39_Kennedy Smith

Maintain Links to Your Past

Here’s a welcome trend: Rescue downtowns from the effects of shopping malls and discount superstores. The strategy? Dream big, think small, and create a new future by embracing the charm of old buildings.


Kennedy Smith
Director, National Main Street Center
National Trust for Historic Preservation
Washington, DC


What needed an overhaul?
America’s Main Streets. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, shopping malls knocked the wind out of the nation’s older downtowns. Then in the 1980s and 1990s discount superstores delivered a body blow. The glut of retail space makes it unlikely for most older downtowns to ever support the number of retail businesses they once did. But the historic buildings are fantastic, the public infrastructure is already in place (making it the best reinvestment value, dollar for dollar, for local governments), and they’re one-of-a-kind places.

What was the single biggest obstacle?
Too many community leaders have a “big-fix” mindset. They think the answer to a struggling main street is to build something big–a convention center, festival marketplace, ballpark, mall, whatever. But the economic ecosystem of older main streets is fragile. That sort of catalytic investment sends shockwaves that disrupt small businesses and shift the district from a locally-serving, community-based place to one that relies on visitors–which increases infrastructure costs and exacerbates traffic and parking problems.

How did you overcome it?
By taking a holistic look at all the problems and opportunities facing older main streets, bringing about incremental change, and teaching community leaders how the economics of older main streets work. The Main Street program–a program of the nonprofit National Trust for Historic Preservation–has now worked with nearly 2,000 towns and cities throughout the US, through a network of statewide and citywide partners, and has served as the model for similar programs throughout the world. It’s about bringing about incremental transformation, leveraging “personal capital,” recycling old buildings, thinking small, and dreaming big.

How have you seen results?
Yep. During the Reagan, Bush and Clinton administrations, HUD said that the Main Street program is one of the most successful economic development strategies in the U.S. (the Bush II administration hasn’t weighed in on it–yet). Every dollar a participating community uses to support its Main Street revitalization efforts now leverages an average of $39.22 in new investment. In the 20 years since the Main Street program’s creation, hundreds of older commercial districts have gone from double-digit vacancy rates to waiting lists for shop, office and living space. Hundreds more are on their way. In recent years, the program has spread from small- and mid-size towns to urban neighborhoods, like East Carson Street in Pittsburgh, North Park in San Diego, and Allston Village in Boston.