Defining "Downtown"

It's surprisingly hard to define downtown. Here is one dictionary definition:
The central area or main business and commercial area of a town or city
So downtown is sometimes also called the Central Business District (CBD), but trying to define exactly where that is for a given city can be trickier than it seems. If your town has a Main Street, America program, I caution you to not rely overly much on its official definition of your downtown.

Let them do their thing as a non-profit program but don't drink the koolaid.

The program defines downtown largely in terms of the historic downtown where there is a preponderance of old buildings. It wants to limit its development footprint to an area that was probably in its heyday around a hundred years ago.

This is likely NOT in the best interest of the future of your community. It's fine to get their assistance for growing your town, but don't let them artificially limit growth due to their focus and mindset.
This love of old things is in part rooted in our faith in our incompetence. We just accept that it's not possible to update zoning laws well or get good projects approved currently, so we throw in the towel and go with what's already been built, defects and all, as our least worst answer for having something, anything that kind of, sort of works at human scale.
The following map shows the outline of the Main Street program in Aberdeen, Washington in green. The state-level program came in and dictated this to the local program when it was trying to get certified and it is based on where the preponderance of old buildings are.

The map is an edited outtake of the city's zoning map.

It makes much more sense to think of the densest part of Aberdeen's downtown -- or Central Business District -- as the sections of Wishkah and Heron between the Wishkah River and where US Route 12 makes a ninety degree angle and becomes North Park Street and North Alder Street (outlined in red on the two maps below).

The downtown also includes Market and State Streets in the same area (outlined in blue), but those are not really areas of prime real estate to the same degree as Wiskkah and Heron. Because Wishkah and Heron serve as the east and west sections of US Route 12 in the downtown area, they have dramatically more traffic than Market and State Streets, which parallel them but are each a block away from this old scenic highway.

The above two maps and the map below are by Stamen Design. Used under CC BY 3.0. Map Data by OpenStreetMap, under ODbL. Edited by D. Traylor.

The local shuttle bus known as The Wave that loops around downtown via Market, Park and Heron and then into East Aberdeen Monday through Friday implicitly acknowledges that the above footprint is the densest, busiest part of downtown. The downtown section of its route is shown below in green.

Just to the north of Market Street, 1st Street also has some businesses on it but it's not nearly as dense as the above section. To my mind, it's not really part of downtown. It's more like adjacent to downtown, just like East Aberdeen which is seeing development in recent years because Aberdeen is placing too much value on preserving the old buildings in the historic downtown.

The excess emphasis on preserving the historic downtown means there are a lot of empty storefronts and buildings with serious problems, such as mold. When Grays Harbor Transit recently acquired a building they've wanted for around five years, they found they could not preserve it and had to tear it down because it had both black mold and asbestos.

People fear replacing the old buildings because they fear it will destroy the pedestrian-friendly nature of the historic downtown, but the reality is that empty storefronts actively undermine it as well. If there is nothing nearby to walk to, it's not really that pedestrian friendly.

The existence of The Wave shuttle helps make Aberdeen's downtown pedestrian friendly. If you can't walk that distance or the weather is bad, you can hop on the shuttle. It's always free and other buses are currently free, at least until December 2023.

While I would like to see more two- to four-story buildings in the downtown area, it is really more important to me to see more living buildings in downtown. There are too many empty buildings that are de facto rotting corpses and that's worse than having less dense, shorter buildings that have viable businesses in them.

If you are trying to define the downtown of your community, local traffic patterns, bus demand and existing thriving businesses can provide clues to where you should draw that outline. Historic buildings may look visually dense but if they have too many empty storefronts, they shouldn't be overly valued.

A downtown -- or Central Business District -- needs thriving businesses and potential for more thriving businesses to define it, not empty buildings that were in their heyday a century ago. Potential for more thriving businesses needs to be defined in part by things like traffic patterns.

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