Downtown

When Improving Places, It Always Comes Down to People

by Michele Reeves on August 23, 2012

Post image for When Improving Places, It Always Comes Down to People

What is one of the first things I consider when I’m working in a mixed-use district, whether I’m helping private sector developers strategize acquisitions, or diagnosing and suggesting improvements to an economically underperforming city?

RELATIONSHIPS!

In fact, I can often tell a lot about the connections between stakeholders in a small downtown or mixed-use district just by walking through it, because the nature of relationships, past and present, are always reflected in its buildings, streets, and businesses. If property owners don’t know one another, if the public sector does not have strong ties to the community, if there are not close associations between businesses, then I will not likely find an environment that includes sidewalk tables filled with residents chatting and little red wagons overflowing with bright fresh flowers when I visit your district.

It can’t be overstated: to catalyze change and bring revitalization to underperforming districts, relationships between businesses, property owners, residents, and the public sector must be established and strengthened. Below are a handful of ways to begin looking at district-wide relationships, some ideas for improving connections, and a few examples from various cities.

WHAT IS THE STATE OF RELATIONSHIPS BETWEEN THE PUBLIC AND PRIVATE SECTOR?

A mixed-use district typically has a patchwork of property owners that must work in concert toward shared goals in order to create success and vitality for everyone. Owners have to invest in their buildings and they have to tenant with active ground floor businesses, or revitalization will never get started. It is generally easiest to achieve this collaboration through public sector led activities, such as providing technical assistance, facade improvement matching grant dollars, and goal-setting exercises.

The bottom line: it’s harder to be the jerk with the really ugly building if you have cordial relationships with the property owners and businesses that are located next door.

Example: In Hillsboro, Oregon, Jon Gimre, of Gimre’s shoes was awarded one of their downtown urban renewal area’s first facade improvement grants. (He was not one of the aforementioned “jerks” with an ugly building, by the way!) To ensure that this initial project was successful, city staff worked closely with Mr. Gimre through every step of his building’s dynamic transformation. By providing the necessary technical assistance and support, Gimre’s was remade through the introduction of a warm three-color paint scheme; the addition of a bright sign from one of its 50’s era logos; the removal of a large, overpowering awning; and, the incorporation of exterior building lighting. Sales have risen for the shoe store, and a model for simple, yet effective, renovation has been created for others to emulate in the district. In fact, there are now multiple applicants for the next wave of facade improvement funds, all of whom wish to implement a similar quality of project in the downtown. And to think, it all began with a building and good relationships between its owner/user and city staff.

WHAT ARE A PLACE’S MOST BELOVED BUSINESSES AND EVENTS?

Upon commencing work in a district, I usually try to understand what people feel a sense of relationship to in a place. As one part of this, I seek to identify the most beloved businesses and events, because these are the very things that build district identity and value well into the future.

One of the benefits of quantifying an area’s beloved businesses is so that property owners truly understand the types of ground floor activators that create long-term value. Small, locally-owned restaurants, one-of-a-kind retailers, and funky coffee shops usually top these lists of favorites. These purveyors create identity because a majority of stakeholders in the community connect with them. Unfortunately, when a district has been in decline for some time, landlords forget the concept of highest and best use. It becomes tempting for owers to tenant with legal, medical, and professional service office users since these are stable businesses generating steady cash flow. But, these are not establishments that people engage with, and if you try to create a downtown that is comprised of inward facing office tenants at street level, you will have a very unsuccessful mixed-use district because it will be missing…well, a good mix!

No one says, “Hey, let’s go hang out and have lunch on that Main Street with all the dentists!”

The reality is that a spiraling decrease in property values and achievable rents will ensue if office use becomes the predominant ground floor presence in a district.

