How Downtowns Can Rebound After the Pandemic

Tulsa officials say its downtown has become a 24-hour neighborhood.

Tulsa officials say its downtown has become a 24-hour neighborhood. Taylor A. Stewart/Shutterstock

Before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, there was reason for good cheer about the nation’s downtowns. “Walking around big cities the past few years,” a Brookings Institution report issued in May 2020 stated, “one could sense a reversal underway from the post-WWII norm. . . the downtown boom is real.”

But Brookings’ researchers questioned whether downtowns could survive the pandemic—and that’s a question that has grown ever more important.

“As we went into the pandemic, things got quiet pretty fast,” said Michael Edwards, president and CEO of the Chicago Loop Alliance. As of mid-December occupancy of downtown office buildings was between 10% and 15% of what it had been before Covid-19. The Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower) had been populated by 15,000 people before the pandemic, “but it’s closer to 1,500 now,” said Edwards.

The dramatic shift to remote working, coupled with restrictions on restaurants, bars, shops, gyms, movie theaters and other operations, have driven many small businesses to shutter. Others have survived by changing their nature—sometimes aided by alterations in city and state regulations.

Take the KC Daiquiri Shop in downtown Kansas City. It was successful after it opened in March 2019 with a combination of liquor and food. Its owners had high hopes for its second year in operation, when the Big 12 basketball tournament would be held in the T-Mobile Center, just a block away from the Daiquiri Shop.

“The week of the tournament, the first set of games got canceled because of the pandemic,” said co-owner Kinley Strickland, “and no one knew what was going to happen. Here we were, about to celebrate our one-year anniversary and now everything was shut.” The salvation for Strickland and his partner Calvin Vick came when Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas permitted to-go alcohol sales. The state followed up with a similar move.

“We had curbside pickups and we’d bring things to the car,” said Vick. “Or people could walk up and get daiquiris. We had social distancing inside and social distancing lines, so no one was too close to the other person.” 

While new business plans enabled by regulatory changes, like that which helped save the Daiquiri Shop, have been helpful, they are far from a full solution for downtowns. Even as there’s renewed hope for the future in the form of vaccines that are being distributed now, there’s a general consensus among city leaders that occupancy rates in office buildings are not going to return to previous levels. People who have the opportunity to work from home are likely to want to continue that practice, at least a few days a week, and the corporations that employed them are inevitably going to want to cut down on the expense of maintaining office space.

What are cities going to do?

“The medium term is an incredible challenge, and this speaks to the need for the federal government to provide aid to the cities,” said Brooks Rainwater, senior executive and director of the Center for City Solutions at the National League of Cities.

Longer term, Rainwater said, “downtowns are going to look different. We will see an increased number of experiential entities like places for cooking classes or to taste wine.” One key to the future of downtowns is to grow as destinations for people from the suburbs or residential neighborhoods in the cities by offering services they can’t find on their own tree-lined streets.

“What we've been offering as a downtown is more than office space. It’s easy access to amenities,” says Scott Murphy, vice president for economic development at  the Downtown Dayton Partnership in Ohio. For example, the first Friday of every month, Downtown Dayton has offered a free event from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. that has included—when the pandemic hasn’t made it impossible—“a variety of entertainment options like street performances and roaming entertainers, arts exhibitions, live music, dining and shopping specials,” according to the Downtown Dayton Partnership’s website.

These amenities can help foster another significant hope for the future of downtowns: Getting people to move there, not just visit during their workdays or on weekends. “If we hold onto the majority of our amenity base, like first floor retail, restaurants, pubs, events and so in, even as elements of the office market grow challenging, we’ll be on a positive trajectory for residential occupancy of downtown,” said Murphy.

Leaders in Tulsa, Oklahoma have much the same vision. “Downtown in Tulsa has become more like a 24-hour neighborhood where people live, work and play,” said Clay Holk, the city’s coronavirus relief fund program manager since August and formerly its senior policy adviser for entrepreneurship, small business and economic innovation. “That’s a countervailing trend when compared to the office space that’s sitting empty.”

The future of the nation’s downtowns, unfortunately, can’t be pinned entirely on attracting people from residential areas or bringing them to live there. It appears clear that new kinds of businesses are going to have to emerge in center cities to unlock the doors and open the windows of the shops and restaurants that have closed down in these bleak times. 

Tulsa is taking steps to encourage that kind of transition, by providing inducements aimed at attracting the kind of men and women who are inclined to start their own businesses. Leaders there, with philanthropic support, have built a program called Tulsa Remote that has spawned similar efforts in other cities like Topeka, Kansas and Fayetteville, Arkansas. The program pays remote workers or entrepreneurs who live outside of Oklahoma $10,000 and provides them with free desk space if they move to Tulsa.

“Once they move here, they can form a community and enjoy being part of the community here,” said Holk. 

“We need to be developing small businesses that are going to grow from four employees to 20 employees,” he said. “Not all of them will make it. But some will.”

FEATURED CASE STUDIES
Powered By The Atlas
Erie County, PA offers all local restaurants free digital tools to plan for safe COVID reopening
Erie County, PA, USA
Online permitting and approval process during COVID-19 exceeds in-person performance numbers
Markham, ON, Canada
Chula Vista creates a Digital Equity and Inclusion Plan
Chula Vista, CA, USA

NEXT STORY: The Smart City Journey: 5 Key Steps to Success

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.