Avoiding the collisions in downtown living

How can cities maintain the livability 24/7 as more people live downtown

By Matt Carmichael on July 1, 2015 at 12:24 pm CDT

Lounge Ax was a great little music venue in Chicago. For years it booked amazing local and national acts and let them fill the tiny stage and sweaty-smoky room, with a wide range of music. Its bills were often packed four and five bands deep and shows lasted well into the wee hours bumping right up against and sometimes past curfew.

Lounge Ax was across the street from the Biograph theatre where John Dillinger was gunned down by federal agents after catching a movie. In other words, it was not a new nightlife district. This block had history. And everything was awesome until “New Yuppie Neighbor” moved in across the alley. He started calling in noise complaints and the rest (and the club) was history. Just like Jay Bennett got the boot from Wilco in the Lounge Ax photo above, the club got kicked out.

This all happened 15 years ago. That was before the downtown resurgence seen in so many of our cities big and small really took place. Now, with new condos and newer cranes decorating our nation’s skylines, the “nightlife” and “living” areas of our cities are blurring more and more.

In many ways this is a great development as people can live, work and play in the same place. That leads to increased vibrancy and the kinds of interpersonal “collisions” that make city living so great. However as people move downtown or stay living downtown past their 20s they start seeing the downsides, too. They become concerned with parking, noise, crime and congestion. Pretty soon you start to have the kind of collisions that killed Lounge Ax.

Collision avoidance systems for situations like this was the subject of a presentation I gave this week to the Responsible Hospitality Institute’s conference about the “sociable city.” I talked about how we create our Best Places to Live rankings, our research into what people view as the necessary characteristics of a great place, and strategies for winning over NIMBYs.

The RHI would argue that part of the solution is to have a dedicated person in government focusing on these issues – a nighttime economy manager. I agree. That’s  a great idea and at the conference were some real life people with that title or at least that responsibility – from cities like Edmonton, San Francisco and Pittsburgh. However I didn’t hear them talking much about “residents” as stakeholders in these discussions and I think that’s what needs to change.

The most important factors in livability – the fundamentals that all cities need to get right – are related to housing, crime and affordability. Living at the intersection of the daytime and nighttime economy means also dealing with the downsides of higher housing costs, potential scarcity of city services as cities struggle to adjust to new demands on their scant resources, and parking woes.

Sure, there’s a certain “what did you expect” dismissal when you move downtown. If you live in near a bar district you’re liable to run into drunk people and those encounters aren’t always fun. But there’s so much potential upside if we can all figure these issues out. The death of Lounge Ax was a failure of Chicago officials to keep the needs of the community as a whole in the forefront. Instead one guy who, ironically, made the most noise won out over the thousands and thousands of people who loved going to that club. As the nighttime economy grows in prominence for talent attraction and economic development, as well as just for improved livability, it would do well to work with the residents so that livability is considered with these discussions.

Because as any city official knows the only thing louder than a good rock band at 2am is a NIMBY with an ax to grind. 

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