Here's a salient quote from HDR, an employee-owned architectural/engineering firm specializing in civic projects, in a monograph on urban revitalization [PDF]:
Twenty years ago, Portland's central business district was a typical tired downtown, with fading retail and rising office vacancy rates, when compared to suburban office parks. Today, the light rail system, MAX, carries 50,000 passengers a day to a downtown rated as one of the most livable in America. Office vacancy rates are now lower than suburban ones, and rents are higher. The best, most attractive retail in the region is in Portland's downtown. Over $2 billion of development has been constructed around downtown station areas.
There's no overstating the message that streetcars and light rail are economic development tools, not just transportation modes. From the monograph:
From its very inception, the streetcar [in Portland] was seen first and foremost as a redevelopment tool. Its backers organized a nonprofit corporation that built and now operates the line. The corporation is made up of developers, retailers and property owners, as well as city government officials. They have succeeded.
I'm tired of people, especially at city hall, saying, 'downtown will never be what it once was. Retail will never come back.'
Downtown will go as far or lag behind as much as they allow it to. It's time for this city to get some leadership and vision.
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