Downtown revitalization: when every silver bullet proves nothing more than a blank.

By this point, it isn’t just the major metropolises—the big coastal hubs—that have sewn the seeds for a renewed and seemingly enduring interest in our town centers. The little kids have joined in on the fun of downtown revitalization too: not just the smaller cities but even rural towns. Suburbs are getting in the game as well. Even those that boomed after the Second World War (which is most of them) are witnessing a construction boom at their core, which, in some cases involves the fabrication of a made-from-scratch downtown that historically never existed.

So the downtown revitalization game isn’t pitting east against west, north versus south, big versus small. It’s really more a matter of yea versus nay: those that have manifested a clear resurgence in activity versus those that haven’t. As interesting as each downtown revitalization case may be, those cities whose downtowns seem resilient to a renaissance merit exploration as well.IMG_5041IMG_5047IMG_5050Sioux City, the fourth largest city in Iowa, does not yet appear on the verge of a comeback. Sundays are rarely the best day of the week to judge a downtown’s overall activity level, so maybe if I had visited on a Saturday evening or even Tuesday afternoon during the work week, I would have seen more promising evidence. But the occupancy level of the storefronts and the cars parked along street suggest that downtown never really enjoys much life.

A walk along the downtown streets offers only the vaguest hints of reinvestment, nearly all of which seem to have fizzled. Take, for instance this mighty edifice—one of the largest in this city of about 82,000.IMG_5052The Warrior, at one time the city’s premier hotel, has sat vacant for forty years. Meanwhile, its neighbor is in only marginally better condition:IMG_5051The century-old Davidson Building isn’t completely abandoned: at least a portion of its first-floor retail survives in the form of a Japanese restaurant and bank. But that paper over the entrance doorways, directly below “Davidson Building”, hint at the dire state of the five upper levels. Various proposals for restoring the two structures have flopped. Among the highest profile was an effort by Ho-Chunk Inc. to transform the two structures into a sizable Warrior Casino and Hotel.  However, the state awarded a gaming license to a rival project, the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, which stands just outside the historic city center, in an overwhelmingly automobile-oriented configuration, seen below:IMG_5043If that doesn’t show much, try this Google Street View photo.   Meanwhile, the Warrior Building harbors the telltale signs of speculation fueled by the housing boom…

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But the faded signs at the corner of the building, auguring a redevelopment, seem far more likely to evoke exciting plans a different market cycle, prior to the housing bust. Call me cynical, but they don’t look new. And Google Street View reliably confirms that they date to at least June 2012 (though apparently not as old as June 2009). A “coming soon” sign that doesn’t change for four years usually betrays itself after two.

Another characteristic of Sioux City’s downtown that stunts its renaissance is the widely visible dependence on skyways. They’re everywhere.IMG_5049IMG_5059IMG_5060IMG_5061IMG_5048Sioux City downtown revitalization effortsIMG_5063And these are just the ones I captured.  (My apologies if I’m showing a few of them twice; it was hard to distinguish them all.) It has become a kneejerk response among city planners to impugn the skyway’s ability to rejuvenate downtowns, primarily because it so effectively sequesters people from a downtown’s street scene, ensconcing them instead in climate-controlled funnels as they migrate from one office building to the next. While it’s true that skyways rarely impart a positive effect on downtown revitalization, they’re prevalent in many northern cities. Sioux City hardly seems like a frostbitten environment in July, when the afternoon temperatures easily surpass 90 degrees, but Jack Frost blows a mean chill over Siouxland almost every winter. Most Midwestern cities have their fair share of skyways, yet some of them still boast lively downtowns. But, while the skyways may have helped stave off some of the exodus of office jobs during the downtowns’ nadir in the 1970s, cities today typically succeed in spite of the skyways, not because of them.

What else? This may not be as strong of an argument, but like so many cities in the country, Sioux City has a reasonably new transportation center, which no doubt intends to improve the visibility and boost ridership on what historically has been the lifeblood of transit systems: the congested commute from the suburbs to downtown.IMG_5057I commend the inclusion of retail space on the first floor; theoretically, it should be a perfect site for convenience-based food and quick services. But it doesn’t seem to be having much of an impact:IMG_5056IMG_5055The near-complete absence of tenants on the first floor suggests one of two conditions: either the center’s key tenants can only flourish by leasing space in the interior (which was closed on a Sunday afternoon), or the facility has remained largely vacant due to a lack of use in aggregate, which is generally tantamount to meager transit ridership in general.

