Friday, January 23, 2015

Utility Boxes Get an Artistic Upgrade

Scott Landfried is LOA's newest staff person, blog contributor, and graduate student in planning at Hunter College. 

You know those clunky gray metal boxes at intersections. They are a bit omnipresent around cities but easily looked past. These unwelcoming boxes of variable sizes and rectangular shapes sit at most intersections, along our streets, next to buildings, and in commercial corridors.  Wouldn't it be nice to see what a little creativity and initiative can do to turn bland into beautiful?  Many cities are doing just that.

Calgary, Canada (Image
& Artist: Sam Hester)
In a recent article I saw, Minneapolis is taking the initiative to put the paintbrush and power in the hands of its citizens.  The article weighs the pros and cons of paint versus vinyl wrapping and points out the reportedly difficult approval process.

Calgary, Canada
Streetscape artwork and improvement are valuable as node or landmarks, something that attracts and draws, something that becomes connected with the character of the district itself.  I can imagine two people arranging plans to meet to eat and shop saying something like, "Let's meet at the A to Z box" or "Meet me at the bright box on 16th." "Let's meet at that gray bland box on 9th," said no one, ever.

Toronto, Canada (Image: Kayla Rocca)
Check out our Pinterest account for other great utility boxes. While looking for good examples, I was reminded of my many years living in Austin.  I remembered seeing utility boxes painted (possibly unauthorized) while driving or biking the streets and enjoyed the brightness and creativity they offered.

Artist: Kristine Heycants
Image: City of Minneapolis
Here are some interesting points regarding utility box programs:
  • initiated in many cities as graffiti abatement programs,
  • boxes are typically painted by professional artists selected through application process,
  • not just any box can be painted but typically only utility boxes owned by the city,
  • typically painting of boxes can cost anywhere from $800-1800 and is covered by the city or community groups.

Other links and readings:
Calgary Utility Box Public Art Program
Boston's Paintbox Program
Glendale, CAs "Beyond the Box" Program
Rochester, NY - Painted Utility Boxes
Google image search: "painted utility boxes"

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Who is powering the Main Street economy?

Patricia Blakely at The Merchants Fund sent me a great report today on the importance of immigrant business owners to "Main Street". [Bringing Vitality to Main Street: How Immigrant Small Business Help Local Economies Grow published by the Americans Society and Council of the Americas and the Fiscal Policy Institute]

The report underscores what I have seen time and again in my work in diverse urban communities, and particularly in secondary urban markets. Close to home, this includes communities like Ossining, NY where Mexican and Ecuadorian immigrants have opened businesses, and Glen Cove, LI where Central American immigrants are more prominent. In both cases, these communities have seen an influx of immigrant business owners who have seized opportunities in the downtown area.

The report has lots of interesting and little known facts about the importance of immigrants to traditional commercial districts.

Top Twelve Little Known Facts about Immigrant Main Street Business Owners
  1. Immigrants make up 28% of Main Street business owners, while accounting for only 16% of the labor force and 18% of all business owners. 
  2. 61% of gas station owners are immigrants
  3. 53% of grocery store owners are immigrants
  4. In the Los Angeles area, immigrants make up fully 64% of all Main Street business owners. 
  5. Immigrants are 10 to 15 percent more likely to be business owners than their U.S.-born counterparts. 
  6. They make up 18% of all business owners, but take home 13% of business earnings.
  7. Immigrant workers are absorbed into the economy with only modest displacement of U.S.-born workers. 
  8. Between 2000 and 2013, immigrants accounted for 48 percent of overall growth of business owners. 
  9. Between 2000 and 2013, immigrant Main Street business owners increased by 90,000 and U.S.-born business owners declined by 30,000. 
  10. Immigrants accounted for all of the growth in Main Street businesses in 31 of the country's 50 largest metropolitan areas. 
  11. Asians make up 49% of all immigrant Main Street businesses, ethnic whites make up 26% of immigrant Main Street businesses and and hispanic/latinos make up 20% of Main Street Businesses. 
  12. The top three immigrant groups that make up Main Street business owners include Koreans, Indians and Mexicans.  
This data serves as a policy clarion call to governments to actively help immigrants build their businesses, take advantage of incentives and initiatives, and improve the bureaucracies associated with business basics, like licensing and inspection.

With that, I'm off to my favorite local spot to grab a taco...yum.

The report defines "Main Street" businesses as those that fall in three board sectors: Retail, Accommodation and Food Services, and Neighborhood Services.

