A shopping mall, new office towers, a convention center, an atrium hotel, a restored historic neighborhood. These are the civic agenda for downtown development in the last third of the twentieth century, a trophy collection that mayors want. Add a domed stadium, aquarium, or cleaned-up waterfront to suit the circumstances, and you have the essential equipment for a first-class American city.
The showpieces on this list are useful as well as trendy. They help a city keep up with its competitors while also meeting some local need such as getting rid of an eyesore, saving a landmark, or creating a civic symbol. Although the projects rarely result from systematic forethought, they often fit together surprisingly well. Most serve a common function: restoring downtown as a center of economic activity.
The downtown agenda was more than a grab-bag of pet projects because of the steady interest of elected officials and business executives in strengthening the downtown economy. Business coalitions especially had a large stake in revitalizing the city center, and their support was unusually crucial for launching any large project. In deciding which projects to push, they usually threw their weight behind those that served an economic development purpose. The dozens of downtown retail centers built after 1970 were part of this total agenda, adding a fresh acrobatic act to a three-ring circus in the making. They thrilled the crowds, but their long-run impact at the box office is hard to separate from the rest of the show.
Sagalyn, Lynne, and Bernard Frieden. "Downtown Malls and the City Agenda." Society 27, no. 5 (July 1990): 43-49.
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