The Green Column #55

Downtown: A tale of two cities

October 26, 2011—What do you think of when Downtown Lincoln is mentioned? My guess is you most likely will think of the capitol and state government, or perhaps the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, or maybe the Haymarket and the relatively new farmer’s market. Or maybe your principal and immediate image is tall buildings, traffic, and intense uses. If you are a frequent visitor to downtown for dining, movie theaters, or an evening on the town, you may think of downtown Lincoln as a busy place, lots of people, walking and socializing—choices for entertainment.

Another response from some Lincoln residents could be, “I don’t know. I seldom need to be in the downtown area.”

But another guess on my part is that most of us will be less likely to immediately think of downtown as a “neighborhood.”

Depending on the length of your residency in Lincoln, you may have several images of the past, because, if nothing else, the physical and image characteristics of uses of the properties and buildings in downtown have been dynamic, changing, almost always becoming a different environment than it was in yesteryear, or even yesterday.

For instance, I recall when my family and I first moved to Lincoln in 1973, downtown was where you sought fulfillment of most of your commercial and business needs. There were department stores, a major grocery, professional and business offices, banks, hardware stores and daily services places (like shoe repair, barbers, office supplies, beauticians, etc.) and limited on-street parking. Now, almost all these places have become uses of a different type.

Downtown Lincoln, as a specific place has been transformed, in significant ways at least twice, and the third major transformation is already underway. Each transformation has brought economic development, growth and changes of relevance to the trends of the times. A glance at history and the myriad changes in downtown suggests that the heart of our city has experienced major transformation in approximate 60-year cycles.

In the beginning, in the 1860s a district for commerce and business was mapped between the railroads (with the associated commercial storage and warehouse needs that became known as the Haymarket) on the west, state university property to the north, and state government property to accommodate the new state capital to the south. The original plat of the city, at the edges of the Salt Creek and the commercially important Salt Flats, envisioned residential districts to begin at the edges of this commercial, institutional and business district, and to extend in the four directions of the compass, in a grid pattern of streets and properties.

On the ground this “districts within a district” layout of the original city likely seemed generous and the distances between the principal uses likely seemed to provide great separation between the public, educational and commercial uses. But bear in mind that the mode of transportation was foot-power and horse-power. There is even a horse-power explanation (perhaps a myth) for the extra-wide Lincoln streets in the downtown as being laid out to accommodate the u-turning radius of a six-team horse-drawn wagon at any point of driver discretion in each mid-block.

It turns out that these early planning decisions have made Lincoln unique in the fact that today the distances seem quite small and the downtown district is, by typical zone relationships of other cities, very compact and interconnected. The proximity of these commercial, business, and public uses sub-districts has accommodated the market and socially driven changes of uses for individual properties throughout these cycles of transformation.

The second cycle of downtown transformation began in the early 1920s with the advent of the automobile and our love affair with personal mobility. Between approximately 1920 and 1980 downtown changed from a primary place of business and commerce to an alternative to the locations of auto-oriented shopping centers and strip-malls, including the mega-box, all-purpose retail stores and discount houses scattered around the city.

In this second cycle of market growth, based upon choices and freedom of movement, many cities, large and small, altogether lost the use and purposes of a downtown commercial district. They did not have the close walking-range proximities of public and mixed uses.

Today, at approximately a halfway point of the third 60 years of transformation we can see the trends toward the characteristics of the future. Downtown Lincoln is becoming another alternative district—it is becoming an urban neighborhood.

Market evidence has shown us over the past 10–20 years that significant numbers of people are seeking living environments and the proximities of daily needs and conveniences that are once again based upon foot-power, not automotive power. They are seeking these alternative life-styles for multiple reasons—convenience and time-related stress reductions, financial hedges against rising costs of energy, transportation, and housing, and desires, by some, for more social interaction within a more diverse neighborhood of civic and community-minded individuals.

Since the 1980s there have been more than 55 properties developed in the downtown district that have multiple residents in individual and mixed-use units of housing. These units and the neighbors who occupy them create a vibrant mix of social, economic, and life-style diversities. This transformation is in response to new market demands for alternatives to the edge, low density neighborhoods in Lincoln. The size of the housing demand will bring specific market-driven products and services into the new neighborhood.

The upcoming rewrite of the Comprehensive Plan, LPlan2040, will attempt to accommodate this growing neighborhood along with the traditional choices of a growing and urbanizing Lincoln.

© Lincoln Green by Design