Downtown revitalization can be driven by dynamic, large-scale projects that create new centers of activity. Three 2010 ULI Awards for Excellence winners—Sundance Square in Fort Worth, Texas; the Columbia Heights revitalization in Washington, D.C.; and L.A. LIVE in downtown Los Angeles—are recent examples. These projects, however, show there is no one-size-fits-all solution: one achieved success through a decade-long city-led initiative, another through a 25-year master-planning effort, and the last through a quick-strike public/private partnership. To understand the transformative nature of these projects, this article takes a before-and-after look at each city’s downtown.

Downtown Fort Worth, TexasDowntown Fort Worth, Texas, circa 1956. The Gruen Plan establishes a futuristic vision for downtown Fort Worth. Victor Gruen, the father of the modern shopping mall, declares that the city “must discontinue this unusable pattern of mixing automobiles and people.” His plan calls for massive parking structures, skyways connecting buildings, and underground service roads; in short, every technique possible to keep people off the streets. While the plan was never fully realized, its influence is still felt: downtown Fort Worth’s existing street grid becomes interrupted by multiblock parking decks and surface parking lots that lead to a complete lack of street life. As architect David Schwarz recalls in the Building Museum’s “Restoring Civitas” video, Fort Worth becomes home to “20 years of buildings that were not sympathetic to the urban environment.”

Columbia Heights Revitalization in D.C.Columbia Heights, Washington, D.C., April 1968. The intersection of 14th and U streets, N.W.—the heart of Columbia Heights—becomes the epicenter of the riots following Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination. By the time the destruction is over, 12 are dead, some 1,200 buildings are burned—including more than 900 stores—and property damage runs into the millions. Once the center of African American culture in the nation’s capital, Columbia Heights lays dormant, suffering from neglect and disinvestment for the next three decades.

ThoerigAwards_7_250South Park, Los Angeles, late 1990s. The South Park neighborhood is dominated by industrial uses and automobile dealerships. The struggling Los Angeles Convention Center is in the red, costing the city more than $20 million a year. Despite its location next to the central business district and at the confluence of two major freeways, the area remains unnoticed and underdeveloped—a place no one would think to go.

Fast-forward to 2011: all three neighborhoods have become vibrant destinations and economic engines for theirDowntown Fort Worth, Texas respective cities. At Sundance Square, a 38-block redevelopment of Fort Worth’s downtown, a long-term development approach was applied. Governed by a master plan designed by David M. Schwarz Architects, the city’s downtown has evolved over more than 25 years into a vibrant, walkable, entertainment-oriented urban core. The deliberate development process has created both economic stability—the district is outperforming local, regional, and national real estate markets—and an authenticity driven by extensive historic preservation efforts. According to developer Ed Bass, “Cities really need to be re-energized with every generation in order to thrive, and I am proud that our generation is giving the next a healthy, vibrant downtown to enjoy and work with going forward.”

Columbia Heights has risen to its former prominence, largely through a District government–initiated revitalization of more than 20 acres (8 ha) of land assembled from vacant parcels along the 14th Street corridor. Reactivated by a new Metrorail station, the redevelopment includes 1.2 million square feet (111,600 sq m) of new development: more than 600 housing units (of which 150 are affordable), 650,000 square feet (60,450 sq m) of retail—both large- and small-format, tenanted by a mix of local merchants and national chains—24,000 square feet (2,232 sq m) of offices, a grocery store, and the renovation of a historic theater. The social and economic benefits for the community are readily apparent, with more than 1,200 jobs created and more than $12 million in projected tax revenue as a result of the project.

2010 ULI Awards for Excellence winner - L.A. LIVE in downtown Los Angeles The $2.5 billion L.A. LIVE—anchored by the STAPLES Center and featuring 5 million square feet (465,000 sq m) of entertainment, hospitality, and office uses—has transformed the underutilized South Park neighborhood in a very short period of time. The project has shifted the center of gravity of downtown to the southwest, creating a new 24-hour entertainment district. L.A. LIVE’s economic impact extends well beyond its physical boundaries: the project has stimulated the development of 2,500-plus housing units, a grocery store, retail space, and dozens of restaurants and cafés in the adjacent neighborhoods. Also, an innovative Community Benefits Agreement has ensured the creation of affordable housing, significant open space, local hiring requirements, and child-care facilities.

ULI Awards for Excellence define the standard for real estate development practice worldwide. In its 33rd year, the awards program is the centerpiece of ULI’s efforts to identify and promote best practices in all types of real estate development. The awards recognize the full development process of a project—construction, economic viability, marketing, and management—as well as design.

Submissions for the 2011 ULI Awards for Excellence are due February 18, 2011.