Downtown living

The years take their toll on the body. In my case, it’s arthritis everywhere, though I feel it most acutely in the knees and spine. Navigating stairs has become a painful challenge rather than a trivial means to get up and down. So, my wife and I live in an apartment these days, abandoning the big two-story house on the hill.

We are not alone in our preference for horizontal living space. After all, the population is aging, with more and more of us old farts whining about this or that. Above all, we desire to live in close proximity to amenities and, of course, medical facilities.

Ironically, we baby boomers share some likes and dislikes with the younger crowd, many of whom disdain car-dependent suburban living. They, too, wish to be close to the action, though they are far more active than we codgers.

Such thoughts, while omnipresent in my brain, came to the fore upon reading this piece in the New York Times about a downtown Minneapolis project, which includes a new football stadium for the Vikings. The paper calls it “a blueprint for a bustling downtown.”

The five-block project, called Downtown East, includes plans for two 18-story office towers for Wells Fargo, a six-level parking ramp, about 24,000 square feet of retail space, 193 apartments and a four-acre urban park near the stadium’s northwest corner.

The blueprint for a bustling downtown stands in stark contrast to the status quo: crumbling asphalt parking lots, tired buildings and limited housing…

Well, you might say, nothing novel here. Lots of cities launch such plans, some more successful than others. For me, it was the accompanying comments that precipitated this post. Take this one, for example:

For Governor [Mark] Dayton, reviving the downtown means making good on a childhood lesson. “My father and his brothers were retailers, and they preached the downtown,” he said. “If left to its own, development goes to greenfield sites on the outlying areas and you end up with a doughnut hole. Once you get behind the eight ball with a downtown in decay, it’s very, very difficult to turn that around.”

Consider that last sentence. My wife and I happen to live in downtown Everett, once designated by late 19th century U.S. plutocrats as the future commercial and political center of Washington state. The only legacy of their blink-of-an-eye romance are street names, which include Rockefeller, Hoyt, Rucker, Wetmore, and Colby. Yep, that Rockefeller. After leaving town and taking their money with them, Everett reverted to a marine-based industrial hub, dominated by wood, water, and rails. For good reason the place was dubbed ‘Mill Town.’

During the first few decades of the 20th century, Everett was bustling, with a vibrant downtown of stores and shops, replete with electric trolleys. Photographs of the period depict lots of people buzzing about.

But over time Everett became the doughnut hole. Boeing expanded its operations west of the city, and its tens of thousands of employees chose to live in rapidly growing suburbs like Marysville and Lake Stevens. Eventually, Everett officials declared that downtown would be the region’s financial district—with low employment numbers. Simultaneously, they established a retail zone miles from the city center, inducing stores to move operations into the new mall-cum-parking-lagoon. Bye-bye, downtown pedestrians.

Now that the last waterfront mill has closed, what does the future hold? Is it too late for the city to turn around? Can public officials and business leaders overcome the chicken-and-egg conundrum of amenities and people? If dwelling units are built, will consumers follow?

Several years ago Everett’s leaders determined that a sports facility would be built downtown. It would attract people and restaurants. It might even serve to revitalize a doughnut hole. The Times:

Many cities have tried to generate urban renewal around a big project like a new stadium with mixed success over the years. It is often hard to persuade those who left for the suburbs to return.

Comcast Arena, the name of the Everett complex, has failed “to persuade.” Now what?

A couple of developers are responsible for adding hundreds of apartment units to the downtown housing stock. However, one building remains virtually empty. Yet, the developer of that property is constructing a massive new project a block away. It will host a hotel, a several-stories-high apartment complex, and a promised year-round farmers’ market. Can you say “huge”? A half-block to the east, another local developer is busy pouring concrete for yet another apartment building.

The latter developer seems concerned about re-creating a vibrant downtown, judging by his quotes in the Herald. He’s recently offered a “downtown card” to his renters. The holder will enjoy discounts at local establishments. In the promotional literature, he writes:

Living in Downtown Everett means it’s all right there. Whether you’re running errands or looking for experiences with the arts, dining or shopping, in downtown Everett you’re in the center of Everett’s urban experience.

At the moment, that may be just wishful thinking. As a downtown resident, I hope it becomes more. But what will it take?

One problem confronting the city is lack of money. Aside from the current municipal budget woes and a bow wave of unmet obligations, those who now live here don’t have nearly as much income as their suburban counterparts. The image below is taken from a slide presentation (pdf) by Everett’s planning head.

Screen Shot 2014-05-28 at 10.41.38 AM

Seattle, just 30 miles to the south, truly is bustling, with a dozen or so cranes helping build new apartments and office towers galore. It is now the fastest growing city in the country. And its residents have much higher incomes than Everett’s. After paying for their housing needs, Seattleites have money left over to support a myriad of restaurants. (They do seem to avoid Safeco Field, however.)

Unfortunately, rents in Seattle are about double what they are in Everett. Being the aforementioned old farts, my wife and I live on fixed incomes, as they say. We could pay the Seattle rents, but would then be forced to eat beans and bread at every meal. The Emerald City has essentially told us to stay away.

And so we remain in the doughnut hole, hoping with the developers that something will eventually click to recapture the hustle and bustle of yesteryear.

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