Monday, February 13, 2017

LOA selected by City of Cambridge to complete City-Wide Retail Strategy

We are excited to announce that Larisa Ortiz Associates (LOA) was recently selected to complete a City-Wide Retail Strategy for the City of Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The project is designed to assist the City of Cambridge Community Development Department (CDD) analyze the retail environment as it relates to broader city-wide economic development objectives. Our team also includes Mike Byrne of MJB Consulting.

Harvard Square, Cambridge, MA

Monday, February 6, 2017

Retail Incubator Models and Downtown Revitalization: Understanding the Options

Many corridors across the country struggle to retain and attract viable retailers. In the same way, establishing a retail business in a downtown corridor is a capital and knowledge intensive endeavor. This post introduces different retail incubator models and explores how they can bridge the gap between empty storefronts and aspiring entrepreneurs.

Retail incubators are a specialized type of business incubator. Just as business incubators nurture the development of new businesses (tech, manufacturing, etc.), retail incubators provide critical assistance to retailers in their early start-up phase. This assistance encompasses multiple aspects of opening and running a business that range from coaching, access to capital and physical space to marketing and networking connections. A key aspect of a retail incubators that many groups excited with the concept fail to grasp is that an incubator is not simply a building with many stores, but it is a program of targeted services. In fact, retail incubators can be of various types and structures, including space-based models and program-based models.

Space-based retail incubators allow retailers to occupy small spaces within a larger facility that shares a number of services (think of the typical flea-market) at reduced rents. In this model vendors benefit from the proximity to other vendors (potential for increased foot traffic) as well as shared cost of typical operating expenses (utilities, etc). Also, the close proximity to other vendors allows the exchange of ideas and lessons among them and thus boosting collective learning and innovation. In this model, however, technical assistance to individual businesses is not the emphasis since space-based incubator facilities tend to house a mix of new and established retailers.

In fact,this type of retail incubator has been often established by property owners and developers to fill vacancies with innovative and creative retailers and generate interest in these properties and even in the neighborhoods they are located. For example, Shops @ MoDiv, a collection of tiny spaces housed in a historical building in downtown Grand Rapids was created Rockford Construction with the intent to incubate businesses that once established in the downtown facility will want to stay in the area and generate additional demand for other retail spaces downtown.

Shops @ MoDiv, a space-based retail incubator in downtown Grand Rapids, MI

Rockford Construction decided to experiment with the retail incubator concept when the developer could not attract tenants to fill the first floor of a historic downtown building during the 2008 recession.  Modeled after successful retail incubators in Ann Arbor and Portland, the developed created Shops @ MoDiv to be an innovative and flexible space mixing both start-ups and established retailers in an open and integrated floor-plan. The incubator contains ten retail spaces ranging from 100 to 1,000 square feet and leases range from six-months to five years. Tenants include boutiques, an apothecary that sells remedies and spices, artists selling their work, a bakery, and even a brewery.

It is important to note that for a real estate developer to build small spaces that require multiple tenants can be risky and not worth their investment, especially when compared to building a typical commercial building for a few tenants. In fact, Shops @ MoDiv were originated due to the lack of traditional larger tenants to lease the space. This is where a developer can potentially partner with a reliable public or nonprofit entity to take the lease and handle the work of filling all the incubator spaces. Such a partnership can mitigate the risks to the developer and help to activate the streetscape in the corridor while helping small businesses to get the exposure and experience needed to get established.

Another type of retail incubator is the program-based model. In this model, businesses are incubated in their permanent location rather than in a smaller space in a shared venue where it will outgrow. Thus, a key component here is that businesses are incubated to be able to stay where they were established. The rationale is that the location of a business is a key component of its success and that incubating a businesses at its permanent location right from the start-up phase will give new entrepreneurs a stronger understanding of the location, its local customer base and neighborhood dynamics and as a consequence enhance the business ties to the community and increase its chances of success.