All landlords have to remember which tenants the community relates to best on the ground floor: outward facing and engaging businesses with personality at street level. Any business can build stronger bonds by offering excitement and exchange at the sidewalk. I have seen banks that proffer popcorn, public Internet access, and community events in their lobbies. Or a medical office with dramatic windows at the sidewalk through which pedestrians can see the waiting area and huge floor-to-ceiling murals depicting the history of the neighborhood. Or a used building supply store that built a new warehouse out of pieced-together windows and lumber taken from deconstructed buildings and houses, the very products they carry, creating a story on the exterior of their building for everyone to enjoy. Or a yoga studio with an eclectic retail shop offering new and gently-used lifestyle, homeware, and apparel products.

Figure out what people relate to in your district and give them more of it!

Another reason to take a gander at what people are relating to in a district, is to determine if they are leveraging these events and businesses for maximum economic impact. Sadly, it is often the case that they are not. It is not uncommon for a downtown to play host to an event and then garner almost no positive brand association from that event because they don’t participate in it in a meaningful or memorable way. This is one of the reasons I am not always a fan of gated outdoor programming; they typically do not create positive brand association for the area and eventgoers do not frequent area businesses.

Example: One of the leading complaints I hear in cities is, “On farmer’s market day, everyone comes downtown. But other than that, it’s empty…they won’t come back.” How do markets create all of this excitement with a few run down tents and battered banquet tables? With people. With sights. With smells. With lots of small, affordable purchasing options. With tastes. With close proximity. With atmosphere.

On a farmer’s market day, people want to experience street activity. Customers wish to rub shoulders with their neighbors and experience the fabric of their community. They do not want to go into stores. They do not want to dine in sit-down restaurants. So bring your store and your food businesses outside! Provide free samples. Put products on the sidewalk. Consider this quote from Richard Bloom, published in the Metro News Feed, about his small floral and homewares shop in downtown Lake Oswego:

Bloom moved his business in March to Lake Oswego’s main street, A Avenue, and incorporated several of Reeves’ suggestions at his new, highly visible storefront. “The change (in walk-in traffic) has been phenomenal,” says Bloom. “We were hidden off the main drag in a complex with low visibility and no storefront…By moving locations where our storefront is highly visible and adding sidewalk interest with an antique flower cart and spillover product, we’ve probably increased our walk-in business by 40 to 50 percent.”

On Saturdays, he converts several of the customer parking spots next to his building into an outdoor market to take advantage of Lake Oswego’s farmers market crowd. “Saturdays used to mean a skeleton crew and closing early,” says Bloom. “Now it’s one of our busiest days.”

DO THE BUSINESSES IN THE DISTRICT COLLABORATE?

Adjacencies are a key component to good merchandising when laying out products in a store. What are adjacencies? Inventory that sells well next to each another. In Main Street and downtown environments, you are looking for the same things: what are the physical and emotional adjacencies that can be wielded to build more economic success?

If businesses have strong relationships with each other, they can cooperate and discover where people eat after they get tutoring, or what shops they tend to frequent serially, and they can successfully cross promote offerings to those who live, work, and play nearby.

In economically underperforming areas, it is typical for individual stores and restaurants to feel like islands; isolated, trying to keep their borders above water. But this offers the antithesis of what a successful mixed-use district should: a place with community fabric. In a strip mall, no one expects the clerk from Ross Dress for Less to know, and interact with, a clerk from Best Buy. But, the opposite is true in a downtown or Main Street. People want shared passion and purpose. The community fabric people want to experience is woven primarily using a downtown’s ground floor stakeholders. So functioning business associations that receive technical assistance and monetary support from area institutions and the public sector are vitally important to create adjacencies and downtown fabric.

Example: In a matter of months, downtown Tigard, went from having a defunct business association and little interaction between stakeholders, to creating a district-wide annual event. How did this happen? The city of Tigard provided technical assistance to engaged stakeholders in the downtown. Staff brought in Business Association Management to lend a helping hand with creating a downtown email list, fostering regular communication, developing event posters, postcards, and flyers, and hosting networking meetings. Through this collaboration, events and identity are being created, including the first ever Downtown Tigard Street Fair, which was held August 11th, and included a car show, brew fest, live music, and offerings for the kiddos. Pretty darn impressive in less than a year.

