A decade ago, downtown Phoenix became a ghost town at 5 p.m., when the sidewalks rolled up and crime was a concern. But no more. Over the past ten years, the city’s central business district has been transformed into a showplace with hundreds of new restaurants, a residential component, and new venues such as a comedy club, a bowling alley, and movie theaters.

“Downtown Phoenix is not the same place it once was,” says David Roderique, president and CEO of the Downtown Phoenix Partnership. “There’s a lot more energy downtown. It’s a vibrant community. Visitation is way up and the area is continuing to attract new residents and new businesses.”

The renaissance of downtown Phoenix offers some lessons for other central business districts throughout the country that are less than lively, says Grady Gammage, Jr., of the Phoenix law firm of Gammage & Burnham, who is a senior fellow at Arizona State University’s (ASU) Morrison Institute focusing on urban growth and development. “Phoenix never really had a great downtown,” he says. “In a place as diffused as metro Phoenix, sometimes you just need to feel like there’s a city here. Now we’re going back and trying to build one.”

Over the years, Gammage, a ULI member, adds, there was much emphasis on big stuff: the giant sports arenas, convention centers, hotels, and redevelopment projects with chain stores. “More recently, attention has finally been paid to the little things: restaurants, old buildings, small shops,” he continues. “It takes little stuff to make a downtown interesting, and you can’t take it for granted. Of all the efforts, putting a significant ASU campus downtown has made the most difference.”

Initially, revitalizing downtown met with some resistance. “The first, early projects had a lot of skeptics,” recalls Roderique, a ULI member. “But with each subsequent project, it got easier and easier and more people jumped on the bandwagon. Now there is strong support for downtown activities. Four years ago, Phoenix voters passed a huge bond issue for more downtown development. Light rail has contributed a lot to the appeal of downtown. Phoenix residents take pride in having a strong central core and support downtown. That probably would happen in other cities, too.”

Light rail was a major catalyst for downtown and so was residential development. “In 2005, we jumped in with high-rise, high-end condos because financing was available,” he recalls. Then the economy turned. “Now there are many vacancies in those large buildings. It might have been better with smaller, more affordable housing.”

Some tips for cities interested in revitalizing their downtowns:

Stress diversity: “Seek every kind of activity and project downtown, not just office but also retail, visitor, education, cultural, entertainment, and residential,” says Roderique. “You’ve got to have it all to make it a vibrant downtown.”

There’s no single silver bullet, advises Gammage. “Don’t go crazy for huge projects,” he emphasizes. “Also, create a district in which any business, large or small, can get some kind of incentive.”

Make a serious, long-term commitment. “You’ll have to spend a significant public investment upfront, but once that’s in place, private investment will follow,” explains Roderique. “You have to be strategic, with all your actions focused, and supported over time. Sometimes the commitment to downtown is tough politically, because you will have people say, ‘Why spend downtown and not my district?’ But, people understand about downtowns and most will support the efforts.”