District Revitalization

Every type of commercial district — from small- to mid-size downtowns to commercial corridors — can suffer from similar types of neglect. They can be run down, lack a sense of place, exhibit a low level of retail execution, be deficient of brand or identity, and present a challenge that leaves community members feeling overwhelmed.

We can help you bring improvement to these places by focusing on what we call the Tomorrow Problem — What can you be doing as soon as tomorrow to improve economic performance in your commercial district, even if you have limited resources?

Many of our community interventions at Civilis Consultants are bespoke, designed to meet the unique needs present in each city, town, or street where we work. We also offer an array of baseline approaches to revitalization that get results, which are described in greater detail below.

In all cases, we begin helping everyone understand the distinct economic ecosystem that is a high functioning downtown or commercial corridor. There are three groups that have a large impact on these ecosystems: the public sector, business owners, and property owners. In order to move forward and accelerate revitalization, each of these groups needs to understand the economic ecosystem which they want to improve, and their own role and impacts on that ecosystem.

Whether we develop something just for you, or work from one of the programs below, we will help your community understand how their commercial districts function economically and facilitate plans for change that are practical, achievable, and accessible.

“Michele Reeves has reignited enthusiasm for economic development in the Highway 108 Corridor, as well as Riverbank’s historic downtown.    Her approach effectively balances the needs of today with the goals for the future.  As a result of the time spent with Ms. Reeves, our City has found fresh inspiration to find practical solutions for the near term to fuel the fulfillment of the long-term vision for our community.” 

Jill Anderson, City Manager, City of Riverbank, California

THE ONE-DAY

This trip is designed to provide an affordable jump start to revitalization efforts, especially in the early stages of organizational capacity building.

  1. District Roundtable/District Walking Tour
    A roundtable discussion with district leaders/city staff to get a better understanding of district strengths/weaknesses followed by a walking tour/driving tour of the study area.
  2. Presentation: Building Blocks of Great Commercial Districts
    This presentation will illuminate the stages districts go through as they improve economically and share what every business and property owner should be doing right now to increase sales per square foot in their district. The focus of this presentation will be on short-term wins and leveraging existing strengths in the community.
  3. Consultant One-on-Ones
    These 45 to 60 minute appointments can take on a variety of different forms — assistance for property owners and business owners who might want to upgrade/improve something about their business or building, meetings where we brainstorm what to do about difficult properties the city controls, or goal setting/educational sessions with electeds.

THE TWO-DAY

The Two Day offers all of the elements of the One Day, and pairs it with training and a roundtable discussion about next steps.

  1. District Roundtable/District Walking Tour
    A roundtable discussion with district leaders/city staff to get a better understanding of district strengths/weaknesses followed by a walking tour/driving tour of the study area.
  2. Presentation: Building Blocks of Great Commercial Districts
    This presentation will illuminate the stages districts go through as they improve economically and share what every business and property owner should be doing right now to increase sales per square foot in their district. The focus of this presentation will be on short-term wins and leveraging existing strengths in the community.
  3. Consultant One-on-Ones
    These 45 to 60 minute appointments can take on a variety of different forms — assistance for property owners and business owners who might want to upgrade/improve something about their business or building, meetings where we brainstorm what to do about difficult properties the city controls, or goal setting/educational sessions with electeds.
  4. Staff Training
    These are a series of short presentations, followed by discussions, on topics involving the intersection of government and commerce. From a public sector perspective, the collaboration required to improve an existing district with a patchwork of ownership can sometimes be a challenge because land use is set up to be an adversarial process that is oriented around larger, greenfield development. To renew an underperforming district, you can’t approach public/private interactions the same way. Everyone has to be on the same team, and the public sector has a big role to play, which is what we focus on in these units. Possible areas of discussion include Active Public Spaces, Zoning/Code and Economics, How Adaptive Reuse Really Works, Ground Floor Redevelopment 101, Upper Floor Redevelopment 101, What You Need to Know about Retail, Parking — You Probably Have too Much, and How to Talk to Property Owners.
  5. Summary Wrap Up
    We close the visit much the way we begin it, with a meeting of district leaders. This is a free form discussion where Civilis shares impressions and thoughts discovered while on the ground in the community, facilitating a discussion regarding next steps with district leaders.

