The Pendulum Swings Back to Downtown

There’s a saying that “what’s old is new again.” That seems appropriate for what’s happening in cities across the country today, including right here in Tallahassee.

Where cities once promoted outward growth and annexation, gobbling up territory that was quickly taken over by strip malls and housing developments, there is now a renewed focus on revitalizing the inner cores of those cities. Rundown buildings that once stood vacant in downtowns across America are getting facelifts and new tenants. Young professionals who grew up in the suburbs are moving into downtown and creating midtown areas, bringing back life — along with retail, restaurants, bars, museums and theaters.

Tallahassee is no different.

The city got its start back in 1825, when the territorial Legislature established it as the state capital of Florida because of its location midway between the population centers of St. Augustine and Pensacola.

For well more than 100 years, the community’s life centered around the downtown, with its business and social life. Over time, as the population grew, neighborhoods expanded to Betton Hills, Los Robles, the Old Country Club and San Luis Ridge. Shopping areas began to pop up on the outer rim of the city, places like the Miracle Plaza and Parkway Center, then eventually Tallahassee Mall and Governor’s Square and now the fast-growing retail area in Bradfordville.

When Interstate 10 sliced its way through the outer fringe of the area, J.T. Williams started the next growth spurt with the development of Killearn Estates. The city continued to grow — north on Monroe, east on the Parkway and northeast up Thomasville Road. SouthWood boldly emerged in the 1990s, bringing alive the southeast quadrant. And then came the construction of new schools and churches to support the quickly growing suburban population.

During this time of growth and sprawl, downtown was being emptied. Most of the retail shops left, old homes and buildings were taken over by lawyers and lobbyists and, after 6 p.m., streets were deserted.

But, along about the mid-1990s, with a generational and mindset change in the community, business and political leadership, the tide began to change and more attention was turned back to the heart of the city.

Shopping centers inside Capital Circle began to revitalize, and younger professionals began to acquire and remodel homes in the older neighborhoods, beginning a migration back toward the core of Tallahassee.

In the late 1990s, midtown again began to thrive and was identified with places such as Tampa’s Hyde Park, Atlanta’s Five Points and Miami-Dade County’s Coconut Grove, taking on an urban look and feel that began to attract young professionals to their own trendy area.

Development dollars arrived with the construction of several high-rise condominium complexes. And the next phase of inner-city community growth has already begun. There is the groundbreaking of the Gaines Street Corridor, the planning for Cascade Park and a multi-use Performing Arts Center, and the opening last fall of new “urban” hotels in the downtown area — Hotel Duval and Aloft Hotel.

Unfortunately, the slumping economy has resulted in many of the big downtown condos being empty, but that will soon change as the economic cycle swings back and downtown comes alive, gradually returning to an 18-hour-a-day center of activity. So the pendulum is swinging inward now. But I anticipate it will not be far in the future before it swings back out again, with St. Joe planning another south-side residential development and the Fallschase and Welaunee housing projects quietly getting into position to accept the next wave of population growth.

Tallahassee is a city that isn’t sleeping. From growth downtown to new developments on the perimeter, blink and it will change again before you know it.

But there is one constant. Tallahassee continues to grow and prosper. Change comes in years rather than decades. Just think: Seventy years ago, the greater metropolitan Atlanta area was just a tad smaller than the Tallahassee metro area is today. So flash forward to 2079 and imagine what Florida’s capital skyline might look like … oh, yes, it will.

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