A well-known example the Downtown Kalamazoo Inc. (DKI) Retail Incubation Program. Established in 2009 when downtown Kalamazoo, MI struggled to attract retailers, DKI spearheaded its creation enabled by a state legislation that allowed local Downtown Development Authorities to create, operate and fund retail businesses incubators. The program is managed by DKI’s Business Recruitment and Retention Committee and provide the following support to retail start-ups willing to open downtown:
  • Eighteen months of subsidized rent, incrementally reduced from a maximum of 50% or up to $830 monthly
  • Training in Merchandise Managements, Marketing, Human Resources, Financial Management and Customer Service
  •  Mentoring from a successful downtown business

In exchange, the program required participants the following:
  •   Attend all the training sessions
  •  Hire a bookkeeper or CPA approved by the program
  • Provide sales, inventory and expense information to allow tracking of success
  •  Keep the business open for 6 days a week or 50 hours a week

In four years the street-level vacancy rate in Kalamzoo’s downtown dropped from 20 to 2 percent. As the program filled key locations with new retail concepts, business attitudes towards downtown changed. In fact, similar programs followed suit throughout the country and are still active today, primarily led by downtown organizations focused improving downtowns’ vibrancy and overall business environment.

Regardless of the model, a retail incubator can never completely eliminate the challenges of operating a business. Many stores open and many will close. There is not a single blueprint for downtown revitalization. But for corridors struggling to attract established retailers like national chains, the retail incubator model might be an option to bring vibrancy and economic activity to the area while providing opportunity for local entrepreneurs who already understand the characteristics and demand of the local market. As with any downtown revitalization initiative, having an organization with the capacity and commitment to lead the effort is a priority.

For further information and resources on business and retail incubators, check out the National Business Incubation Association (NBIA) website.


National Business Incubation Association, Tips for Developers,

University of North Carolina Community and Economic Development Program Blog, Retail Incubators and Main Street Revitalization,, August 2016

Downtown Idea Exchange, First store opens under retail incubation program enabled by state legislation,, 2013

Monday, January 30, 2017

Round Up: Tinder for City Planning, Small Town Mixed Use Funding, Dimensions of a Perfect Block, The Weed Dilemma

The city of Santa Monica, California is trialing new technology aimed at making urban planning more transparent and interactive. Their goal is to innovate the public input process and cut down on bureaucracy.

Funding Small Town Main Street Mixed Use
Influenced by Regional Plan Association’s report, The Unintended Consequences of Housing Finance, the Federal government may alter its financing policies to allow growth of mixed use developments in medium and small town main streets.

Defining the Perfect Block Length for Walkability
A Harvard team took to defining the "perfect" city block dimensions and noted that the New York City grid is near ideal. Too big and too small are both detrimental, so the Goldilocks principle seems to apply.

The Weed Dilemma

If you are in one of the states on the increasing list of states to legalize marijuana - for medical or recreational use - you have to ask yourselves, how will this change the look of commercial corridors?

Friday, January 27, 2017

Retailer Spotlight of the Month: Starbucks Reserve

Starbucks, the Seattle-based coffee giant, will nearly double the numbers of its shops over the next five years and in the process roll out a new higher-end format called Starbucks Reserve.

Starbucks Reserve Roastery in Seattle

The first Starbucks Reserve Roastery and Tasting Room debuted late 2014 in Seattle. This new concept seeks to immerse customers in the craft of roasting and brewing small lot specialty coffees from around the world. A success since its opening, the shop can be seen as a ‘coffee theater’, encouraging customers to interact with Starbucks roasters and baristas in order to deepen their understanding of the art and process behind roasting and brewing rare coffees.

Starbucks Reserve on 250 Vesey Street, New York City

Reserve stores' atmosphere are as curated as its premium coffees, with an attention to high end finishes and a contemporary-chic industrial look. The concept is being rolled out as new single stores but also by adding a Reserve bar experience to existing stores. It is also being adapted to a variety of retail footprints. For example, four Starbucks Reserve stores have recently open in smaller formats throughout New York City while a larger 20,000SF Reserve Roastery is set to open in the heart of the Meatpacking District next year.

Starbucks Reserve on 771 Broadway, New York City

The Meatpacking Reserve Roastery will be housed in a new building designed by Rafael Vinoly and steps from Chelsea Market. The new store will build upon everything Starbucks has learned from its Seattle location in terms of integrating coffee roasting, manufacturing, education and retail to create a unique experience.

Tailored for customers in each market, Starbucks plans to open up to 1,000 Starbucks stores with a Reserve coffee bar experience by the end of 2017. Twelve exist today located in New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Baltimore and Boston.

