PNC's investments (PNC 3 tower shown at the left) in downtown Pittsburgh have been key to the remaking of nearby Market Square (foreground) and the inspiration of redevelopment around it. PNC's new tower is shown going up in the background.

Traditional downtown anchors moving from isolation to integration

Downtowns are evolving into their next generation. The past sixty years saw them change from dynamic regional centers to cores struggling to find their place amidst steadily de-industrializing economies. They had been divvied up into pods: some for work, others for entertainment, and still others to host the civic functions of a city. But all of that is changing. No longer comprised of isolated districts, twenty-first century downtowns are rebuilding themselves once again as integrated places. They are leveraging a creative mix of employment, education, recreation, commercial programming, and residential streets to attract an active, full-time population and justify successive layers of investment. In this move, two types of civic entrepreneurs are taking hold in many of these Investment Ready Places: corporate citizens and downtown universities. Both are growing new types of campuses that are proving to be powerful agents of change in regenerating city centers.  

 

A move away from a tourist-based model

Tourism describes more the pattern in which one interacts with a place and less the actual origin that one is originating. It is behavior not a zip code. It  In the past, guests who came to downtown were coming for their job, an event, or are visiting for a few days. All are forms of downtown tourism, regardless if one came by commute or by the family van. It requires clear zones and districts for the visitor bureaus to neatly market: Come to the Sports and Entertainment District! The Convention District! The Central Business District! This has led to a built environment that is designed to accommodate peak traffic flows and parking volumes to get people in and out of a downtown expediently; a restaurant and retail offering that is geared toward visitors and large peak hour crowds (for example, lunch and dining connected to events); transient users and visitors that “borrow” places like hotels and public spaces; and limited full-time residential units. It is designed to be seen from the air or on a free hotel cartoon map rather than as a series of wonderful experiences and surprises. 

Corporate Citizens

Corporate citizens are taking a leadership role in moving downtown past a simple business district and into a vibrant, enduring urban neighborhood. They are doing so not out of the kindness of their hearts or as a simple public relations trick but, rather, to accomplish any number of the following goals that can drive their core business:

  • Realize the value of their land assets
  • Respond to employee demographic changes
  • Retain talent and improve recruitment
  • Access training and innovation
  • Build technology infrastructure
  • Expand office space
  • Improve transportation and access
  • Improve employee productivity
  • Deliver core employee services
  • Meet health and wellness targets
  • Reduce energy/resource consumption
PNC Bank in Pittsburgh, for instance, is underway with its second infill tower in five years. The first, PNC 3, leveraged significant development in and around Market Square by Millcraft and others. Alongside the PNC tower underway are construction sites for new hotels, apartments, office space, and retail. The recently completed PNC Legacy Project reclaimed an important corner as a civic outreach and history center. 
The PNC Legacy Project (Massery Photography)
PNC Legacy Project (Massery Photography)
HCA in Nashville is another example. When vetting sites for where to locate 2,000 new employees, they ultimately selected the Gulch in downtown as the place they knew could help them recruit the best and brightest to live, work, and play. Their announcement provides further rationale for continued infrastructure improvements that will help the downtown district thrive. 

 

The Downtown University

Similarly, centers of higher education are strengthening ties to their urban cores to:
  • Transition from a commuter to residential campus, which allows them to reduce parking and improve programming
  • Grow recruitment and/or enrollment to attract the best and brightest
  • Expand partnerships
  • Capitalize on research and development opportunities
  • Expand classroom space
  • Better provide student and faculty services
  • Diversify cultural offering to community and student body

Point Park University in Pittsburgh is largely responsible for keeping the lights on and streets activated past the previous norm of a 9-5 workday. They brought 1,000 full-time students downtown, converted parking lots into public spaces, expanded night classes, and adapted several buildings to create a downtown campus that hums. Restaurants are opening and staying open into the evening, nights and weekends have a real life to them, and the once corporate character of downtown Pittsburgh is evolving to be one that supports much more diversity of tenures and age groups. 

Village Green at Point Park University, Pittsburgh, was a parking lot prior to being repositioned as a central gathering place and address for renovated university buildings.

Norfolk, Virginia, pursued a similar strategy with Tidewater Community College (TCC). TCC was brought downtown to a key site that connected a revitalizing core to the historic, stable neighborhoods outside of it. Now, rather than coursing through abandoned buildings and streets, pedestrians and bicyclists can meander through an urban campus that supports 24/7 activity in its streets and public spaces. It has been critical for downtown Norfolk and the neighborhoods that adjoin it. Granby Street is now a walkable home to apartments, retail, and offices where it was once simply the quickest way to speed out of downtown.

In the past, corporate citizens and campuses would have taken steps to isolate themselves from the downtown neighborhoods they inhabited. Today, they are working together to create extraordinary, integrated environments. Their work provides enormous justification to make the types of enduring investments necessary for a thriving downtown: building restoration, safe streets, programmed public spaces, active commercial cores, and diverse housing options.

 The Tower at PNC Plaza is slated to open in summer of 2015.

Who are the corporate citizens and institutions in your town or city? How can they come together to make possible something extraordinary?