Curtin Call: June 2024

June 27, 2024
Teal graphic with Julie Curtin's headshot for blog on economic development trends

Given my decades in place marketing I have had the opportunity to work with dozens of cities, urban cores, and downtown districts across the globe.  There are few things as satisfying as a healthy, dense, walkable, and vibrant downtown. Their future, however, has been uncertain in these past few years with the rise of remote work, struggling retail sales, vacant office space, and an evolving desire for what qualifies as a better quality of life. The buzz has died down and many downtown areas are hoping for a renaissance. 

Working in economic development, understanding the challenges and potential solutions to these sorts of urban transformations is vital to helping destinations address the changes their downtowns need. As I’ve reviewed the new research, articles, blogs and insights throughout the month of June, I noticed an increase in conversations surrounding momentum in big cities and a downtown resurgence.  

I’ve captured a few of these conversations in this month’s Curtin Call, to shine a light on them one more time. Read on and dive into topics including after-hours revivals, the “urban doom loop” theory, an innovative approach to homelessness, and converting empty office spaces. Continued momentum in this direction, and we might just have a downtown revival on our hands! 

1. On Philly’s Downtown Rebound

Downtown Philly might feel emptier than it did pre-pandemic on the weekdays, but on the weekends, it has nearly rebounded. It’s all thanks to thriving cultural events and outdoor dining according to this NPR article. Other major cities like Los Angeles and Houston have observed this pattern of mixed recovery driven by pent-up demand for leisure activities.  

As discussed in the last edition of Curtin Call, there’s an ongoing transformation of urban spaces advocating for easier adaptive reuse of buildings to sustain vibrancy.  

Despite positive trends, downtowns face challenges such as low office occupancy, changing retail habits, and urban issues like crime and homelessness. These topics all surface in DCI’s 2024 State of Site Selection report. Local perspectives reflect cautious optimism and Philadelphia’s Center City District CEO, Prema Katari Gupta, emphasizes the importance of continuous adaptation and proactive planning to ensure the sustained appeal of downtown areas.  

2. On Urban Recovery

You might have heard the term “urban doom loop,” a theory promoted by many commentators at the onset of the pandemic to describe the predicted waning of cities’ demographics and economic vibrancy. However, according to this recent Brookings article, that theory might be old news.  

Larger cities, particularly those with populations over 500,000, have demonstrated substantial demographic progress, attributed to increased domestic migration, higher immigration, and natural population growth. Southern cities like Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, and Miami have led this resurgence, contradicting earlier predictions of urban decline. 

The pandemic also shifted the demographic relationship between cities and their suburbs. Initially, cities outpaced suburban growth, but this trend reversed midway through the 2010s and was accentuated by the pandemic. Recent data, however, indicates a rebound in city population growth, narrowing the suburban growth advantage. In 2022-2023, more metropolitan areas saw city growth rates exceed those of their suburbs, including San Francisco, Washington D.C., and Atlanta.

3. On Solving the Homelessness Epidemic in Denver

 This article in Business Insider provides some hope for homelessness, an epidemic in the United States—and Denver is paving the way. The Department of Housing and Urban Development reported more than half a million unhoused Americans in 2023, a whopping 12% increase from the same report in 2022.  

The question is, what is being done to solve this issue? With no clear solution, Denver is taking matters into their own hands with the Denver Basic Income Project. 

With funding from the City of Denver, the Colorado Trust and an anonymous foundation, project participants were sorted into three groups according to how much money they were given. By the end of one year, a staggering 45% had housing and hundreds of thousands had been saved in public service costs. This could serve as an innovative model for other cities to follow. 

4. On Converting Office Space into Housing

 U.S. cities hoping to convert empty office towers into residential buildings should hold hope, according to Wall Street Journal. In Canada, the city of Calgary, Alberta, is doubling down on its efforts to make these conversions happen, but the process has its ups and downs.  

As we detail in our most recent edition of The State of Site Selection report, labor and construction costs are among the top factors impacting corporate location decisions, causing many Calgary projects to show signs of little progress. The key, developers say? A detailed plan, deep pockets, and the ability to move quickly. 

 All of these conversations underscore that downtown districts in big cities haven’t sung their swan song just yet—and those with roles and missions connected to place making will be there to help make sure they don’t anytime soon! 

Julie Curtin headshot
Written by

Julie Curtin

President, Economic Development Practice