Thursday, October 23, 2008

Once More Into the Breach with Downtown

If you’ve read the series on I-675 over the past month on this blog, you can see how in the 1970s a coalition of business leaders, suburban governments, and highway planners made the fateful decision to push for I-675 without mitigations such as regional growth control, rejecting mass transit solutions that would have emphasized the center city.

Starting in the early 1980s office developments proliferated along the bypass, permitting white collar work to decentralize from downtown.

The coup-de-grace was during the past 10 years, when the last corporate tenants left. Spin offs-from MeadWestvaco and NCR relocated to suburban office parks. Reynolds and Reynolds and Woolpert relocated to the Research Park, indirectly tied to I-675 but part of the same decentralization process. These were the high-profile moves. Presumably smaller businesses also left downtown during this era.

Nothing backfilled the vacant space since potential tenants could chose suburban locations developed along or near I-675. Suburban office locations were superior due to free parking, lower taxes, perceived safety, modern office space, and close to where people live.

But not just along I-675. Office decentralization was happening even before I-675 was completed, at other locations in the metropolitan area, and continue to do so. I-675was just the most visible example.

The result was that downtown, though physically impressive, became peripheral to the economic life of the region. It remained the location for government, the courts, law offices, banks, and arts venues, but little else.

This apparently was recognized in this headline…

Downtown Too Important to Slip off RadarLink

…from DDN editor Kevin Riley’s recent op-ed on downtown. “Slipping off radar” is a pretty good way to put the situation. Downtown as “far away and long ago” is another way to say it.

Riley synopsizes a series of initiatives and suggestions, which sounds like a last ditch effort to save downtown as an employment center. Downtown as office space is a tough sell for the previous reasons, and also because a future driver of white collar employment will be military I/T and R&D. Defense work will locate close to Wright-Patterson, along I-675 in Fairborn or Beavercreek, US 35 in Beavercreek, or in Riverside (Harshman./Woodman) and Kettering (Research Park). Downtown won’t even be in consideration.

It’s interesting that the planning initiatives in Rileys op-ed are turning to office uses. In the recent past adaptive re-use of downtown office and commercial buildings to housing seemed a possibility (following a national trend), but perhaps the market isn’t there given the Dayton regions’ small-town/suburban culture. Downtown housing conversions and new construction stalled even before the recent housing finance crisis.

If no housing and no office use then what? Maybe demolition and urban agriculture?
The large city blocks downtown could lend themselves to mini-farms as sort of a land-bank solution, or they could just be parkland, sort of what Fort Wayne has done. Or just plant grass like they are doing with the Patterson School site.

Realistically there will always be some demand for downtown office space due to government and the courts, which will draw legal services firms. There will also be some % of “other” use, such as banks, accountants, other professional services, non-profits and social service agencies,

But not enough demand to support all the buildings that are downtown today.

The question really is how to shrink downtown while retaining it as niche market?


Anonymous said...

Nice post Jeff. Very free of sugar coating and very realistic about the situation. Keep up the good work. Wish I had a solution but I really can't see downtown ever being able to attract large corporations back. I think the city has the right idea in trying to convert the large manufacturing districts into spaces for smaller start ups. How about as a sports/entertainment venue? Have the Dragons been successful and possibly bring other sports as well? You know the city lacks an arena for shows and indoor sports. Probably because of the arena next to Wright State, but maybe the city could build a better one to compete?

Greg Hunter said...


It has been awhile since I have read or posted as the economic events that were IMHO a result of this unsustainable sprawl has played out on the world stage. I love Dayton, but one can study economics, racism, public policy on a small scale and then see this idiocy played out on a large scale. It was interesting that Democracy was lost long ago and the people with the smallest voices were correct, but unheeded.

Unfortunately we all go down together.


Jefferey said...

The Nutter Center and Hara Arena still are pretty much the place for the larger indoor events. I think the last time a large indoor arena/event space was proposed was in the early 1960s, for where Sinclair is today.

There was some investigation by a developer and the Dragons owners about a minor league hockey arena out at the Austin Road interchange site, but not sure what happened to that.



Wow, thanks! Sometimes I wonder if anyone has an opinion one way or another on what I post. I appreciate the feedback.