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Real Estate & Property Law: Kelo and Beyond
By Greg Alvarez
In my head I hear Petula Clark's old hit, "Downtown" racing through my head. Why is that? Well, it could be things are happening around this fabulous land of ours that involves the ever evolving term and place identified by Petula in her ditty. For instance, in Baltimore, Maryland, the push towards attracting more affluent types back to its downtown neighborhoods to populate the newly gentrified housing stock has hit a snag recently. The upheaval in the housing market has sent ripples through the budding movement. Or has it? "I don't see a recession mentality. . . . But you have to be deaf, dumb and blind not to be a little infected by what is being said." This comment comes from a Baltimore bank representative. Is it the media or is it true? Well, probably a little from column A, a little from column B. The reality suggests that the original plan to attract young DC residents to buy into Baltimore, at a cheaper price than in the nation's capital, has cooled. In theory, not a bad plan, considering these new arrivals could do the commute from Baltimore to DC in about an hour by train. The interesting thing in the whole phenomenon is this tidbit, which puts a new spin on the reverse commute -- "downtown" to "downtown."
How about another take on the meaning of "downtown," which is taking place in the most suburban of settings -- the shopping mall. The enclosed shopping mall has increasingly become passe, resulting in reconceptions and redevelopments of them to serve the next generation. One increasingly popular approach is to reuse these spaces as mini-downtowns, where they become mixed-use havens for residential, commercial and office uses. "The mall is the modern town square in most of America," says Joel Kotkin, a commentator on all things land use. Calling them "lifestyle centers," these new places have been created out of the detritus of the past. One example is Nouvelle at Natick, a development outside Boston rising inside of an old Wonder Bread factory and the neighboring Natick Mall. The residences will be incorporated into the existing retail, and the commercial spaces spruced up to cater towards a higher-end crowd. Not exactly a space meant for everyone, but it certainly is another way to think about "downtown." As one new resident of the development notes, "It's like having the city come out to the suburbs."
But there are always going to be certain things associated with "downtown," no matter how people try to reimagine it. Take for instance the issue going on in Barbara M. Asher Square in Atlanta. The gateway to the city's downtown for travelers coming from the airport, the public space is also an eyesore. Homeless folks and others who highlight the seedy side of things tend to occupy the area. Funny smelling smoke wafts through the air. Not all of "downtown" can be nicely scrubbed and fake. There will always be issues. But in a way, that's the whole point of "downtown." It's the confluence of everybody, and every type. Somewhere in the middle of a rehabbed mall and an open sewer. Good and bad. You can take all your troubles. Downtown!
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