THE SUMMIT

  1. Secret Shopper
    Consultant will conduct a clandestine reconnoiter of the district to obtain impressions as a neutral, outside visitor. Additionally, we will use this time to capture images, video, etc.
  2. Tours/Small Format Group Interviews
    A walking tour of the district will be conducted with district leaders. Then, small format group interviews will commence with stakeholder groups representing city staff, elected officials, business owners, property owners, and residents. These meetings will have no more than 2 to 4 attendees per meeting.
  3. Summit
    Bringing together various stakeholder groups, with a particular focus on a segment of the community that needs rallying (public sector agencies, property owners, business owners, residents, etc.), this summit will include a presentation and a feedback exercise as follows:

    • Presentation: This is bespoke, tailored to the summit audience.
    • Feedback Exercise: I Like/I Wish/What If. This has two parts, one before and one after the presentation, shown above. Part 1 of this exercise is a prompt for attendees to answer these three questions in writing about the district. They are not allowed to talk to each other, and they are given enough time to only list top-of-mind answers. Part 2 happens after the presentation, when each table breaks out and sees everyone else’s answers, after which they have to prioritize their top three to-dos from each section.
  4. Workshop Analysis and Memo
    Civilis will transcribe the data from flip charts, review raw data, interviews and images, and then prepare a summary memo delivered in PDF format regarding next steps for renewal.
  5. Wrap Up Call
    Conference call with City/District leaders to review findings from the summit workshop and answer any final questions.

THE STORY

Every place is telling a story, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Unfortunately, most places aren’t intentionally and consistently telling their story. We have created a very unique process to quantify a place’s authentic identity and help communities figure out the story they want to tell. This product involves two trips: one to gather the elements of a district’s story, and a second to show a district what their authentic and unique story is now, what it could be, and how to apply story to meet land use, economic, and community goals.

Our unorthodox process to quantify something as nebulous as story involves using the same story framework that improvisation artists use to build compelling tales. We teach the framework to communities and help them understand how to wield it. The Story is very effective in fractured communities trying to achieve agreement on how to approach improvement, in districts with little to build upon from an infrastructure point of view, or in places where there is presently little private sector involvement in planning or improvement.

VISIT 1

  1. Secret Shopper
    Consultant will conduct a clandestine reconnoiter review of the district to obtain impressions as a neutral, outside visitor. Additionally, Consultant will use this time to capture images and video.
  2. Tours/Small Format Group Interviews
    A walking tour of the district will be conducted with district leaders. Then, small format group interviews will commence with stakeholder groups representing city staff, elected officials, business owners, property owners, and residents. These meetings will have no more than 2 to 4 attendees per meeting.
  3. Branding Workshop
    This training will share with the community how district brands are created, and introduce the story framework to stakeholders. Every person will walk away with a deeper understanding of the relationship between story and brand, and learn how story can be applied to improving brand for any business, any building, and any district. Then, the community will participate in a truly fun, fast paced, non-traditional workshop to populate the story framework for their district .

BRANDING WORKSHOP ANALYSIS. We head home and review all data from the workshop, interviews, and tours, enter it into spreadsheets, analyze results, and prepare a tailored presentation with findings and recommendations for the community.

VISIT 2

  1. Findings and Recommendations Presentation
    Our findings reveal what story the community is telling now, and our recommendations will focus on recommendations a place can start implementing right away to tell their desired story.  Suggestions for changes to policy and the private sphere will be tailored specifically to the community and focus on short-term wins and leveraging existing strengths in the district.
  2. Strategy Roundtable
    Following the presentation, a strategy session with movers and shakers in the community will commence for more detailed brainstorming.

THE SCIENCE OF RETAIL

One of the biggest indicators that you have an underperforming commercial district is a noticeable lack of retail execution on the ground floor, which we can help cure! Many people feel that retail is an art, but there is a science to it, and we can teach that science to a wide cross section of your retailing community in a large group setting. To impart the secrets of retail, we work with you to choose several Pilot Stores to use as examples. Then, with each visit, we help these Pilot Stores understand what metrics to track, how to track those metrics, and what lessons can be learned from them — from evaluating storefront effectiveness, to understanding in-store experience, to knowing when and how to change layout/merchandising. The five visits comprise the following:

