Are American cities in trouble or are we focusing too much on the business core of cities?

Recent data suggests the biggest American cities are facing several issues, including population loss. I wonder if the bigger issue is too much focus on the business and downtown core:

They are all among the 20 largest metropolitan areas in the country. All of their populations were growing in 2011. And then, in 2021, they all shrank by a combined 900,000 people, according to an analysis of census data by the Brookings scholar William Frey. That’s an urban exodus nearly the size of two Wyomings.

The great metro shrinkage is part of a larger demographic story. Last year, the U.S. growth rate fell to a record low. The major drivers of population—migration and births—declined, while deaths soared in the pandemic. But America’s largest cities are getting the worst of this national trend. In the past three years, the net number of moves out of Manhattan has increased tenfold. In every urban county within the metros of New York City, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, immigration declined by at least 50 percent from 2018 to 2021. In downtown Detroit and Long Island, deaths actually exceeded births last year.

The great metro shrinkage also appears to be part of a broader cultural story: The rise of remote work has snipped the tether between home and office, allowing many white-collar workers to move out of high-cost cities. Nearly 5 million Americans have moved since 2020 because of remote-work opportunities, according to Adam Ozimek, the chief economist for the Economic Innovation Group, a think tank in Washington, D.C…

So what might this period of urban struggle look like? Just check out what’s happening now. Mass-transit ridership has collapsed from its pre-pandemic highs in New York, Boston, the Bay Area, and Washington, D.C. Although restaurant bookings and travel have bounced back almost entirely, office occupancy remains 50 percent below its 2019 levels. In San Francisco, vacant office space has nearly quadrupled since the pandemic to 18.7 million square feet. In New York, Mayor Eric Adams has practically begged white-collar workers to return to Midtown, even as those workers patronize businesses in more residential parts of the city, closer to where they live. America’s downtown areas support millions of jobs that can’t be made remote—in retail, construction, health care, and beyond. But for millions of white-collar workers, something important has changed: They don’t work “in” cities anymore. They work on the internet. The city is just where they go for fun.

The overall numbers are what they are. Yet, the emphasis in this piece and in others I have read are about a downtown core that COVID-19 weakened. What if American cities no longer need a dense downtown core in the same way? With more work from home, less demand for downtown office space and more interest in downtown residential space, and the ways cars and mass transit allow workers to live in different places from their workplaces, how much focus should be placed on struggling cores?

This could be a larger existential issue about American cities. In the 1990s, a group of scholars in Los Angeles wrote about a new Los Angeles School of urbanism built around the unique features of the LA region. This includes a decreased emphasis on a downtown core and more sprawl and fragmentation across the region. In contrast, Chicago and New York and many other American cities stand as the established alternative: an important business core in response to which all other city activity is oriented.

So is the problem really cities are in big trouble or that the model of an ultra-dense center with all that comes with it is breaking a bit? This could be a huge change for certain places – particularly parts of Manhattan, downtown San Francisco – but there would also be opportunities throughout cities if development and business and residential activity could be more spread out. Indeed, the picture attached to the story says a lot about this:

This picture is taken from the vantage point of a sizable property just south of Chicago’s Loop. Why is it not developed? If the core did not have to be as dense, could this significant property be better woven into the fabric of the city?

More broadly, observers can think about complete cities and complete regions in addition to changes or issues facing the downtown. If activity is moving elsewhere, what does this mean and how might it improve life elsewhere?

What suburbs want when they say they want a second downtown

After reading several recent stories about suburbs desiring or planning a second downtown, I wanted to summarize what exactly they mean by a “second downtown.” Here are a few of the patterns at work:

1. Downtown in this case tends to imply a sort of walkable, cozy, family-oriented place full of small businesses and eateries. There is an atmosphere invoked here that is the opposite of shopping malls surrounded by parking lots or mile after mile of strip malls. Still, since this is the second downtown and likely to be located some distance away from an original and/or historic downtown, this new downtown will not look like the old downtown.

2. This second downtown location is intended to be a center of commerce, and, perhaps more importantly, a second major center of revenue for the community. This goes beyond just property taxes as the suburb often desires sales tax revenue.