WHAT ARE YOUR STORIES?

Every place is teeming with stories. The collective tales that reside in a district are what make it unique, and bring it to life. I was reminded of this recently when working in downtown Lake Oswego.

Robert Foster, an incredibly talented landscape architect, artist, and resident of Lake Oswego, came up to me after a presentation in their downtown and gave me a copy of his self published book called: Art in the Coffee Shop. It was the 13th edition and it contained sketches of, and poems about, people he observes in coffee shops throughout the region, and it is the source for the images in this post.

About the woman at the top of this blog entry Robert wrote:

A delightful smile, haven’t seen in a while.
I’ll put it in the book and keep it in my file.
She delighted her friends, she was very attentive,
She gave them pause she gave them incentive.
People like this keep the world going round,
How do we keep them from flying off the ground.

Yes, people like this…and their individual stories, are what make the world go ’round, and they are the ones who ultimately provide the spark needed to bring renewal to a neighborhood, a city, or a town. It always begins with people.

All images are published with the permission of Robert H Foster. Thank you for sharing your talent so generously Robert!

{ 0 comments }

Retail, REITs and Cannibalization

by Michele Reeves on May 4, 2012

Post image for Retail, REITs and Cannibalization

When he got his start in the grocery business with Fred Meyer decades ago, Gary Slabaugh said he knew EVERY property owner that surrounded the store where he worked. He knew them, their families, their kids’ birthdays. Part of managing the store was participating in, and being a member of, the surrounding community. Smart business if you are a retailer and property owner.

Fast forward a few decades, and contrast that with some of Gary’s more recent experiences as VP of Real Estate for Safeway, where he said some of their leased mall locations have been sold 12 times over the last few years. Each sale of the mall, he said, exchanged hands for more money, selling to another out-of-town Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT).

How did these properties increase in value if rent wasn’t increasing as well? We puzzled over this question as I was moderating a panel at the Portland ICSC Alliance event this year on the subject of Retrofitting Suburbia. (Keynote presentations by Michael Freedman and Ellen Dunham-Jones are available on the right hand navigation bar, if you follow the previous ICSC link.)

The role of retail and restaurants in a city is vitally important. Stores and eateries act as activators. They are entertainers. They are draws. They provide identity. Yet, few cities actually manage this square footage like the precious resource that it is.

In fact, as Gary’s story so beautifully illustrates, the whole nature of retail, particularly along arterials and in suburban communities, has dramatically changed, shifting almost entirely into the hands of institutional investors, out-of-state owners, and large corporations. Accountants are not retailers, as my professional crush Paco Underhill notes in Call of the Mall. (One of the reasons he cites for malls being so ugly!)

This consolidation of properties and development into the hands of absentee number crunchers has not been good for America’s communities. It has led us to us being an utterly and completely over-retailed nation, diluting the positive impact that retail and restaurants can have on our cities and towns. And, it has left us with under invested or abandoned retail infrastructure that drives down property values, invites crime, and creates negative identity, like the arterial pictured above left.

Let’s compare America’s retail spaces to the rest of the world.

In a Costar report from 2010, the real estate database and analytics firm estimated there is at least 56 square feet of retail space per person in the United States. This equates to about 46.6 square feet of total retail space per capita in our country, according to ICSC estimates.

Juxtapose those numbers with retail space in a few other countries. Canada and the UK clock in at around half of the US glut, and places like Mexico and India are closer to 2 square feet of retail space per capita. A fraction of the real estate we have enshrined to consumption!

What do these statistics tell us? The United States has more retail space than it needs…more than it can possibly use.

Every time a city adds retail space, it is cannibalizing its own existing retail infrastructure. This trend gets exacerbated in areas with sales tax, as cities duke it out over who lures Wal-Mart from the next county over.

