The last 50 years of real estate development have often been innovative, but also, in many cases, downright dreadful in the approach to redeveloping downtown areas. Today, city fathers struggle with breaking from the past trends of urban sprawl and walled communities to redevelop urban areas that will increase downtown real estate values, attract businesses and residents, and enhance cultural and civic activities.

The success or failure of these endeavors will have lasting economic impact on those cities in competition to become regional destinations, capturing discretionary spending or seeking to exponentially increase their current tax base. Failure to create an economically sound downtown can ruin a city. Finding the right formula can catapult a city into the national limelight, creating a trickle down effect that results in higher-priced real estate, a strong retail and business environment, and a reputation that draws people to the area.

Do enter a third generation of thought. Before World War II, neighborhoods in urban areas seemed to evolve organically. Many times neighborhoods were organized along ethnic lines. This was immediately followed by the era of urban sprawl, massive malls, and the introduction of walled communities. At that time, there was an aversion to urban areas and people were fleeing to the perceived safety of the suburbs.

Today, we are entering the third phase: recognition that older downtown areas have significant value, coupled with a new fascination of returning to our cities. They have a sense of place. This is evident in New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Boston, which are all experiencing a real estate renaissance. This trend is also apparent in smaller cities such as West Palm Beach and Delray Beach in Florida, and Savannah.

Don’t think this is suburbia. Many cities cannot resist the temptation to create suburban centers in urban pockets. Large areas are leveled to create a contrived center that is nothing more than an outdoor mall. The problem with this strategy is that cities are not capitalizing on the already existing local flavor, history, and charm to create vibrant, dynamic areas to which crowds will flock. They tend to have a “walled-in” feeling, one that excludes the urban environment rather than invites.

Do use what you have. Other cities have experienced significant success by simply updating what is currently there, with due regard to present architecture and streetscapes, all allowing the in-fill to be, once again, organic. Delray Beach, FL is a perfect example. Through creative zoning, it allowed renovation of existing buildings, with creative choices for in-fill and in the process retained the architectural charm of an old city.

Do encourage jaywalking. Though this may sound a bit unusual, urban areas actually lend themselves to this type of civil disobedience, given the greater pedestrian density in vital urban areas. Consequently, it’s important to have no more than two lanes of road traffic, and to discourage car speeds of more than 30 mph through the use of traffic circles, speed bumps, and stop signs. Parallel parking also slows everyone down.

Don’t fall for the fallacy of mixed use. Too many developers cling to a belief that an apartment building with a few thousand square feet of retail thrown in on the ground floor constitutes “mixed use.” This is usually a formula for disaster simply because the limited number of tenants cannot support these small retailers. These small mixed-use projects have limited parking and residents tend to get angered by others using their space. These projects are clearly not a new urban environment and usually fail. A watchword for redevelopment should be “sustainability,” retail survives only with enough households conveniently located using its services and buying its goods.Don’t create competing neighborhoods. Unfortunately, West Palm Beach, FL is a classic case of how a city can hurt itself by creating competing neighborhoods. Clematis Street opened as an entertainment/cultural/retail center. Then City Place opened as a major retail center with major chain stores. Now they compete with each other, vying for the same customers from the same population. The lesson is to be careful and look at your demographics. If you like the phrase “build it and they will come,” then remember the corollary: “build too much and nobody is coming.”

Do capitalize on history. Successful downtown redevelopments reflect their cities’ history and personality. They build on their roots and successfully market their new “old” images. As a result, people know what they’re getting when they decide to live, dine or visit. It’s that “branding” thing that advertising firms love so much.

The world is sprinkled with examples of locations that have become attractions based on the authenticity of their culture. Pamplona has the running of the bulls. Sedona, AZ has capitalized on its rock formations and Indian art. Aspen, CO carved an initial reputation on its classical music festival. People flock to different neighborhoods of New York City for different experiences–to Tribeca, Chelsea, Greenwich Village, the Upper East Side, and Central Park West, to name just a few. But these experiences did not just happen; they evolved, becoming unique to their districts and locales.

There’s no question that the concept of New Urbanism will continue. It is up to the real estate community to create the proper, and profitable, destinations.

Michael S. Weiner is the managing partner of Weiner & Aronson, P.A. of Delray Beach, FL. He focuses his law practice on land use and zoning matters. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own.

Want to continue reading?
Become a Free ALM Digital Reader.

Once you are an ALM digital member, you’ll receive:

  • Unlimited access to GlobeSt and other free ALM publications
  • Access to 15 years of GlobeSt archives
  • Your choice of GlobeSt digital newsletters and over 70 others from popular sister publications
  • 1 free article* every 30 days across the ALM subscription network
  • Exclusive discounts on ALM events and publications

*May exclude premium content
Already have an account?


© 2024 ALM Global, LLC, All Rights Reserved. Request academic re-use from All other uses, submit a request to [email protected]. For more information visit Asset & Logo Licensing.


Join GlobeSt

Don't miss crucial news and insights you need to make informed commercial real estate decisions. Join now!

  • Free unlimited access to's trusted and independent team of experts who provide commercial real estate owners, investors, developers, brokers and finance professionals with comprehensive coverage, analysis and best practices necessary to innovate and build business.
  • Exclusive discounts on ALM and GlobeSt events.
  • Access to other award-winning ALM websites including and

Already have an account? Sign In Now
Join GlobeSt

Copyright © 2024 ALM Global, LLC. All Rights Reserved.