January 2020 | by Ben Levenger, President, Downtown Redevelopment Services, LLC – a CMSC Professional Affiliate

Hybridizing downtown and strategic plans for a more action-oriented and implementable community plan

Background

A downtown plan is the hallmark or calling card of a community that is looking to clearly define its path towards a revitalized downtown. The traditional downtown plan outlines what the recommendations are, where they will be implemented, and how much they will cost. These plans are a fantastic way to solidify the goals or direction of your community, yet they lack the necessary thought and planning to ensure the recommendations are implementable. This step often falls to a strategic plan by which time many communities have become apathetic about the planning process. It is at this point that, as a consulting firm, we notice many communities struggle, flounder, and become disenfranchised with the downtown revitalization process.

Understanding this, the logical solution is to create a style of document that is a hybrid of the traditional downtown plan and the strategic plan. Selecting the best parts of each and combining them into a single, and more direct, document will help a community more easily and seamlessly move into implementation. This direct approach is the topic of this article. The article outlines some practical ways for making a strategic downtown plan that will help bring about catalyst changes in your downtown, building on easily completed projects and growing momentum to meet ultimate objectives.

After years of preparing downtown plans that were long, wordy, and filled with graphics or charts, and helping many communities complete strategic plans for previously completed downtown plans, it became apparent to us that only a small percentage of the recommendations ever met completion for myriad reasons, including:

  • lack of adequate funding for larger projects
  • non-prioritized goals causing loss of direction
  • political turnover or change
  • lack of necessary direction to make the catalyst changes.

Noticing this, it became clear that there was a need for more efficient and effective downtown plans, ones that could provide quick wins without losing sight of the main game. Understanding the potential downfalls and issues with implementation, we determined that a successful downtown plan should:

  • be action-oriented with specific goals
  • build on existing community capacity
  • utilize available assets and create new ones
  • create a shared vision for the community.

Tips and tricks

Knowing that the above outlined goals should be used in every downtown plan in order to help ensure implementation, we have outlined below the tips and tricks that have learned from working with communities across the country. It is through these methods that any community, large or small, can identify a common goal and begin to make meaningful change in their downtown from day one. These tips and tricks are:

  1. Identify and utilize your community’s current capacity

    — Understanding your community’s current capacity, both fiscal and time commitments, will help you understand how to create, set, and prioritize goals. By focusing on the recommendations or goals that will capitalize on available resources and be the most impactful, you can build momentum for downtown revitalization with little to no costs. As we have found, often the simple items are just as impactful as larger, multi-year projects. For example, while waiting for the resources to complete a comprehensive streetscape, install flower baskets, banners or other low cost items — these will have an immediate effect that will not only beautify your community but encourage your citizens to keep going. While this may be a temporary diversion from larger issues, this tactic will help your community begin to feel some “wins” and build upon them until the larger projects are attainable.

  2. Answer the “Five W’s and one H”

    — Everyone has heard that recommendations should be specific and time bound. While this is true, we recommend taking this one step farther. For each goal or recommendation, you should be able to answer the following:

  • Who will complete the task?
  • What will the task require for successful implementation?
  • When will the important milestones be reached and the task completed?
  • Where will the task be completed?
  • Why is the task important?
  • How will the recommendation be completed? This one should specify the means and methods for implementation.

It is by answering these questions that every Main Street group or community will be able to determine accountability for each recommendation or goal. Through answering these questions a roles and responsibilities matrix can be created (example 4). This matrix is a living document meant to be updated and assessed annually as work is completed.

