bit surprised to see Detroit missing from this list. After all, it’s the poster child for urban decay and depopulation. But Detroit’s population percentage decline was actually smaller than the cities above, and it remains the nation’s 11th largest city. However, the 2010 census will likely show that its population has fallen below 800,000 for the first time in nearly a century – and the figure is even more startling when you realize the city’s population was nearly 2 million as late as the 1950 census.]

Unfortunately, the negative implication of population declines in these proud American cities go far beyond the loss of social prestige and political clout.

Once decline sets in, it can go on for years. The loss of residents contributes to a drop in tax receipts and the subsequent curtailing of social services ranging from police and sanitation to schools and recreation. Home vacancy rates say volumes about the precarious position in which the cities above find themselves – they’re above 15% in every single case (and sometimes dramatically higher).

Confronted with such a reality, too often the result is more people fleeing the urban core, creating a continuing downward spiral that seemingly has no bottom. Representative examples of where this sorry state of affairs can end up can be found in two smaller but particularly grim urban communities: Camden, NJ and Chester, PA.

From the outside looking in, it’s difficult to accept these population reports … and it seems like people should step in and do something – anything – to arrest the decline.

And in the abstract, it’s only natural to feel that this is what should happen. But in the “real world,” who are going to be the ones to step up to the plate and expose themselves (and their families) to the harsh reality of urban pioneering?

Would I do it? Would you?

For most of us, the answer to that question falls into the “life’s too short” category.