Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Roundup: Queens Boulevard Transformation, Philly's Old City Makeover, NYC's 1 Million Trees, Walmart Pull Out

Transformation of Queens Boulevard

For years, Queens Boulevard in Queens, NY was tagged as the "Boulevard of Death" due to its chaotic nature, unfortunate fatalities, and high traffic of pedestrians, cyclists, and vehicles. The city of New York is transforming this thoroughfare with a complete streets makeover. Watch the video.

After the Hangover: How Old City Finally Sobered up and Crafted a Grown-up Vision for Itself

Philadelphia's Old City District is turning over a new leaf and shedding its old thick skin by utilizing an organized administration that is engaged with the public in combination with nuisance fighting tactics to make the district desirable for businesses, patrons, and residents.

NYC Just Planted 1 Million Trees. Here's How They Did It.

The story behind how one group managed to succeed where many have failed. Three main reasons why one million trees have been planted in NYC since its inception eight years ago.

Can Cities Afford to Trust Walmart?

After a recent pull out of plans to build a store in underserved Ward 7 of Washington DC and the shuttering of 269 stores globally, some of which were only built within the last five years and inevitably caused smaller grocers or pharmacies to go out of business, city leaders are now becoming apprehensive about striking deals with Walmart.  A small shift with the giant retailer that could cause a ripple effect in the retail market.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

The most fundamental thing you need to know before you make your next downtown investment

What is the one most critical factor driving the success of your downtown economy? Getting this wrong could mean millions of dollars in wasted investment that fails to catalyze downtown - and could instead undermine it. Read on to learn more. 

Lessons learned the hard way
A few years ago I was working in a small waterfront community (name and places have been omitted to protect the innocent). To the north lay a large body of water (not many shoppers there!). To the south were certainly lots of people, but most were poised to travel away from the water and towards the malls that have located in more central locations. That said, the town had great bones. Main Street had a charming, pedestrian friendly feel. What’s more, walkable neighborhoods surrounded downtown. These homes, for the most part, had been well maintained and still evoked a feeling of small town living, where parents might send their kids downtown for ice cream with a few dollars in hand. This was the kind of place that many people might want to live.

Yet here we were – with a downtown that was struggling. The local movie theater was on the brink of closure. Vacancies were increasing. Downtown simply could not compete with the pull of nearby shopping malls, with their multiple offerings and centralized location. And even though there was more than enough parking downtown, much of it structured and behind the main street, the parking structures felt unsafe after having been neglected for years.  Dark corridors and broken elevators do not make for an inviting place to arrive for work or a downtown shopping trip.

Over the course of the project, I couldn’t help but notice that the community had also made infrastructure investments, some quite recently, that significantly undermined the downtown economy, and they probably did it without realizing it. Millions of dollars in infrastructure investment had recently gone towards street “improvements” around downtown that did very little for pedestrians, cyclists or those who use public transportation. The improvements were designed only with car owners in mind. It probably made sense at the time. I can imagine the conversation in City Hall … “most people drive, so let’s make sure we make driving through downtown fast and easy, and if they want to shop, let’s make sure they have more than enough parking.” Makes sense on some level. But what they also did was deprive residents of alternative options, options that might make a stroll or bike ride downtown part of an experience - an additive amenity that might make downtown an even more appealing place to visit. 

Unfortunately, poor decisions were made at many levels. The Mayor actively prevented bike lanes from being incorporated into a major streetscape improvement project. The rationale? The lanes would require maintenance and create a liability – costs the City could ill afford. In another instance, the recently reconstructed sidewalks connecting downtown to the surrounding neighborhoods strangely dead ended at major intersections, and often did not connect with existing crosswalks. Where crossings did exist, the crossing light offered barely enough time to cross the street before the light turned green. Everywhere we turned, we saw decisions that made OTHER places easier to access. Was it really a surprise that the downtown was suffering in light of the decisions made over the years? The slow chip, chip, chipping away of accessibility could be likened to the chipping away at the foundation of a house. At some point, the foundation fails and the house collapses.

Why you need to know about location theory
When thinking about access, it is important to understand fundamental economic theory, specifically “location theory”. Location theory states that businesses choose locations that will maximize profit. This theory is the basis of retail site selection as well. Being located in a place that is accessible and appealing to customers is critical to the bottom line. It is why Dunkin Donuts prefers the “inbound” side of the street – people buy coffee in the morning on the way to work. Or restaurants prefer to be on the “outbound” side of the street – people buy food on the way home from work. We also know that customers, especially in this day and age when time is a commodity, prefer to cross-shop, accomplishing a few shopping errands during a single visit. This is why retailers also prefer malls and shopping centers. These are often places designed for the time strapped shopper in mind. The concentration of stores draws more customers than a single store will on its own. (And on an aside, it is also why on-line shopping is so popular. What is more convenient than making a purchase from your home computer or smart phone? But I digress….)

