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Pandemic Lessons: Urban Planners Are Rethinking Downtown Spaces


The pandemic has a lot of us rethinking how we live and work. That's true for the people who help design cities, too. Urban planners are seeing new problems and potential opportunities for renovating downtowns, and a massive injection of federal funding could provide a chance to cross some things off their to-do lists. Tyler Scott of Michigan Radio reports.

TYLER SCOTT, BYLINE: As the capital of Michigan, Lansing's downtown economy has relied largely on state employees who commute into the city to work and spend their money. But economic developer Bob Trezise worries that if state employees are allowed to work remotely after the pandemic, that could affect downtown plans in a number of ways.

BOB TREZISE: Because so many businesses, particularly food industries, restaurants, really rely on that 8-to-5, you know, population being captured and down here in the downtown area.

SCOTT: Lansing Mayor Andy Schor is also hoping that the state will help the city through this weird transition period by investing to build more attractive residential neighborhoods near downtown, something that's been a long-term goal of the city.

ANDY SCHOR: With all the dollars coming in from the federal government, it would be great to see that go towards economic development and housing in our - especially in our downtown, walkable areas.

SCOTT: The state of Michigan expects to have about a $3.5 billion budget surplus thanks to federal COVID-19 relief funds. Lansing got a good chunk of money, too. Mayor Schor says most of that will go toward making up lost revenue from sources like income tax and parking during the pandemic. But some small- and medium-sized cities with walkable downtown neighborhoods and affordable housing have been successful in luring new residents recently. University of Toronto professor and urbanist Richard Florida says much of that activity predates the pandemic.

RICHARD FLORIDA: I could see that happening a half-dozen years ago, and kind of the pandemic just shifted the tables a little bit or accelerated the transition in their favor.

SCOTT: Cities' approaches will likely vary in the way they apply federal COVID relief funds. In Dayton, Ohio, Mayor Nan Whaley says there may be enough money to invest in local economies.

NAN WHALEY: There's a balance, too, with the ARPA money for our cities of, you know, wanting to get money out the door or filling budget holes that you see - that you have because of COVID. But then there's also this huge opportunity to really work to create some opportunity in some places that, frankly, you know, haven't been able to make it work because of, you know, lack of investment.

SCOTT: Whaley heads the U.S. Conference of Mayors, and she says cities are waiting for final rules from the U.S. Treasury about exactly how they're allowed to spend the federal funds. She says some cities will have to use most of their federal relief aid to cover the costs of dealing with the pandemic. Across the country in Wichita, Kan., officials expect to get up to $70 million in federal relief aid. Mayor Brandon Whipple says for his city, that's a significant windfall.

BRANDON WHIPPLE: This is the first time where we actually have a bit of money to invest in the community to play with, where we're not in a budget crisis.

SCOTT: Whipple hopes to use a few million to incentivize affordable housing, a few million for job training and other initiatives to try and attract more residents.

WHIPPLE: Because if we do this right, we can take advantage of this moment. We've got to find meaning in that terrible year that we had with COVID. And if there's any silver lining, it's turning what we have now into a great opportunity.

SCOTT: Of course, protecting the economic health of cities requires long-term strategies. Planners and others hope that some of the new investments made possible by federal relief could shape the look and feel of some neighborhoods for years to come.

For NPR News, I'm Tyler Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF FATB AND NO FEELS' "DEW DROPS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tyler Scott
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