Price Point: high

Target Market: foodies, millennials, and patrons looking for high-quality coffee and crafted beverages

Site Requirements: Flexible; stores vary from 2,000 to 20,000 SF

Real Estate Contact Info:

David Firestein, Shopping Center Group

Taryn Brandes, Shopping Center Group

Monday, January 23, 2017

Macy's stores are closing. Now what?! Eight strategies for downtown practitioners facing new retail realities

Macy's recent announcement that it will close approximately 100 stores over the next few years came on the heels of announcements that Sears and K Mart will close 150 more stores (they closed 78 stores last year). Other stores like Kohl's posted disappointing holiday results. These general merchandise anchors have struggled in recent years to remain profitable, and the closures are intended to focus their resources on more profitable stores. So what do these trends mean for Main Street? We think the news offers challenges and opportunities for downtown business districts. Here are a few ways we think our downtown communities will be affected in the coming years...

More competitive leasing environment. With more and more SF on the market, malls in lackluster markets will struggle to lease space, and in some cases they will be competing for retailers who might also be considering a downtown retail space. This means that you have to be more aggressive in your leasing efforts, and get better at communicating the value add of a downtown location. You should ask yourself a few questions. Are your downtown vacancies easily found on on-line listing services? If not, are you working actively with your property owners to ensure their properties are listed and available for easy viewing? Do you maintain demographic and market data for retailers who are considering your market? There are a myriad of ways - some that require more investment than others - to ensure your district's vacancies are on a retailers radar. But either way, supporting retail leasing efforts will take some concerted effort and investment. On that note, don't forget to downtown our book, "Improving Tenant Mix: A Guide for Commercial District Practitioners" for free from ICSC's website for ways to take a more hands on approach to your district's leasing efforts. 

Omni-channel retailing will become more and more the norm as mainstream retailers invest in their on-line presence. Main Street retailers will need to find a way to follow suit. Yet asking small retailers to carve out resources for a robust on-line presence is a lot to ask many of them. As a result, communities and BIDs may have to step up their efforts to educate businesses on the strategies the tools they have available to them to ensure survival. Many businesses, particularly those that make their own products, may not be aware that they can sell on platforms like Amazon, Zappo's or Rue La La. We recently met a business owner who gave us the skinny on her on-line selling strategy, telling us she had abandoned Amazon because their requirements were "too much of a pain", but that she has had a great experience with Zappo's. This kind of intelligence will be useful to share with your local business community. And for those interested in selling directly to customers through an on-line platform, there are more and more options for them out there. (Read our recent post "On-Line Selling - An Option for Smaller Businesses" for more info.)
A retail website powered by Shopify, one of a number
of  on-line platforms that makes on-line selling
accessible to small businesses.

Programming and creative usage of public space (i.e "place based strategies") will increase. Commercial districts, like malls, are increasingly trying to offer distinctive experiences that cannot be found so easily on-line. Cooking demos, craft classes, exercise classes, etc. will all become more critical to engaging with customers. In downtown, that means activating and programming public space in a way that will drive downtown visitation. Consider the Meatpacking District's free outdoor yoga program. They teamed up with a local store to offer programs on the street during the summer. This is a great way to highlight a local business while also bringing activity to open spaces. These activities also reinforce a well thought out strategic position for this market based on the segment of the businesses that are there - a place where young, active people congregate. We love it.

The Meatpacking District BID in NYC
sponsors "Downward Dog Yoga Days" in the Summer
in partnership with a local business. 

Food will continue to drive leasing in many downtown environments. When food is in the mix, shoppers increase their dwell time, which increases the amount of money they are likely to spend in the district. A panel on Urban Retailing at last year's ICSC Recon emphasized this trend. Restoration Hardware Executive David Stanchak was on hand to discuss RH's recently opened new store in Downtown Chicago that includes a food operation - The RH Chicago Three Arts Club Cafe. According to Stanchak, "for every dollar we do on food-and-beverage sales, we're generating $2 on increased gallery sales."  The good news is that downtown environments already do food quite well, but will need to begin to find better synergies between food and shopping. In some communities, the hours that retailers are open do not necessarily overlap with the hours that restaurants are open, which diminishes opportunities for cross-patronage. Correcting this misalignment, perhaps through a well-promoted once a month late night effort could help address this issue. That said, care should be taken not to overtax small business owners who often have limited staff capacity to do this on a regular basis. Promoting the event sufficiently, and to the right customer audience, is key to ensuring the success of late night shopping strategies.
The 3 Arts Club Cafe, a food concept within
Restoration Hardware's new downtown Chicago location.