  1. Intro to Retailing/Traffic Counts
    We begin our fist visit with an overview of the science of retail, and then move on to our first lesson: traffic counts. The initial task every store must complete (Pilot Stores and any stores that wish to attend and learn), is to track the number of people who come through the door. This helps us to measure district performance, storefront effectiveness, and advertising/event success.  Extra credit goes to those stores that master look/pass/enter counts!
  2. Traffic Counts/Conversion Rate
    The second visit will begin with a review of Pilot Store traffic counts and a facilitated group discussion on what lessons were extrapolated from their data. Then, the floor will be open to participating retailers for discussion. After understanding how the district is doing at getting people through the door, we will move on to the next assignment — grasping how well stores are doing at persuading those people to buy, which is the study of Conversion Rate! (Conversion Rate is all about measuring in-store effectiveness.)
  3. Conversion Rate/Demographics
    Our third stopover will again start with a roundtable discussion, this time about conversion rate for the Pilot Stores, followed by an extended Q&A for attending retailers. After this in-depth look at in-store experience using hard numbers, we will introduce everyone to the shorthand of demographic tracking and explain why it’s so important to know who your customers are! Often retailers are surprised to learn that their client profiles are very different than they imagined.
  4. Demographics/Mapping
    The final unit is customer mapping, which will be covered after the Pilot Store and retailer group discussion on the applications of demographic tracking from the previous visit. Every retailer will be tasked with mapping customer movement in their stores, noting hot spots and cold spots. Retailers should always be charting client movement and should be shifting their merchandising to extend customer visits, entice customers to spend more, and delight customer senses throughout the entire store.
  5. Mapping/Conclusions
    Our final trip to your community will conclude with an analysis of Pilot Store mapping projects and a shared experience discussion from store owner attendees. We will wrap up with a summary of community lessons and action items for moving forward. Remember, the ground floor of a district is almost entirely responsible for its identity, and revitalization depends heavily upon retailers telling a great story from the sidewalk, and creating great experiences for each and every visitor who ventures through their doors.

THE CURRICULUM

This is a multi-stage approach to revitalization that typically occurs over a period of 6 to 9 months.  It can be used to  jump start renewal  and encourage collaboration across stakeholder groups. It is a six stage process that works best in communities that have some existing organizational capacity and a node to build from within their study area.

  1. Kick-off Meeting

    Gather the team — city officials and downtown stakeholders — for an exchange of information on local conditions and the revitalization curriculum. We work together to refine the scope of work and tailor it to the needs and concerns of a specific place. Identifying stakeholders who are not at the table, but who need to be, and brainstorming ways to reach out to them, is a key part of this meeting.

  2. Fundamentals of Revitalization

    This presentation is a market-based crash course on revitalization. Together, we take a focused look at concrete case studies to learn the basics of district renewal, how commercial areas change and improve, and the specific types of tenants that help districts develop.

  3. Field Trip

    To reinforce the lessons about what makes commercial districts thrive, we visit one! City staff, business owners, property owners, and residents embark on a trip together to a place that illustrates a real-life example of success that is relevant to their particular district or downtown. During this fast-paced, hands-on course, we explore commercial spaces, building form, and ground floor activation. We cover “Retail 101” and “Redevelopment Dos and Don’ts” as we tour specific buildings and spaces while talking to resident business and property owners.

  4. Marketing and PR Workshop

    What story is your district telling to visitors? How do you want your district to be identified by residents? Why do you need to manage your story? This interactive seminar connects the dots between marketing, event planning, identity building and revitalization. We will cover the fundamentals so that you can manage your message and successfully market spaces, businesses, and ultimately your entire downtown, as a successful and thriving place.

  5. Findings and Recommendations Presentation

    After walking through the previous 4 steps, we have developed a pretty clear picture of the community — where it was, where it is now, and where it wants to be! In this presentation, which is largely visual, we share what we have learned and offer proscribed recommendations for short-term improvement, leveraging today’s strengths. We also include medium- and longer-term ideas for renewal, as well. We are gratified to report that community stakeholders usually get so excited about what they learn at each stage, they begin making improvements before we are even finished!

DEVELOPER FOR A DAY

When a district is struggling economically, it usually means it has a real estate market that cannot support the cost of new construction. If a district cannot support new construction, then it is in the business of pursuing renewal by figuring out how to reuse what it already has.  Unfortunately, in many communities, that knowledge has been lost, so we use this intensive workshop to teach it to anyone who wants to relearn how to redevelop their existing buildings.  This intense workshop is typically 3 hours long, teaches the fundamentals of reuse, including pro forma development, and can be targeted toward the following: downtown or district association members, contractors, engineers, architects, historic preservationists, property owners, public sector staff and electeds, business owners, etc.

  1. Initial Conditions
    A short presentation is given introducing a real world development project, offering images/satellite views of a lot, a building footprint, building floor plan, general market conditions, and a mission for the development.
  2. Building Program Break Out
    Participants break out into small groups and create their own building program to fit the mission and the building/site, working with pen/pencil, floor plans, tracing paper, etc.
  3. Pro Forma 101
    A short presentation is conducted after the building program element to introduce the basics of developing a pro forma for adaptive reuse projects, breaking it down into three stages: can you afford to build it, does it cash flow once you do, and can you move to permanent financing when it’s all over?
  4. Financials/Building Program Iteration
    Participants go back to their building program and create a rudimentary pro forma to see if their building program makes financial sense.
  5. The Real Deal
    The workshop closes with before-and-after pictures of the study project as it was actually developed, with the fundamental steps illuminated for successfully completing redevelopments of existing structures.