3. Simply creating a second downtown and all that implies is not easy. A typical formula is a sort of walkable outdoor shopping area where someone could park in one location and then walk among stores and other interesting places. A fuller vision might include mixed uses where new enterprises and new residences help create a kind of neighborhood synergy. A second downtown is often very intentionally planned though not easy to pull off.

4. The location of an intentional second downtown is less likely to be in the middle of a suburb – the suburb can often grow around an original downtown – and more likely to be located at the intersection of several major roads. This may be good for access and trying to divert heavy flows of traffic but it may not be conducive to promoting walkability and a more permeable membrane with nearby residential areas.

Perhaps the planned second downtown in a suburb can work but it is not an easy space to develop.

Strategies for renovating old downtown office buildings to compete with new towers

Pressure on office and residential space in Chicago’s Loop is coming from multiple angles, including the need for older buildings to adapt to modern office requirements:

Kamin said he expects more office buildings to find a second life as hotels or residential towers. “I don’t think there’s a successful path for some of these functionally obsolete buildings as offices,” Kamin said…

The high cost just to acquire a property presents relatively few opportunities for major overhauls, said developer Craig Golden of Blue Star Properties…

The venture took out a nearly $100 million construction loan in 2016, and converted the 20-story building into modern offices, branded as The National — a reference to the property’s 1907 opening as the home of Commercial National Bank.

The developers added the type of distinguishing feature that has helped properties thrive in recent years, creating the sprawling Revival Food Hall on the ground floor. The food hall brings in lunch crowds from throughout downtown, adding to the building’s vibrancy. Office tenants include co-working firm WeWork and the headquarters of Paper Source.

I have heard that it is often cheaper for companies to build a new big box store than to reuse and/or renovate one built by another company. Thus, problems with vacancies when companies close locations. Could the same be true for downtown office buildings – the cost of renovation is too high? I find this a little hard to believe given the difficult process that can ensue in order to construct a sizable building in a major city.

Similarly, the strategy of adding enticing dining options echoes what is happening with shopping malls expanding beyond retail to dining, residences, hotels, and a variety of entertainment establishments. The goal is to both promote multiple uses but also cross-traffic between organizations and business as people need to work, eat, enjoy life, and sleep.

Perhaps we will know there is really a problem when multiple older structures are torn down to make way for new buildings.

Not so fast: turning suburbs into cities

One way to revive America’s cities may be to adapt to increasing densities in Americans suburbs:

But this analysis also misses something important. These trends don’t just represent people’s moving decisions — they also represent changes in the places themselves. If enough people move to a low-density area, it becomes a high-density area.

People are pouring into Dallas and San Diego. So unless those cities continue to sprawl ever farther out across the countryside, the new arrivals will increase density. People will want to live close to their jobs instead of enduring hour-long commutes. Apartment blocks will spring up where once-empty fields or single-family homes stood. Today’s fast-growing suburb is tomorrow’s urban area.

In other words, the great urban revival might not be ending, it might just be relocating. Instead of piling into existing cores, Americans might simply be creating new ones across the country. And if each of these new cities creates the productivity advantages enjoyed by places like San Francisco and New York City, this could be a good thing for the economy.

This is an intriguing concept: some suburbs, because of their popularity, willingness to build taller structures, and population size, might become like cities. This has already happened to some degree in a number of suburbs across the country.

Yet, just because a location has a certain number of people or reaches certain population densities does not necessarily mean that it feels or operates like a city. We also already have some denser urban areas – see the Los Angeles suburbs which are pretty dense compared to many metropolitan areas – but that does not automatically make them cities or urban. What is required? Most American cities have: a core or multiple cores that are multi-use and include a good number of businesses or offices; a walkability that extends for a good distance (beyond just a suburban downtown or large shopping center) and mass transit options to extend beyond the core(s) – in other words, good options beyond operating a car; a vibrancy and diversity that could range from thriving economic activity to restaurants and bars to filled public spaces; and an identity among residents and others that the area is a city.