Food kiosks, food trucks, and seasonal food offerings will also continue to grow. Some communities might not be able to support a full time bricks-and-mortar food retailer, but can instead focus on developing a temporary set of offerings that may be associated with an event. We are working in a community in Long Island right now that has a small municipal beach. Last year they started a very successful food truck and movie night. It probably shouldn't come as a surprise that they sold many, many more beach passes over previous years - adding to the town coffers while also building community. These investments clearly also pay dividends.
Downtown Raleigh BID puts on the Food Truck Rodeo
over a weekend in the early Spring with more than 50 food trucks. 

Leasing to specialty businesses will rise. The downtown environment has an element of authenticity and interest that makes is a great place for some of these more interesting retail concepts. In some cases, lower rents and a lower hurdle to entry make downtown storefronts an enticing alternative to malls. Consider Muse Paintbar in Providence, RI, a business that bills itself as "the premier art and wine experience". Located on Main Street in a historic building, Muse Paintbar offers a wide array of classes for adults and families too.

Property owners and merchants will request higher transparency around BID spending. In the mall world, payments by retailers to cover common area maintenance (CAM) are critical to ensuring shared spaces are well maintained. The International Council of Shopping Centers recently posited that 2017 will see a more "widespread effort by retail rein in or set limits on CAM costs." We believe that the same economic forces driving retailers to second guess CAM charges are not limited to businesses that lease storefronts in malls. As many of you know, in a downtown environment, the equivalent of CAM charges are BID assessments, which in a similar manner to CAM charges are obligatory contributions by property owners and/or merchants that support the enhanced maintenance of shared public spaces and help to advance long term district improvements. While getting a BID off the ground may become more challenging as businesses and property owners double down on keeping costs down, we do believe that existing BIDs will have to make sure their members understand the value they are getting for their investment. This means getting much better at bench-marking impact with measurement tools like pedestrian counts. And while BID members may balk at increasing BID budgets, doing away with these additional charges is not an option either. As one analyst indicated, it "costs money to create experience". And given how important experience is going to be to shoppers in the future, downtown's with BIDs are going to be better positioned to weather competition from on-line retailers than those that don't have the resources to program and maintain the downtown environment. 

Retailers, especially at the high end, are open to thinking outside of the box and customizing their stores to unique urban spaces. According to Richard Johnson, a senior real estate specialist who spoke at Recon in May, urban locations are appealing despite the higher costs, "“There is always a lot more cost, and we do more work for urban locations,” he said. “You want to give your best face to your best clients, and urban does that. The goal is to create something unique that has our customers coming back time and time again.” 

Overall, we think downtown is well positioned to compete in the coming years. As people look for authentic experiences, the kind of things that simply cannot be done on-line, we are confident that many downtown's can and will rise to the challenge.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

The Food Hall Revolution

The retail industry has seen its fair share of trends and advancements this past year – ecommerce is up and millennials are driving experiential shopping. However, one that has inescapably stood out has been the development of food hubs and food halls all across the country. In fact, earlier in 2016, UrbanLand predicted that food was to be the ‘anchor of retail developments’ based on the rising proportion of store growth being attributed to restaurants. From Detroit to Irvine, cities and developers are catching onto the culinary-oriented developments in their own unique ways but are these places simply sexier, marketable versions of the traditional food courts? Let’s find out what constitutes food hubs and food halls and what impacts they are having on economic revitalization and food access.

Marketplaces have been a key economic, cultural, and social component of villages, towns, and cities for thousands of years and food, particularly fresh produce, has always been a vital commodity for trading at these markets. A food hub, as defined by the National Food Hub Collaboration and Michigan State University, is a “business or organization that actively manages the aggregation, distribution, and marketing of source- identified food products primarily from local and regional producers”. By doing so, food hubs bridge the gap between food producers and consumers and satisfy wholesale, retail, and institutional demand all under one roof much like traditional marketplaces. Today, many fresh food producers lack the capacity and financial resources to access these markets on their own so food hubs are indeed making it possible for these producers to gain entry into new markets, increase their incomes, and up scale production.