Today I’m only going to tackle pedestrian and bike access....

Tips for taking stock of pedestrian and bike accessibility
When considering how accessible your downtown is, take stock of the following:

Bike access – Bike share programs and bike infrastructure are blossoming throughout the country. And where they have, local businesses seem to benefit. In New York’s Chelsea neighborhood, an NYC DOT study found a 49% increase in retail sales for locally based businesses after bike lanes were introduced compared to a 3% increase borough-wide. As biking becomes more popular as a mode of transit, local business districts, which are more accessible, are in a better position to draw customers from a larger trade area. As you assess your “bike friendliness”, ask yourself these basic questions:
  • Does your district offer safe passage for those biking to the district? And are the lanes safe for cyclists of all ages?  In New York for instance, only children under 12 are allowed to ride on sidewalks. As a mother of a 6 year old – I would be thrilled if I could craft an afternoon of bike riding with my son, stopping to eat here or there. But the bike lanes in my neighborhood are shared with the road – not ideal for a little boy still learning to steer properly. So instead we leave our bikes at home, or load them into a car and leave the neighborhood.
  • Are there sufficient locations to secure a bike when you reach your destination? If people have concerns about where they are going to lock up their bikes, it could deter their decision to visit your district. Consider that a single parking spot can support 10+ bike parking spaces. Wouldn’t businesses prefer ten shoppers over one who arrive by car?

Pedestrian access – There are two kinds of pedestrian access to consider – one that involves simply getting there and another that involves what happens once you arrive. Those are two different things. Lifestyle centers, for example thrive on the latter. Most customers arrive at these glorified malls - many of which attempt to mimic the Main Street environment – by car. Once they arrive, the quality of the common areas or “Main Street” is what they are there to experience. Like any mall, the owner tries hard to ensure a continuity of retail and an attractive environment. These places try very hard to achieve walkability.

The other kind of pedestrian access is about tapping the built in residential demand from people who living within walking distance of the shopping area. Here is where the “walk appeal” of all the streets and connections to downtown start to make a difference. Why is that? Because walk appeal is often psychological. A five-minute walk through a parking lot feels substantively different than a five-minute walk along a vibrant city street or leafy attractive sidewalk. A short walk on a hot day feels is much less appealing when there is no shade. A resident or office worker will walk further if the downtown environment is more appealing, when there is window shopping to be done or a cool spot to enjoy a nice view. In City’s like New York or London, walking a mile to one’s destination – a 15-minute walk – is not uncommon.

As you consider the pedestrian environment, ask yourself these basic questions:
  • Is your downtown environment riddled with gaps in the pedestrian environment? Did you know that even 50 feet of a “poor” environment can keep people from walking past? In 2006 I was working at the New York City Economic Development Corporation, and as part of a rezoning along 125th Street – which at that time was seeing lots of taking up ground floor retail space – creating dead zones in the evening. What we found was that even these minor breaks in continuity affected people’s perceptions and how far the were willing to walk. So take stock if your district. Is there a vacant lot that needs to be activated? A bank that shuts down at 5 pm? Retail that closes and pulls down roll down gates? All of these things make an environment less appealing to pedestrians. So the businesses located on the other side of that gap, whatever it is, will see fewer customers as a result. 
  • Is the five-minute walk shed from your downtown comfortable to walk? Is it safe to walk? Is there proper lighting? Is there shade to protect pedestrians during hot days? I am working in a community right now with a great opportunity to connection a waterfront marina – with lots of visitors to downtown. The problem? A creek and bridge that are uncomfortable to cross lies between the marina and downtown. While most locals think the distance of ¼ mile is easy to walk, on a hot or even warm day, the is brutal.  The sidewalk is narrow and unprotected from car traffic.  Improving the bridge crossing for pedestrians, or even building a pedestrian only bridge across the river – not an insignificant undertaking – is necessary to seam these two assets together. 
Admittedly, every community is just a little bit different. Transportation habits and mores differ by location. Weather, land use patterns, income and demographics play a role in determining what these habits are in different places. While this mean that these principles should be tinkered with and customized for every place, at the end of the day a successful downtown will be easily accessible to as many people using as many forms of transportation as possible. The next time you look at your downtown - try looking at it from this new perspective.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Shopping for Pedestrian Counts. CDA Compares Three Services.

