Recipe for Great Downtown: Make it Destination with Deep Roots and Authentically Local Flavor


What Makes a Great Downtown?
  • Keep things authentic by incorporating a community’s history
  • Tell a story with design
  • Improve access to popular locales
  • Make spaces flexible to accommodate multiple uses and purpose
  • Planning for programming opportunities


All communities have the best of intentions when it comes to their downtowns. In most cases, this means offering residents and visitors popular gathering spaces to socialize, places to shop or enjoy a meal, and a venue for entertainment – essentially, creating a place people want to be. But making a downtown a destination doesn’t happen by accident. It takes careful (and early!) planning. Such is the case in the City of Watertown, Wisconsin.

When the City sought a consultant late last year to redevelop the downtown area, officials knew the urban design features they were looking to implement would need to mesh with their overarching master plan – which is still many years out and illustrated in the rendering published above with permission from James Faecke, LLC. The City selected Ayres Associates to create a riverwalk for recreationalists to enjoy and to replace failing retaining walls along the Rock River. The project area is shown in the photos below.

WatertownPhoto1The Riverwalk project will create a sidewalk-type walkway on each side of the river. An important aspect of the design process is to keep the City’s vision for future improvements in mind so they don’t have to reconstruct anything in the future. Ideally, they’ll just need to build onto our design to complete their vision.

When selecting the engineering firm that would design the Riverwalk, Jaynellen Holloway, Watertown’s City Engineer, says it was during the interview portion of the process “where Ayres Associates really set themselves apart from the others.”

“It was very clear to the City review panel that Ayres Associates had the experience and the talent to make our vision a reality,” she says. “They presented as a very cohesive team, and we have seen the team approach carried through the project to date. We are extremely pleased with our selection of Ayres Associates for the Riverwalk project.”

Bruce Morrow, a landscape architect in Ayres’ Badger Road office in Madison, is also working on the Watertown Rock River Walkway project and will be responsible for its urban design and placemaking components.

“The first thing we want to do is make our plans authentic to the community. What’s unique about it?” Bruce says. “And then we try to tell a story somehow within the design. That helps with making it authentic. Is there some story that we can relate for the development in terms of their historic riverwalk, interpretive signs along the way, and other things that reinforce what they have in their community?”

Improving access to riverwalk areas and neighborhoods is also key, he says.

“How can we make this the place you want to take your friends when they come to town?” he said. “We want to activate the space.”

WatertownPhoto2jpgMatt Ashby, an urban planner in Ayres’ Cheyenne, Wyoming, office, has been actively pursuing tenants to fill downtown buildings for a revitalization project in Cheyenne’s West Edge District.

His observations indicate that differentiating downtowns from other suburban developments is, as Bruce notes, all about creating a unique and authentic experience. The historic fabric that comes from brick buildings and old warehouses, along with years of evolution, is something that a newer “lifestyle center” just can’t match. The resurging interest in industrial fringe areas blends Ayres’ specialties of working in downtowns while leveraging funding from redevelopment grants associated with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency brownfields program.

“These warehouse districts have gritty character along with landmark buildings that have been mothballed for years,” Matt says. “We’re seeing emerging users, like breweries and distilleries, are attracted to these spaces not only because they’re authentic, but because the buildings easily accommodate fermenting tanks and distilling equipment.”

Matt is also working with the Town of Windsor, Colorado, to generate redevelopment opportunities for an old mill building on Main Street. After having the roof lifted off during a tornado in 2008, the building has struggled to take on new life. But the expanding craft brew scene and a tight residential rental market in nearby Fort Collins could help breathe new life and uses into the facility.

Downtowns are what make one community stand out from the next. Interested in exploring how to leverage your community’s unique assets into carefully tailored solutions that pump vitality through the heart of your community? Contact Bruce or Matt to learn more.

Want to know more about helping communities become destinations? Check out Roger Brooks International’s “20 ingredients of an outstanding downtown.”

While you’re at it, check out Forbes’ listing of America’s best downtowns – and get some insights into the primary factors that earned them their rankings.

And for some inspiration, here are some additional Ayres projects that emphasize aesthetics and placemaking:


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