Not only are food hubs profitable to producers, distributors and retailers, they are also vital in improving neighborhood access to local foods by offering complementary programs and resources such as shared community kitchens for healthy cooking classes and food incubators for budding restaurateurs. All of these components that make up a food hub differentiate it from farmers markets that simply provide platforms for producers to sell directly to consumers like you, but what about the difference between food hubs and food halls?  

As it turns out, the term ‘food halls’ is increasingly being used interchangeably with food hubs. However, food halls are more often than not one of the many programs within a food hub (complementary to grocery stores, food education facilities, food distribution centers, and kitchen incubators). When food halls function separately and independently, they are often less community- and agriculturally-based. While they may claim to support locally-owned businesses and chefs, they often do not guarantee as tight a policy of local produce-sourcing as food hubs do given their varying administrative organizations and missions. Often, these food halls simply bring together multiple vendors, carefully curated to meet the targeted consumers’ taste and preference, and provide them space in high traffic areas at potentially lower rental rates.

Regardless of semantics, both food halls and food hubs are cooking up destinations for local food and providing opportunities for local businesses to grow – albeit to different degrees. Given the infancy of these food-based developments, we can only begin to predict their position as catalysts for redevelopment and socio-economic revitalization.

The Eastern Market in Detroit, Michigan, for example, demonstrates the potential for food hubs to be really sustainable and efficient food sources for communities. The food hub is the “largest historic public market in the Unites States” and has been connecting small farms with customers from metro Detroit for over a century. It has done more than just organize farmers markets for locals; the Eastern Market also hosts a massive wholesale market for local restaurants and grocers from midnight to 6am on weekdays. In addition, the market has incubator spaces for food entrepreneurs and provides professional kitchens for entrepreneurs who would otherwise be unable to access such resources. At Eastern Market, entrepreneurs can develop and test-market their products before expanding regionally. Take for example, McClure's Pickles. The firm got its start at the market and has since expanded nationally.

The Eastern Market not only meets the scope of a regional food hub but has certainly met its mission to “build facilities and critical infrastructure that fortifies the food sector as a pillar of regional economic growth while improving access to healthy and affordable food choices in Detroit”. A survey conducted by Michigan State University found that the majority of food hubs in Michigan helped increase access to healthy foods in underserved neighborhoods, thereby supporting a healthier population. More than 95 percent of Michigan's food hubs are experiencing an increase in demand of their products and services with restaurants, small grocery stores, and kindergarten through 12th-grade school food services being their number one customers. Furthermore, among the food hubs surveyed, about half of food hubs were equipped to accept federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits.

Food hubs also have the potential to act as arts and cultural centers for their neighborhoods. The large halls and spaces located in the hubs are conducive to art and design festivals. Eastern Market, for example, is home to the Detroit Design Festival every fall and many other creative pop-up events and programs. Like other food hubs, it is increasingly becoming a mixed-use building and yet food-based hub. Even food halls that simply feature chef-driven vendors and tenants are becoming arts and culture centers hosting a myriad of events throughout the year. In a time where millennial customers seek out unique retail experiences, the merging of the arts and culinary worlds was only an inevitable next step.

On the other side of the coin, when food-based developments do not serve the wider community, however, it stands to run into accusations of causing gentrification and rising property values. In Anaheim, California, where a former fruit packing and distribution center was transformed into a food hall dedicated to local vendors, it has quickly evolved into  a selling feature for new residential developments in the neighborhood. Broookfield Residential for example is hoping to “attract young buyers with units priced between $300,000 and $400,000” in a neighborhood that was once a sleepy town known only for Disneyland. Whether intended or not, the Packing House food hall in Anaheim has led to huge inflow of development into the neighborhood, raising prices of property in the area.
Furthermore, food halls that only serve ready-made meals or chef-made meals are often too upscale for the average customer. While they may help fill gaps in a food desert, prices often prevent lower income bracket groups from accessing these freshly-made and locally-grown foods since most prepared foods are not even eligible for SNAP benefits. So while food hubs and food halls may have a right to celebrate their contributions to the local food system and local communities, there are a few implications to also be wary of.

If that didn’t scare you enough, there are also a set of complex challenges involved in setting up and running food-based developments. Start-up, administrative and operational costs can run up high, especially when run by a nonprofit. Although finding capital through donations, grants, and city funding is a common strategy, these funding sources can easily go away. The many moving parts of food hubs also means that overhead costs can arise at all points on the operational chain.
Further still, site development has proven to be a huge challenge for food hubs. This is due to requirements for cold storage, space for processing food, distribution, and strategic marketing. The non-profit Boston Public Food Market, for example, is already spending close to $14 million to turn a state-owned building into a market.

