Designing the Downtown Experience

March 31, 2023

Each downtown has its own set of strengths and weaknesses. The downtown that consistently draws in residents and visitors is one with unique qualities and walkability. Appearances, amenities and overall experience can create positive or negative memories, and positive memories are good for everyone – businesses, residents and shoppers.

An attractive and functional streetscape can bring people downtown and back again. Take a walk down your main street: What are the strengths and weaknesses? Consider the street, sidewalks, lighting, trees, landscaping, art, seating, waste receptacles, banners, signs, bike racks, play areas, window displays, etc. Attention to small details can pay big dividends and set a community’s downtown apart from others.

A community that embraced that approach and made significant improvements to stand out is Marion’s 7th Avenue streetscape & North Plaza project:

The uptown area in Marion had cracking sidewalks, wide streets with fast traffic, dated and inconsistent planters and amenities, overgrown perennial beds, pooling parking areas, minimal handicap parking and a severe weed problem. The underground infrastructure was over 100 years old. It felt like the city had abandoned maintenance, and something had to be done. City of Marion’s Masterplan and Capital Improvement Program (CIP) called for replacement of underground infrastructure once the 6th Avenue thoroughfare went through. The business community supported that and wanted to see improvements to sidewalks, parking and amenities. Businesses were also given the opportunity to upgrade utility services, sprinkler system lines and ADA entrances.

Uptown Marion Main Street made the project as painless as possible. The organization worked with businesses to maintain positivity and helped customers envision the great results. Businesses saw a boost in sales from media attention surrounding the project and customers wanting to help them through the tough times. Uptown Marion produced marketing materials, construction survival kits, press releases and events to keep businesses going strong. The city brought in the right partners for the project that created a good rendering, which makes all the difference in selling it to the community. Local leaders were thoughtful when designing the project to identify amenities that were the right fit for the district and make it the place that people want to be. It also opened the door to develop the North Plaza, which is a big community asset even if it meant giving up some parking.

The completed project includes:

  • Underground utilities    
  • Downcast decorative lighting with banners, hanging baskets, holiday lighting, event flood lighting and future camera and sound systems
  • Sidewalk improvements (including railings)
  • The North Plaza public gathering space with perennial beds, custom art seating, fire tables, many outlets, signage and catenary lighting
  • Other amenities: bike racks, garbage cans, light piers, benches with underlighting, custom leaf inserts to pavement, trees, a bike path and fix-it station, water retention flower boxes and bollards
  • Street improvements: removal of the middle turn lane, angled parking, additional handicap parking and a curb-less festival street section

The project has had a significant impact on the downtown. Marion is seeing more visitors, higher attendance at events, great feedback from customers and interest from businesses wanting to open in the district. The look and vibe of the district has completely changed, and community members are proud to show off the area to visiting friends and family. Businesses are seeing more foot traffic, increased profits, new faces and happier customers! Truly, a success story.

Marion used public funding through the CIP. In addition, funding was requested for business support services with a contract included in the budget for a 24-month project totaling $60,000. For more information about the project, contact Brooke Prouty, executive director of Uptown Marion, at or 319.743.4726.

The Iowa Downtown Resource Center is offering the opportunity for communities to learn more about "Designing the Downtown Experience” during our annual Downtown Forums held across the state this June. Learn More.

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