What’s wrong with downtown?

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I just came from a conference called the “Future of Downtown”. Onstage were a whole bunch of the key players in the development boom downtown, including the head of Mack Urban, the West Coast guy for Brookfield, the head of EVOQ, etc.

All the talk was about how great downtown is / will be. Cool – I get that.

To the extent that any problems were discussed, it was mainly around whether the convention center will be expanded / improved and whether or not the market can absorb all 3,000 hotel rooms currently under construction.

No one mentioned the two biggest problems with downtown, so I guess I will:

1. The insanity of the parking requirements. This one is pretty obvious. There is an incredible amount of pent-up demand from people who want to live, for example, in the Arts District. But it’s incredibly hard to develop anything there, because the city insists on absolutely insane parking requirements. Why on earth are we mandating parking and thereby restricting development of the dense, in-fill housing that people want and that society needs, in one of the few places in the whole county where a car is not really necessary? It’s mind-boggling. Expand the adaptive reuse ordinance to the whole of downtown, and watch as an incredibly vibrant city emerges.

2. Skid Row. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, the city decided to concentrate services for the mentally ill and homeless population right in the middle of downtown. The result is that there are approximately 3-5,000 people who spend their days hanging out on public sidewalks, using them as toilets and open air drug markets. Concentrating poverty and distress goes against every single thing we know about healthy societies. For downtown to reach its full potential as a walkable, 24 hour / day series of interconnected, multi-use neighborhoods, someone is going to have to break up this tangled knot of pathologies. It’s going to take a lot of money, persuasion, and will, but it absolutely needs to be done.

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