In a reality where we have a huge oversupply of retail space, why do we keep pretending there are unlimited dollars just waiting to be spent? Why do we think that all we need to do is build the next new mall and everything will be great in our towns, neighborhoods and corridors?

Let’s look at a local example of this from Gresham, Oregon. (Click on the map below for images and more information.)

There is a fabulous little downtown here, that had, and still has, a great street grid, charming buildings, and a nearby park with a Japanese garden that is being renovated. As this suburban downtown started to suffer the inevitable postwar decline that occurred everywhere, what happened?

A strip mall was conceived and built right along the edge of downtown. (Mall #1 on the map.)

Did this help downtown? Of course not.

Since the strip mall was a super block, it ruined grid connectivity, it visually eliminated any connection between downtown and nearby streets, and the mall was oriented so its back faced downtown, doing the strip mall equivalent of mooning this once thriving center in Gresham.

Eventually, this “new” mall became dated. Downtown continued to suffer. So what happened next?

Another mall!! Across the street from Mall #1. Literally. This shopping paradise was larger, newer and lifestyle center-y. (Let’s call it: Mall #2.)

Sadly, with this much retail space stacked on top of each other, this is now an environment that struggles with vacancy and turnover. And, this massive amount of mall space is dwarfing a great downtown, and hindering its revitalization as well.

There are several big lessons for cities in all of this:

  1. Large corporations with no connection to your municipality often don’t care about your city, they are making decisions for their bottom line first and foremost. I would venture to say that nearly every REIT and big box concept has built in places that were clearly bad for the city and the surrounding area. Remember, what may be good for an out-of-town company is not necessarily good for a city as a whole.

  2. Complete, and keep up to date, a retail capacity assessment in your city.

  3. Don’t over zone for retail.

  4. Don’t allow new large retail developments without considering how they impact all retail infrastructure in the city.

  5. Give preference to local developers who have a stake in the community and tend to hold their properties for long periods of time. Real estate is rarely developed optimally, and maintained at its highest and best use for the whole community, if it is owned, controlled, and managed by institutional employees as an accounting exercise in another state.

Map image is courtesy of OpenStreetMap, © OpenStreetMap contributors, CC BY-SA

{ 1 comment }

There Is No Such Thing as a Rain-Free Downtown Experience

by Michele Reeves on January 1, 2012

Post image for There Is No Such Thing as a Rain-Free Downtown Experience

If I were supernatural, I might choose to be an awning fairy. My mission? Roaming the land, eradicating horrible awnings with the touch of my sparkly magic wand. (By roaming, I mean that I would be flying, of course.)

Sadly, I am coming around to the fact that I won’t be manifesting any special powers in the near future. But, I have not let the dream die entirely. No, I try to do the work of the awning fairy without extraordinary skills. In my war against underperforming mixed-use districts, I do battle with over-awninged places using just my voice, a whole lotta pictures, and field trips.

LEVERAGING HISTORIC DOWNTOWN ENVIRONMENTS

To maximize the economic return on historic infrastructure, it must be highlighted in every possible way, particularly for pedestrians. These renovated buildings in Tacoma, Washington, pictured to the left, are a good example. A visitor on the sidewalk should experience the grandeur and unique character of the building stock when looking down the same side of the street on which they stand, or when gazing across the road.

Interconnected and unique buildings are a huge part of what creates a great ambiance in a downtown or Main Street environment.

In a struggling mixed-use district, there are myriad examples of not leveraging historic infrastructure properly. But today, I want to focus on one particular culprit—the awning, something that is often invisible to stakeholders and which can be particularly difficult to eradicate. In a downtown that lacks vitality, it is very common to view a plethora of awnings that are inappropriate architecturally…a sea of moldy awnings…tons of tattered awnings…and awnings that are so large they take up one third to one half of the vertical face of the building.