Imagine Naperville, Illinois really wanted to become a city. It starts approving dense residential and commercial projects throughout the community. (Just to note: the local government has rejected these in the past.) The population ticks upward past 200,000 or even 300,000. There are still some pockets of single-family homes and vestiges of small-town life. How long would it take for the conditions of a city as discussed above arise? How would the community adapt to having so many businesses along I-88 rather than downtown? Would this limit the number of people who ride into Chicago on the Metra each day? (Naperville right now has the busiest stops in the whole system.) How would a city atmosphere develop? This all would take significant time and effort and perhaps decades before Naperville would be considered from both the inside and outside a city.

Chicago suburbs fight over new downtown development

New developments in suburban downtowns can bring praise and dissent as leaders and residents pursue different goals:

From northwest suburban Barrington to Clarendon Hills in DuPage County, a recent mini-boom in post-recession construction projects has sparked bitter battles over historic preservation and building heights and, in one case, a lawsuit by residents who claim a condominium project was illegally approved and would destroy their hometown’s quiet charms.

The stakes can be so high for community leaders that, in north suburban Highwood, officials have offered a local bocce club the chance to move into a new, $4 million facility in order to make way for a proposed five-story development. Yet where local leaders sometimes see a chance to revitalize aging commercial districts and bring in more tax revenue, existing residents and businesses often worry about what such changes will bring.

“It’s all a balancing act. How do you maintain the vibrancy of a downtown business district for the segment of the community that is clamoring for that, without destroying its history and everything that makes it a quaint village,” said Jason Lohmeyer, a recently elected Barrington village trustee…

Rachel Weber, an urban planning and policy associate professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said the conflicts that frequently erupt between pro- and anti-development factions pit residents fearful of any dramatic changes to their hometown against those who view new development as essential to a healthy local economy.

I have found similar stories in my own research on suburbs. Community leaders often want a vibrant downtown: it can bring in more tax revenue (increased sales taxes, more money through property taxes if the land is improved) and avoid a languishing or sleepy downtown (a black mark) while replacing it with a lively place that draws in visitors and boosts the community’s image. Improving the downtown might become particularly important as a suburb grows in size or if it runs out of open space. Residents may want some of these things as well (lower taxes are good, lively shopping entertainment and cultural options nearby might be desirable) but can often resist development that is out of scale or challenges the quaint look of the downtown. Some of this is hyperbole – one resident in this story claims a three-story condo building is a “skyscraper” – yet residents worry that the suburb that moved into won’t be the same suburb later.

There are several ways to summarize this process and I’ll conclude with my own take as a sociologist studying suburbs:

  1. This is just NIMBY behavior from suburban residents. Some residents act as if they would like to freeze a community in time right when they move in. (There is some truth to this.)
  2. Suburban leaders are determined to grow, even if the residents don’t desire it and their community can’t handle much growth. This would lean toward a growth machines explanation where leaders want to benefit from local deals and make their mark. (There is some truth to this.)
  3. A more comprehensive view: situations like this demonstrate the negotiated aspect of a community’s character. Although large or consequential discussions between residents and leaders are relatively infrequent, some of these discussions over important areas – like downtowns where many people feel they have a stake – can have long-term effects. Because suburbs privilege local control and residents often have some measure of social status (income, education, homeownership), these discussions are bound to happen at some point. Some suburbs will veer toward a quainter character, some will aggressively court new growth and transform their downtown, and others will try to pursue a middle path of growth that matches the community’s character. Yet, these discussions are important to track and analyze if we want to understand how suburban development happens and how it matters for later outcomes.

Play explores idea of a proposed mosque for downtown Naperville

Inspired by reactions to a proposed mosque in Naperville several years ago (and another proposed mosque received opposition), a playwright has put together a script that involves a proposed mosque in downtown Naperville:

Khoury said he’s seen the same response elsewhere, including in unincorporated land near Naperville. The Irshad Learning Center in 2010 took to court its attempt to win DuPage County’s approval of the needed conditional use permit for a worship center on property it owns on 75th Street east of Naper Boulevard, just across the city border.

