2014 10 Best Downtowns

  • Photo: Brian Luenser

    Horses, wagons and longhorn steers parading through downtown might seem strange, but in Fort Worth, TX, it's a tradition. The annual All Western Parade, which marks the start of the Stock Show and Rodeo, draws more than 100,000 spectators and demonstrates how this ever-evolving metropolis remains close to its agricultural roots. Few downtowns have achieved the cohesion between cowboy culture and urban sophistication that Fort Worth has.

    The number of people living in downtown Fort Worth continues to grow as new developments add residential, office and retail options. City and community leaders support a number of rehabilitation and improvement projects that help bring in more businesses, create a more walkable environment and ease traffic congestion. The Trinity River Vision Project includes a plan to develop 800 acres connecting downtown, the Cultural District and the Stockyards that could eventually double the size of downtown. The downtown area's central business occupancy rate of 92 percent leads all Texas cities, and its retail vacancy rate fell by 2.6 percent between 2012 and 2013.

    A collection of 13 parks provide residents, visitors and downtown workers with spots to soak in some sunshine, eat lunch and unwind. The city's 35-block entertainment and shopping district, Sundance Square, attracts millions of visitors and national attention for its innovative design. Even the most fickle foodies can find something to sink their teeth into, with more than 80 locally owned restaurants and bars scattered across the downtown area. The 2,056-seat Bass Performance Hall tops the list of performance venues in downtown Fort Worth, which also includes more intimate settings like the Circle Theatre and the city's longest-running show, Four Day Weekend.

  • Courtesy of Indirect Images under a CC 2.0 license.

    The relocation of two rivers during the 1990s helped start a stream of development projects that revitalized downtown Providence, RI. More than 4,500 people live in the downtown area, which draws thousands of tourists and serves as the state's cultural center. More than half the office space in Rhode Island is concentrated in downtown Providence, and the area experienced a .7 percent increase in occupancy between 2012 and 2013. Two decades worth of improvement projects, including the relocation of rivers and railroads and the creation of public gathering areas, have turned downtown Providence into one of the most vibrant communities on the East Coast.

    The city continues to see significant investment downtown with new construction, major renovations and businesses moving in. The 113-year-old Providence Public Library was recently restored, and city leaders plan on turning the centrally located Kennedy Plaza into a more functional and attractive space, envisioning it as a place for concerts, festivals and commerce. The Arcade, a historic retail center, underwent a renovation and welcomed more than a dozen new businesses last year. Several additional new businesses, including Hasbro, also moved into downtown Providence last year.

    Residents and visitors enjoy many entertainment options in downtown Providence, which range from museums and concerts to sporting events and ice skating. Illuminating the arts scene is WaterFire, an experience that combines sculpture, music and performance art on the three rivers that flow through the area. At various times throughout the year, more than 80 fires burn above the water as performers tend to the flames using boats, and enchanting music invites spectators to dance. Along the WaterFire route are many great restaurants offering both views of the performance and exquisite meals. The Downtown Improvement District works to keep the entire area clean by making daily litter collections, power washing sidewalks and removing graffiti.

  • Photo: Conrad Piccirillo

    The number of people living in downtown Indianapolis, IN, is on track to double by 2020. It's easy to see why young professionals and families are attracted to the area, which includes revitalized historic neighborhoods, new luxury condos and loft apartments overlooking the Central Canal. Living downtown puts people within walking distance to restaurants, entertainment districts, professional sports venues and parks.

    By 2017, downtown Indianapolis expects more than 50 new projects representing an investment of $3 billion. Of these projects, 21 are residential and will add more than 3,200 new homes to the area. Residents here rave about the vibrancy of their community. Through public and private partnerships, 20 previously unattractive sites have been transformed into landscaped gateways and gardens since 1993. Residents gather throughout the year on downtown streets to listen to live music, eat and celebrate at annual events like the Sour Wild Funk Fest, Independent Music and Art Festival and the Strawberry Festival. The nation's largest half marathon, the OneAmerica 500 Festival Mini-Marathon, starts and ends downtown, with runners doing a lap at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

    An 8-mile urban bike and pedestrian path called the Indianapolis Cultural Trail opened in 2013 and connects neighborhoods to downtown's four distinct cultural districts. Georgia Street is just one example of the transformations occurring downtown. Located in the Wholesale District, which is full of shops and restaurants, the street was recently redesigned to include a pedestrian boardwalk, catenary lighting system (suspended luminaires), and landscaping and drainage systems that reduce the load put on the city's sewers.

