Elements of Downtown Character

We just finished a charrette in downtown McComb, Mississippi, a city struggling with the same concerns as many other downtowns in the age of the automobile.  We came up with a list of downtown elements that will help them to stabilize their physical and economic structure, and have a positive impact on the environment by creating a compact, connected, and complete downtown.

Vacancy, blank walls, and empty storefronts deaden the pedestrian environment downtown. Restore the historic pattern of openings to the street.   Fill empty cases with interpretive signage, art, or visual displays of goods from nearby stores, with directional markers to find the source.

Encourage a mix of uses downtown, including daily needs for those who live and work in the area: groceries, farmer’s markets, salon, barber shop, dry cleaners, bookstore, coffee shop, casual and fine dining, music venues, nightclubs, bed and breakfasts, churches, adult education, recreation, etc.  A concentration of one type of store (for example, antiques or consignment shops) creates a monoculture and reduces the potential for downtown to be a “complete” neighborhood.

All off-street parking should be screened from view, including surface parking and structures.  This can be done using landscaping or “liner buildings” that provide active uses along the street.

Shopfronts maximize transparency and activity with clear glass windows.  More windows create interest and improve security for the occupants and the street.  If sun control is needed, install an awning instead.

Awnings provide shade and shelter from the rain for pedestrians, and offer a location for signage.  They may also provide a balcony for second-floor residents.  Keep awnings thin in profile, and in good repair.

Poor maintenance depresses property values for the whole street.  Use property maintenance codes and neighborhood pressure to require property owners to maintain buildings.

Residents add life to downtown, and constitute a built-in set of consumers.  Increase opportunities for residential units downtown, where people can live and work in close proximity.  This will have the effect of reducing traffic and parking congestion, if people can meet their daily needs within walking distance.

Encourage special decorations at holidays, brightly planted containers, individual benches and bike racks in a furnishing zone on the sidewalk that still allows passage for two people (about 6’ clear).  Outdoor dining is encouraged where there is an adequate walkway width.

Public art is another way to support vitality along the street.  Historic murals can be repainted, new ones commissioned, and freestanding works installed.  Historic markers inspire visitors who follow statewide trails, such as Civil Rights or Blues Music.   Services nearby such as parking, food and beverage, and shops capitalize on this tourism market.

Pop-up retail and restaurants are another way to encourage vitality with a low cost for entry.  Temporary galleries, seasonal shops, and time-limited food experiences draw crowds that want to enjoy the novelty of something a little different.

Encourage iconic signage.  Special signage can enhance activity, and provide a memorable experience.  Blade signs which face pedestrians advancing along the sidewalk are especially useful for walkers, but signage in building-mounted signs can address people in vehicles, encouraging them to park and walk.

(With thanks to Anderson/Kim Architects and Nathan Norris for their work in downtown revitalization.)