In the photos below (please click to enlarge), you can see that instead of this district differentiating itself through its superior historic infrastructure, it has instead been turned into a sort of umbrella corridor, where the sidewalk experience is one highlighting unattractive awnings and the metal infrastructure used to hold them up. Or, the awnings block building and storefront visibility from across the street.

DOWNTOWN DISTRICTS WILL NEVER PROVIDE “RAIN FREE” SHOPPING EXPERIENCES

“But what about the rain, Michele?”

I hear this a lot. And okay, I grant you, many of the communities I work with are in the Pacific Northwest. But really, at the end of the day, no one is making a decision about where to shop based upon whether or not a building has an awning.

This desire to create a rain-free shopping environment is a vestige of the postwar abandonment of downtowns and mixed-use districts for the mall. And, it doesn’t work.

An economically successful downtown has striking buildings and vibrant, engaging storefronts with well lit window displays. It should be an environment that entices visitors to stay, to shop, to grab a cup of coffee, to want to discover what is around the next corner. Any shopper that comes to one particular store, becomes a potential shopper for every other store. The pedestrian is king and they are what drive sales per square foot. These browsers have to go to and from their car. They have to cross the street. They cannot be protected from the rain every single moment they are in a downtown district. So don’t even try to provide this service.

The question I always ask property owners and business owners is this: “If a potential shopper is standing across the street from your building, will they make the journey through traffic to walk to your store?” I want to know if they see anything compelling, because a true test of a district’s health is a walker’s willingness to cross the street to sample wares on the other side of the road.

As these owners contemplate their buildings and businesses (I like to do this literally standing outside, gazing at their property), I follow up with these inquiries, “Do shoppers think, ‘Hey, there’s an awning over there, and it’s huge, so I’m going to go to that store!’ Or, is what really grabs their attention the quality of the building, the visibility and attractiveness of the storefront, and how well the products are merchandised?”

FORM SHOULD FOLLOW FUNCTION—AWNINGS THAT CONTRIBUTE TO ECONOMIC SUCCESS

In a district where all of the buildings have had awnings forever, it is very difficult to get people to change their approach to building and storefront design. They tend to assume the awning will be kept and that all decisions related to appearance will stem from there. This is designing from the awning inward. Instead, owners should be designing from the building/store outward. First, make the building as appealing as possible. Second, draw attention to the storefront and merchandise. Third, come up with an attractive sign and lighting scheme. Then and only then should you contemplate an awning. I can’t tell you how often I have to stress that an awning is an accessory, not the main attraction, and it should be considered last in the design process, not first.

My general rule of thumb is that awnings are useful when they:

  • Do not dominate the vertical facade of a building; and
  • Are defining an outdoor room that is an extension of the storefront, bringing the business out to the sidewalk, engaging pedestrians in street level dialog.

But remember, awnings are difficult to light appropriately, often detract from building appeal, invariably block transom windows, and create dark caves that decrease storefront visibility. So, unless a business is going to aggressively make the area under their awning part of their store or restaurant, then lose it. Just forget about it.

Good examples of awnings that create positive, engaging ground floor environments are shown in the photographs below (please click to enlarge).

A final note on the role of the public sector in regards to awnings: cities should not be in the business of requiring awnings, especially as they are often temporary finishes on existing buildings. Making structures host an awning unnecessarily constrains architectural design for new buildings and puts a huge burden on existing buildings, which must shoulder these appendages even when they literally have no use. Stipulating awnings also has the unintended consequence of ensuring that there will be a plethora of canopies in poor condition because those who don’t really want an awning will refuse to incur the expense of replacing it, so tired old awnings will become the norm.

{ 3 comments }

On Emergence, Ants, and Bottom up Revitalization

by Michele Reeves on November 19, 2010

Post image for On Emergence, Ants, and Bottom up Revitalization

I was thinking about commercial districts yesterday as I finished Emergence, by Steven Johnson. I was particularly taken with his descriptions of ants, and how they build colonies with no central vision or control. A fully functioning ant mound is created strictly through a series of small local interactions between ants, largely using pheromones. Though the amount of information exchanged in each is tiny, from these local interactions, a higher functioning order emerges.

