Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Next generation retail planning for municipalities

I have to admit that I haven't read DC's Retail Action Strategy even though I was one of many members of a large advisory committee. (I will get to it.) But as I work on these issues wearing a variety of hats (concerned citizen, Main Street program manager, Main Street volunteer, commercial district revitalization planner) I think a big problem is that retail planning and zoning procedures are disconnected. And I don't see that being corrected by the RAS.

Development projects for the most part, are based upon the maximum allowable space allowed for each category (residential, retail, office) allowed within the zoning category.

The trouble with the retail side of the equation is multiple:

1. It takes a fair amount of customers to support retail space --generally the number I use is you need 30,000 people to support 50,000 square feet of retail space;
2. Another heuristic comes from Steve Belmont's Cities in Full, which says you need 10,000 households (approximately 20,000 people) to support a thriving local neighborhood commercial district and if you want entertainment too, like a movie theater, you need 15,000 households--and that is within 1/2 mile of the commercial district;
3. Usually, elected and appointed officials tout various office projects as necessary to seed neighborhood retail, without disclosing the fact that a typical office worker supports about 2 s.f. of retail and 5 s.f. of restaurant space, meaning that you need thousands and thousands of workers to have much impact;
4. But you have to remember that the type of retail and food service supported by office workers is pretty narrow as well.

In short, all of these factors add up to the reality that most new developments propose far more retail space than is likely to be supportable. But this retail space is touted to bring the support of area residents to the project.

But there are other issues besides:

1. Is something that I have come to be quite concerned about, what I call intra-city sprawl, when new retail is proposed in a manner that makes it even more difficult to revitalize extant commercial districts. But because the new retail can be developed as part of a single project, with less hassle, and with larger footprints (spaces) that typically aren't available in extant areas, new development gets targeted to new places at the expense of "old" places.

2. Plus, for the most part, the retail industry is chained up (even in today's brutal economy that is crushing most retailers) and for the most part, chains aren't interested in urban locations.

3. So for traditional commercial districts we need to have more focused retail development programs focused on "growing our own," through retail entrepreneurship development and support programs. (This is the work that I do now.)

4. But with the drop in housing values, the amount of capital people can tap into to use for start up businesses is shrinking and/or is much harder to tap.

In short, while I think that the complaints of people concerned about development at the McMillan Reservoir, about chicken joints are misplaced (see "McMILLAN THEORY 1: Trader Joe’s is a pipe dream. The retail’s going to be cheap chicken joints" from the Washington City Paper) the reality is that more detailed retail plans need to be developed as part of the zoning orders that are derived from the Planned Unit Development zoning process. Otherwise, it is smoke and mirrors.

See the next blog entry for an example of how to go about things somewhat differently.

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