When we work with clients, we are always thrilled when they have reliable pedestrian count data. This information makes it much easier for us to quickly understand what kinds of businesses an area can support, and when combined with market data, allows us to better understand the market forces that will result in thriving businesses.

Pedestrian counts (or "ped counts" for short) are perhaps one of the most valuable metrics for commercial district practitioners looking to attract quality retailers. Ped counts help us understand how people move through commercial districts and reveal actual peak hours and peak days, which can inform a variety of decisions, from business hours to the business location for different retailers.

Thanks to recent improvements in sensor technology, costs are decreasing and making pedestrian counts an increasingly attractive tool. Below is a comparison of three of the most popular suppliers in the market today, which we've summarized in a simple chart.

Motionloft is a US based data service provider specialized in pedestrian and vehicular counts. Its proprietary-owned sensor technology can track pedestrian and vehicular traffic in real-time. Sensors can be installed indoors or outdoors and require access to power and a clear line of sight. 

Reports include data summaries showing peak hours and days, and allow real interaction with the data (letting clients set parameters based on time, location, weather and direction of travel). Clients can choose between short-term (1 month) and long-term studies (1+years).  The cost per sensor for a 1 month study is $1,800 and $3,300 for a year study. The cost includes installation and calibration of the sensor(s), 24/7 access to data through the company’s online dashboard as well as reports in both pdf and excel formats.

Springboard is a British-based service provider specialized in pedestrian, vehicular and sales data. Counting devices monitor pedestrian and vehicular traffic in real-time, and are installed on buildings or lighting columns that provide access to power and a clear line of sight.

Data is delivered through reports, daily feeds and through Springboard Analyser, the company’s web-based analysis tool. Reports include data summaries showing peak hours and days, and allow some customization (based on time, location, weather and direction of travel). The cost for a 3yr study (the minimum recommended by the company) is $2,250 per sensor per year (without the cost of the 3G network, which is $600/yr). It is important to note that Springboard counters, depending on the location installed, have the capacity to track more than one intersection with the same counter. 

Eco Counter is an international provider of pedestrian and bicycles counting systems. Unlike the previous suppliers mentioned, the firm manufactures and sells counting equipment and accompanying data analysis software. The company offers two main sensors for counting pedestrians in urban environments: the Pyro Sensor and the Citix. The Pyro has two formats, the Pyro-Box or the Pyro in an urban post. The Pyro-Box Sensor comes in the form of a box that is installed at some pole or lighting column. It has the advantage that is can be moved (without the need for additional calibration). The Pyro in an urban post comes in the form of a metal short post that is affixed to the pavement. Both counters track pedestrian movement in both directions 24/7. Both Pyro models are battery operated and come with a 10-year battery life. They cost $3,500 and include installation, web-based analysis software with customization options, a public web-page for sharing the data as well as a widget that can be integrated to your district’s website.

The other model, recommended for high traffic areas, is the Citix. Citix is an overhead mounted counter that requires on-site power.  It counts pedestrian movement 24/7 in both directions, but the overhead feature makes it suitable for high traffic areas that require more precision.  Citix costs $5,000 and also includes installation, web-based analysis software with customization options, a public web-page for sharing the data as well as a widget that can be integrated to your district’s website.

How can you tell which service works best for your district? First, it depends on your traffic volume, district size and budget. Second, it also depends on your capacity to use the data strategically and ensure that the investment is worth the cost.

Motionloft is the only supplier with a short term option. Its 30-day study option can be used as a trial that allows you to test the waters and see how to use ped counts to measure overall trends in your district. This shorter option is also useful when you’re dealing with a very limited budget or when you need immediate information for a market demand update but you’re not ready for a long-term commitment. 

Springboard brings longer experience with ped count data and the counts are often part of a larger comprehensive set of services that includes retail sales and other metrics of district evaluation.  Also, Springboard sensors have the advantage of tracking more than one side of an intersection, which means that you’ll need fewer sensors for more complex and heavy trafficked areas. Larger districts with larger budgets such as Times Square Alliance and Grand Central Partnership have been using Springboard for ped counts quite successfully.  

