The next time you find yourself in a downtown area, take a step back and observe. You would likely be surrounded by two extremes on the generational spectrum – millennials and baby boomers. Both are drawn to the lifestyle a buzzing downtown brings – green spaces, organized fitness programs, restaurants, public gathering spaces, coffee shops, entertainment venues and more – all in a walkable, pedestrian-friendly environment.
The two largest generational groups in the United States – millennials and baby boomers – are flocking to downtown areas, presenting developers with a new challenge to build residential opportunities and amenities that cater to both demographics. While there is no one-size-fits-all formula for successful urbanization, we have found that in Columbus, it is possible to conquer this challenge to please both young professionals and their parents.
Quick Look at the Demographic Groups That Are Changing the Face of Downtowns
There are currently 76 million baby boomers in the United States. The only generation that outnumbers baby boomers is millennials, with more than 87 million in their cohort. In Downtown Columbus, 44 percent of downtown residents were between the ages 20-34 as of July 2016, and from 2001 to 2015, the neighborhood saw a nearly 20 percent increase in those aged 55-69.
Unlike previous generations, where a job usually dictated a college graduate’s next place of residence, we are seeing a trend of young professionals who decide first on a place to live, and then find a job at that location. Students are also graduating from college with record amounts of debt. This debt is leading millennials towards renting vs. owning. Although many are still purchasing cars, the option to be vehicle-free is particularly enticing to a generation that is already paying, on average, $300/month on student loans. For cities and metros looking to attract young talent, this places an increased emphasis on offering urban amenities and walkability that appeal to this group.
In recent years, it has become more popular for baby boomers to rent their next home after becoming empty nesters. The number of baby boomers who rent in the U.S. increased from 10 million in 2005 to 15 million in 2015, and baby boomers now account for more than half of the nation’s renter growth in the last 10 years.
Building a Forward-Looking Downtown Neighborhood: The Columbus Way
In Downtown Columbus, we have seen the demands of our city’s newest inhabitants first-hand and have already put strategies into action. When Downtown Columbus began its initial transformation about 15 years ago, under the leadership of the Columbus Downtown Development Corporation (CDDC), our main strategy was to make smart development decisions that would ensure a sustainable and forward-looking urban environment.
A key element to this strategy was to develop walkable, mixed-used and amenity-rich communities, while at the same time removing and repurposing obsolete and blighted developments that were sprinkled throughout Downtown Columbus. The goal was to build lifestyle amenities that would attract residents and visitors, while at the same time catalyze additional development. Key developments and projects included:
Turning a deserted city mall into a lively greenspace: After disassembling the once thriving, but since abandoned City Center mall, CDDC created Columbus Commons, an urban oasis complete with gardens, a performance stage, carousel, reading room, a NEOS play system and two cafes. Today, the park hosts more than 200 events annually ranging from fitness classes to Family Fundays to concerts featuring local and national acts to, the Columbus Symphony’s Picnic with the Pops series. This six-acre greenspace now serves as an anchor for the mixed-use developments on the site including HighPoint on Columbus Commons, 250 High and TWO25 Commons, which broke ground in December of 2016.
Converting a five-lane highway into a riverfront park: The Scioto Mile was once a traffic artery for exiting downtown, and today is a civic magnet, attracting over 1 million people to the riverfront annually to enjoy the Promenade; the interactive, 15,000-square-foot fountain; festivals; and the Milestone 229 restaurant. The final piece of this riverfront renaissance, the Scioto Greenways, was completed in November 2015 and created a restored, natural river channel, 33 new acres of greenspace and 1.5 miles of bike-path connections.
The combination of these urban greenspaces has galvanized more than $400 million in private investment in the RiverSouth District in Downtown Columbus. These amenities made downtown attractive to developers, and to the residents and employers filling these buildings. Downtown Columbus has experienced record-low office vacancy rates at 11.4 percent, and record-high residential occupancy rates at 97 percent as a result of these something-for-everybody civic investments.
As we continue to foster positive population growth and successful urbanization in our community, our downtown is an example for other cities and states. And the momentum continues. Today, more than $700 million is currently under construction in Downtown Columbus with more than $1.2 billion in proposed investment including new restaurants, retail opportunities, luxury and mix-used residential buildings, cultural destinations, infrastructure, and more.
Urbanization is an ongoing development in Downtown Columbus and there is more work to come, but we are excited and prepared to rise to this continued challenge.