can Houston create a thriving downtown?

The Post Gazette says: probably not.

Fake towns rise, offering urban life without grit
— reported by the post-gazette.com

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Houston has poured some $4 billion into downtown stadiums, roads and light rail in the past decade. But 27 miles to the north, the Woodlands Town Center has sold out of newly constructed lofts and replica brownstones in the midst of an affluent planned community.

“The question is whether this demand for urban-style living — density, transportation alternatives, proximity to work — is broad enough to accommodate the resurgence of traditional downtowns,” says Bruce Katz, founder and director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C., think tank.

Just like the real thing, faux downtowns are vulnerable to the vagaries of the local economy, a problem that’s magnified by the big upfront investment required. Federal Realty Investment Trust bet heavily on Santana Row, a $455 million project three miles from downtown San Jose that opened in 2002 on the site of a former shopping center. With its Mediterranean-inspired architecture, Santana Row was intended to provide an urban island for professionals in Silicon Valley.

But the collapse of the tech industry, the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and a catastrophic fire buffeted the project. Some high-end retailers that considered opening there ended up not making commitments, city officials say. In 2003, Federal Realty Chief Executive Steve Guttman resigned.

Departing from the script, the company lured big-box stores such as Best Buy to generate foot traffic. As the economy improved, so too did the fortunes of Santana Row. Today, city officials say the project — with 70 shops and 19 restaurants and a mix of town homes, condominiums and apartments — is a draw for Silicon Valley residents.

Don Wood, the current chief executive of Federal Realty, says building an instant city is considerably harder than a standard development. Santana Row took seven years to complete. “Over that period of time, the world changed,” he says. “We started construction in one economic environment and finished in another.”

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Author: Paloma Cruz

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