Is the Push Downtown Alienating the ‘Burbs?

The City of Amarillo, Texas announced plans this week to redesign its wayfinding signage downtown, hoping to give its central business district a more defined appearance to visitors.  They’re currently evaluating two style options for the signage, one contemporary and one a bit more…Texan.  The designs and the way they plan to pay for the signs seem innocent enough.

That is, until I read the comments from readers.

One Amarillo resident, in particular, was put off by the city’s continued focus on downtown, suggesting they are neglecting the surrounding areas. “Why is downtown more important than the rest of the city?” he asked.  “Amarillo is one big community but it just doesn’t seem to be treated that way.”

Normally I would discount the rants of the anonymous commenters, yet I had to ask myself, could this guy be right?

Now, I’ve never been to Amarillo but I’ve heard this sort of argument before about other cities.  There’s an obvious resurgence happening across many city centers and local governments have been more than willing to put their money in the pot, so to speak.  Councils are approving tax breaks for relocating businesses, giving away land to developers, and even stepping in as developers themselves.

But is this push toward downtown development happening at the expense of the suburbs?  I’d say not.  The way I see it, real estate development is an expensive and risky venture and, for many decades, the suburban model of growth has proven to be easy money for investors.  Developers and bankers alike know what to expect when building a 200-lot single-family housing subdivision or a grocery store-anchored strip mall.  Even today, it’s a lot more complex to build a high-rise hotel with condominiums and ground-floor retail.  Thus, cities provide incentives to draw that type of development.

Furthermore, I would argue that the biggest chunk of our local tax money is spent supporting the infrastructure outside our downtowns.  Maintaining those wide boulevards, endless sewer and water pipes, and providing fire and police protection is simply more expensive in low-density suburbs.  I recently saw an example (that I can’t seem to find now) of two cities with near-identical populations, yet one had significantly fewer fire stations and firefighters because its residents were more densely populated.  Talk about a major cost savings.

And what about the ways in which center cities have been largely forgotten?  City schools are still being abandoned in favor of sprawling campuses, as are hospitals, department stores, movie theaters, and so on.  To put it bluntly, Downtown has been no one’s golden child for a long time, and I’m sure Amarillo is no exception.

What’s your take?  I’d love to hear what you think.

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