Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Roundup: Sidewalk Cafes

Like many urban planners, I often find myself taking pictures of what others consider mundane, like street signage, street lights, garbage cans, banners, sandwich signs, etc. By now I've amassed quite a library from my work and personal travel and thought I would begin sharing some of the good, the bad...and of course, the ugly. I'll call these 'Roundups'. For this Roundup, I've chosen some nice sidewalk cafes. Can anyone guess where these are?

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Street Fairs - do they help or hurt neighborhood businesses?

Street fairs are not unique to New York City. But a recent report by the Center for Urban Futures explores how to improve upon New York's venerable street fairs, many of which have become staid, boring and, just like the local mall, exact replicas of one another. The lessons and ideas presented in this report are helpful way beyond the boundaries of New York City. This report is a great read for folks looking for new ideas or new ways to develop interesting, unique street fairs that support local businesses and help develop your commercial district brand more effectively.

In New York, street fairs are an industry that has increasingly become controlled by a few companies, who roll out the same tube sock vendors and crepe vendors over and over again. This report includes interviews with experts who explore ideas, and share best practices, for creating great street fairs. Some of the interviewees mentioned my own pet peeve - the fact that street fairs often turn their back on neighborhood businesses. In fact, many business owners hate street fairs for that reason. The booths typically turn their backs to the businesses, close the streets to traffic, and as a results end up hurting business for the merchants that are there all the time.

A few tips for street fairs to keep in mind:
  • Engage local merchants, artists and vendors in a street fair is what gives the fair flavor and authenticity and should be encouraged. Help local businesses drive sales by encouraging them to set up a table and sell on the street along with other vendors.
  • Quality matters. Tap local vendors and businesses who offer great quality food and products. Consider starting small and being selective with who participates at first. This is how to ensure your fair is differentiated from others - and how to make sure it grows over time.
  • Don't ignore the businesses! Instead of setting up vendors so that they face the street (and therefore their backs to local businesses), set up the vendors so that you have two aisles with the vendors in the middle of the street. This set up helps ensure that foot traffic during the fair also benefits the formal merchants. The picture that accompanies this article shows The Castro Street Fair in San Francisco. Note that the vendors occupy the middle of the street - not the sidewalk side of the street.
  • Consider the fair an extension of your brand. Street fairs are also a great way to brand your community. Consider 'Pickle Day' by the New York Food Museum on New York's Lower East Side. This fair plays upon the area's history and heritage as a destination for wonderful pickles. What could be more unique than that?

Here is a link to the report...."New Visions for New York Street Fairs"

Friday, June 18, 2010

New City and State Programs Encourage Grocery Store Retention and Attraction

This morning, Queens Borough President Helen Marshall hosted a panel to unveil new incentives at the city and state level in New York to retain and attract neighborhood grocery stores. Commercial district managers in urban neighborhoods are well aware of the challenges faced by grocery stores in urban neighborhoods--higher land costs, logistical difficulties, and thinner profit margins than other retail uses that compete for space. These new incentive programs, FRESH and the NY Healthy Food & Healthy Communities Fund, aim to make grocery store retention and attraction financially viable and thereby increase fresh food access in urban neighborhoods.

The creation of these programs was inspired by a recent study conducted for the Mayor's Food Policy Taskforce, which found that nearly all NYC neighborhoods are under-served by supermarkets based on national standards. Additionally, some neighborhoods are acutely under-served and feature high instances of diet-related diseases as well as residents with limited mobility. The national standard is at least 3 square feet of grocery store retail per resident; no community district in Queens meets this hurdle.

On the city level, two types of incentives are available: financial incentives from the NYC Industrial Development Agency and zoning incentives from the Department of City Planning. Currently, the zoning incentives are only available in neighborhoods with the most acute need according to the study (Jamaica, Central Brooklyn, Northern Manhattan, and the South Bronx), while the financial incentives are available in distressed census tracts citywide. On the state level, the New York Healthy Food & Healthy Communities Fund provides a variety of construction and rehabilitation loans as well as some grants for supermarket operators and developers. This program is run by the Low Income Investment Fund and is based on the successful Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative.

To qualify for these incentives, the supermarket must fulfill the set of criteria that are outlined below. These incentives can be used both to attract new and renovating existing businesses. If you have a food retailer in your district that meets the space requirements, these programs may be a good resource to help them make adjustments and carry more fresh food options.
  • Provide a minimum of 6,000 square feet of retail space for a general line of food and nonfood grocery products intended for home preparation, consumption and utilization;
  • Provide at least 50 percent of a general line of food products intended for home preparation, consumption and utilization;
  • Provide at least 30 percent of retail space for perishable goods that include dairy, fresh produce, fresh meats, poultry, fish and frozen foods; and
  • Provide at least 500 square feet of retail space for fresh produce.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

ICSC Releases Phase II Report on the Recession's Impact on Consumer Spending

The International Council of Shopping Centers just released Phase II of a consumer tracking study designed to show how consumer attitudes and spending habits are affected by the current economic climate. The study measures shopping and saving habits, customer perceptions about financial well-being, Internet shopping behavior, and social media use as it relates to retail. It compares the responses of US and Canadian consumers to those recorded in Phase I of the study, which was conduced in October 2009.