    The Mass Ave District, an eight-block area filled with art galleries, performance venues and night spots, includes some of the oldest buildings in Indianapolis. Central to Mass Ave's character is one of the city's last diagonal streets, which creates visual interest.

  • Photo: Downtown Provo

    The builders of a new temple in downtown Provo, UT, are so committed to preserving the historic architecture of the area that they put the old Tabernacle on stilts in order to salvage it while adding two floors below. The Provo City Center Temple is an example of the many ongoing or recently completed development projects that continue to improve the look of downtown while enhancing residents' quality of life and attracting new businesses.

    The new Utah Valley Convention Center in downtown Provo, which features 85,578 square feet of meeting and garden space, plus 19,620 square feet of exhibit space, hosts a variety of conferences and events that help fill nearby hotels and restaurants. The district has two large developments currently in the construction phase, including an $80 million headquarters for Nu Skin, which will house 900 employees. City leaders recently approved plans to build a mixed-used development called Block 70 that will comprise more than 150 apartments, a theater, restaurants and shops.

    Downtown Provo blends the old with the new to maintain the character that draws thousands of residents and visitors each year while offering modern services and high-level entertainment. The Provo Downtown Historic District has a collection of buildings constructed between 1880 and 1930, with more than 40 listed on the National Register of Historic Places. More than 50 independently owned restaurants, bakeries and bars attract residents from across the city. Local farmers sell produce, meat and cheeses at the Provo Farmers Market, held each Saturday from June to October at Pioneer Park. The park also includes a new splash pad, helping families cool off on hot summer days. After watching musical performances, plays and comedy acts at the Covey Center for the Arts, many patrons head to West Center Street for drinks and dancing.

  • Photo: Cameron Davidson

    The more than 7,000 people who live in downtown Alexandria, VA, commonly called Old Town, get to experience every day what millions of visitors come to see – one of the best preserved examples of Colonial architecture in the country. Cobblestone streets and century-old buildings evoke memories of the past, but anyone walking through Old Town will experience the area's modern, hip vibe.

    Old Town's nearly even ratio of workers to residents proves its vibrancy and appeal to both businesses and families. Within eyesight of the Washington Monument, across the Potomac River, Old Town offers a refined waterfront setting where international dignitaries and statesmen visiting nearby Washington, D.C., often come for cocktails and exquisite meals.

    Restaurants set in 18th-century buildings serve sophisticated menus that consistently garner praise from national food critics. Places like the PX Lounge, an elegant throwback to the 1920s speakeasy, request that patrons dress up. Old Town is a community of choice for many Washington elite and has been the setting for date nights for the president and first lady.

    Many cyclists riding the Mount Vernon Trail stop in Old Town Alexandria to grab a bite to eat or picnic in parks. More than 30 of the city's restaurants offer outdoor dining along with great views of the river and bustling streets. Easy to navigate by foot, downtown Alexandria begs to be explored, and many do their exploring on King Street, which is home to corner bakeries and boutique shops. The Torpedo Factory Art Center lures art enthusiasts with three levels of studios and galleries where visitors can watch artists at work. A variety of performance venues provide live music and theater, including The Birchmere, an intimate setting specially suited for bluegrass, country and jazz. Old Town Theater is another celebrated venue, hosting live music, classic movies, comedy and events.

  • Photo: Visit Frederick/C. Kurt Holter

    The orange glow of a setting sun enhances the romantic appeal of Carroll Creek Park in downtown Frederick, MD. Curved bridges extend over the water, and street lights bathe red brick pathways in warm light. It's one of many settings in this historic and artistic haven that residents and visitors find alluring. Tall church steeples rise above 18th-century buildings that house martini bars, boutique shops and art galleries.

