Downtown Matters: Lessons From Hillsboro

By Craig Beebe, 1000 Friends Communications & Development Coordinator

What makes a commercial district succeed? It’s a question that has fascinated consultant Michele Reeves for some time.  From hip shopping neighborhoods in Portland to the quaint downtowns of small communities throughout Oregon, Reeves explores the details and designs that make these places economically vibrant, as well as pleasant places to be. And now the Portland-based consultant is helping other communities find the same success.

One of those communities is Hillsboro. The Washington County seat has seen rapid growth over the last two decades, but it’s largely been to the east of its historic downtown district. The city would like to revive the economic and cultural vibrancy of this district, and is working with Reeves to identify the strategies to pursue to make it happen.

Update, December 21: Reeves has released her recommendations for downtown Hillsboro, in an accessible and interesting report. Download it here (pdf). Hillsboro Pharmacy, in downtown Hillsboro since the 1870s, is one downtown business that continues to succeed.

It’s not a question of nostalgia. Researchers and economists have demonstrated that walkable commercial districts provide many benefits that other commercial developments simply cannot match. The small businesses these districts host create better-paying, longer-lasting jobs, for instance, while more revenue stays to circulate within the community. Maintaining infrastructure for compact, walkable districts is a better deal for local taxpayers, too. As an added benefit, vibrant, walkable downtowns reduce pressure to develop prime farmland at the fringes of the region, and help us respond to the challenges of climate change.

More intangibly, a thriving downtown provides identity and a focal point that gives residents and businesses pride in their community, and attracts visitors from elsewhere to visit, shop, dine, and further support the local economy.

Finally, there is growing evidence that Generation Y—today’s teens and twentysomethings—are looking for different qualities in the places they live, shop, and work. Namely, “they have less interest in driving,” Reeves says. “Think about how baby boomers altered the shape of the country through their housing preferences. Generation Y could cause a similar transformation,” she says.

There are clearly many ways walkable commercial districts pay off for the communities that have them. Yet creating and reviving these districts does take some effort. Reeves comes at this challenge from an interesting background, focused on improving economic performance in mixed-use districts.  She is not a planner or an urban designer by training; rather, she is an aerospace engineer.  

Much of Reeves' early real estate experience involved siting industrial plants in Asia for an American aerospace company.  Later, she went on to establish a boutique real estate practice in Portland that focused on revitalizing neighborhood commercial corridors.  During that time, she learned the building blocks for successful mixed-use districts, and it's this unusual combination of private-sector real estate experience that she brings to her work with Hillsboro, Vancouver, and other communities in the region. 

Reeves describes vibrant commercial districts in terms that a screenwriter might recognize. To her, it’s all about the story a place tells, this includes characterization, objectives, relationships, and environment (or setting). Above all, like a good story, vibrant districts also require a clear sense of authenticity, and Reeves seeks to work with communities to help them develop this sense.
It is relatively easy to compile or edit some of the elements of the story a place tells. “You can make easy dramatic changes in terms of story quickly,” Reeves says. Among the features she highlights are an “uninterrupted physical infrastructure,” meaning few vacant lots or inward facing businesses; active uses on the first floor of buildings, such as retail shops (instead of offices); and attention to details like sidewalk quality, windows and street amenities, or what Reeves calls the “street dialogue.”

The Venetian, a historic theatre in downtown Hillsboro renovated through public-private partnerships, as part of the City's goal to create an "18-hour downtown"..

However, it takes more than these physical elements to make a commercial district work. Relationships matter a lot, too. “Revitalization is about people,” Reeves says. Reeves works to connect business owners and city leaders to build a shared understanding of the potential, strengths, and strategies the community needs to work together to develop and achieve.

Ultimately, a place with good relationships is a place that attracts people, again and again. “People go to downtowns for connections they can’t get at the mall,” Reeves says. Communities that want vibrant downtowns need to work together to develop these connections and relationships, which takes time but need not require as major financial investments (a welcome message in an era of constrained municipal finances).

Recently, 1000 Friends Executive Director Jason Miner met with Hillsboro Economic Development Director John Southgate to learn more about the City’s vision for its downtown. Southgate said the city envisions an “eighteen-hour downtown” where people live, work, and come for cultural events and evening entertainment. The city is pursuing these strategies through a wide range of public-private partnerships, and Southgate outlined some exciting developments in the works, including a four-story apartment complex and student housing for the Pacific University Health Professions Campus.

The City has also helped renovate a local theatre, The Venetian, constructed a new Civic Center downtown to keep city employees nearby and provide an important public place, and is considering transportation improvements such as making several one-way streets two-way, which experts say is a key contributor to a more walkable and successful district. Southgate says Hillsboro’s foremost goal is to bring more people into the center.

Reeves believes that Hillsboro possesses some of the most outstanding characteristics for any downtown in the region, from its MAX stations to its proximity to the urban growth boundary, meaning residents of the area can quickly access outstanding recreational and scenic amenities. Though the City faces some challenges, it’s headed in the right direction, Reeves says, and she’s excited to watch as the community develops the identity and amenities that will make it truly thrive.

Having more thriving downtowns is good for the region, too, and for Oregon. That’s why Oregon communities from Beaverton to Milwaukie to Redmond are working hard at bring the pieces together to support successful, walkable, downtown districts. As we seek to emerge from the recession, strong downtowns and commercial will help existing businesses grow and attract new ones seeking a high quality of life for their employees. Meanwhile, local residents will find enjoyable places to shop and connect with neighbors, and keep more money circulating within the region, while reducing our climate impact. 1000 Friends of Oregon will continue to work around the state to support these kinds of districts and promote their benefits.

Oregon Stories | October 2011

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