Monday, January 12, 2015

What do you get when health care needs and vacant retail space collide?

An Urgent Care Clinic recently opened
on a busy retail corridor in my neighborhood. 
For anyone driving past commercial strips lately the answer is obvious. Urgent Care Clinics. 

Retail medicine is what this is being called - and urgent care providers are looking for many of the same things that other retailers looks for - visibility, convenience and lots of traffic. The high visibility is important because folks often don't plan visits to urgent care as they would with their regular doctor. So a tucked away office just doesn't cut it. Patients instead go to the places they remember passing on the way to and from work, or the one next to a store or shopping district that they frequent.  

And watch out, because the industry is growing rapidly. In 2014 the industry took in $16 billion and handled 160 million visits. According to Bloomberg News, "the number of walk-in retail clinics in the U.S. has risen 20% since 2009, to 9.400 last year". 

Landlords like medical tenants because they have good credit, sign longer leases and are willing to pay the kinds of rents that landlords have come to expect. The industry is structured much like traditional retail, including independently owned chains like American Family Care, based mostly in the Southeast, and Concentra, a publicly traded company with 300 locations nationwide.

So the next time you are trying to figure out what to put into vacant ground floor retail space, you might want to consider taking a look at urgent care clinics. Below are the top five largest chains. 

Resources and reading:

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Mobile Marketing: Are your businesses on the map?

Customers are increasingly using on-line platforms to find local businesses in real time. I know I do it all the time.  Just the other night I was out with a friend and we had planned to meet at a restaurant in Soho. When we got there it was packed. What did we do? On a cold winters night in New York there was only one option. We stood in the heated vestibule and searched Yelp for an alternative. We found a great restaurant with a two block walk that had good reviews, a decent price range, and no wait. We liked it so much that we will undoubtedly go back. And honestly, I can't even tell you the name of the first place we tried. Clearly, Yelp helped at least one business gain a customer they otherwise would never have seen.

On-line profiles definitely help, yet most businesses do very little to manage them. In 2013, the Boston Consulting Group surveyed 4,800 local businesses and found that those businesses that claimed their FREE Yelp profile reported "incremental revenues of $8,000 annually". This is not paid advertising, mind you. Yet only 15% of small business owners know that they can get a free Yelp profile, and only 11% claimed it.

Below is a quick summary of some of the most popular on-line platforms and some basic instructions on how to use them. In each case, the instructions are somewhat similar, a business goes to the search engine and verifies their identify. They are given an account and go easily go about managing their identity. In some cases you as a commercial district manager can actively help (for example, a business using Google can add you as a "Manager"), in others, only the business owner can verify and manage their on-line identity.

Keeping with the Soho theme, I went ahead and tested business listings for Soho using four listing engines...

Bing "Venue" Maps
Bing is increasingly creating opportunities for "venue" maps. They started in 2010 by adding maps of malls, but it seems that more and more commercial districts are getting into the business. Check out the image below for a map of Soho with nearly every business listed. If you roll over the map, the businesses are linked back to a profile that includes the company website and hours of operation. When you compare it to the Google map below, it is clearly easier to navigate and understand. The map has the look and feel of a mall directory. How commercial districts can get onto Bing is not quite clear...but we have a request in to find out and will share with you when we know.

Google Maps
Google is the 6th most popular mobile app, and the first most popular mapping engine in the world, so getting businesses on the Google map should be a no brainer.

Direct your business owners to to get started. Once a business has claimed an add, they can do things like set up a Google Adwords campaign much more easily. Remind them that additional managers can be added under Settings>Managers.

You should also know that you can list your commercial district management entity to the Google Map directory as well. Your district entity can then take the lead on setting up Adwords campaign for the entire district, which can be used to market events and actitivies as well. We worked with a community a few years ago on a restaurant marketing campaign that used Google Adwords and we were thrilled that it resulted in significant increased sales for participating local businesses.

What sets Yelp apart is really its rating and filtering function. The site gets over 100 million unique click a month so clearly something is working. Like on Google, the first step is to Claim and Verify your Business (

It should be noted that many businesses loathe Yelp. The issue here is that some businesses think that Yelp unfairly filters positive reviews (in an effort to prevent an owner from soliciting reviews from customers) and therefore highlights negative reviews. Not sure where I stand on that, but the truth is that a Yelp listing can drive traffic. Business owners can help increase the number of reviews - and good business will undoubtedly receive more positive reviews than negative ones - by adding badges to their websites or putting "Find us on Yelp" signs in the window or on the front counter.

