Historic downtowns don’t work without, well, workers (and residents), so this article from the Wall Street Journal is great news. Though most office workers in the U.S. still work in the suburbs, it hails a new scenario in which downtowns offer serious competition.

The numbers are looking up despite the current economic doldrums. Downtowns lost 119,000 SF of occupied office space in January through September 2010, compared to the 16 million SF (!) of occupied office space lost by the suburbs. Downtowns are home to more stable economic sectors (government) and more resilient sectors (banks). Also, younger workers prefer exciting urban areas, and there are more and more of us entering the workforce. Businesses too want to be in the middle of things, and downtown revitalization has prompted new retail, nightlife, and condo projects – pretty good magnets.

Even if businesses locate in new buildings, they still draw workers who patronize shops, coffeehouses, and restaurants in nearby historic buildings. More money equals better building maintenance and perhaps restoration. More people downtown equals more people who care about the historic environment, or who might as well. Meanwhile, rehabilitations of older apartment buildings and residential conversions of industrial and office buildings benefit from and drive the downtown business core.

Sure, property values might rise and tempt demolishers – but with a strong preservation ordinance and planning tools like transfer of development rights (TDRs), older buildings can be protected even as they add to downtown character and value. It’s never that pat, but it is surprisingly straightforward.