Friday, May 30, 2014

Design Trust for Public Space issues call for proposals, Due June 30th

Great opportunity for NYC-based groups working on improving public space on urban commercial corridors....

On May 19th the Design Trust for Public Space launched a new RFP, "The Energetic City", to an enthusiastic crowd at the new BRIC house in Brooklyn. Over 120 attendees – including designers, researchers, artists, community organizers, technologists, and representatives from a number of city agencies – came to learn more about it.

For the first time in its  history, the Design Trust, as it is known here in New York, is accepting project proposals from individuals in addition to government agencies, nonprofit organizations and community groups. To learn more about the process, schedule and requirements for the RFP, download "The Energetic City" PDF. Online expressions of interest are due no later than Monday, June 30, 2014 by 5:00pm EST.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Wooing Trader Joe's to your downtown. What does it take?

It’s inevitable. Every time I work with a community on retail attraction, I hear the dreaded question: "Why can’t we get a Trader Joe’s?”

Most of the time, I use this question to start a conversation about the metrics that Trader Joe's uses to select sites, and then we work through what kinds of things need to happen downtown to move the fundamental metrics in the right direction. But then I get the question from someone else and we start the conversation over again. 

So...I decided to do a side by side comparison of three of Trader Joe’s sites in the New York Metro Market to see what common denominators those sites shared. I already know from speaking with site selection reps that Trader Joe's looks at a mixture of income, educational attainment and density, so I decided to focus on those metrics and see what we found. The three sites were:
  • 9030 Metropolitan Avenue, Rego Park, Queens, NY 11374
  • 259 Allwood Road, Clifton, NJ 07012
  • 2385 Richmond Ave, Staten Island, NY 10314

For the Rego Park site, which is in a more “urban” market than the two others, we looked at a .5 mile radius from the store. We then compared the Rego Park site to a 1-mile radius around the Clifton, NJ and Staten Island, NY locations, which are arguably more automobile oriented.

What is the median income of the primary customer?
First we looked at income. Median household income was between $74k - $85k. When you consider that median income for the US is around $51k, it becomes clear that they seek out communities that are convenient to high income neighborhoods.

How many customers should there be in the primary market?
Then we looked at household population. Again, keep in mind that we are comparing .5 miles in Rego Park to 1 mile in more suburban communities. If we consider the fact that our Rego Park site is a .5 mile radius (and therefore double the household population for an apples to apples comparison), we are looking at markets that have between 18,000 – 26,000 households within a mile of a site.

How educated should the local population be? 
Another key indicator is levels of education. Trader Joe’s is notorious for seeking pockets of highly educated consumers. The thinking is that more educated consumers have traveled and are somewhat more worldly and therefore open to trying the sometimes quirky offerings at Trader Joe’s.

In every case, the lowest threshold of population with either bachelor or graduate degrees was 30%, and in both New Jersey and Rego Park, Queens, the threshold was significantly higher – closer to 40% when considering the U.S. average is 38%. 

So, before you jump to wooing Trader Joe’s – a tall order for most communities – first take a peek at your demographics and see if they pass muster.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Parklets: Reclaiming Parking Spaces for People

With Spring (finally) upon us, we are exploring ways that businesses and commercial districts can take advantage of the weather to attract shoppers, and to keep those shoppers on their corridors for longer.

Today, guest blogger Maria Chernaya discusses parklets. First, some highlights:
  •  A parklet converts a small parking space (usually two parking space lengths) into a publicly accessible open space.
  • Parklets are generally built on a platform (of non-permanent materials) on the pavement, and feature elements such as seating, trees, flowers, shrubs, and bike racks to reflect the unique character of the space.
  • They are designed, paid for, and maintained by a non-city entity (typically a business or property owner).
  • Baltimore Avenue, Philadelphia
  • Many cities require signage to be located at either end of the parklet so that a passerby is aware it is an open public space.

The History 
The “parklet” first emerged in San Francisco in 2005, when Rebar, a San Francisco art and design studio converted a single metered parking space into a temporary (two-hour) public park. Since then, cities across North America, including Montreal, Vancouver, New York City, and Philadelphia, have implemented parklets along their major commercial corridors.

The Benefits
Parallel Park, Vancouver, BC
Parklets offer numerous benefits to pedestrians. They create spaces to sit, relax, and linger and they beautify the street by creating a buffer between the street and sidewalk. 

Studies also point to the benefits of parklets for businesses. In 2010, the non-profit organization Great Streets SF conducted a study of the Divisadero Street Parklet, located in front of the Mojo Bicycle CafĂ© in San Francisco, and found that the number of pedestrians increased by 13 percent, particularly on weekday evenings. The study also found that many businesses have experienced revenue increases after the installation of a parklet, and in a few cases, created jobs as a result of increased demand. 

Do you have parklets in your commercial district? Tell us about them in the comments!