Eco counter seems to be the most affordable option for long-term continuous counts. The cost of its cheapest sensors (the pyro) are similar to Motionloft’s 1-yr study and cheaper than Springboard’s 3-yr study. Plus, you can move them around and count different sections of your corridor without the need for recalibration. It is important to keep in mind that pyro sensors are only recommended for medium trafficked areas. Busier districts will have to get the more expensive equipment, called Citix. However, having your own sensors brings other issues, like assuming the risk of any equipment damage caused by vandalism or natural causes (hurricanes, etc.).  All things to consider...

We think that all three offer excellent service - but are different enough that the best fit will depend on your needs and capabilities. 

Monday, January 25, 2016

Aerial Photography, aka "Downtown with Drones"

Looking for a great pic of your downtown - one that belongs on the cover of your next marketing piece or annual report? Why not consider a drone image? These days, more and more photographers are offering drone photography to their customers. This article on a Columbus, OH based firm might get you inspired to find a local firm taking drone pictures in your next of the woods.

Downtown Austin, TX
Downtown Calgary, Canada
Downtown Orlando, FL
Downtown Delaware, pic taken by Columbus-based Infinite Impact

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Can ridesharing help reinvigorate downtowns?

Last night I got some grief from a yellow taxi cab driver as I got into his cab at LaGuardia Airport. Tired from a long flight, I just wanted to get home. Instead I was told my choice of destination – a mere 10 minute cab ride from the airport– was too short to be worthwhile. Understandably, he wanted to pick up someone going a longer distance which would obviously result in a higher fare. I get it. He had been waiting for a ride for quite some time and here I go with a fare at least 25% of what he was expecting. From my perspective, I just wanted to get home without feeling guilty. He then helpfully suggested that I take the bus next time. 

When I relayed this experience on Facebook, I was surprised to see how many people responded with similar experiences. One neighbor suggested that she and her husband now call Uber - and they haven’t looked back since. At least an Uber driver knows what they are agreeing to before accepting the ride. All this got me to Uber and other ridesharing services like Lyft start replacing traditional cabs, is the impact a good or bad thing for our downtown communities?

I started looking around for research on this topic and realized there wasn't much out there. Most of the analysis concerns the impact on labor markets and downtown congestion, but I was wondering instead about the impact on parking requirements and car ownship rates. If downtown living is made easier by ride sharing apps – meaning that downtown residents could choose to forgo a car entirely – or if downtown visitors choose Uber over their private cars resulting in lower parking demand – isn’t that a good thing for the future of downtown?

I immediately recalled an article in the New York Times that peaked my interest a little over a year ago entitled “How Uber is Changing Night Life in Los Angeles” (NYTimes, 10/31/14). The article found a growing group of urban residents eschewing their cars – either only on weekends or entirely – and being “suddenly free to drink, party and walk places.” One artist who lives in Venice indicated that Uber had made a visit to downtown Hollywood on a weeknight an option that it hadn’t been before, saying “The prospect of going to Hollywood on a weekend night, if I was invited to a party or an art event, it just wouldn’t happen. I would just stay home.” For downtown advocates like myself, this is music to the ears. 
Could ride sharing change the fundamental
dynamics of the downtown core? 
For many thriving downtown, the visitor is increasingly looking for entertainment and dining, so it stands to reason that removing the challenges of driving (who wants to sit in traffic?) and finding parking, not to mention avoiding driving home drunk, would make downtown more appealing. Not only that, but if ride sharing makes car ownership less likely, then what follows is an opportunity to increase density without added parking. This would also serve to make downtown housing more affordable to build. And once that happens, could changes in land use regulations and parking requirements be far behind?

Another potential area of impact – and this one is mostly for folks outside of the downtown core – is the potential for ride sharing to bridge the gap between trains and buses by helping people in far flung neighborhoods get their local bus or rail stops. This is called the “first-mile/last-mile” challenge. Right now Uber is working in Dallas and Atlanta and is in discussions with Seattle and Tampa, to help make better connections between public transit and car sharing apps. All good news.

Ride sharing is also helping during peak demand times – such as special events. For downtowns that host major events, ride sharing can make attendance easier – by reducing the need to drive and park. Ultimately, the driving and parking experience, if it is not a positive one, undermines the overall experience and deters attendance. Perhaps ride sharing can mitigate against those outcomes?

Another potential positive is the need for parking near train stations. Would this also mean less parking would be needed near train stations if folks can take an Uber? Having lived in suburban New York, near a regional commuter line, I can tell you that being able to take Uber to the train station would have made a real difference in my ability to get to and from the train line - which was my link to "the City". In my case, the parking in and around the station was limited to residential permit holders, making it nearly impossible to get a spot when I needed one. And when I did find one it was often a long, cold, dark walk. Uber would have been a game changer for me.