Unfortunately, it appears that the Sioux City leadership pursuing a downtown revitalization has placed most of its irons in a different fire: the automobile-oriented development wedged between downtown and Interstate 29—the area that hosts the aforementioned Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, as well as some other high-intensity uses:IMG_5068IMG_5067IMG_5042Tyson Events Center. Stoney Creek Hotel and Conference Center. Promenade Cinema 14. June E. Nylen Cancer Center. Holiday Inn. Ramada. Nearly all of the visible land development has taken place south of Fourth Street, though the lion’s share of downtown’s historic architecture is north. It’s almost as though the city leaders decided to call it quit on the old downtown, only to pick up and start anew a quarter mile closer to the freeway. And all the new construction offers abundant parking on-site: no need for people to get around and stroll around to see what else the downtown revitalization has to offer. Among the few visible investments north of Fourth include the aforementioned the transit center, as well as this large complex:IMG_5044It’s the headquarters for MidAmerican Energy, and, by my metric, it’s not an unattractive contemporary building. But the entrance, seen here, reveals absolutely no real effort to engage with the streetscape. Meanwhile, a few blocks east, the city’s convention center boldly forced a curvy rerouting of a two-block segment of Fourth Street, yet it doesn’t seem to be delivering the results that civic leaders anticipated: Hilton recently pulled out of the adjacent hotel (connected by yet another skyway), leaving the much lower-grade Howard Johnson as the replacement tenant in its wake.

What’s left are a series of magnificent institutional structures and early 20th century office/warehouse buildings that seldom coalesce into a downtown with a functional identity.IMG_5054IMG_5064IMG_5066Among the few areas in which the buildings allow some sort of consistent interplay with the sidewalk is a two-block stretch of Fourth Street east of the convention center.  Patchy though this area may be, it offers a couple of the idiosyncratic eateries and drinkeries that typically spawn renewed interest in downtowns. But only a couple. At this point, most of the tenants appear to be law offices, real estate, beauty clinics—the sort of service-oriented businesses that may thrive on storefront visibility but don’t depend on it the way restaurants and retail do.

 

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I feel like this is one of my most cynical blog posts in quite some time—that I’m being unremittingly cruel in my exploration of a city I barely know, pointing out and attempting to connect the dots through all these negative visual indicators.   The fact is, Sioux City may simply have experienced the entire urban degradation—and its anticipated downtown revitalization—at a later pace than many other cities. Both the city and the surrounding Woodbury County have lost population in recent years, suggesting that the decline extends beyond the city limits to the region as a whole. However, population loss only began in the late 1960s—later than a lot of places, and it has been comparative modest: Sioux City of 2010 was only off about 8% from the 1960 peak. Downtown also still boasted two long-term, freestanding department stores (J.C. Penney and Younkers) until the 2000s. Meanwhile, recent proposals to transform both the Davidson and Warrior buildings into a combination of an upscale hotel, office, retail and apartments may soon bear fruit, expedited through a state-sanctioned reinvestment district. However, I can only imagine the local buzz surrounding such a proposal is less than enthusiastic, especially since the Hilton’s closure remains fresh in people’s memories.

I wish Sioux City’s downtown revitalization boosters the best, and I sympathize with their persistent disappointments up to the present. Many similar efforts have borne fruit in other cities, so the lack of success has nothing to do with complacency. If anything, it appears that so many downtown revitalization attempts have depended upon new construction of big-ticket items, when the best that Sioux City has to offer may materialize through the patchy but generally well-maintained two- and three-story storefronts in areas like 4th Street or Pearl Street across from the MidAmerican Energy building. In short, incremental improvement of low-intensity existing buildings may trump any of the proposals intended to evoke a wow factor. As I type this blog article, I sit in a coffee shop in downtown Asbury Park, New Jersey—a small city whose downtown is flourishing, after decades of suffering the reputation of not just dead but dangerous. No convention centers, no fancy hotels, no stadia, and the closest to a performing arts venue is The Stone Pony—an icon but hardly a leviathan. The metropolitan forces at work in Asbury Park are radically different from Sioux City, but the metamorphosis offers a shred of hope that any city—no matter how big or small, coastal or inland—can emerge from the brink, when the ducks are all in a row…or even just the ducklings.

