Only a few years ago, cities were declaring their downtowns dead, victims of regional shopping malls, online retailers and suburban sprawl. But some urban shopping districts have come back big time. “They have what I call the X-Factor of Urbanism. Very cool, historic and filled with interesting shops and restaurants, surrounded with walkable neighborhoods,” says Robert Gibbs, an urban planner who has worked with 300 cities and teaches at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. He says vacationers spend more time shopping than on any other vacation activity, making these neighborhoods natural for travelers. He shares some favorite downtown districts with Larry Bleiberg for USA TODAY.
This Southern coastal city, famous for its public squares and parks, has one of the most vibrant downtowns in the nation, Gibbs says. In the last few years, its core has been transformed into a shopping and entertainment destination, marked by careful restoration. One example: Savannah Taphouse, partially owned by Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. The modern sports bar fits seamlessly in a former theater building, he says. savannah.com
High Street, Short North Arts District
Home to Ohio State University and the state capital, Columbus also has one of the nation’s highest per capita percentage of fashion designers, thanks to retailers like the Limited, Victoria’s Secret and Abercrombie & Fitch, which have their corporate headquarters here. Many employees moved to this once-scruffy neighborhood, and opened boutiques and shops. One notable feature is the Cap at Union Station, which tops Interstate 670 with stores and plazas. “There’s nothing else like it in the United States,” Gibbs says. shortnorth.org
Sioux Falls, S.D.
This small Great Plains city is home to one of the best downtowns in the country, Gibbs says. The transformation, guided by a public-private partnership, has lined the streets with art. “You’ll find five or six sculptures per block. People will drive hundreds of miles just to come see it,” he says. Highlights include national clothing retailers like Duluth Trading Co., and M.B. Haskett’s, an upscale European-style deli and restaurant. dtsf.com
This once low-profile city has transformed itself with a downtown park, and the planting of thousands of trees over the decades. “It’s now a green city,” Gibbs says. The street has 110 independent restaurants in a 1-mile stretch, and has become one of the best dining cities in the South. The addition of a downtown park, and a minor league baseball stadium keeps it bustling around the clock. visitgreenvillesc.com
Gibbs says this Lake Michigan community is one of the best small towns in the Midwest. It scores a perfect 100 on walkability, a measure used by urban planners to reflect the ability to stroll to shops, restaurants, parks and other amenities. With mild, sunny summer weather, vacationers come from cities like Chicago, Detroit and St. Louis, to enjoy its bookstores, coffee shops and boutiques. petoskeyarea.com
Delray Beach, Fla.
Once derisively known as Dull-Ray, this Atlantic Coast town has had a remarkable turnaround in the last 30 years. With literally hundreds of shops and restaurants, 20,000 people can visit in a day, Gibbs says. There are also inns, galleries and museums. downtowndelraybeach.com
First Avenue, Cherry Creek
While malls have been blamed for the death of many main streets, it was different in Denver. “The Cherry Creek Mall helped revitalize an adjacent urban shopping district,” Gibbs says. “It made the surrounding neighborhoods more desirable.” The area now has more than 600 business in a 16-block area. cherrycreeknorth.com
Downtown Chatham boasts over 300 specialty stores selling shoes, apparel, art and sporting goods, and even has old-fashioned department and hardware stores. “It’s the nicest and most authentic small town on Cape Cod,” Gibbs says, noting its beach, working lighthouse and weekly bandstand concerts. “Very Norman Rockwell.” chathaminfo.com
You’ve probably seen Pasadena in movies and television shows. Its walkable retail district seems a picture-perfect downtown with small stores and cafes, a rarity in Southern California. “In an area known for sprawl, this is one of the few places, you can have an urban shopping experience,” Gibbs says. oldpasadena.org
Spruce, Chestnut and Walnut Streets
Though hardly a little place, the nation’s fifth most populous city can feel small and intimate, and these revitalized shopping streets near Rittenhouse Square are a prime example. The once-sleepy area has boomed, with rents doubling in the last five years. “The sidewalks are packed,” Gibbs says. visitphilly.com
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