Neighbors of the 3-acre parcel had ardently opposed the center, voicing concerns about traffic, lighting and noise, with support from the Naperville Tea Patriots and the anti-Islamic organization Act! for America. After a divided County Board in January 2010 denied the request, the matter wound up in federal court, with Irshad claiming its Constitutional guarantees of religious freedom and equal protection had been denied. Northern Illinois District Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer ruled in March 2013 that the county improperly withheld the permit, in part citing the outside groups’ role in the process. The Irshad board is preparing to open the center later this year…

The play centers on a proposal from a ficticious group called Al Ulama, which has prayer space in a Naperville neighborhood but wants to move to headquarters on the actual site of the downtown Naperville Nichols Library, property owned in the play by Truth Lutheran Church. The plan calls for razing the church annex and building a new 100,000-square-foot structure on the same footprint, an Islamic worship site that’s taller than the previous building. In the play a town hall meeting has been scheduled to present the plans…

“The fear really is of Muslims: What’s this going to do to our downtown? Is it going to scare people away?” he said.

While fictional, this does present an intriguing hypothetical. Would any religious group be allowed to utilize valuable downtown land for a religious building? Downtown Naperville is a business and civic center but communities can sometimes protect properties in order to keep them on the tax rolls. There are churches within several blocks of downtown Naperville but I can’t think of any immediately within the business and civic district.

The end of the article says there will be public readings of the play in Naperville in the next month or so. It will be interesting to hear about reactions…

How the final approval for Naperville’s Water Street project could change the downtown

Naperville’s downtown is expanding. Last week, the city council approved a new development on Water Street:

Following months of debate, councilmen tied up loose ends in a brief discussion before voting 6-2 in favor of the project.

The development proposed by Marquette Companies is targeted for 2.4-acres bounded by Aurora Avenue on the south, the DuPage River on the north, Main Street on the east and Webster Street on the west. The plan calls for a 166-room boutique hotel, 524-space parking garage, restaurants, shops, offices and a plaza.

Proponents say the project will add a much-needed hotel to the downtown and add to the vibrancy of the area. But others have expressed concerns about issues such as building heights, traffic, parking and impact on the Riverwalk. Councilmen gave preliminary approval to a scaled-down version of the plan last month and reaffirmed their vote Tuesday…

In addition to upcoming discussions about a possible financial incentive, the city also must negotiate with Marquette Companies over what public improvements will be funded by tax increment financing money because the project sits in a TIF district.

This could be a big change for Naperville. Here’s why:

1. It moves the downtown across the DuPage River in a big way. This could lead to more changes down the road, perhaps eventually connecting the downtown to Edwards Hospital.

2. It brings in a significant hotel presence into the downtown. Naperville has a number of hotels along the I-88 corridor which helps provides space for nearby office complexes but these could help downtown businesses, festivals, and other functions.

3. The addition of a big parking garage will help relieve parking pressure in the downtown. In recent years, there had been a lot of discussion about a new garage on the site of the Nichols Library parking lot but that may be shelved for a while now.

4. It puts a mixed-use development right on the Riverwalk, something that has been lacking to this point. While the Riverwalk is popular and opens up the space along the DuPage River, most of the businesses near the Riverwalk back up to it rather than face it and incorporate it into their space.

I’m looking forward to seeing what this development looks like and how it contributes to the downtown.

A downtown law firm no more

A law firm in Austin, TX is leaving its downtown location for the suburbs:

Law firm Bowman and Brooke LLP [website] is vacating its current location at 600 Congress Ave. and heading to more suburban digs southwest of downtown [about 6 miles away, map here]….“Yes, price was a consideration but we’re not getting a tremendous difference in rent costs. There are other things that entered in like tenant improvement costs, and parking had a significant impact,” [Michelle Bailey, chief of operations] said.

The company had no parking allocation downtown and at its new location it will have 96 complimentary spaces for 44 employees — more than enough.

The article notes that “finding large blocks of office space [in downtown Austin] is somewhat akin to going on a treasure hunt” and suggests that lawyers “are now being challenged for territorial rights by emerging technology and energy firms.” In other words, plenty of businesses still want a downtown presence, and rents are being bid up by new entrants. This sounds more like a story of urban revival than suburban sprawl to me, though the two are clearly linked here.

