Best Places to Live

2014 10 Best Downtowns

The best downtowns foster creativity, inclusion and innovation. They showcase what is good about a community by offering a diverse array of local architecture, art, lifestyles and things to do. Great downtowns unite residents from all walks of life, even those in the suburbs, by providing places to connect. Above all, the top-performing downtowns must maintain a high level of energy and give all residents in a city a reason to come on down.

For the most part, our top 10 lists are data-driven – more science than art. The Top 10 Best Downtowns 2014 list, however, is a bit of an exception. Yes, we started with data including improvement in retail and office vacancy rates, population gains, income growth, unemployment, the ratio of people who live and work in the downtowns, and the overall livability of the city. But numbers alone can’t tell you what makes a downtown great. For that you need to see the skylines, hear the street sounds and talk to people who've been there. We took a look, talked with our well-traveled staff and made our picks.

It takes decades of careful planning, political alignments and dedication to create downtowns that attract new residents and visitors. We gave considerable weight to population growth and the ratio of residents to jobs in a downtown area because urban center experts suggest these are the most telling signs of how a downtown is doing.

"The way to have a really vibrant downtown is to have residents there who can support the businesses and provide that life on the street to make the area seem more lively and safer," says Sheila Grant, editor of Downtown Idea Exchange and Downtown Promotion Reporter. "We think they are the most vital part of the city. They give everyone in the outlying areas a sense of community and heritage."

Take a look at our picks for the best downtowns. (And take a peek at our latest best downtowns list.

Ranking Criteria
Population growth
Ratio of residents to jobs
Income growth
Home vacancy rates
Affordability of housing
Retail and office vacancy rates
  • 10

    Birmingham, AL

    Population: 212,211
    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.