Indeed, food hubs and food halls can take several years to achieve financial profitability. However, it is food hubs that work with various partners, including local farmers’ associations and school districts, which are able to increase their earnings easily by establishing distribution agreements.  These partners often also help with advertising and marketing efforts – lowering food hub overhead – and provide food hubs with a consistent yet diverse customer base.
On the other hand, food halls that function separately and independently with only chef-driven vendors open with 100 percent occupancy before quickly running into problems of high operation and marketing costs. This often leads to high lease rates for vendors. Since local entrepreneurs are particularly susceptible to rent charges and often are unable to make their businesses work in the long run without continued support from the food hall, these food-based developments hollow out and struggle to find replacement chefs.

As we move into a new year, and the trend of food hubs and food halls catches on rapidly across cities, let’s watch out for the saturation point in food-based developments. More importantly, let’s beware of its real impacts on food access and our local neighborhoods and communities. 

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Waterfront Revitalization Driving Commercial Reinvestment: A Few Examples

An increasing number of waterfronts have undergone makeovers in recent years and helping to revitalize commercial corridors along the way. They’ve been usually touted as reclamation projects: These rivers run through the heart of their cities and their waterfronts have been blocked by the presence of major structures once dedicated to manufacturing and shipping. Big cities have been working the river angle to their advantage for some time. A few cities, like Providence and San Antonio have become destinations because of the opportunities created by their rivers.

But it’s not just big cities. A growing number of small to medium-size cities are embracing their once industrial waterfronts and transforming them into a destination for residents, businesses and visitors. Increasingly, local economic development officials and authorities are recognizing the potential of integrating these waterfronts into their cities’ urban fabric and in many cases using them as a complementing destination enriching downtowns with additional activities and amenities.

To be successful, however, waterfront revitalization schemes need to go beyond cleaning and activating these areas; they need to be able to integrate them with surrounding neighborhoods (residential and commercial alike) through walkable streetscape improvements, clear visual and physical connections and enhance their sense of place through meaningful public spaces. Furthermore, as the examples below reveal, they require committed leadership at multiple government levels as well as a strong organization with the capacity and drive to carry out these efforts.

Owensboro, KY

Smothers Park and Promenade, Owensboro, Kentucky

This city of fifty eight thousand residents, the 4th largest in Kentucky, has seen tremendous growth since its riverfront revitalization took place. Thanks to an initial public investment of $80 million, obtained through a doubling of the local tax on insurance premiums from 4 to 8 percent, Owenboro’s city administration spearheaded the process. Like any proposed tax increase, it was hotly debated and controversial but the commitment of tax dollars sent a powerful message that prompted the private sector to get on board. As key Owensboro leaders understood early on, the river, which gave the town its past, could also provide it a brighter future. And it did.

The first catalytic project was Smothers Park and Promenade: a nearly six-acre park that fronts the river and includes a sprawling playground, a veterans memorial, promenades, three fountains with water shows every 15 minutes, a cascading waterfall, and seating where residents and visitors can enjoy the Ohio River and its views.

After the completion of Smothers Park, RiverPark Center, a performing arts center, was built adjacent to it, followed by a 169,000SF convention center, two hotels and a number of businesses that were attracted to the area's increased visibility. The riverfront transformation was so catalytic (generating approximately $1 billion in combined public and private investments) that brought Owensboro feature article coverage in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and elsewhere.

Port Huron, MI

Port Huron Waterfront

Once a busy industrial hub, Port Huron’s tired waterfront languished as commercial tonnage through the port decayed since the 1970s. Like many Midwest communities that were once very dependent on heavy industry, Port Huron needed to change to survive.

In the last few years Port Huron positioned itself as a tourist destination by promoting its waterfront location and history. Proclaimed as the “Maritime Capital of the Great Lakes,” Port Huron now hosts community events including Coast Guard Days and the annual Port Huron to Mackinac yacht race. Maritime museums showcase historical lighthouses and turn of the century ships.