8 thoughts on “Downtown revitalization: when every silver bullet proves nothing more than a blank.

  1. Chris Barnett

    Asbury Park has a boardwalk and a beach, and both are pretty obvious to a visitor. It is also within commuting range of lots of jobs in North and Central Jersey.

    Sioux City has an interstate on virtually its entire length of riverfront, though Google Maps reveals some new-ish riverfront revitalization work, which has one sad sidewalk connection to the parking lot of the event center on the downtown side of the interstate:
    https://www.google.com/maps/@42.489776,-96.4051182,3a,75y,169.41h,73.92t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1sj9tcJAfaAK-uK-Bm7etLIg!2e0!7i13312!8i6656!6m1!1e1

    You wouldn’t know that a short walk away is a riverwalk, parks, and marina:
    https://www.google.com/maps/place/Sioux+City,+IA/@42.4961855,-96.4028644,1070a,20y,224.31h,44.76t/data=!3m1!1e3!4m5!3m4!1s0x87927936476d5209:0x21980acb9e684c8c!8m2!3d42.4999942!4d-96.4003069

    If I, too, seem cynical… 😉

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Right again, Chris. And even if the interstate didn’t completely disconnect downtown Sioux City from its riverfront, the general configuration of the buildings between Fourth Street and the Interstate/River is antithetical to urbanism. Meanwhile, north of Fourth Street, the old downtown languishes. The result is an experience in which the new construction–and demolition–essentially nullify the visual impact of the old construction, undermining the possibility for landmarks or nodes as Kevin Lynch would define them. I still reserve hope for a renaissance, but it seems as though the greatest challenge for Sioux City 2016 is the aftermath of Sioux City 1990.

      Reply
  2. Matthew Edmond

    Eric, here’s something else. I noticed that in all of your pictures except for one, there are no small buildings in the downtown. They’re all massive. Maybe this is just perception based on the photos you shared, but if it’s true, there’s part of the problem. A city with nothing but big buildings means that only big developers are able to revitalize the place (and the first ones in usually want government subsidies to minimize the risk). The small and medium investors are shut out – and so are the modest renters and homeowners who don’t want or need the excess living space that an office (or hotel) conversion to residential would offer. So redevelopment is feast-or-famine.

    There are so many moving parts to sparking downtown redevelopment, but in my experience midsize cities with an overwhelming majority of big buildings in the downtown have the hardest time turning themselves around.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      I think you hit the nail on the head, Matt. To be fair, my photos weren’t entirely balanced: Sioux City does have its share of smaller, 1890s-era commercial/retail buildings. The problem is…they’re scattered over an unusually large downtown area (much bigger than you’d expect for a city that, at its peak, never passed 90,000) and their impact is diffuse, due to all those mammoth buildings and surface parking lots. It may be that the historic foundations of Sioux City’s economy–agricultural wholesaling and meatpacking–demanded large, bulky buildings, so the city always had fewer of the type that make up the majority of, for example, Walnut Street and Chestnut Street in Philadelphia. My Google Street View shots of 4th and Pearl in Sioux City try to add some balance to show that it isn’t purely massive buildings downtown.

      That said, the problem is compounded by the evidence that so many revitalization efforts have focused on more of the big-scale, game-changing initiatives: the convention center, the casino, large hotels and meeting rooms, and even re-use of boxy, windowless department stores that may not have been worth salvaging. Much of the energy shifted to these mega-projects south of the historic downtown (and right next to the interstate), meaning visitors can pull off the highway, have an evening at the casino, then get right back on and speed home without having walked a block through Sioux City’s downtown. Hopefully the city will be able to turn itself around through the smaller investors, but it won’t be easy. I’m sure their attempts so far just aren’t very evident.

