The Transformative Power of Place

Published by: Brian O'Connor | Published on: 20 Aug, 2020
The Transformative Power of Place

Killeen is undergoing a transformation. The National Mounted Warfare Museum, increased access to broadband, Highway 195 improvements, a University Research Park at Texas A&M University-Central Texas (TAMUCT), Downtown Farmers Market and a micro-brewery are all in the works. At the root of this transformation is a change in understanding how investment concentrated in strategic locations can generate even more activity.

Locations with a strong sense of place exhibit a unique identity and character that both residents and visitors identify with and appreciate. These authentic places are essential in appealing to today’s Creative Class of young, educated, entrepreneurial, tech-savvy individuals. Effective placemaking requires that a community look at its existing assets, resources, and opportunities in new and different ways. 

Placemaking, also known as Place Design, is a means to supplement existing economic development policies and practices, not to replace them. Place Design is the art of transforming public space into quality places. It requires leadership, especially when those in the community oppose changes to the status quo. Quality places rarely occur accidently or without conflict. Instead, they are the result of deliberate incremental decisions by city officials, property owners, businesses and citizens - usually over a long period of time. This progression can be accelerated through an inclusive Place Design process with careful planning and implementation.   

Historic Downtown Killeen is a natural focus for these efforts. The area is a casualty of the midcentury trends of downtown abandonment and blight. It lost population and suffered job loss as consumer products and services migrated to the Interstate or sought more prosperous zip codes. Surprisingly, the migration unveiled a stock of commercial buildings with “good bones” that can be repurposed. The downtown contains the largest collection of historic buildings in the city, with 700,000-800,000 square feet of space that is either vacant, abandoned, or underutilized. Fortunately, many of these buildings have been well-maintained and can be easily repurposed.        

These vacant buildings should serve as the initial phase of an Innovation District that will cluster early-stage tech companies intending to collaborate with Fort Hood, Army Futures Command and the TAMUCT Research Park. It is an opportunity to create a collaborative tech environment with low entry barriers for entrepreneurs that can help modernize the U.S. Army from outside the post. Adding housing with increased density, public art, green space and event programming to the mix can stimulate the rebirth of the downtown as the hub of the City’s culture, arts and technology scene.    

The City of Killeen’s 2010 Downtown Plan best emphasizes the importance of Place Design: “Without prudent and strategic public interventions to turn things around, troubled downtowns tend to continue to spiral downward, acting as a further drag on community image and economic vitality.” The plan goes on to say that “a failing downtown is a failing fiscal strategy. It represents major losses in sunken public investments in buildings and infrastructure, along with a corresponding loss in tax base.” 
Effective Place Design techniques yield economic and social benefits for communities of all sizes. It is as much about process as it is a means to an end; the end being the creation of quality places. Its concepts are simple - people choose to live in walkable, mixed-use places that offer the amenities, resources, connectivity and social and professional networks to support thriving lifestyles.

These desirable places honor and recognize local heritage and history as culture. They are people-friendly, safe, and walkable, with mixed land uses. They have comfortable building dimensions relative to the street and quality façades. They are accessible, clean, allow authentic experiences and encourage opportunities for spontaneous interaction between people.    

Killeen’s downtown is a natural social gathering spot with coffee shops, parks, a farmer’s market and boutique-sized storefronts ideal for small business. These “Third Places” already have a strong sense of place. They are small, comfortable social surroundings separate from the two usual social environments of home and work. Young creatives often prefer to work collaboratively, and their pervasive influence is being embraced across all industries. This is creating a whole new set of requirements for how cities compete for talent.

In fact, quality places have become as, or more, important than available jobs in attracting and retaining talent. Increasingly, people are choosing a community to live in first, before searching for a job. Due to growing competition for talent, cities are engaging in Place Design projects to create quality places. They realize that communities with quality places are at a comparative advantage to attract new residents and also retain existing workers.

Killeen’s downtown has assets around which revitalization and redevelopment can occur. An effective Place Design strategy and committed resources have the potential to increase the downtown’s economic competitiveness and generate the tax revenues to support the growth of city services. Increasing these services and bringing in new residents and visitors also makes the downtown attractive to developers, since they are likelier to have a higher return on investment. Plus, the increased activity in the area creates an environment that is more favorable for new business city-wide. 

However, the downtown is more than a retail, commercial, service, or employment center. It is the symbolic center and unifying force for Killeen. These are the reasons why cities across the country are committing resources, both financial and human, to bring downtowns back to economic health. As the heart of their respective cities, downtowns offer local residents a chance to embrace their history while offering visitors a unique experience they cannot have anywhere else.  

Place Design is not just about improving aesthetics; it is also a tool for economic prosperity. Good Place Design strengthens the bond between people and the places in which they live, work, shop, or play. It breeds a sense of pride and belonging. The goal is to create a place that will attract talent to choose downtown living over that of the suburbs.