Best Places to Live

2012 10 Best Downtowns

Begun more than a decade ago, a downtown district renaissance continues across American cities with restaurants, shops, offices and residential development popping up within city centers hollowed during the era ruled by shopping malls and suburban development from the '60s to '90s.

To help pick our Top 10 Downtowns for 2012, we contacted Christopher Leinberger, director of the Center for Real Estate and Urban Analysis at George Washington University, who told us the best downtowns not only reflect the 21st century "knowledge economy" by the types of businesses and services located there, but also have solid plans to succeed in an "experience economy" – what many urban planning scholars believe is the next redevelopment opportunity for America's downtowns.

In this new experience economy, people will value most the memories a place creates above its other qualities, so a downtown's activities, aesthetics and overall atmosphere will be more important than ever. With that in mind, we set out to identify downtowns especially poised to offer the best experiences to residents and visitors, show signs of economic growth, and have community leaders with clear plans for continued improvement to these districts.

We first considered what would be the optimal population for a "best experience" and took a middle-of-the-road, Goldilocks approach of "not too big or small." That way, we narrowed our list of cities to those between 100,000 and 300,000 people.

Then, to assess the current success and potential for these downtowns, we analyzed economic growth, unemployment and downtown vacancy rates, the distance between homes and downtown amenities, and residents' average income levels. Our sources include the U.S. Census Bureau, the U.S. Department of Labor, Areavibes.com, Walkscore.com and Yelp.com.

For more on great downtowns across the United States, check out our best downtowns in 2011.

Ranking Criteria
Population 100,000 to 300,000
Economic growth
Vacancy rates
Average commute
Unemployment rate
  • 10

    McAllen, TX

    Population: 136,993
    Michael Conti

    Located on the southern tip of Texas just a few miles from the Mexican border, McAllen's exciting downtown embraces the arts and has Spanish Colonial architecture that creates a distinctive setting. With geography and a World Birding Center site to its credit, McAllen's a favorite among birding enthusiasts. Yet it is downtown that draws flocks of music, food and drink fans, thanks to its multiple music venues, bars and restaurants.

    Basics: In 2007, the City of McAllen and a nonprofit group joined to revitalize the downtown, eventually creating the 17th Street Entertainment District. More than 30 restaurants, bars and live music venues line the street today including the historic Cine El Rey, which hosts bands, comedians, plays and films. People from all over the Rio Grande Valley, including Mexican nationals, visit the district on weekends.

    Details: In total, more than 60 bars, restaurants and coffee shops do business in downtown McAllen, according to McAllen's Heart of the City group. Meanwhile, McAllen Arts District on Main Street contains more than a dozen art galleries anchored by the Nuevo Santander Gallery. This area also includes the new 30,000-square-foot Art Village, a Tuscan-style retail area with four buildings of galleries, studios and restaurants. Residents go to downtown's Archer Park for city-sponsored outdoor movies, festivals and art parties.

    Walkscore.com gives the downtown McAllen area a score of 53 – low compared to the national average but high for Texas. Residents access the city's transit system on the north side of downtown.

    Don't Miss: Cine El Rey for shows, Alhambra for dinner