Dayton playbook: Downtown’s weakness may become its strength

Dayton and a couple of its partners are working on a new playbook for accelerating downtown investment that they hope will lure new projects to the urban core.

New housing has fueled downtown’s rebirth, and officials and urban planners believe the creative economy and newer generations of workers will want to move into the core if it has the right “vibe” and amenities.

“People want to be where the action is,” said John Gower, urban design director and placemaking engineer with CityWide and the city of Dayton, who is helping develop the framework. “They want to be in places that are attractive, exciting and beautiful.”

One focus of the new playbook is improving the street-level experience along Main Street, which has a high concentration of unused commercial spaces.

Gower said office vacancies for years were a weakness for downtown, but they now present one of the best opportunities for economic growth.

Dayton, CityWide and the Downtown Dayton Partnership have been developing a “playbook of possibilities” for what downtown can become in coming years, Gower said.

The framework contains conceptual renderings and ideas to get people thinking and talking about what kinds of projects could transform buildings and blocks, he said.

The draft document, which is expected to be completed later this year, will provide redevelopment and streetscape ideas for more than 68 buildings and sites.

But these are not plans ― they’re just ideas, officials say.

“I am always real careful about the concepts we put out there because people will look at it and go, ‘That’s the plan,’” Gower said. “No, this is a way to stimulate a conversation through visuals and what could happen there ― it’s not the end point, it’s the beginning point.”

The Central Business District has about 6 million square feet of space, and about half of that was vacant or heading to abandonment in 2013, Gower said.

The vacant space was more than twice the size of the Dayton Mall, which has 1.4 million square feet of space.

But planners and city officials years ago developed a vision and framework to reposition some empty and underutilized downtown properties with potential, like the Dayton Arcade and Dave Hall Plaza.

Downtown in recent years has seen significant new investment, and some visionary projects have come to life with the opening of the Levitt Pavilion Dayton at Dave Hall Plaza and the rehab of the 420,000-square-foot Dayton Arcade.

Other revitalization projects are happening along Main Street, like the multi-million-dollar renovation of the Dayton Convention Center.

Downtown’s appeal has changed over the years, and planners and officials have had to modify their redevelopment strategies and vision to match the market demand.

Downtown went from being a retail and shopping center in the 1960s to a hub of corporate and bank offices in later decades, which later shuttered or fled to other locations, city staff said.

But downtown in the last six years has been transformed by new housing and other investments.

Gower and city officials believe the Main Street corridor and the core can attract a mix of uses, including housing, food and beverage providers, cottage industries and creative businesses and entrepreneurs, similar to the kinds of tenants that have been moving into the Dayton Arcade.

Growing numbers of businesses and people want to be in urban environments that are distinct, diverse and lively, Gower said, and downtown can offer a unique experience unlike anything else in the region.

This new framework ― which can be thought of as an aspirational workbook or idea book ― envisions leveraging economic activity through civic investments and amenities, Gower said.

Conceptual renderings recently shared with the Dayton City Commission show bustling sidewalks, activated outdoor spaces, new landscaping, art patios, seating and streetscape features in a variety of places, such as Courthouse Square.

“These are tremendous ideas,” said Dayton City Commissioner Jeffrey Mims Jr.

Dayton City Manager Shelley Dickstein said the city is finishing visioning plans for its various geographies.

She said the city will put the framework with its plans to create a comprehensive redevelopment playbook.

Dayton City Commissioner Matt Joseph said it’s important the city shares the framework when it’s complete to get the word out to potential developers.

Downtown has become a centerpiece of the region partly because thoughtful investments in recent decades set the stage for its revival, like the construction of the ballpark, said Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley.

“I think the great thing about Dayton and its government is it doesn’t just throw out all ideas just because someone new comes into office,” she said. “They build off each other, even when new administrations completely disagree about a lot of other things.”

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