Port Huron’s waterfront renaissance is the result of a long-range waterfront redevelopment planning process. The “Southside Summit”, co-hosted by the city and a private developer, Acheson Ventures, provided a forum for community exchange of information, concerns, and visions for the most important piece of waterfront real estate in Port Huron.

One of the early catalytic projects was Desmond Landing, a mixed-use redevelopment at the confluence of Black River and St. Clair River that includes fishing access and a promenade. Desmond Landing has been carefully planned and developed in a configuration that re-establishes the linkage between the automobile and pedestrian environment of Main Street with the boating and pedestrian environment of the waterfront. Municipally-funded projects also complement the project and reinforce this linkage by extending the traditional street and sidewalk grid from Main Street toward the river.

Most recently, at the north end of the Desmond Landing project, the privately owned Black River Marina has been refurbished and named Desmond Marine. The marina adds a full-service boat dealership to several other riverfront marinas and businesses leading up the river through the Main Street district. Together with new public sidewalks, a mile-long promenade and a new 35,000 SF convention center these developments have brought new life and vibrancy to the area.

In addition to larger catalytic projects, smaller initiatives that complement these waterfront revitalization efforts are making a difference. For example, in order to prevent a “second downtown” in Port Huron and disperse economic activities, the Port Huron Main Street program has worked closely with private developers to remove visual and physical barriers between the historic Main Street and new waterfront developments and thus create a cohesive and accessible Main Street connected to the water.

Wheeling, West Virginia

Heritage Port, Wheeling, West Virginia

Like many American cities, the community of Wheeling was long disconnected from its river by a layer of flood protection infrastructure along with underutilized building structures. Recognizing the potential of its waterfront heritage, the city devised a long-term plan to redevelop the port and encourage activity along the waterfront. The Wheeling National Heritage Area Corporation (WNHAC) was thus established to lead the process. Its first step was the demolition of the Wharf Garage, an old parking structure blocking the city’s connection to the waterfront, and its replacement by a waterfront park with trails, events spaces and river access. Heritage Port opened in 2002 and since then has become a local and regional destination that attracts between 250,000 – 300,000 visitors annually to the festivals and events held there.

In addition to re-establishing Wheeling’s access to the waterfront, WNHAC brought to the area the Wheeling Artisan Center, an adaptive mixed use industrial structure, consisting of three buildings with a three-story atrium and skylight. Originally housing a grocery business and dating back to 1868, the building had several uses in the intervening years. WNHAC rehabilitated the building, which is currently functioning as office space, a large restaurant incorporating Wheeling’s heritage, an arts and craft floor, an art space, and a 7,500 square foot special events hall used for conferences, wedding receptions and banquets.

Buffalo, NY

After years of economic decline, Buffalo New York is in the midst of significant redevelopment activity along its long forgotten waterfront. Spearheading the process is the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation (ECHDC), a state-run agency created to manage the rehabilitation of Buffalo’s waterfront through projects funded through a combination of money from New York State and the New York Power Authority.

Canalside, Buffalo, NY

At the core of Buffalo’s revitalization process is Canalside, a nautical-themed public park that transformed Buffalo’s inner harbor. Open to the public since May 2008, Canalside features several restored components of the original Erie Canal Harbor, including the Commercial Slip, Boardwalk, and the Historic Replica Canals. A regional attraction, Canalside offers thousands of events, concerts, festivals, family activities, historical and cultural programming, art, food, and tours. In addition, the Historic Replica Canals are frozen in the winter months to become New York State’s largest outdoor ice skating rink.

Canalside, Buffalo, NY

With these infrastructure investments and a new organization tasked with development in place, developers began to see what had been blight as an opportunity. In 2014, an office building that had been empty for 20 years reopened as One Canalside, with a hotel and law firm as tenants. That same year, an ice hockey-themed mixed-use development called HarborCenter opened its doors on land that had been a surface parking lot.

A new attraction, Pearl Street Grill and Brewery was attracted by the abandoned grain elevator structures and waterfront improvements

According to local and state authorities, the public investments initially made to revitalize the waterfront were a necessary component in making the waterfront more attractive and more accessible to residents, but also to private sector investment. In fact, progress can already be seen and experienced. Last year Canalside received nearly 1.5 million visitors, and local planning officials report thousands of construction jobs and over a thousand permanent jobs created. Thanks to its revamped waterfront, Buffalo is becoming the go-to place for visitors of all ages to play, dine and relax.