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.

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

A follow up on the H Street article: Learning from Philadelphia | More sophisticated daypart, retail, cultural, and experience planning

-- "H Street NE nightlife district, failing?"

One of the problems with nightlife districts in DC is that retail wise they are unbalanced, focused on the night (not like how Wrigleyville by the Cubs Stadium changed once the Cubs moved from daytime to night time games; the retail was pushed out by taverns etc., see It's Hardly Sportin').

The problem is that even though we talk about restaurant or sports events patrons (like attendees of baseball games) also spending money on retail as part of their trips, increasingly people aren't interested in doing so.  It's why entertainment districts like Navy Yard and The Wharf in DC have pretty limited retail separate from the eating and drinking.

It might be that more neighborhood embedded districts, like Eastern Market ("Eastern Market DC's 150th anniversary last weekend | And my never realized master plan for the market") or H Street have a better shot at developing the retail offer.  But it has to be very focused.  And the advantage of people walking to and from transit stations (this benefited the small Upshur Street district on the 800 block in Petworth) has been diminished by the decline in transit use because of post-covid WFH.

Note that last weekend was Celebrate Petworth, the annual community festival.  It's much smaller than the H Street Festival, which is now the largest street festival in DC.  But maybe more attention needs to be paid to smaller events, and figuring out how to leverage the big festival for retail, not just eating and drinking.

It's even harder with the effect of e-commerce.  That being said, taverns and other nightlife establishments, hair salons, and medical marijuana dispensaries is unbalanced.  The Main Street commercial district revitalization program needs to have an active program of retail recruitment and support, and work to get area residents to patronize the retail.

WPVI-TV in Philadelphia reports on how the Center City District BID works on these issues ("Things to do in Center City Philadelphia: District seeing continued growth as number of businesses approach pre-pandemic levels").  Note that the Center City BID is one of the best in the country in terms of addressing such issues.  But the district has also had a lot more legacy retail and restaurants compared to sub-downtown districts like H Street NE.

From the article:
... Philadelphia ranks fourth in the country in the average daily number of pedestrians downtown -- behind New York City, Chicago and Boston. Those average daily numbers are considered a big deal for places like the Christmas Village at Love Park, which is filled with small businesses that are open every day through Christmas Eve. 

"A lot of small businesses don't necessarily have brick-and-mortar retail stores, so events like this are a significant source of their income," said John Oleski, owner of Kylie's Canine Treats. 

The CCD annual retail report is filled with promising signs of continued growth. Action News has been going through some of the new data and found that foot traffic in the heart of Center City reached 83% of 2019 levels, while residents reached 126%.

But the "neighborhood" Main Streets don't have the kinds of resources as a downtown focused BID like Center City.  They need more sophisticated technical and other supports from the city's planning office and small business office. 

Separately, Philadelphia is investing in Jeweler's Row to increase patronage ("City leaders plan changes to Jeweler's Row to attract more tourists in Philadelphia," WPVI-TV).  Part of the aim is to attract tourists visiting nearby Independence Hall, the National Park focused on the story of the American Revolution.  

Although it's tough to get those types of visitors to spend significant money on retail.  So called "cultural heritage tourists" are more focused on consuming places not things.

A big lesson from covid is that cities need to invest even more in their commercial districts, rounding them out as more balanced from retail and restaurants to include events and other experiences.

-- "From more space to socially distance to a systematic program for pedestrian districts (Park City (Utah) Main Street Car Free on Sundays)," 2020

Again, what is required is a much more sophisticated approach to daypart, retail, cultural, and event planning.  

It's tough in DC because there are so many smaller districts in DC outside of Downtown.  There are tons of Main Street programs, but they are more focused on events, less on planning and active business recruitment, although what I suggest in the Eastern Market piece:

Develop a premier food and retail business development/entrepreneurship program to identify and train potential business operators, to help them develop robust concepts, and to link them with space, financing and vendor support.  Complement this with business development services for existing businesses, and recruitment of existing businesses.  I would open this to anybody, whether or not they aim to open businesses in the Eastern Market district, Capitol Hill, or DC.  (I suggested something like this to the DC Main Street program in 2003, but it was too ambitious for them to understand.) 

The aim of course is to help businesses develop and be successful and to locate them in the Eastern Market district. That includes improving the merchandising abilities of the existing vendors.

Such programs and relatedly, business plan development and competitions, should really be run at the scale of a city.

Retail store development.  In terms of nurturing, growing and expanding strong retail concepts I have this piece, "Designing Brand Identity," although this table is updated, in the 2009 blog entry, "Retail and Restaurant Check Up Surveys." 

There's also a story in the Washington Business Journal, "After two decades, Old Town Alexandria's The Shoe Hive hasn't just survived — it's thrived and branched out," about a shoe store in Alexandria.

My experience in DC is that this is hard.  Some people have developed good, replicable concepts that surprisingly can work in more than one retail district.  

But they don't necessarily have the skill set to pull it off, and to differentiate between places it is more likely to work and less likely to work.

One example of such a store is Lou Lou Boutiques, which started out in Virginia horse country and now has 12 stores along the East Coast (I think some have closed, that at one point they had more than 13).  

Once it became successful, developers and retail lease brokers sought them out to open stores.  Probably with a good bit of tenant incentives--which are good, but if it's a bad location in terms of the store's business model, aren't enough.

Over the years, visiting various commercial districts, I've come across a bunch of great stores that had the ability, but not necessarily the capacity, to expand.

More on retail success.  "Why ask why? Because" (2007) was a response to criticism of the Main Street program when some businesses failed on the Brookland commercial corridor.  The point I made was that business failure needs to be understood not merely a declarative statement, and that a business support program can only do so much.  

The article outlines what a journal article called "retail mixes" but what I prefer to call retail store subsystems (using the concept of organizational subsystems as discussed in Social Psychology of Organizations by Katz and Kahn).    To the three mixes outlined in the article:

  • goods and services
  • communications
  • physical distribution
I added:
  • store operations
with the aim of helping retailers create more robust and successful business concepts and models.  The reason that the stores failed in Brookland had to do with weak systems and business models mostly, but also some certain stores needing a larger customer base (a/k/a "retail trade areas") than was proximate in the neighborhood.   From the entry:
The Rosenbloom article discusses the Trade Area Mix, linking broad market demand to the possibility of store (and commercial district) success: 
  1. Trade Area Geography: the geographical extent of the trade area
  2. Trade Area Demand: the level of consumer demand within the geographically delineated trade area
  3. Trade Area Heterogeneity: the mix of consumer market segments within the trade area and the diversity of consumer demand for products and services. The greater the demand, the higher degree of heterogeneity, characterized by more offerings.
When someone says "That store closed, the X commercial district is a terrible place to do business," the reality is a lot more complicated. Was it the owner [and management]? The concept? The commercial district? The property? Access to capital? 

And it's not either/or, it can be and/and/and... For example, the Brookland commercial district has some significant spatial and access issues. Just like I write about "intra city sprawl," commercial districts need to ensure intensity and critical mass.

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At 12:02 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

I guess DC is doing a holiday lighting in Main Street programs. So they are starting to do stuff.

At 11:28 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

I should have mentioned temporary retail. It's not a solution. But one item in a list of many to do to improve activation.

At 1:50 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...


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