The following is a description of the report from ICSC's President, Michael P. Kercheva:

"While consumers overall financial perceptions remain fairly flat from Phase I to Phase II, there have been some positive changes in shopping behaviors as 28% of consumers show an inclination to spend more money, reporting that their wallet or purse strings were starting to loosen when it comes to shopping. Additionally, consumers are saying that they are visiting shopping centers more often now than in the past year and more importantly, their purchases of discretionary goods, and spending on apparel and casual dining has increased."

The report can be downloaded here.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Ideas for Harnessing the Artist Entrepreneurs in Your District

When properly cultivated, artists can be a powerful force for economic development. Many communities have found ways to help artists find venues for selling their goods directly to shoppers while simultaneously enlivening their commercial districts with energy and activity.

I’m currently working in a community where there are lots of artists living and creating art, but very few places for these same artists to sell their goods directly to consumers. Meanwhile, vacant stores front riddle an otherwise attractive commercial district…could this be a marriage made in heaven? Can these storefronts be temporarily occupied by pop-up retail stores that allow artists to sell their goods?

Here is a round-up of resources and ideas from other communities that have found ways to marry artists and econoimc activity, while simultaneously reviving their commercial districts.

One caveat that perhaps should go without say – don’t try this at home if you don’t have a genuine artist community to work with!

Tacoma, WA: “Artists to Use Vacant Retail Space in Tacoma”

New Haven, CT: “New Haven’s Department of Cultural Affairs Announces Storefront for Artists Pilot Program”

Chicago, IL: “Trading commerce for art: In the face of retail vacancies, Pop-Up Art Loop creates temporary galleries”

St. John, Virgin Islands: “Entrepreneur Series: Creative Collective”
This article discusses different models for how artists can set up cooperatives to pay for operating costs for retail space, including basic cost sharing, consignment or membership fees.

Brooklyn, NY: “Artists and Fleas”
This market, based in Williamsburg, Brooklyn is called “Artists & Fleas”, and has been wildly successful. Open only on the weekends, spaces are rented to emerging artists, designers, collectors, and crafters who set up shop and sell directly to customers.

Santa Fe, NY: “International Folk Art Market”
This market has achieved international acclaim and began as a way to provide folk artists an opportunity to generate income and sell their goods where they live.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Broadening Customer Appeal in Ethnic Commercial Districts

Opening a neighborhood retail store is a common path for immigrant entrepreneurs, and these stores provide needed goods and services for both local and regional immigrant populations. In 2007, the Center for an Urban Future released a report that identified immigrant entrepreneurs as key engines of growth in cities from New York to Los Angeles, where their economic impact can be felt along thriving ethnic commercial districts that feature immigrant-owned restaurants, stores, and professional offices. In New York, vibrant examples of these districts can be seen along 30th Avenue in Astoria (Greek and Eastern European), 74th Street in Jackson Heights (South Asian), and 8th Avenue in Sunset Park (Chinese and Latino).

Some of these commercial districts have developed a popular brand identity around their ethnic retail that allows them to attract a broad range of visitors, while others are less successful in attracting customers of different backgrounds. In some cases, this can be traced to the level of individual business owners, who may need guidance or support to appeal to an expanded customer base. In one such district, a Colombian retail corridor in Elizabeth, NJ is very successful in attracting regional Colombian customers but has not been able to reach the large student population from two nearby colleges. The local merchant association on that corridor is eager to improve this situation and has identified several key steps that businesses should follow to reach a broader audience:

  • Ensure that all stores have English-speaking staff, which could be met by hiring bi-lingual students from the nearby colleges. Restaurant menus should be bi-lingual and include images.
  • Broaden the merchandise mix. For sit-down restaurants near the college, this means offering more take-out options; for clothing stores, this means carrying some mainstream brands.
  • Market your existing merchandise to a broader customer base. Many of the Colombian restaurants specialize in fresh fruit juices and smoothies that could be very popular with college students. A simple A-frame sign to advertise these juices could have a big impact.
  • Be open to trying new business models during traditionally slow hours, such as providing a cafĂ© atmosphere for students looking for a place to study and have coffee between lunch and dinner. Providing free wi-fi can be another useful addition.
  • Collaborate to organize events that make students more familiar with Colombian Cuisine--a "Taste-Of" tour of different corridor restaurants that shows how to best eat a tamale and find your favorite Colombian baked good.
While these steps are relatively straightforward, they show one way in which district managers can re-position any commercial corridor to increase sales: Define your niche, determine whether this niche could appeal to unmet markets, and identify barriers and opportunities to reach these markets. These steps can be tried with a few willing businesses and then expanded over time--when one store tries a new approach that produces positive results, others will quickly follow suit. As places with unique retail offerings, ethnic retail corridors are particularly well-positioned to follow this model.

If you are interested in these issues, you may want to attend the upcoming Hudson Valley Main Street Summit on Thursday, June 10th, which will feature our colleague Paul Grygiel of Phillips Preiss Grygiel speaking on a panel, "The Role of Colleges & Universities in Redeveloping Diverse Downtowns." For more information and to register, click here.