Downtowns continue to evolve

Downtowns used to be home to department stores, a variety of smaller stores and government and professional offices.

The buildings that once housed Armstrong’s and Killians department stores in downtown Cedar Rapids have been put to new uses as retail moved away.
The buildings that once housed Armstrong’s and Killians department stores in downtown Cedar Rapids have been put to new uses as retail moved away.

Dan LoBianco has some advice for those who think a downtown is dead if it's no longer the retail center of a community: Get over it.

"Downtowns are not dead," said LoBianco, executive director of Dubuque Main Street. "If communities try to hang on to what it was like in the 1950s and 1960s when it was really thriving, they're not going to accomplish it."

Dubuque Main Street is committed to revitalizing the downtown area, recruiting new businesses, working with existing businesses to address their concerns and promoting the area. It has achieved success on a number of fronts, including conversion of vacant retail buildings into offices as well as attracting and retaining service retail businesses.


For those who grew up in the first half of the 20th century, downtown was the undisputed center of the American metropolis. It was where they shopped for clothing, went for a checkup at the doctor's office and occasionally took in a matinee at a movie theater.

Downtown, defined in the dictionary as the "central business district," typically was home to one or two department stores, a variety of smaller stores and most government and professional offices.

But that began to change in the latter half of the 1960s when the suburbs began to beckon with tract housing, dual-income households and acres of free parking at the mall.

Department stores such as Armstrong's in Cedar Rapids, Black's in Waterloo, Von Maur in Davenport, and Younker's in Des Moines reacted by opening new locations in shopping malls. Roshek Brothers in Dubuque signaled the future in 1968 when it moved to Kennedy Mall and closed its landmark 10-story downtown store.


McCabe's, a 114-year-old department store in downtown Rock Island, survived the Great Depression and two world wars, but the economic downturn of the early 1980s and changing shopping patterns hastened its demise in 1984. Nearby downtown Moline lost Montgomery Ward in 1974 when the retailer moved to SouthPark Mall and J.C. Penney when it followed suit in 1979.

That pattern has been repeated in much larger communities nationwide. Harvey's, Castner Knott's and Cain-Sloan disappeared from downtown Nashville, Tenn., their once majestic stores imploded to make way for parking lots.

"You're not going to see downtowns be what they used to be," said Blake Roberts, president of Roberts Planning, an urban planning consulting firm in Davis, Calif. "Downtowns have more of a specialized use that they did before. Their role has changed to providing a distinct living experience with some retail and cultural amenities.

"People are looking to go to a lot of different places within walking distance, rather than having to go downtown to take care of their daily functions."


After the demise of Killian's in November 1982 and the closing of Armstrong's in January 1991, downtown Cedar Rapids began focusing on converting retail space to offices. By the June 2008 flood, the first floors of the former Armstrong's and Killian's buildings were occupied by financial institutions and restaurants, and the upper floors were leased by a variety of office tenants.

Downtown housing also has been a focus with the conversion of adjacent warehouses into the Bottleworks Lofts & Condos and Water Tower Place. The former Roosevelt Hotel has been converted to apartments and the Oak Hill Jackson Brickstones apartments opened last year on Sixth Street SE.

Roberts, an Ames native with memories of Younker's 106-year-old flagship store in downtown Des Moines that closed in 2005 , said downtowns are reinventing themselves by relying on their natural assets.

"Downtown has always been the transportation hub in a community," he said. "There's a lot of movement to put more housing in the downtown area because public transportation is available.


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"We're starting to see business become attracted to downtowns because they offer the face-to-face contact that you don't necessarily experience in a suburban office park."

LoBianco said IBM chose Dubuque from a pool of 320 possibilities to locate 1,300 jobs for several reasons, including the nature of the historic Roshek Brothers building.

"Many of the workers attracted to these jobs prefer upper-story housing," LoBianco said. "That’s one of Dubuque Main Street’s current focuses."

Department stores, however, are not potential prospects for downtown Dubuque, LoBianco said.

"We don't fit into the statistics they use in terms of square footage and the surface parking they need," he said. "That's why we're seeing larger buildings in many communities transformed into office parks and trendy restaurants.

"We used to have a pedestrian mall with lots of tables. The pedestrian mall has been removed, but the tables that remain usually are occupied by employees of IBM and other downtown businesses on their breaks."

The National Trust’s Demonstration Program chose Dubuque for one of seven pilot programs for the Urban Main Street program in 1985. Downtown Dubuque  has seen $220 million in new construction and another $200 million in rehabilitation since that time, but LoBianco said that work has required accepting change.

"You have to convince people that the old department store is not going to be a department store anymore," he said. "We have seen department stores become a corporate insurance center and a bank's mortgage lending and trust service center."


Other downtowns in Iowa have experienced varying degrees of success.

In Davenport, Von Maur closed its flagship department store at Second and Main streets in 1986 and in 1990 moved its corporate headquarters and executive offices to a 200,000-square-foot former outlet mall north of downtown. The Redstone Building, where Von Maur had been located for more than a century, is home to the River City Music Experience, a not-for-profit educational programming organization.


Davenport has been successful in revitalization, with more than $4oo million invested in the restoration of the Adler Theater, the Forrest Block building and the historic Blackhawk Hotel. With about 250 businesses and more than 865 apartments and condos, downtown Davenport leaders believe the community is positioned to continue its momentum.

More than 80,000 people come to work in downtown Des Moines every day. Downtown Des Moines is considered the “Hartford of the West,” with a number of large insurance and investment companies maintaining a presence there, including Principal Financial Group, American Public Insurance, Wells Fargo, Wellmark Blue Cross Blue Shield of Iowa and Nationwide Insurance.

Suburban residents who commute into the city each day are being encouraged to buy or rent a condominium in downtown Des Moines. There also are efforts to develop loft apartments in buildings that housed the former Herring Motor Car Co. and Standard Glass & Paint Co. on 10th Street.

Waterloo is trying to attract new retail to its downtown area through the development of an incubator. The strategy previously proved successful with high-tech companies, many of which remained in the downtown area after they "graduated" from the incubator.

Downtown Waterloo leaders also are expecting more foot traffic when the Cedar Valley SportsPlex opens in late 2013. Ground was broken in April for the privately financed $26 million, 130,000-square-foot indoor recreation facility that will include a field house, basketball courts, fitness centers and a swimming pool.



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