Perhaps a more fascinating revelation, however, is Bowman and Brooke determination that it “wasn’t necessary for its attorneys to be downtown, close to other law firms and courthouses” because “[w]e tend to be a national firm with our attorneys flying all over the country” and “we don’t have a lot of local interaction.” What does it mean to practice law without significant local interaction, especially when one is “a nationally recognized trial firm that defends corporate clients in widely publicized catastrophic injury and wrongful death claims“? While simply having a downtown (rather than a suburban) office location may do little to humanize a corporate law firm, it seems telling that Bowman and Brooke seems to place such a low priority on engaging its local community.

Not what you want to advertise: Naperville to add more police downtown

Naperville is a big suburb that has been known in the past for being wealthy and safe. However, some recent events are leading to a change: more police presence in its lively downtown.

Police Chief Bob Marshall told the City Council Tuesday he has seen “a trend of relatively serious crimes,” in the past few months since officers who were helping patrol the downtown over the summer returned to their regular duties in area schools. Incidents have included two violent fights and an armed robbery in addition to last February’s fatal stabbing of 24-year-old Naperville teacher Shaun Wild at a downtown bar.

Marshall said he is taking a more proactive approach to weekend patrols by adding police officers to the beat as well as both uniformed and plain-clothes investigators…

Councilman Bob Fieseler said he does not believe most Naperville residents are partaking in the late-night activity they are paying police to monitor, and the city may want to consider closing bars an hour earlier, which would mean midnight on weeknights and 1 a.m. on weekends…

Councilman Joe McElroy called shortening hours “the nuclear option,” but agreed the city may eventually have to look at doing so as a last resort. He also would like to see more activities like theater and live music offered in the downtown as an alternative to getting drunk.

This highlights two suburban conundrums. First, lots of suburbs would like to have downtowns like Naperville that include national retail stores, local businesses, and plenty of restaurants and bars. These businesses bring in visitors and, more importantly, money to the city’s coffers. Yet, bars can also bring about a different kind of atmosphere that is less family-friendly. Second, Naperville says it has small-town charm and yet its size, which could be related to perceptions about crime and the presence of multiple bars, suggests the city has some qualities of bigger cities. What is Naperville really: an idyllic single-family home community or a thriving jobs and suburban cultural center?

My guess is that Naperville would prefer to keep this increase police preference as unobtrusive as possible. A very visible presence might be bad for business but more incidents could also be bad for business.

Plans for purchase of Wheaton Grand Theater; hope for larger economic impact

Many older American downtowns are looking for ways to bring in new business and revenues. One way to achieve this is to pursue entertainment opportunities. Here is how this is currently playing out in Wheaton, Illinois where there is a perspective buyer for the Wheaton Theater:

Downtown property owner and lifelong Wheaton resident Jim Atten said he has “verbally agreed” to buy the theater, constructed in 1925, from Elmhurst-based Suburban Bank and Trust.

“It’s going to take a while to do, but our plan is to turn it into a performing arts and movie theater,” Atten said…

Atten said, if the purchase goes through, an extensive fundraising effort will be launched to make a dent in the necessary repairs and remodeling in the building, which he estimated could be about $5 million…

The theater closed in the 1990s and after an unsuccessful attempt by the Wheaton Grand Theater Corp. to revive it by hosting concerts, the deed was given up to the bank after coming up short on a loan payment.

Last year, Wheaton voters rejected a proposal to let the city use $150,000 in public funds each year to renovate the building…

Still, [Wheaton mayor] Gresk said the expected purchase is a “wonderful, huge first step.”

We’ll see how this moves forward. The benefits of a theater for a smaller downtown could be large: theaters can generate money themselves but can also attract other business as theater goers eat and shop nearby, festivals could make use of the space (think film, music, art, and theater festivals), and this building could serve as an example of how to effectively remodel and utilize older spaces. Smaller downtowns need spaces like this to succeed, partly to help provide energy and people for all of the downtown but also to make good use of storefront space that might be difficult to fill with other uses.