I don’t think I am alone. Steve Lopez, a reporter for the LA Times tried out driving for Uber and wrote a fun piece a few days ago. (“After driving for Uber, he's keeping his day job”, LA Times, 1/13/16). One of his riders, Robecca Collins, is quoted as saying "I go out a fair amount with friends, and no one really drives anymore because no one wants to find parking". She went on to offer that she plans to sell her car because she isn’t driving it much anymore. She also said she was tired of getting grief from taxi drivers who hassled her about using a credit card.

None of this means that Uber isn’t having significant - maybe even negative - impact on taxi drivers and other competitors, who frequently complain to me about the loss in riders and income. It also doesn't speak to the increase of cars on the road from Uber (which is what some folks have argued, “Uber’s Own Numbers Show It’s Making Traffic Worse”, Streetsblog NYC, 7/22/15). But it does give us some food for thought about how new technology is changing the way we live our lives, and perhaps making downtown living and density a more appealing alternative than ever before. Now THAT is something I can get behind. 

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Upcoming Trends: 2016

Outlets, Fast-Casual, & Mixed-Use...Oh My

2016 should see continued growth in outlet centers, fast-casual dining, and mixed-use developments. Outlets centers will take a turn toward urban areas forgoing the traditional city outskirts. Fast-casual dining -  Chipotle, Culvers, Panera Bread, Shake Shack etc - emerged as a blazing hot trend and will remain hot next year. Mixed-use developments are not anything new but they will continue on in 2016 with adjustment for small-scale retail.

The 18-Hour City

The emergence of the 18-hour city will continue to grow and be preference of those seeking urban affordability.  The 18-hour city is not a round the clock 24/7 city like New York or New Orleans but one that clocks out at night and is now a preferable live, work, play zone for millennials and others that are now desiring an urban life style.

Value Will Remain Center of Retail But Wellness Continues Growth

Traditional value shopping centers such as TJMaxx, Ross, Marshalls will continue to perform well but 2016 will see the gradual expansion of other players with off shoots of their brand name. For example, best known Nordstrom Rack will grow but new players like Saks Off 5th, Macy’s Backstage, and the recently announced Find @ Lord & Taylor will develop.

Wellness will remain a focus to watch. Many gyms chains are expanding as well as fitness apparel stores but health food centric grocers - Whole Foods, Trader Joes, Sprouts Farmers Market - are going to continue to grow in response to customer demand.

The Brick and Mortar Plan

Online and mobile consumer shopping and spending continues to grow with no foreseeable end in sight, so in 2016, brick and mortar stores will need to continue to revamp their offerings to make the in-person experience better than the alternative.  Retailers will need to engage shoppers with sensory experiences, hybrid services and lifestyle spaces designed to educate and inspire.

And in other news...
Ordering by Emojis

Aloft Hotel in downtown Manhattan started taking room service orders via Emojis. This emerging form of digital only communication might have a lot of nah-sayers but who wouldn't want a hangover cure just with the ease of sending three emojis — water, a pill and a banana? The "Hangover bundle" of Vitamin Water, Advil and bananas is delivered in minutes. Notoriety should be given to Domino's who pioneered this trend by allowing customers to order a pizza with a single emoticon. We'll see where this goes in 2016.

Also, check out our older post regarding "...the Age of Nouveau Food Courts".

Retail Attraction: One Small Business at a Time

Cutting the Ribbon at Grand Street, Brooklyn
Recently, one of our NYC clients, the Grand Street BID, shared with us the news about their first successfully attracted business: “Save On Grand” and we would like to congratulate them and share their experience with you.

First, the BID identified a community need for a general merchandise store through data provided by our Retail Market Study and also through a subsequent community retail needs survey that was distributed at local community meetings and events. The results indicated an overwhelming need for a general merchandise store that could fill the void from the recent loss of two anchor tenant general merchandise stores that had closed (GEM and Liberty).

The actual process of bringing Save on Grand, a discount household items store, to the street involved establishing a relationship with a local broker who represents two vacant spaces in their district. Through meetings and phone calls with the broker they were able to explain their retail needs and pair him and his client with a landlord acquainted with the BID and that knew the district’s need for general merchandise and affordable clothing. 

According to Homer Hill, the Director of Communications and Special Programs of the Grand Street BID, residents are supporting the store and Save on Grand’s presence is bringing positive benefits to other stores along the street. “This also supports current retailers,” he said. “As long as Grand Street can be a destination for neighborhood convenience-type goods, that’s better for all the businesses.”