    Downtown Frederick emerged from economic decline during the late 1960s and survived a devastating flood in 1976. But perhaps it's greatest comeback stems from recent revitalization efforts that helped turn the downtown area into a magnet for East Coast artists.

    Residents have seen steady income growth, falling unemployment and a high occupancy rate that continues to spark development of residential and commercial projects. In 2003, the state designated downtown Frederick an Arts & Entertainment District, which allows artists and craftsmen to sell their work tax free. This lured many artists to the area, and residents and service-oriented businesses followed. More than 2,500 historic properties in the downtown area have been renovated for modern use while preserving Colonial-era architectural elements. Beyond more than a dozen antique shops are food markets, bookstores, bottle shops and wellness centers, all within walking distance of residences.

    Those living in and around downtown Frederick use recreational facilities like Diggs Pool, which has water features for young children, and Baker Park, offering tennis courts, athletic fields, playgrounds and a small lake. An incredibly dog-friendly city, many shops and even some restaurants allow dogs, while Dog Park gives canines a place to run around. Locals crowd into cafes and small music venues to hear up-and-coming musicians, while the Weinberg Center for the Arts features shows by many well-known performers, movies and sing-alongs with a Wurlitzer organ.

  • Photo: City of Fort Lauderdale

    It's not just the nightlife scene that's hot in downtown Fort Lauderdale, FL. The office market has really started to simmer with a vacancy rate that fell by 5.7 percent between 2012 and 2013. Businesses are moving in, attracted by the increasing number of young professionals who've settled into downtown apartments and condos. The ratio of jobs to residents in the downtown area is nearly equal, a sign that people want to live where they work. Along with new faces and new entertainment options, Fort Lauderdale residents have seen their incomes grow. The transformation from suburban beach town to more of an urban center was planned in 2003 by city leaders and further refined by a master plan update in 2007. The primary focus was to create what community leaders referred to as a “livable downtown.”

    The meandering New River and an intricate canal system give Fort Lauderdale a Venice-like feel. Downtown high-rises offer expansive views of the Atlantic Ocean, intracoastal waterway and saltwater lakes. Both tourists and locals head to Himmarshee Village for shopping, live entertainment and locally owned restaurants and pubs. Many patrons of the nearby Broward Center for the Performing Arts stop here to extend their evenings. More than 40,000 Fort Lauderdale residents live on yachts docked at the more than 100 marinas and boatyards, many of which are connected to downtown by sidewalks and bike paths covered by a canopy of trees. Families flock to the Riverwalk area in downtown, which includes a park and cultural amenities like the Bonnet House Museum and Gardens along with the Nova Southeastern University Museum of Art.

    Connecting downtown with A1A and the Atlantic Ocean is Las Olas Boulevard, which offers 17 blocks of sidewalk cafes, art galleries, fine dining and sizzling nightlife. City leaders used Las Olas Boulevard, with its green plantings, wide sidewalks and colorful architecture, as a model for how the rest of downtown Fort Lauderdale should look.

  • Photo by Joshua Parrish

    Since 1988, Bellingham, WA, city and community leaders have followed a plan to improve their small yet vibrant downtown. Sure, that plan has changed from time to time, getting an update here and there, and while new construction projects and even revitalization plans are still in the works, the results speak for themselves. More than 1,000 new residences were constructed downtown, renovated storefronts and redesigned streets enhanced the visual appeal, and businesses have created more jobs.

    Local business owners make up the majority of Bellingham's economy, which keeps money in the pockets of residents who reinvest in their community by supporting other local businesses. This city by the bay has become a model for urban sustainability, and the downtown area highlights how a local living economy can work. The "buy local" movement is strongly supported, and some residents even barter with others for food, services and building supplies. A population of nearly 2,400 residents and about 7,500 employees in the downtown area enjoy a highly walkable community with easy access to grocery stores, parks, restaurants and entertainment venues. Depot Market, a central gathering point in the downtown area, hosts the Bellingham Farmers Market, one of the largest farmers markets in Washington, plus many other events throughout the year.