With 45 million registered users (up from 30 million in January 2013), FourSquare is a force to be reckoned with (although not nearly as popular as Facebook or Twitter as a social networking app). Business looking to claim their profile can do so at:

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Fulton Area Shoppers Prefer Bike Over Car

We're always talking and writing about bike-friendly business districts, so we were pleased to see coverage from Streetsblog of biking on Fulton Street in Fort Greene and Clinton Hill where we recently wrapped up a retail market study for the  the Fulton Area Business Alliance and Pratt Area Community Council.

On street parking is so coveted by business owners that the shear thought of removing the spots for bicycle infrastructure such as protected bike lanes or public plazas sends many into panic because those spots are often assumed to be directly associated with increased business and revenue. The findings of a recent study may help to calm business owners' nerves. The FAB Alliance and the Pratt Area Community Council surveyed 477 people on Fulton Street this summer and found that the vast majority of shoppers arrive without a car. 

Image: FAB Alliance and Pratt Area Community Council
The results of the survey show that only 15% of respondents used an automobile to access Fulton Street to shop, which is even less than those that typically bike to the area to shop (either by their own bike or CitiBike). This may be an isolated set of data but it adds to the growing strength of argument toward bike-friendly and multi-modal business districts.

A 2011 study by Kooshian and Winkleman, "Growing Wealthier," notes market trends now favoring mixed-use, walkable and bikable town centers and neighborhoods. They also note that businesses profit from bicycle and pedestrian facility improvements, time savings, and healthcare cost savings, referencing Gotschi's “Costeffectiveness of Nonmotorized Transportation Investments as a Greenhouse Gas Reduction Strategy.” 

The point to drive, or in this case walk or bike, home here is that with a growing number of shoppers walking and biking, car-centric streets could be a thing of the past.  

Friday, December 5, 2014

Some Roads Should Just Go on a Diet

Bigger is better right? By and large the answer is no. Bigger is not always better when addressing roadways that run through commercial corridors.  In many places where LOA works, the challenges of a too wide street - one designed for cars but not for people or even bikes - undermines local businesses who see traffic speed by, unlikely to stop.

The problem of too wide streets is rampant throughout the nation. This issue came up recently for us...LOA is currently working on a project in Chicago where the large berth of the street was simply too cumbersome and unnecessary. And when we looked at traffic counts we found that there was actually much less traffic on a road that was clearly designed to handle much more. So, what to do with so much excess "fat"?  We suggested that roadway go on a road diet.

“Road dieting” is a term applied to “skinny-ing up” streets into leaner, more productive members of society. The ideal roadway candidate, as Burden and Lagerwey, of Walkable Communities Inc, note in "Road Diets: Losing width and gaining respect," is often a four-lane road carrying 12,000-18,000 auto trips per day. But as many of you know, road diets can be controversial in places where people think that a narrower road means more congestion - but in most cases the facts simply do not bear out.

Before and after Road Diet pictures. Image source:
Before we get to that, first back to Chicago. Our work resulted in a few key recommendations, the first included removal of a dedicated rush-hour lane (a parking lane that was converted to a travel lane only during rush hour - making it impossible for drop-in customers to stop by and therefore hurting local businesses). What we found that that although the street was perceived as a busy thoroughfare, data suggested otherwise: 13,300 Annual Average Daily Traffic (AADT) counts (between North Pulaski Road and North Kedzie Avenue) put the traffic flow as moderate to relatively low.

With low-traffic counts, we knew that the replacement of a single rush hour lane with on-street parking would not only allow customers to stop more easily - picking up food or convenience items on their way to or from work - but that it would also result would be slower speeds for motorists in general. Narrowing the flow of traffic and adding bike lanes – aka a “road diet” - would help address some of the concerns that residents and businesses have with the sometime excessive speed of motorists who pass through the area. And taking this a step further by adding a lane for bicyclists would add another transportation option  for a low-income community with very low car ownership rates.

Much safer corridor for all. Image source:
Public safety has always been a proponent of change for urban development and planning, this case is no different. A reduction in a lane or lanes, a road diet, can reduce unsafe driving, excess speeds, and serve as a street calming mechanism. Burden and Lagerwey note "crash rates and severity of conflicts with autos result in almost certain death (83% of pedestrians hit at 40 mph die)".  Four lanes of traffic are difficult to cross for pedestrians and uncomfortable/dangerous for cyclists. Furthermore, businesses that might benefit from co-location across the street from another business never accrue the benefits because for most pedestrians, they might as well be miles away.

