Downtown Provo currently is filled with some of the best restaurants and entertainment venues in Utah. It has some of the coolest, most historically valuable architecture in the region. And overall, it’s generally a charming place to be.
But downtown doesn’t have a lot of retail. Yes, there are some great stores here and there, but the area isn’t on many people’s radar as a major shopping destination. At least not yet.
Today, Richard Florida wrote about the resurgence of American downtowns as shopping destinations. His point was that just as major retailers fled to malls in the 1970s, they are now rushing back into downtowns all over the U.S.
Florida uses Miami as a case study. He explains that a certain central neighborhood attracted galleries and showrooms, followed by restaurants, then finally high end retailers that had been out in the suburbs. Florida then goes on to point out that even less ritzy towns are experiencing something similar and that all downtown retail doesn’t need to be extremely high end.
One of Florida’s implicit points also seems to be that people living in suburban neighborhoods already drive to shopping centers in suburban malls so they’d also be willing to drive to downtown districts.
From where I sit, what’s happening in Miami is something of a bellwether, an unmistakable sign that the economic and commercial center of gravity is shifting away from the suburbs and back to the urban core. We are at a similar inflection point today to the one we experienced in the 1970s, when retail abruptly decamped to the suburbs. Only this time, the impetus is the other way around.
There are a few lessons here for Provo. The first is that downtown really could be a major retail destination. In fact, Provo’s compact size leaves it better poised for this kind of a comeback than bigger cities like Miami. Whereas those cities have to compete with multiple malls spread through numerous surrounding suburbs, Provo doesn’t. In fact, Provo’s downtown is located as close or closer to many residents as competing Utah County malls.
The second big lesson here is that cities are bringing retail to downtown by creating “design districts.” In Miami, creative businesses — related to architecture and interior design in that case — lured successive waves of restaurants and retailers. The process is only briefly explained in Florida’s article, though it’s a major focus of his work generally and not impossible to understand. In the end, then, luring similarly creative businesses to downtown may be the key to diversifying downtown Provo and bringing back retail.