    Bellingham holds the second highest ratio of arts-related businesses to residents in the country, and it shows. Functional works of art like benches, street lights, trash cans and bicycle racks add a touch of whimsy across downtown. Whatcom Creek creates a natural boundary around the Cultural Arts District, which includes the beautifully restored Mt. Baker Theatre as well as Whatcom Museum and Pickford Film Center. Events like summer concerts, food festivals and parades draw thousands of people to this area. Downtown Bellingham is dotted with green parks, yet one of the largest green spaces, Sehome Hill Arboretum, is located less than a mile south of the Arts District, near Western Washington University.

  • Photo: Sara DeAnne Rankin

    A transformation fueled by residential growth has many Eugene, OR, residents comparing their downtown to Portland's. An estimated 1,500 new residents have moved into new and recently remodeled apartments during the last two years and discovered the wide array of restaurants, bars and entertainment venues that changed downtown Eugene into a hip, urban playground.

    By the city's calculations, more than 20 new businesses have opened in the downtown area since 2012 while developers invested more than $200 million in construction projects. Perhaps the opening chapter in this redevelopment story is the University of Oregon, which put up a collection of new buildings on Franklin Boulevard, including a 12,000-seat arena. A short bike ride from campus is the intersection of Broadway and Willamette Street, an area filled with quaint shops, diners and bars.

    Eugene ranked 9th on the Livability Top 100 Best Places to Live index, and the downtown area helped the city earn a spot within the top 10. Residents make good use of the network of sidewalks and integrated bikeways to get around downtown. The Lane Transit District provides bus service, and more than five taxi companies, some with fleets of hybrid vehicles, offer rides in the downtown area. Terry Richard, travel writer for The Oregonian, recently wrote that Eugene has become a tourist destination with many visitors coming in on an upgraded Amtrak train. Those leaving the train station quickly stumble upon the Whiteaker Fermentation District, which is full of craft brewing businesses, and the Fifth Street Public Market, a unique shopping destination.

  • Photo: Greater Birmingham CVB

    Our list begins with a comeback story that's still being written. Downtown Birmingham, AL, is on the rise after suffering from years of economic loss stemming from a dwindling population and industry decline. The redesign and renovation of a park kick-started a series of ongoing revitalization projects that continue to attract new businesses, visitors and residents.

    The city's retail vacancy rate fell by 1.7 percent between 2012 and 2013, one of the biggest gains in metropolitan markets across the country during that time period. Downtown Birmingham's population grew by 36 percent to 9,400 people between 2000 and 2010. That number is likely to grow as more than 1,000 housing units are under construction or being planned downtown. Projects like Railroad Park, which includes ponds, an amphitheater, a skatepark, a playground and pathways, and a recently completed 8,500-seat minor league baseball stadium (Regions Field) lure people downtown for events and activities. They've also caught the eye of a group of investors who recently purchased a warehouse and several buildings near the ballpark. The investors plan to develop office and residential space, envisioning the rooftops of some living units overlooking Regions Field.

    A few blocks north of Railroad Park sits the historic Alabama Theatre which was renovated in recent years. Across the street, the Lyric awaits its return with a $7 million renovation in progress. In nearby Uptown, an entertainment district that includes the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex, a new $70 million Westin Hotel offers prime accommodations within walking distance of high-end restaurants and pubs. State legislators recently approved tax breaks for businesses that renovate buildings and storefronts located in historic sections of downtown. One of the largest projects using the tax credit is a $60 million conversion of the Pizitz Building from office space to retail and residential space.

    Residents outside the downtown area are coming in for events like the Sidewalk Film Festival and Magic City Art Connection, as well as shows at the Alabama Theatre and Red Mountain Theatre. They bustle in and out of funky new shops and restaurants that have sprouted up on Second Avenue and circulate around the Loft District, which offers fine dining and nightlife. New residents find the downtown area gradually becoming more walkable and often ride bicycles to work.