  1. Plan for the short and the long

    — Often communities struggle with raising funds or meeting the match dollars for larger projects or recommendations. These communities are focused on a single goal. By focusing on one ultimate goal, a community cannot make incremental changes. Understanding this, it is recommended that you plan for the short and the long. In this way you will help build momentum by undertaking small projects, building a stronger tax base, and ensuring an easier implementation for larger projects. By planning for the following timeframes, a Main Street group will limit apathy and negative attitudes towards downtown revitalization:

  • Years 1 to 2

    — In these years the easiest projects should be completed, such as:

    • Signage
    • Banners
    • Flower baskets
    • Site programming
    • Developer Readiness Training.
  • Years 3 to 5

    — These years should focus on projects that need some financial backing, yet are not multi-year projects, such as:

    • Façade programs
    • Wayfinding signage
    • Placemaking and branding
    • Site amenity installation
    • Parks and recreation integration.
  • Years 6 to 10

    — Larger, long-term projects are completed within these years, capitalizing on the earlier work. Often these projects require significant lead time in design, increased costs, and physical construction of infrastructure. Projects for this range include:

    • Streetscape projects
    • Adaptive reuse projects
    • Civic space creation
    • Permanent outdoor dining space creation.

All of these ranges and recommendations should be simultaneously planned and prioritized. It is through planning for the short and the long that your community will be able to understand what can be done immediately and how to build momentum for larger projects in the long term.

  1. Be action-oriented

    – Often downtown plans lack adequate action items for successful implementation. While many offer strong recommendations and meet the overall community goal, there is a lack of definition to ensure implementation. Understanding this, the recommendations should be streamlined and reduced to only action-oriented items that will be catalysts for the community. By ensuring that all recommendations are action-oriented, a Main Street group will be able to:

  • ensure they are useful in a roles and responsibilities matrix
  • ensure they can meet the “Five W’s and one H”
  • determine the appropriate means and methods for implementation.
  1. Be clear, concise, and specific

    — Many downtown plans are hundreds of pages long. While this may work for larger communities who have the staff to focus on neighborhoods or areas of the downtown, small communities struggle with these larger documents. A strong downtown plan should be:

  • no more than 40 pages long
  • highly graphic and specific
  • community-driven.

It addition, it should:

  • create a deep understanding of the baseline conditions in the community
  • prepare a single downtown or community-wide goal for the revitalized downtown
  • prepare a clear, concise, and easy-to-follow path for bridging the two points of “existing conditions” and “desired community goal.”

It is out of the need for this clear, concise, and specific document that a hybridized downtown and strategic plan can be created or envisioned. Through using this hybrid plan, your community can:

  • remove unnecessary sections or text
  • reduce downtown planning consultant costs or internal staff time.

These tips and tricks are provided as just a few recommendations. It is understood that every community is independent and has its own characteristics. Not all of these recommendations may work in every community, yet they should be considered as part of your ongoing planning process or yearly review of the strategic downtown plan.

Benefits of a hybrid plan

As well as understanding how to create a hybridized plan, it is equally important to outline the benefits of the strategic downtown plan process. While the specific benefits will vary for each community, it is important to remember that a more effective and efficient downtown plan process will:

  1. Improve levels of communication
  2. Shorten implementation windows for recommendations
  3. Build a common theme for residents to support
  4. Create a larger pool of community capacity for volunteering and implementation tasks
  5. Reduce community apathy for planning projects
  6. Increase ownership by local residents to undertake the recommendations or goals
  7. Increase community resident focus on a single task or goal to rally around and successfully complete.

By achieving these benefits, your community will become more ready to tackle the often long and winding road that is downtown revitalization.

Conclusion

While preparing a downtown plan is perhaps not the most glamorous or popular of jobs, it is one of the most important ones your Main Street group or municipality will ever undertake. Through utilizing these simple, yet effective, methods, your community will be able to realize a revitalized downtown prepared to meet the needs of residents and visitors alike. Completing these steps will help your community become more focused, action-oriented, and strongly vested in the overall revitalization process.

 

About the author
Ben Levenger is an AICP planner and registered landscape architect. He is the President of Downtown Redevelopment Services, LLC (DRS), a boutique planning firm specializing in assisting communities through downtown planning and adaptive reuse projects. In addition, he is a founding member of DRI-RR, Inc.; a non-profit formed to help trading communities become proactive with private development to meet under-served community needs or amenities. He also is a “member-at-large” in the Cleveland section of APA and serves on the membership committee for the Cleveland section of ULI.