      Reply
  3. Abbie Gaffey

    Pretty harsh assessment and pretty “judge-y”, too. No, Sioux City’s downtown is not a hub of excitement on a Sunday. Certainly, there have been a lot of projects that did not work out as expected by their promoters. City Fathers routinely snub the redevelopment proposals of a certain land owner who they do not like, so politics, right wing ones, are responsible for the continued vacancy of the Warrior and Davidson. Also, if your looking for downtown excitement in a Sunday, walking around the four block area dominated by City Hall, the Woodbury County Courthouse, The Federal Building and banks is not a great choice. Also put some blame on out-of-town developers. Because if you hate your own developers, fly-by-night shysters are even worse. The Hilton/Howard Johnson’s wouldn’t even accept City funds for fear of having to comply with rules. So it looks like crap and will remain that way. Private businesses make choices that we as a community get stuck living with and deriding. Having worked for the City and lived there all my life and also currently a resident of downtown in a magnificently restored school, I applaud them for at least trying everything that has ever come along. You might think it’s stupid, like making fun of skywalks when you’ve never had to go to work in an Iowa blizzard or suffered frostbite in our -35 wind chills, but maybe give a little credit that the community tries hard.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Thanks for the comments, Abbie, and while my observations may be “judge-y”, that is generally a common characteristic of any blog. And I hope you re-read my final paragraph, where I absolutely mute the harshness and recognize the efforts Sioux City has made so far. I have high hopes for the Warrior/Davidson renovations–if they ever take hold, they would allow the community to rally behind two fine, vintage buildings in the much older part of town, rather than again trying to lure everyone to something shiny and new near the freeway. And I DID explore more than just the central five blocks, and I think that–besides the Warrior/Davidson–the strongest options for Sioux City’s downtown revival come in the stretches of smaller commercial buildings…like the ones I mentioned on 4th Street. But you can’t sell me the skyways. Sure, at least a few cities have a skyway network and still boast a thriving downtown, but it rarely if ever contributes. Meanwhile, some cities have tunnel networks without a harsh climate to justify them: e.g., Houston’s huge network may shield people from the blaring heat and humidity (maybe), but downtown still largely rolls up its sidewalks after business hours. Truthfully, skyways only really emerged in the early 1960s, as yet another way for downtowns to compete with climate controlled suburban shopping malls. They didn’t succeed in bringing people downtown then, and they aren’t now. And wasn’t it just as cold—if not colder–in a Sioux City winter before all those skyways? How did people manage back then? The reality is simple: technological advancements have given us more options and we don’t have to endure the extreme temperatures, so we opt out. Much the same way other options meant we no longer had to deal with downtowns. Whether or not taste cultures fully shift back to downtowns remains to be seen. At least we’re both optimistic in that regard!

      Reply
  4. Aaron Lenig

    Well it appears that the Warrior/Davidson buildings FINALLY have some life that seems to have traction. THANKFULLY! I am almost 40 years old, and I never have seen ANYTHING in the Warrior. It’s a gorgeous building on the outside. Plans call for a 56M renovation of both buildings. The project expects to be renovated by Renovation St. Louis. If approved and all goes through would totally get that part of Downtown going. Maybe more shops on the street, etc. Plenty of street front shops that are open. I will say that the City Council over the past 10 – 15 years has been reluctant to raise any taxes for local citizens, so they do with what they have. There are sections that have potential. Each new project that comes about is another chance for success. It will never be a growing city unless there is an overall change in philosophy.

    http://siouxcityjournal.com/news/local/m-project-to-breathe-new-life-into-historic-warrior-hotel/article_7c8e469b-6439-508e-998b-df73019e28aa.html

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Hi Aaron, thanks so much for the update. I appreciate reading about this city, which you no doubt know far more about than I do. I would be curious what your thoughts are about the demand in Sioux City for another hotel. Clearly the developer is willing to risk significant money on the possibility that an untapped market exists. Very disappointed to hear that they plan to construct two more skyways, which will divert a lot of the pedestrian traffic that could really help the street-level storefronts. But this sounds like a considerable investment for two worthy structures that certain could, at the very least, inspire further redevelopment efforts elsewhere in the city’s oldest downtown quarters.

      Reply

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