In the 19th and early 20th centuries, America’s civic and commercial hubs were typically located in the same place: downtown. Today, government buildings and civic institutions—town halls, courthouses, libraries, post offices, museums, schools—are often located outside downtown areas. There are many communities, however, where downtown remains both an economic and civic center, and these places are thriving.
The city of Denver, Colorado has been working for nearly a decade to reclaim its Civic Center Park and, by doing so, revitalizing the surrounding downtown. Denver’s Civic Center Park, which is just south of the city’s Central Business District, is home to the Denver Art Museum, Denver Public Library, the Colorado State Capitol, the City and County Building of Denver, and the Colorado State Judicial Building, among other institutions. Officially opened in 1919, this 12-acre park boasted classical elements such as an outdoor amphitheater, and its perimeter was lined with the city’s cultural institutions and government buildings. For decades it functioned as the city’s central gathering space.
By the early 2000s, the park had fallen into disrepair and was largely avoided. But in 2005 the city stepped up to the plate and created a master plan for revitalization of the park and the surrounding area. City officials invited the public to participate in the planning process, soliciting input on everything from the adaptive reuse of buildings to the construction of bike paths. Civic Center Park’s proximity to downtown Denver ranked as one of the most popular responses to questions about what the public liked about Civic Center.
Today, with much rehabilitation work completed, the park has been transformed and now hosts new programs and events. As part of its kick-off, the new park was showcased when Denver hosted the 2010 Biennial of the Americas, an international celebration of arts, culture, and ideas. More changes have taken place since then. In the spring of 2012, the elegant 1909 Greek-Revival style Carnegie Library, located in the northwest corner of the park and converted to municipal office space in the mid-20th century, will reopen to the public as the History Colorado Center, attracting new visitors to the area. By strengthening its Civic Center—”the robust center of downtown Denver,” in the words of the master plan—Denver is strengthening both its civic identity and economy.
On Long Island, the historic 1901 Old Nassau Courthouse is an example of a once-neglected historic public building that has now been restored, benefiting two nearby downtowns, Mineola and Garden City. Too small to use as a courthouse by the 1930s, it was converted to municipal offices and gradually fell into a cycle of neglect and decay for another 60 years until it was barely occupied by 2000. In 2001 the building was reimagined and by 2008, it was once again the centerpiece of county government—renamed the Theodore Roosevelt Executive and Legislative Building—a vibrant, functional civic space, fully restored and with a new wing added to the rear to house the Nassau County Legislature. The Preservation League of New York State described the building’s restoration as “a model of smart growth and sustainable development.”
In Franklin, Tennessee, approximately 20 miles south of Nashville, business owners and residents protested when the U.S. Postal Service released plans to close the downtown post office and instead build a new post office in a field along a highway. The most vocal opponents of the proposed move were senior citizens, who viewed the post office as an essential gathering space; many of them would have been unable to drive to the new location. The National Trust for Historic Preservation placed the historic post office in downtown Franklin on its list of most endangered places. Today, the post office remains downtown and, in concert with other improvements, a downtown that had once been more than 50 percent vacant is prospering, with well over 100 new businesses.
Look around and you’ll discover downtowns that are hubs not only of commerce, but also of government, the arts, and education. These places serve as important links to the history of communities, build pride of citizenship, enhance the quality of life for residents, and succeed when other local economies don’t.