Downtowns Aren’t Doomed After All Says New Study

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It’s no secret it hasn’t looked good for city centers and metropolitan districts since the onset of the pandemic. Shifts to work from home, tenants letting go of office leases, and a nix on travel during COVID dealt a heavy blow to many a downtown population and economy.

But some cities are showing renewed vital signs, says recent data from Paul Levy, in a study of 26 largest US downtowns. The report tracks recovery patterns that are breathing new life back into major downtown districts across the country, from the second quarter of 2019 to the second quarter of 2023.

Hybrid work scenarios receive credit for some of this rejuvenation. People coming back to the office – even a few days a week – are bringing foot traffic, patronizing restaurants and businesses, and transforming city centers from the ghost towns they once were during COVID.

Another boost comes from the residential population and a growing urban residential trend, with some major cities posting a higher downtown population than they had prior to 2019. While office vacancy rates lag behind at approximately 50% of previous levels, people living in city centers are helping take up the slack.

But tourism gets the highest billing as the driving force propelling recovery. Tourists are patronizing bars, museums, concert halls and sports venues, according to the study. “On an average day, the vast majority of people downtown are visitors, comprising a 62% share” of the population. By comparison, residents make up 11%, and office workers 27% of city-goers.

One of the biggest rebound success stories is found in Nashville, posting visitor levels downtown that exceed pre-pandemic numbers. Two other city centers, San Diego and San Jose, report being back up to 90% of pre-COVID levels, and 75% of cities show a visitor population above their 2020 base.

There’s another development occurring in downtown districts. They are “morphing into centers of experiences and social connection.”  An unforeseen side effect of the pandemic is that it has “accelerated their ongoing evolution into more vibrant mixed-use neighborhoods,” where residents and visitors fill the gap left behind by office vacancies.

While it won’t be a simple task to repurpose empty office buildings, and it might not be feasible to restore city centers to a replica of their pre-pandemic state, the future may not be as gloom and doom for America’s downtowns as once believed. To find out more, keep reading here.

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