In addition to safety, a road that has dieted sees change in commercial activity around the road. The change can increase value of existing properties and some cases costs of reconstructing roadways are repaid in as little as one year through increased sales tax or property tax revenue.

Image source:
Even high-density urban downtowns can go on diets. San Francisco, as seen in the image to the left, envisioned a downtown along Sixth Street with a more pedestrian and cycling friendly environment with continued on street parking.

In an opposite regard, a study by Thomas Welch “The Conversion of Four-Lane Undivided Urban Roadways to Three-Lane Facilities” demonstrates the problems and negative outcomes associated with increasing road sizes from a slimmer two-lane road to a wider four-lane road.  Welch notes it led to increased accidents, increased speeds, increased corridor delays, and increased injuries.  Not the results people want or expect - sometimes slimming down is the best remedy for the health of your commercial district.

If you want to read are some additional readings:

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Holiday Best Practices and Innovations for BIDs

After Halloween things really start heating up for Business Improvement Districts as the weather really starts cooling down.  Consumers are expected to turn out in large numbers, as usual, this holiday season to make it a successful shopping period.  To help these shoppers, BIDs can go above and beyond the typical lights and banners to make the shopping experience all that much more memorable and enjoyable. 

Commercial District Advisor has composed a list of best practices, or innovations as well, that BIDs can enact this holiday season in late November and December that will give every shopper, whether the family looking to have a memorable experience or the last minute shopper with just a few minutes on their hand.

Valet Parking
Valet parking could provide shoppers, whom might be seeking the convenience or time saving, with the convenience of getting straight to the shopping, dining, or entertainment without the hassle of finding parking at this busy time of year. The Springfield Business Improvement District will be providing a “Park with Ease” valet parking initiative this Thanksgiving weekend in two locations to assist shoppers painlessly to and from their destination.

image via
Santa: Not Just at the Mall Anymore
Even though BIDs don’t have an indoor plaza to host a Santa Claus a la indoor malls, they can still find an available space such as a current vacancy or safe open plaza in their BID to host a Santa Claus to draw in those that would want the iconic and memorable experience with Santa. Steinway BID in Queens, NY did just that in 2013.

Santa Gift Giveaway
Gift giveaways can attract a large crowd of enthusiastic patrons.  The Fordham BID in the Bronx is hosting their 10th annual holiday event with Santa, free gifts for the first 600 kids, free raffles, music and activities. This event also kicks off a 2½ week 10% discounted shopping program starting Dec. 5 with 60 stores participating. Further, Fordham BID has tied the event into their broader digital marketing program with a phone app and a mystery gift registration through Eventbrite.

Pa-Rum-Pa-Pum-Pum, Not Ba-Hum-Bug
image via Atlantic Ave BID Facebook
Carolers can provide that heartwarming seasonal entertainment that shoppers are looking for.  In addition, a group of singers like an elementary school or local church children’s choir can pull parents and family to the BID for support.  Atlantic Avenue BID in Brooklyn performed in 2013 in the Boerum Hill neighborhood and in the past many local Harlem churches caroled in the 125th Street BID in Manhattan. Other BIDs can take Madison Downtown BID’s lead with Saturday seasonal entertainment:

Special Holiday Transportation
image via
Maneuvering the streets quickly to get that “I gotta have it” toy or just sharing a memorable experience with others can be a meaningful thing for holiday shoppers.  They can complete both or either by riding a special seasonal transportation such as a decorated bus or trolley around the district or corridor.  This especially comes in handy with unsafe or inconvenient sidewalks such as ice, snow, or bad weather.  Madison, WI Central BID provides a Downtown Holiday Shopping Trolley for its shoppers:

Coat Drive or Coat Give Away
Often times coat donation bins in cities are dilapidated or possibly untrustworthy, so it is nice to connect holiday shoppers with the idea of giving back by offering and promoting a coat drop off bin or coat drive within the BID like the Granville
image via Granville BID
 BID.  And in the giving spirit, Southern Blvd BID in the Bronx is distributing new children's coats in the Hunts Point section of the Bronx on December 17th. Yonkers Downtown BID mixed giving with pleasure by offering an event that combined a coat drive with a mixer, "Collective for a Cause."