Urban 'cyber'-villages to renew run-down cities

March 10, 1997|By Neal R. Peirce

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- As America's cities get ready for the 21st century, Weiming Lu would like to see them building and perfecting ''urban villages'' that embody the best we've learned through the urban tribulations of the 20th.

Mr. Lu's millennial villages would have a mix of tastefully recycled historic buildings and artfully designed new ones. People would flock to them for their varieties of age and ethnic groups, offices, homes and jobs, urban parks, street art and entertainment.

The villages would be both arts districts and ''cyber-villages,'' attracting companies focused on the Internet, new media and telecommunications industries. Indeed, Mr. Lu sees a creative combination of artists and computer software designers, working in the same neighborhood and linked globally through extensive fiber-optics and satellite uplinks.

The village would have its own shared heating and air conditioning through underground conduits, an environmentally sustainable neighborhood reducing pollution and saving energy. And it would be economically successful -- an engine of urban growth.

Mr. Lu, a Shanghai-born designer-developer-visionary, has already created such a village -- Lowertown, in St. Paul. It's become a prime model for merging historic preservation, successful design, economic rejuvenation and lively street life, even along streets once threatened with abandonment.

Residual charm

Lowertown is situated where St. Paul was born -- on the city's ''lower'' Mississippi River landing. By the late '70s it had declined into a shabby district of mostly abandoned warehouses, railyards and parking lots. Yet Lowertown had the residual charm of turn-of-the-century buildings, narrow alleys and tree-lined streets. And it had crucial location -- on the Mississippi, close to downtown and the state-capital district.

George Latimer, then St. Paul's mayor, decided Lowertown's economic risk might easily frighten off developers. So in 1978 he persuaded the Twin Cities-based McKnight Foundation to put up $10 million, not in a grant but in a ''program-related investment'' for Lowertown. Mr. Lu, former urban-design chief for Minneapolis and Dallas, took over and still heads the Lowertown Redevelopment Corporation. In one body, it's a financial deal maker, design watchdog, preservation advocate and indefatigable promoter of the neighborhood.

McKnight hoped its $10 million would attract $100 million in Lowertown investment. The latest total: $428 million. Lowertown today has 4,300 jobs and 1,500 housing units, a quarter of them for low- and moderate-income people. Dynamic ''yuppie'' couples and retired executives, struggling artists and fixed-income seniors rub shoulders here.

Lowertown has had commercial ups and downs but now seems on a steady course with high occupancy rates both in office and apartment buildings. The cyber-village influx is part of the growth, as fledgling firms select historic buildings for their operations.

Why? ''They like the funky space, low cost, restaurants, being right next to a park,'' says Mr. Lu -- ''It's the right mix for folks breaking out of their basements.''

''There's a cool, funky thing going on here in Lowertown that meshes well with an Internet company,'' says Scott Bourne, founder of First-TV, a firm offering real-time Internet-based news coverage, music videos and documentaries. (The technique's called ''streaming'' and you can check it out at http: //www.first-tv.com).

Another Lowertown cyber-firm is point2point communications, specializing in private, global television programming for corporations. It's a spinoff of another Lowertown neighbor, Minnesota Public Television.

go.fast.net constructs high-speed ISDN (integrated service digital networks) hookups for businesses. HomeStyles is America's largest publisher of home plans (now on CD-ROMs and the Internet). And there are several more like them, all on the lookout for shared opportunities with their new neighbors.

None of this would work, though, if Lowertown didn't offer carefully assembled, preserved amenities, from a farmers' market to historic street lighting to cafes, theaters and galleries and a new children's playground.

After years of effort, Lowertown's Mississippi River connection has been made usable with an attractive riverfront park -- now popular for running, walking, fishing, biking. ''We want to see more trees planted there, and bring back the birds,'' says Mr. Lu.

Is there opportunity for more such developments around America? Such places as Denver's Latimer Square, the Portland (Ore.) Riverfront, Dallas' West End and Chattanooga's historic downtown are already on their way.

Urban Land Institute studies indicate high vacancy rates in older buildings in cities across America. Any grouping of old underused warehouses, for example, is a potential Lowertown.

Rather than sterile office parks or massive stadiums, Lowertown-type projects may be America's ''best practice'' model for reviving desolate but historic center cities. It just takes leveraged financing, attention to detail, imagination, patience -- and an organization like Weiming Lu's Lowertown Redevelopment Corporation watching the store.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

Pub Date: 3/10/97

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