This is exactly the sort of behavior cities should be encouraging between stakeholders to foster organic revitalization.

Instead, from a city’s perspective, from a planning department’s perspective, and from a development agency perspective, it is often easier to focus on that one big new “catalyst” project that will single-handedly improve an area, rather than encourage many small-scale projects, fostering a bottom up approach. Unfortunately, this desire to renew from above takes a tremendous amount of public capital and doesn’t always work.

Is it possible to consider rejuvenation of a commercial corridor or a downtown from a different, more cost-effective perspective?

Yes, provided that you have decent building stock (and by decent, I mean a continuous run of structures from almost any era) and a functioning grid. From those simple building blocks, you can directly improve what you have, rather than trying to indirectly help it by completing a single large new building. From the seeds of your downtown or your commercial corridor, you can grow a place, which will then require significantly less, or perhaps no, public money to encourage new construction.

In Emergence, Steven Johnson writes about the five fundamental principles that a system designed to learn from the ground level must exhibit, as an ant colony exhibits:

  1. More is different. The statistical nature of ant interaction demands that there be a critical mass of ants for the colony to make intelligent assessments of its global state.

  2. Ignorance is useful. It is better to build a dense interconnected system with simple elements and let sophisticated behavior trickle up.

  3. Encourage random encounters. Encounters with individual ants are arbitrary, but because so many of them are in the system, those encounters allow individuals to gauge and alter the macrostate of the system.

  4. Look for patterns in the signs. The knack for pattern detection allows meta-information to circulate through the colony mind. (Smelling the pheromones of fifty foragers in the space of an hour imparts information about the global state of the colony.)

  5. Pay attention to your neighbors. Local information can lead to global wisdom.

Paraphrase: Get all of your stakeholders talking and doing — the more people the merrier. The more projects the merrier. The more activity the merrier.

Or, to put it more formally, if we create opportunities for and catalyze a sizable number of small local interactions, these can bring about positive changes in cities and neighborhoods with minimal monetary investment. And, these interactions and projects will take your city in directions you never imagined, and I mean that as a good thing. “Let sophisticated behavior trickle up.”

Now, meaningfully engaging stakeholders is not easy. It’s much simpler, and more attractive, to focus on big flashy projects with a lot of quantified knowns on sites controlled by the city. But, it doesn’t help create sustainable renewal.

So, how do you stir up the pot? Who do you get interacting? What the heck is Michele Reeves talking about?

  • Business Owners. Are they talking to each other? Do they have a functioning business association or downtown association? If not, help them. Provide funding, expertise and assistance.

  • Property Owners. Nothing happens in a downtown or commercial corridor without the property owners. Do they know each other? How do their buildings look? How do they interact with the public sector? Usually, in historic districts that are languishing, there is a complete and total disconnect between some of the long-time property owners and the public sector. In other words, they hate the planning and permit department. Cities need to repair this vital connection between property owners and government before renewal can occur. Get property owners engaged!

  • Retail Sophistication. What is the level of retailing in the downtown or commercial corridor? Can business owners and property owners benefit from merchandising training? Do property owners and shop owners understand the tie between good design, attractive buildings, and retail performance?

  • Permits. Does your planning and permit department do everything it can to help small business owners and property owners? Often, the public sector tailors their process toward large development, which makes the path to acquiring a permit nearly incomprehensible to local entrepreneurs and small building owners. Start building connections to these groups and understanding their needs. Create streamlined “cheat sheets” for simple building improvement permit procedures, or step-by-step instructions for restaurant tenants and food cart vendors.

  • Brand. Is there a unified story or identity for your district? Create your story. Manage your story. Leverage your story. Makes sure everyone is telling your story, the way you want it told.

{ 0 comments }