Placemaking for Mid-Sized Cities: Rebuilding Waterfront Parks and “Bourbonism”

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For midsized U.S. cities to compete successfully in the 21st-century global marketplace, it is crucial for governments to think beyond the tired strategy of luring away employers from other locales. Instead, city officials need to focus on land use and placemaking as ways to attract talent, generate new business opportunities, and consolidate economic and community development to enhance their brands, according to speakers at ULI’s 2016 Fall Meeting in Dallas.

“The reality is that companies don’t move that much anymore,” said Mary Ellen Wiederwohl, who heads Louisville Forward, an agency that unifies all of the city government’s real estate activities into a one-stop shop. “In the age of gigabit internet, you can do jobs from anywhere.”

Instead, cities should foster job creation—both by existing employers and startups—by becoming distinctive places where talent wants to live and work, Wiederwohl said. She was part of a panel of former fellows of the Rose Center for Public Leadership, a partnership between ULI and the Urban League, which advises cities on redevelopment challenges.

“Be authentic, be who you are,” Wiederwohl advised.

In Louisville, Kentucky, the city works to leverage strengths such as its $200 million convention center and its venerable housing stock, which includes 1,400 Victorian-era mansions, as well as downtown’s proximity to Churchill Downs, the site of the annual Kentucky Derby, one of America’s iconic sports events. Another key part of Louisville’s branding strategy is what Wiederwohl called “bourbonism”—the local custom of savoring fine whiskey. “We have nine distilleries in our city, and we’re number one in the nation in distilling jobs,” she explained.

But beneath those obvious attractions, Louisville also works to build amenities that will appeal to a new generation of workers, such as open-air recreation spaces and a multimodal transportation system.

“Louisville is too small and spread out for rail, but we have a big fleet of emissions-free [electric] buses,” Wiederwohl said. The city also activity promotes biking through bike lanes and its CycLOUvia events, in which major streets are shut down on Sundays so that bikers, walkers, skaters, and joggers can use them. The city’s current development phase concentrates on such recreational opportunities. “You’ve got to have places for people to play and enjoy the outdoors,” she said.

Wiederwohl also recommended that cities should consider merging their economic and community development efforts, so that residents of local neighborhoods benefit from the synergy.

Another city that is using such a redevelopment strategy is Tampa, Florida, which is in midst of a $35.5 million project to transform its once-decaying 23-acre (9 ha) Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park northwest of downtown into a state-of-the-art recreational center for residents. According to newspaper coverage, the effort is being financed in part by compensation for lost tourism revenues that the city received from the BP oil and gas corporation after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

The new facility will include a riverfront promenade, storage for rowing shells and dragon boats, pickleball courts, splash pads for children, and a large lawn where concerts and other events can be staged, with a view of the downtown skyline in the background.

Catherine Coyle, a manager for the city’s Planning and Urban Design Division, said that remaking the park is one part of a strategy to leverage the city’s connection to the Hillsborough River, and attract people to its banks. That’s a dramatic departure from Tampa’s past, in which the river was viewed primarily as an industrial resource, and some areas of the waterfront actually were fenced off, blocking residents’ access to the river. “We are a waterfront community, yet we had turned our backs on the water for years,” Coyle noted.

The city is also developing a walking trail that connects all of the land it controls along the river. “Once that is done, we’ll have a full river walk for eight to ten miles (13–16 km), all the way down to the bay,” she said.

As part of the park redevelopment, the city is altering the slope of the site, which had blocked the view of the water from some points.

Although the park is designed to attract residents from all over Tampa, Coyle said that the planners have made an effort to preserve its function as a “community front porch” for nearby neighborhoods. To that end, planners kept the existing basketball courts and added additional tennis courts, which nearby residents requested.

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