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Taking a Closer Look

Public Buildings Should Set the Standard

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People appreciate public buildings that express the dignity, permanence, and importance of civic institutions, and which harmonize with their surroundings. In recent years, there have been a growing number of instances where communities have demanded higher quality in the design of new public buildings and resisted efforts to move post offices, city halls, and other civic institutions to out-of-the-way locations.

Communities have also increasingly resisted the “cheaper is better” approach and demanded higher quality in the design of new public buildings. Warren County, Virginia, for example, recently resisted an effort to move its courthouse out of downtown Front Royal to a greenfield site along a highway outside of town. Instead, Warren County renovated its historic courthouse and built a beautiful, architecturally compatible addition to it.

Keeping the courthouse downtown did cost more, but Warren County officials realized that there is a big difference between cost and value. Downtown is the heart and soul of any community and the cornerstone of civic identity. A public commitment to staying downtown encourages private businesses to do the same.

By rehabilitating and expanding its existing facilities, the county helped to stabilize the downtown, increased the value of nearby properties and uses, and ensured that existing infrastructure would be used more efficiently. On the other hand, if the County had moved its offices out of downtown, private businesses would have followed. Keeping the courthouse in the core helped both the Town and the County ….

End of excerpt

photo of Ed McMahonEd McMahon is one of the country’s most incisive analysts of planning and land use issues and trends. He holds the Charles Fraser Chair on Sustainable Development and is a Senior Resident Fellow at the Urban Land Institute in Washington, DC. McMahon is a frequent speaker at conferences on planning and land development.

Over the past 21 years, we’ve been pleased to have published more than two dozen articles by McMahon in the Planning Commissioners Journal, and now on

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