Wednesday, March 17, 2004


Fast-paced change in US cities has many dimensions. Traditional downtowns have mostly been downsizing for years while planners and politicians have mounted programs to reverse the trend. Many of these have failed or been too pricey to be worth imitating.

At the same time, Americans' shopping habits are fast evolving; we now visit "lifestyle centers" where we can shop, meet, relax, etc. Developers savvy enough to fathom our evolving culture have facilitated this consumer-driven trend. Even many supermarkets aspire to become such centers and are undergoing facelifts that include adding mini-coffee bars, delis, wine shops, ATMs, flower shops; some even have massage therapists to deflect the stresses of shopping.

The privatization option has even been discovered in some of the traditional downtowns. Google Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) and get approximately 16,000 hits. These are public-private ventures, abetted by favorable rules that (depending on local particulars) feed some revenues to private groups, allowing them to be innovative about their downtown neighborhoods. The results include some new oases, including lifestyle centers downtown. It may not be our fathers' downtown and it is part of the broad downscaling trend but it sure beats traditional ham-fisted renewal.

All that has recently been written about the new Times Square suggests it includes some of both.