Prettier than a strip mall.

Photographer: Justin Fox/Bloomberg

What's So Great About the Return of Downtowns

Justin Fox is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the editorial director of Harvard Business Review and wrote for Time, Fortune and American Banker. He is the author of “The Myth of the Rational Market.”
Read More.
a | A

I’m writing this on a warm Monday evening in downtown Montgomery, Alabama. It’s Halloween, and the city’s trick-or-treat action is elsewhere. Still, there’s a good number of people out and about -- with maybe 1 in 10 in costume -- eating in restaurants, drinking in bars, strolling along the Alabama River waterfront, listening to some dude play guitar in the outdoor bar at the Renaissance Hotel, listening to some other dude play guitar in the manicured alleyway known as “The Alley,” and so on. As for me, I’m sitting in my seventh-floor corner room at the Hampton Inn, built as the Greystone Hotel in 1927, after eating an excellent dinner of chicken gizzards, cornbread, sausage and pickled vegetables a few minutes walk away at Central, which appears to be the city’s nicest restaurant.

Twenty-five years ago, you couldn’t do any of those things in downtown Montgomery. I know because I lived here then. The Elite (pronounced “ee-light”) Cafe, the downtown institution where F. Scott Fitzgerald used to eat, closed a few weeks after I moved in, and with that disappeared pretty much the last reason (other than interactions with local government agencies) to go downtown. My office was only a few blocks away, on the slope of Goat Hill, atop which the Alabama Capitol stands, and my apartment was only 10 or 15 blocks from that. But my life happened on Goat Hill, in the neighborhood around my apartment -- Cloverdale -- and amid the burgeoning sprawl of the city’s east and south.

There had been efforts through the decades to bring activity back downtown, but things seem to have only really gotten going with the construction of the riverfront park and an adjacent minor league baseball stadium in 2004. The Renaissance and attached Montgomery Convention Center opened in 2008, as did the restored Hampton Inn. The Alley came in 2009. The city borrowed lots of money to make all this happen and, in a development somewhat unique to Alabama, the state’s pension funds chipped in, too. It seems to be paying off. Downtown Montgomery is back.

This isn’t just a Montgomery, Alabama, thing, of course. Downtowns have been on the comeback trail nationally since about 2000. In bigger, faster growing cities this renaissance has come with lots of costs and conflict as affluent newcomers displace poor residents who end up in suburbs with worse access to transit and services. In Montgomery, hardly anybody lived downtown before, and the revitalization doesn’t seem to be spreading to nearby residential neighborhoods.

It’s a pretty uncomplicated urban comeback story: Grand but decaying old buildings were empty, and now they’re full -- at least on the ground floor where the bars and restaurants and galleries are. Montgomerians who were once stuck with eating in strip malls can now feast in tall-ceilinged restaurants on Commerce or Tallapoosa or Coosa Street. Most of them still drive to dinner -- among downtown’s most prominent new landmarks is the giant convention center parking garage. But there is a nice-looking new apartment building across the street from it, and lots of hotel guests are leaving their cars put while they walk to meals or meetings.

Experiencing all this has made me happy. Montgomery without a vibrant downtown was an OK city to live in. Montgomery with a vibrant downtown seems better. That got me thinking, though: Why does it seem better? Many people of my generation and younger who grew up in the suburbs and have moved back to the city share a conviction that cities are superior, but sometimes we (or at least I) can be a little hazy on the details.

Consider Montgomery: Its commercial sprawl of past decades occurred mostly within city limits, so the return of downtown isn’t really bringing back tax revenue that had been lost to suburbs. The new developments downtown have made the city a bit more attractive to event planners and visitors, but they’re not going to suddenly make it a major magnet for tourism -- or for the educated young workers that cities are supposed to want to attract (lots of other cities have fixed up their downtowns, too, after all). The city’s population isn’t growing, and its poverty rate remains high. Downtown isn’t exactly a hotbed of diversity or shining symbol of racial progress: The customers at the restaurants and bars are mostly white, the people in service jobs mostly black.

So what exactly is so good about downtown’s comeback in Montgomery?

  1. A bustling downtown -- especially one with lots of cool old buildings -- is aesthetically more pleasing than a bustling mall. A judgment call, sure, but who’s going to disagree with it?
  2. A downtown street grid is more efficient at handling traffic flows before and after a big event than just about any imaginable suburban street setup -- as Atlanta Braves fans are going to learn over the next few years -- so it’s a shame not to make full use of it.
  3. Even though people drive to downtown, maybe they’re doing a little more walking than they would otherwise once they get here.
  4. Downtown reflects on a city’s status and reputation in a way that other parts don’t.
  5. Having a vibrant center can help bring a city together.

So that’s about it. Is it enough to justify the effort and expense that Montgomery and cities like it have put into bringing back their downtowns? Yeah, probably.

  1. I like what I like.

  2. The blocks are pretty irregular in that part of town.

  3. It was 201,911 in 2000, 205,764 in 2010 and an estimated 200,602 in 2015.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Justin Fox at justinfox@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net