What Makes a Great "Downtown?"
The best downtowns foster creativity, inclusion and innovation. They showcase what is good about a community by offering a diverse array of local architecture, art, lifestyles and things to do. Great downtowns unite residents from all walks of life, even those in the suburbs, by providing places to connect. Above all, the top-performing downtowns must maintain a high level of energy and give all residents in a city a reason to come on down.
For the most part, our top 10 lists are data-driven – more science than art. The Top 10 Best Downtowns 2014 list, however, is a bit of an exception. Yes, we started with data including improvement in retail and office vacancy rates, population gains, income growth, unemployment, the ratio of people who live and work in the downtowns, and the overall livability of the city. But numbers alone can't tell you what makes a downtown great. For that you need to see the skylines, hear the street sounds and talk to people who've been there. We took a look, talked with our well-traveled staff and made our picks.
It takes decades of careful planning, political alignments and dedication to create downtowns that attract new residents and visitors. We gave considerable weight to population growth and the ratio of residents to jobs in a downtown area because urban center experts suggest these are the most telling signs of how a downtown is doing.
"The way to have a really vibrant downtown is to have residents there who can support the businesses and provide that life on the street to make the area seem more lively and safer," says Sheila Grant, editor of Downtown Idea Exchange and Downtown Promotion Reporter. "We think they are the most vital part of the city. They give everyone in the outlying areas a sense of community and heritage."
Take a look at our picks for the best downtowns
Fort Lauderdale, FL
It's not just the nightlife scene that's hot in downtown Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The office market has really started to simmer with a vacancy rate that fell by 5.7 percent between 2012 and 2013. Businesses are moving in, attracted by the increasing number of young professionals who've settled into downtown apartments and condos. The ratio of jobs to residents in the downtown area is nearly equal, a sign that people want to live where they work. Along with new faces and new entertainment options, Fort Lauderdale residents have seen their incomes grow. The transformation from suburban beach town to more of an urban center was planned in 2003 by city leaders and further refined by a master plan update in 2007. The primary focus was to create what community leaders referred to as a "livable downtown."
The meandering New River and an intricate canal system give Fort Lauderdale a Venice-like feel. Downtown high-rises offer expansive views of the Atlantic Ocean, Intracoastal Waterway and saltwater lakes. Both tourists and locals head to Himmarshee Village for shopping, live entertainment and locally owned restaurants and pubs. Many patrons of the nearby Broward Center for the Performing Arts stop here to extend their evenings. More than 40,000 Fort Lauderdale residents live on yachts docked at the more than 100 marinas and boatyards, many of which are connected to downtown by sidewalks and bike paths covered by a canopy of trees. Families flock to the Riverwalk area in downtown, which includes a park and cultural amenities like the Bonnet House Museum and Gardens along with the Nova Southeastern University Museum of Art.
Connecting downtown with A1A and the Atlantic Ocean is Las Olas Boulevard, which offers 17 blocks of sidewalk cafes, art galleries, fine dining and sizzling nightlife. City leaders used Las Olas Boulevard, with its green plantings, wide sidewalks and colorful architecture, as a model for how the rest of downtown Fort Lauderdale should look.