Recently, while driving through Hudson, Ohio, on a warm sunny evening in April, the startling difference between a traditional downtown and a recreated lifestyle center was clear for anyone to see. The City of Hudson, Ohio has an outstanding downtown corridor, surrounding a wonderful community green. But, while the public realm for the traditional core was bright, vibrant, and full of people, their newly created “shopping district” immediately adjacent to the downtown was empty. This observation is the inspiration of this article.

In the modern day, precedence is given to all things NEW and SHINY, inclusive of economic development efforts and architectural styles. And yet this is not always the best option for economic development or the prosperity of a community. As society continually pushes new “lifestyle centers” or “shopping districts”, it is important to remember the role of a downtown.

A downtown is a collection of buildings and amenities that embody or reflect the daily needs and desires of a community. It serves as the ultimate civic space for all local residents. This is evident in the architectural styles, building massing, streetscapes, public realm spaces, and services provided. When a community changes due to socioeconomic factors or other external forces, a downtown naturally adapts to these changes and continues to meet the needs of its community. This unique identity that a community takes on is termed its CHARACTER. Every community’s character is uniquely tailored — which is why original downtowns are so much more interesting than mass-produced ones. Preserving this character and reinvesting in the downtown is critical to ensuring your community’s identity has long-term sustainability.

Let’s take a look at the differences between an original downtown corridor and a recreated “lifestyle center”. These seemingly minimal differences are what makes the original downtown more of a snapshot of the community.


Original Downtown Corridor


Original downtown corridor along North Main Street in Hudson, Ohio

The downtown core of a community is the community hub, where all roads lead. The original downtown core of your community does not need to be historic to be important. Highlighted architectural and spatial elements of an original downtown corridor are as follows:

  • A mixture of architectural styles, outlining the multitude of generations that have made an impact on the community
  • Differing building setbacks, creating interest and additional public spaces
  • Unique and distinct signage for businesses
  • Painted and textured surfaces that are similar, yet allow each property to retain its unique charm
  • Similar (but not uniform) scale and massing of buildings, creating a continuity along the entirety of the corridor
  • Reduced amounts of undeveloped land within the corridor
  • Pedestrian-scale buildings
  • Services or amenities that serve the local residents, regardless of socioeconomic conditions
  • Convenient access to regional amenities through all modes of transportation.

“Lifestyle Centers” or “Shopping Districts”

A “lifestyle center” in Hudson, Ohio, termed the SHOPPING DISTRICT

These spaces are carefully designed to emulate a traditional downtown corridor, offering a style that seeks to make people feel they are in a similar environment to the original downtown. Elements of a lifestyle center include:

  • Architectural massing and forming that are uniform throughout the area
  • Buildings that are larger in scale than traditional downtown corridors — usually taller
  • Buildings often distinguished with a uniform height
  • More uniform building setbacks, including windows and door openings, that create a strong sense of sameness
  • Painted surfaces that are well maintained, yet do not provide interest or intrigue
  • Automobile-centric design focusing on providing parking in immediate adjacency to shopping
  • Commercial and retail amenities that are not set by residents yet are crafted to draw people into town.


These days many communities across the Unites States are looking to lifestyle centers to help bolster their local economy, even though there are simply no substitutes for the original downtown core. With residential properties or developments, traditional or historic homes and neighborhoods are more impactful than new planned developments and this holds true to the downtown core of a community. No matter how well a new shopping or lifestyle center is designed and implemented it will always have a lesser return on investment and a lesser impact on the community.

There is a simple reason for this. An original downtown core has CHARACTER, while the others do not. The character of a downtown is created over time as people leave their mark on a community in physical or subtler ways. It has evolved rather than being planned. The downtown is where generations of people have met, congregated, laughed, got married, or just had a cup of coffee. It is this intrinsic tie to the downtown that will help the original downtown core retain its pull on local residents and visitors, as well as allow the services and amenities within the core to adapt to the needs of new generations of residents.

If a community is looking to preserve their community and plan for the future, investing in their downtown is the safest investment. Typical benefits of investing in a downtown include:

  • Increased civic pride
  • Higher return on investment for taxpayer-funded projects
  • Increased property values and tax generation
  • Reduced maintenance costs
  • Reduced infrastructure construction costs
  • Increased sense of place or identification
  • Improved quality of life for residents
  • The icing on the cake is that more visitors are attracted to an original downtown because it is a downtown like no other.