It seems like a grand time for urbanists. Downtowns across California are dusting off their dancing shoes and, in some locations, absolutely cutting up rugs. This is particularly the case in older downtowns that have enough amenities – the sort that neotraditionalists like to copy — to draw recreational use.
In the best cases, the workaday downtowns of yore have evolved into the work/play/live spaces of today. San Francisco, Santa Monica, and San Diego may provide the best examples. In each case, office, residence and playground all collaborate in one setting — with each also offering spectacular ocean and bay views.
One of the very industries that has facilitated the return of downtown, however, has also caused problems for some revitalizationists — telecommunications. It's accepted as fact that telecoms and the array of voice, data, image transferring and general Internet services these telecoms provide have decentralized business and the way work gets done. Therefore, one might expect that these communications trends would further weaken downtowns, with their fundamentally central place-theory pasts. But, in fact, the e- and I-economy has in many instances fueled a return to downtown for some business sectors, particularly those that can take advantage of niche-space and that favor mixed-use, edgy urban settings. So in that way, the growth of the e-economy may in fact complement the resurgence of the some central cities. Still, there is no denying that numerous interactive ingredients are needed to pull off the successful downtown recipe.
One of the main appeals to many industries now attracted to downtowns is the strength of the center city's telecom infrastructure. Many a T-1 and fiber optic cable line converge inside telephone switching stations of the past. This has led to a new demand for an old kind of big box, now called the telecom hotel. These hulking multi-story warehouses — once festooned with the corporate logos of Pacific Telephone and Telegraph or General Telephone — are now commonly devoid of telecom corporate logos. The street-level floors remain sealed like in the old days, but now the parapets are festooned with relay antennae.
This new configuration — with essentially the same old use — is causing some hand-wringing in urban design circles these days. Apparently, that's because there is a speculative real estate industry forming around telecom hotels – one with the adrenaline and speed of the Internet itself. This new development opportunity, according to a recent Wall Street Journal report, is fueled by hopes of 20% lease-return profits – double the office market standard. But telecom hotels, according to the neotraditionalist argument, threaten pedestrian life and the quest for a lively, multi-use downtown.
Apparently, a few California cities have downtowns with prices that are soft enough to attract these speculative developments. And that has some city planners sweating. Sacramento and Los Angeles are evidently the most vulnerable to the speculators – both cities still lament that their downtowns haven't yet revived like some other more storied downtowns elsewhere in the state, and are consequently touchy about welcoming the wrong uses. A Sacramento Bee editorial last month urged already-anxious city planners to quickly figure out some regulations to block telecom hotels, before downtown Sacramento ended up with more servers and routers than tourists and conventioneers in the capital's downtown hotels. And Los Angeles, with tens of historic but underutilized office buildings, is in the early stages of studying such ordinances.
The concern in the two cities may be partly a result of misguided nostalgia. If the downtown relic buildings in either Sacramento of L.A. were actually viable for other uses, the telecom hotel speculators would surely have a run for their lease money – and therefore would set up in cheaper digs on the periphery. But if telecom hotels were successfully located in these downtowns, couldn't that be turned to a city's competitive advantage? Couldn't these telecom nerve centers be followed by dot-coms and their creative, footloose staffs, thereby reinvigorating these city centers?
What the neotraditionalist-leaning planners may be overlooking is that the downtowns of yesteryear were vibrant places because they were diverse workaday hubs — not the exclusive domains of office workers, dinks living in spare flats, and scone bars on the street frontage. Sure, you could get a cup of coffee (albeit not a double latte with nonfat milk, no foam) in yesterday's humming central city, but you could also be close enough to throw a stick at sweatshops, printing operations, and other businesses that actually made things.
Today's workaday hub comes with the snap crackle and pop of electronic communication. Downtown Santa Cruz now hosts Cisco Systems engineers. San Jose boasts Adobe Systems's vertical campus. These are the factories where things are made – or at least processed – today. And just as yesterday's downtown manufacturers relied on trolleys, sewer lines, roads and sidewalks, today's e- factories need telecom hotels to really sing.
Telecom hotels just might represent a new and essential urban infrastructure, without which some downtowns may again lose a competitive advantage. And, after all, sewage lift stations don't have ground-floor retail either.
Stephen Svete, AICP, is president of Rincon Consultants, Inc., a Ventura-based consulting firm.