In 2014, Money Magazine named a suburb of Dallas-Fort Worth the best place to live in the nation. The honor went to McKinney, and the magazine cited its redeveloped historic downtown with cobblestone streets and brick buildings that house “a mix of art galleries, boutiques, and farm-to-table restaurants, as well as basics like a butcher, shoe repair, and farm-supplies stores” as one of the major reasons for the win.
Revitalizing historic downtowns is a trend that’s caught on in North Texas. It’s something Scott Polikov of Gateway Planning Group Inc. is an expert at; his firm is responsible for the downtown redevelopment in McKinney, Duncanville, Roanoke and several cities in other states, and he’ll be working on Frisco’s in the near future.
By why pour money into revitalizing downtowns?
“If you don’t redevelop, you’re not going to lose anything, but you’re not going to make an increase in sales tax and property tax that your city can then reinvest. If you’ve reinvented your downtown for the next century, that will keep generating taxes,” Polikov says. “The reason these historic centers are so attractive is they provide an authentic experience. Not everybody wants to be in a contemporary environment."
A former attorney in Washington, D.C., Polikov went back to school for urban planning after serving on the board of Capital Metro (Austin’s version of Dallas Area Rapid Transit) and witnessing the dysfunction firsthand.
“I became a student quickly of the disconnect between our investments in transportation and place-making. I just knew that was my calling,” Polikov says. “Walkable urbanism is the common denominator of all our work.”
And Polikov says reversing “leakage” is the most important principle in creating a successful downtown. “Leakage is when people take money from one place, where they work or live, and spend it elsewhere,” he explains. “We try to figure out how to have people spend money in the historic centers where they live or work and attract others to come in to also spend their money.”
Polikov’s firm made its name in downtown revitalizations with Roanoke, a town of only 7,000 off State Highway 114 halfway between Fort Worth and Denton. In 2004, when the town started the project, Roanoke was dead, according to Polikov, except for Babes Chicken Dinner House and The Classic Café. Car-repair shops dotted the main drag. It wasn’t somewhere you’d go to hang out.
When Polikov stepped in, the town wasn’t shopping around for a redevelopment. It was simply trying to settle a dispute about whether it would make more financial sense to earmark part of downtown for residential use or keep it commercial.
Polikov offered an alternative.
“A comprehensive downtown redevelopment could accommodate all those interests instead of having to pick and choose,” he says. “They decided to redo two-thirds of a mile on Oak Street, which is their Main Street, for $8 million. We did a market study and projected the increase in tax base [and found they would] receive that back in property taxes and in sales tax within 20 years, which was a very conservative estimate. It turns out that $8 million paid back in 10 years.”
Now, Roanoke has become a destination, attracting restaurants such as Twisted Root and Hard Eight BBQ and even the Peabody Hotel straight out of Memphis.
Babe's Chicken Dinner House served 175,000 meals per year before the redevelopment and had wait times of two hours as one of the only places to eat in the area; it’s now grown its business to serve 300,000 meals per year. The Texas House of Representatives gave the city the title of “The Unique Dining Capital of Texas."
It’s a term called “agglomeration,” Polikov explains. Businesses are attracted to open near other successful businesses, even if they’re direct competitors. Instead of detracting, it becomes a synergistic relationship.
“It’s why car dealers tend to cluster; it’s a grow-the-pie-together concept,” he says. “Downtowns really thrive on the clustering of restaurants.”
There’s something of a special recipe that makes these revitalized downtowns so successful. The ingredients aren’t a secret, but they all have to be present to make the sauce come together.
Polikov's recipe for main street success includes points such as:
1. Connect downtown to neighborhoods around it with infrastructure like sidewalks and bike paths.
2. Attract more restaurants, shopping and venues, so downtown becomes an entertainment destination and the area retains people after dinner is over.
3. Create clear destinations and intuitive layouts anchored around public spaces, so people can navigate easily through the revitalized area.
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4. Make shared parking a priority. Every business can’t have its own lot, or it interrupts the flow of foot traffic.
5. Connect downtown to the surrounding neighborhoods with appropriate residential “infill” as well as with infrastructure. For instance, townhomes make a great buffer between historic Victorian houses and dense urban apartment blocks.
It all sounds intuitive but oftentimes isn't for developers. Polikov says something as simple as building scale has to be considered when making a downtown easy to navigate.
“The key is the historic cores already have the bones, the DNA. It’s already there, so how can you take advantage of it in the modern context?” Polikov asks. “You don’t want to sterilize an authentic downtown in the name of progress.”