Will this historic downtown recover? (photoessay)
Posted May 6, 2011
As I often write, cities and regions need strong cores in order to be sustainable. If all the action is on the fringe, you can find your community in danger of becoming the next Detroit, shrinking in the middle but relatively stable on the outskirts. (In the last decade, the central city of Detroit lost a staggering 25 percent of its population; yet the Detroit metro region as a whole lost only 3.5 percent.) Goodbye to walkability, identity and vitality, hello to more sprawling land consumption, decay and driving long distances to get anything done.
Lynchburg, Virginia isn’t Detroit, by a long shot. It is smaller and much more scenic and pleasant. But its downtown, mostly intact architecturally, isn’t as strong as it needs to be to support sustainable living. Not yet, anyway.
Last week, I had the honor of addressing a meeting in Lynchburg, staying in a quite lovely downtown hotel fashioned out of an old shoe factory, up the hill from the James River waterfront. On my first day there, I went for a stroll around 7 o’clock or so on a beautiful, still-sunlit early evening, exploring the place for the first time. I was struck by two observations:
- Downtown Lynchburg has not just good but great historic architecture, terrific “bones” to support a vital place.
- But there were no people anywhere to be seen. It felt a little like an elaborate movie set, after filming for the day had finished. Some buildings were vacant and deteriorating significantly.
So the question is whether this photogenic city of about 75,000 people, with some significant assets, can reestablish the vitality of its core. I’m hoping that the answer will be yes, and in today’s post I will mostly use the photos I took while there to show why Lynchburg is worth caring about.
The local officials are certainly trying. One of the sessions I attended at the conference was about the city’s revitalization, and it is clear to me that the planners and architects get it. They know where they need to go, and are taking some steps to get there: refurbishing the waterfront, improving civic infrastructure and street connectivity, planning around key corridors, doing their part with municipal investment to make downtown more hospitable to private investment.
I got the impression from that session that the downtown master plan posted on the city’s web site, now a decade old, isn’t fully up to date with what the city is currently doing. But it’s not a bad start to understanding the issues:
“The extent of vacant historic buildings in the downtown area is sizable and affects the pedestrian environment and public perception. Over the past several months, a few new restaurants and businesses have enlivened Main Street, yet there continues to be a lack of critical mass in the commercial, retail, housing and entertainment markets . . .
“Revitalization of the downtown and riverfront is not without challenges, however. Downtown is struggling to compete with the city’s suburbs, where retail, industry, and corporate businesses have relocated. With easy access and extensive available land, residential preferences are weighted toward the outskirts, although a committed group of residents has reclaimed and improved the historic neighborhoods downtown. Filling the extensive vacancies downtown will require a significant change in perception for people to realize the advantages of the culture, recreation and history of the downtown environment.”
Much of Lynchburg's downtown falls within a designated historic district, by the way, even if some of the historic fabric hasn't been treated that well.
As those paragraphs from the master plan were written in 2000, they could just as easily have been applied to a large number of cities great and small across the country. Yet many old downtowns are now making impressive comebacks. Lynchburg has clearly taken some important steps – I stayed in a great restored building, had a couple of good meals, and visited a couple of nice, arty storefront businesses all on foot downtown while I was there. But my overall sense is that the planners’ 2000 description of Lynchburg remains essentially accurate, if slowly improving, today.
Two transportation quirks have been among the factors influencing this scenario. First, Lynchburg is one of very few cities of its size to have been bypassed by the Interstate Highway System. That actually is good news for the retention of historic architecture and relative lack of chain stores, but maybe not so good for maintaining a robust economy in the late 20th-century. Second, the downtown resides on a very steep hillside that can limit walkability. Traversing the length of Main Street, along the side of the hill and parallel to the river, for example, is easy; but to get up to Court Street just a couple of blocks away, you must climb. If you're starting from the waterfront instead of from Main Street, the trek to the top of downtown is longer and even steeper. If you make the climb, you’ll be rewarded with great views; but it might be a challenge for those not so young and able.
At one point the city even installed an ugly erector set of an elevator, sticking out from the hillside, to assist the climb. I wonder if at some future point it might be feasible to install a small funicular instead (such as this one in Bern, Switzerland), to more naturally follow the slope instead of marring it. But I digress.
In some parts of downtown, you can begin to see snippets of the vision that city leaders are aiming for:
But the economic conditions for the city appear murky at best; certainly the large riverfront manufacturing companies are now long gone, and it is not entirely clear to me what, if anything, has replaced them economically. (Some of the old factory buildings have been restored and adapted for modern uses; others remain broken and highly visible reminders of a thriving economy that once was.) City-Data reports that the city’s biggest employment sectors are construction (10 percent), education (7 percent), and hospitality (6 percent). On the plus side for new businesses seeking to locate in the city, commuting times are reported to be among the lowest in the country, with the median around fifteen minutes.
Let's hope the economy picks up. If it does, we know the national trends are in the right direction for revitalization. In the meantime, downtown Lynchburg, architecturally rich and gradually becoming better positioned to take advantage, waits to be discovered and appreciated for the immense potential that it contains.
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Kaid Benfield writes (almost) daily about community, development, and the environment. For more posts, see his blog's home page.
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