The Participants director of planning, Los Angeles director of community planning and economic development, Minneapolis deputy mayor for community and economic development, Baltimore mayor, Madison, WI city councilmember, Fresno, CA city manager, Spartanburg, SC mayor, Eugene, OR PART 1: HOW THE PANDEMIC CHALLENGED AMERICA'S DOWNTOWNS. This isn’t the first time that American downtowns have had to re-imagine themselves. Downtowns as we classically imagine them — tall office buildings clustered together, dotted with a high concentration of amenities like restaurants, stores and museums — actually took shape largely in the years following World War II when many former city dwellers bought cars and moved to the suburbs. In response, cities fashioned their urban centers into buzzing hubs of work and nightlife, built around the needs of office workers and commuters along with other visitors including tourists and business travelers. Even before the pandemic, that model was evolving; in the past two decades, people have been migrating back to live in urban centers, away from suburbs, leading to a revitalization of many downtowns. But then Covid arrived and the density that made downtowns so alluring and economically important became a deadly liability. Here’s how that looked on the ground. Commuters and office workers disappeared. Our experts all described a similar scenario in which city workers disappeared from downtown streets overnight. But the damage went deeper: College towns lost students. Big gatherings like concerts and conventions were canceled. Tourists disappeared. “The impact of Covid in our retail, office, tourism and hospitality has been significant, particularly from a workflow standpoint,” said Ted Carter, deputy mayor for community and economic development in Baltimore. The loss of office workers had a ripple effect. All of a sudden, the rhythms of downtown — busy with workers during weekdays and tourists in the evenings — were completely disrupted. “Our downtown is our business sector and people weren’t going to work. It’s our cultural center with many cultural venues. It’s our hospitality sector with restaurants and so all of those struggled with having no one there,” Eugene Mayor Lucy Vinis said. Small businesses suffered and many closed. Without the office workers and tourists that they usually rely on for foot traffic, many smaller restaurants and retail outlets struggled. Many tried to stay in business by going online or offering curbside pickup. But that wasn’t easy — after all, most restaurant owners aren’t web designers — and many found they couldn’t survive after months and eventually more than a year of low sales. The pandemic “hit really hard our small businesses in the downtown area, because what our downtown has relied on is events and our anchor, which is our baseball stadium,” said Esmeralda Soria, a city council member in Fresno, California. The Fresno Grizzlies got downgraded from a Triple-A baseball team to a Low-A baseball team, a huge blow to a city that had been trying to recover from the pandemic. Equity and racial disparities became more visible. Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, which occurred just months into the pandemic, sparked a racial justice movement across the country. But the issues that ignited those protests were there well before Floyd died, our policy experts said. “We were the catalyst with the murder of George Floyd but it’s moved everywhere,” said Andrea Brennan, director of community planning and economic development for the city of Minneapolis. During the pandemic many of our experts became more aware that their downtown spaces had become racially and economically segregated. “There is a whole segment of our community that feels like downtown isn’t for them,” Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway said. “Like many things, Covid just exposed the underlying flaws.” “There is a whole segment of our community that feels like downtown isn’t for them.” — Satya Rhodes-Conway In Baltimore, like many cities, business closures disproportionately affected communities of color, said Carter. Bertoni said Los Angeles last year saw a convergence of multiple crises in public health, the economy, racial justice and homelessness. Many of those issues had been there all along, but Covid made them far more visible than before. “It made us think about who these places and spaces belong to,” Bertoni said. Homelessness increased and moved out in the open. All the policy hackers said they noticed an increase in homelessness in their downtowns as people who lacked shelter congregated in now abandoned downtown spaces. “The pandemic has triggered a high spike in homelessness and the visibility of homelessness; and a sense of abandonment of the city core,” Vinis said. Homelessness had been growing before the pandemic, but once Covid threw people out of jobs, that threatened many families’ economic stability. While this year’s numbers are hard to come by, all the city . . . read the full article here.