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Bringing New Life Back to the City

Rick Cole reviews Roberta Brandes Gratz's Cities Back from the Edge: New Life for Downtown

Cities Back from the Edge: New Life for Downtown, by Roberta Brandes Gratz with Norman MintzWhat gives life to a city?

The latest municipal manias are "urban entertainment complexes," that feature dozens of movie screens, formula retailers and formula restaurants: a Hard Rock Cafe in every downtown. Cities spend millions to subsidize these projects. While they generate lots of traffic, they fall short on their promise to "revitalize" their bleak surroundings.

Why do cities spend so much to achieve so little? Because, according to Roberta Brandes Gratz, "Most accepted rules of thumb about downtown are wrong." In her new book, Cities Back from the Edge: New Life for Downtown, Gratz chronicles a burst of hope and achievement from places that are demonstrating that "doing it right today and tomorrow means shattering the rules of yesterday—especially the rules of city planning and transportation."

Gratz shared tales of "positive change and sustainable growth... in many American downtowns, neighborhood commercial districts, Main Streets and big city business districts," at a special talk and booksigning recently at the Zona Rosa Caffe next to the Pasadena Playhouse. The event, co-sponsored by Vroman's Bookstore, was Gratz's second visit to Pasadena, which is cited in her book as one of the outstanding examples of "the real future of downtown America." Look for Gratz to visit your town on her booksigning tour this summer.

There could hardly be a better setting for her talk. Six years ago, Gratz was Pasadena's first in a series of speakers bringing fresh ideas to the city's stale debate over growth. The rewriting of the city's General Plan was just getting under way. Gratz helped shift the discussion from whether Pasadena should develop and grow to the more important question of how it should develop and grow.

She returned to a city still committed to the new ideas she helped foster, but frustrated by uneven progress toward their realization. All across Southern California, Pasadena is cited as being in the forefront of creating more livable and prosperous neighborhoods and commercial areas. Yet the struggle continues over how real that commitment remains.

Nowhere is that more true than in Pasadena's core downtown. Old Pasadena is a roaring success (for better and worse). While the debate (and now litigation) continues over the South Lake retail project, that area of town continues to attract attention. But the question continues to hang over the stretch of Colorado Boulevard between those two districts: Will the city ever deliver on the promise of the General Plan?

Two projects on the same block symbolize the dilemma: the construction of an art cinema complex next to Vroman's Bookstore and the proposal for an office supply store between Vroman's and Target.

Laemele is building six screens next to the recently expanded Vroman's Bookstore. The architecture leaves something to be desired, but Gratz maintains that architecture is overrated as an element of downtown success. It's not so much what buildings look like as how they function. And just as importantly, what they offer inside. By that measure, there could hardly be a more ideal project for adding life to the surrounding streets.

The contrast to the proposal for the other end of that block makes the point. There's nothing wrong, and much right, about an office supply store downtown. You need more than casual shoppers for urban life and Pasadena is lucky to have a thriving office market all around the site. What's dead wrong is tearing down the old Hall's Jewelers building for a one-story windowless box: another squat suburban intrusion into an urban setting struggling to be reborn. Instead of adapting their placeless design to the unique opportunities of the Playhouse District, the chain store is pushing a brain-dead formula that turns away from the real street toward the parking lot.

"Most big box retailers don't know how to be urban, even when they locate in a city," Gratz writes. "They don't understand that the urban pedestrian shopper does not require the same things as a suburban car driver. They don't even realize that they may have more customers within a ten minute walk than within a 10-mile drive."

You don't have to be an architect or urban planner to care about these basic choices for the cities we live in. Gratz maintains what's really needed is "the commitment of local residents, business owners and hometown corporations." People like you. You might want to drop by you local bookstore if Gratz stops by, to meet the author of an invaluable guidebook for bringing new life back to the city you call home.


Rick Cole has been city manager of Azusa, California for five years. As Mayor of Pasadena, he was a leader in that city's "smart growth" renaissance. Mr. Cole is also a member of Terrain.org's editorial board.
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Cities Back from the Edge: New Life for Downtown

by Roberta Brandes Gratz with Norman Mintz

John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
ISBN 0-471-14417-7






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