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, March 04, 2011

Adding retail vitality to traditional commercial districts with empty spaces

I have been meaning to write about the latest batch of temporary retail initiatives in DC, in Mt. Pleasant and Shaw (garmentDistrict).

Beyond DC's post, "The Temporium: An Experiment in Urbanism," about the effort in Mt. Pleasant reminds me to do so.

While I am not sure that "temporary" retail initiatives are the best strategy, it's good to see that DC's Office of Planning is assisting neighborhoods in opening up temporary retail venues designed to promote retail entrepreneurship.

Because I am not active in any of these projects, I don't know if they are "one-offs," particular events in one particular place, or part of long-term integrated strategies to drive forward improvement in the retail environment overall in the commercial district.

My sense is that these efforts are one-offs, which I think is a mistake.

See, we have only so much community, volunteer, and organizational capital, so it's important that rather than collect but then dissipate the energy once a project is over, instead the effort of opening a temporium store should be part of a long term, broader, ongoing program to improve neighborhood commercial districts and retail entrepreneurship opportunities more generally.

For example, Pittsfield, Massachusett's Storefront Artist Project has done this for years, but they don't do one storefront, but focus on the entire commercial district. Over the years, they have added a number of retail and restaurant establishments as a result. A key asset is a gallery sponsored and operated by the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts--the gallery is actively programmed.

There are similar initiatives that I write about from time to time in other cities, ranging from New York to London.

The First Fridays Artwalk in Downtown Richmond in the West Broad Street area is another example. I remember being on that street in 2004 as part of a tour of Richmond held in association with the American Planning Association national conference in DC, and I was struck at how bombed out it was. (Back then, when the Richmond Times Dispatch was distributed in DC I used to read the paper pretty much daily.)

A couple weeks ago we spent the weekend in Richmond, and I was amazed at how more of Downtown Richmond is becoming more vibrant. (Carytown--which isn't downtown--was absolutely rocking. That Friday night the temperature was about 70 degrees and all the restaurants with patios were jamming. It was like Georgetown).
Comfort Restaurant, West Broad Street, Richmond, Virginia
The restaurant Comfort, where we had dinner (it was mentioned in a piece in the Washington Post, "For food shops, Richmond is a capital city") totally rocked--and this was just one example of a great "new" establishment, recognizing the street still has pawn shops and the like, and that much of the new construction around VCU is quite ersatz and disconcerting.

There's still a lot of vacant buildings though. But what great buildings.

The Artwalk is driving people to open retail and restaurant establishments, and it in turn builds up the district.

Of course, the advantage places like Richmond have over DC is that because our real estate market in the Central Business District, Friendship Heights, and Georgetown is a national-international market, all of the city's commercial property, even in comparatively marginal areas like Mt. Pleasant or Shaw, is valued and taxed more highly than it is worth in terms of the revenue potential of retail businesses based inside. But the higher taxes lead to higher rents, which is why retail ventures tend to be pretty limited in DC's traditional commercial districts, compared to service businesses like beauty salons and restaurants.

By comparison, rental rates on W. Broad Street in Richmond are under $15/s.f., while in DC in marginal districts, the minimum rent is $30-$40/s.f.--and in DC the space tends to require tens of thousands of dollars of improvements due to disinvestment, and the property owner isn't inclined to provide buildout allowances.

Of course, there are big differences in what people want. In this article from the Examiner from a couple days ago, "Georgia Ave. redevelopment tries to mix old with new," a local ANC commissioner is concerned about improvement in the retail offer, because it would displace carryouts and nail salons, while failing to acknowledge that the retail offer on Georgia Avenue is quite limited. From the article:

Longtime resident and Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Lenwood O. Johnson said the area has been long overlooked as revitalization promises have come and gone for decades. He said the more established residents and businesses are slightly wary of the change that is starting to take place at last.

"They feel that, if you bring all this stuff in, this is going to knock out the carryouts, the beauty parlors, the barbershops and the longtime establishments that stayed there even after the riots of '68," he said.

The redevelopment of Columbia Heights brought Target, Panda Express and Bed Bath & Beyond -- but swept away many local shops, he said.

One more thing, I mentioned the Bisnow conference in a blog entry yesterday. The discussion at the conference about retail in DC, especially wrt Walmart pissed me off, and there were no opportunities for "Q&A" or to challenge the nostrums spouted off from the dais.

One of the interesting things to me is that to the developers, they see the retail market as relatively healthy, but it was clear to me that they are missing a major point, that while they think it's great that shopping centers have three or four or five nail shops and beauty salons, the reality is that service businesses are opening in place of retail, that traditional retail sectors, except for chains, in many respects, are dying.

But because their centers are still leased up, they aren't seeing that the mix is changing significantly, and how this could have negative impact in the future.



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