Guest Blogger Maria Chernaya is an urban planner based in Brooklyn.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Design Downtown for Women - Men Will Follow

The Commercial District Advisor welcomes guest blogger David Feehan, President, Civitas Consultants LLC

Years ago, when I was the downtown director in Kalamazoo, Michigan, a retail consultant we had engaged named Robert Sprague made a startling statement. “In 1950, 95 percent of the retail sales in the US occurred in downtowns. Today, less than 5 percent of retail sales are made in downtowns.” Sprague made that statement in the early 1990s and it is still true today, even in cities where there has been successful downtown revitalization. Only a few major cities still have downtown department stores and strong retail components - Seattle, San Francisco and Washington DC.

Many theories have been advanced as to why retail stores virtually abandoned US downtowns in a few decades. After all, office buildings were still being built in downtowns during the latter half of the past century. Major attractions – convention centers, ballparks, arenas and museums – became symbols of hoped-for reinvestment in and around downtowns. Other fads came and went – festival markets, aquariums, enclosed shopping malls; and still, downtowns continued to lose the one feature so many saw as they key to success – retail stores.

Some blamed the massive shift in residential development. Others pointed to the building of high-speed expressways that could whisk people to suburban communities quickly and without so much as a stoplight. Still others saw the increase in crime and the urban unrest of the 1960s as the culprit. Many thought that “white flight” – a desire of whites to get away from expanding black urban populations – was killing downtowns and central city commercial districts.

No doubt all of these factors and more contributed to the decline of downtowns since 1950. But one of the most obvious factors has until very recently been almost ignored. Downtowns have, by and large, ignored their most important customer – women – while shopping mall developers designed their facilities specifically for women.

Shortly after I left the presidency of the International Downtown Association in 2009, I started asking questions and doing research in concert with Dr. Carol Becker, who had just completed a survey of business improvement districts, or BIDs as they are more commonly known (BIAs in Canada) on behalf of IDA. Among the questions we asked ourselves were:
  • Are there significant gender differences in the way public spaces are perceived?
  • How important are women in terms of retail decisions, residential decisions and business location decisions?
  • Who really designs the downtown experience?
  • What obstacles are there to women who want to participate in and direct the design of downtowns?
Let me be clear: we were not just thinking about physical design – things like buildings and parks. We were interested in designing the whole experience – things like mobility and access, safety and security, friendliness, aesthetics, activities, opportunities to dine and be entertained as well as shop.

Research Says
Here is briefly what our research revealed:
  • Women control or influence roughly 80 to 85 percent of retail purchases.
  • Women control or influence approximately 80 percent of residential and health care decisions.
  • Women constitute nearly 60 percent of college graduates.
  • Women control more than half of the private wealth in the US.
And yet, women are grossly underrepresented in the professions that design the downtown experience. Architects, landscape architects, urban planners and designers, engineers, real estate developers and brokers, even construction professionals and lenders are predominantly male. Only 16 percent of registered architects are women. Only 3 percent of engineers are women.

We could not find a “Top 50” firm in any of the above categories in the US that is headed or owned by a woman. But perhaps in government agencies that impact downtown we might find women more represented? Not hardly. In the US federal government, at the cabinet level, there have been 14 Secretaries of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, but only two have been women. At the Department of Transportation, 2 Secretaries out of 16 have been women; and at the Department of Commerce, only 3 out of 43 Secretaries have been women.

At the professional association level, we had hoped to find women better represented, but this was not the case. Virtually all of the professional and trade associations having to do with the downtown experience (International Downtown Association, National Main Street Center, Urban Land Institute, American Planning Association, American Institute of Architects, National League of Cities, US Conference of Mayors, International City and County Managers Association, American Public Transportation Association, International Parking Institute and others) were headed by men at the time we began our research. Today, a couple of women have been named to top posts.

In short, what we have is a terrible mismatch. One only has to look at the things women hate like dirty, dark parking garages, filthy or nonexistent public restrooms, street furniture designed for a person taller than 5’ 9” tall, multi-space parking meters with screens that are too high and hard to read, lack of signage and wayfinding, and a hundred other things that men tend not to notice.

Last Word
Women are not as involved in downtown design as they should be.

Dr. Becker and I, along with a number of noted co-authors and contributors are set to publish a new book this summer, called “Design Downtown for Women – Men Will Follow.” In the book, we suggest some ways that those of us who care about downtowns and urban commercial districts can begin to change they way the downtown experience is designed and delivered.

The book also challenges decision-makers to not just ask women what they want, but to bring women into leadership positions in the decision-making process.

Dave Feehan can be reached at:

Friday, May 9, 2014

Round-Up: Tree Surrounds

Lots of options...which do you prefer? 
Fishtown, PA: The industrial feel of the neighborhood lends itself to these simple pipe tree surrounds. 

Hell's Kitchen, Manhattan, NY: Three-sided tree surrounds allow for car doors to open. 

Myrtle Avenue, Brooklyn, NY: These three sided benches were custom designed and are maintained by the local Business Improvement District. 

Fulton Street, Brooklyn, NY: Two-sided tree surrounds along Fulton Street in Brooklyn, NY

Atlantic, Avenue, Brooklyn, NY: A mix of cobble and mini tree surrounds with landscaping. 

5th and Lehigh, Philadelphia, PA: These tree surrounds are made of porous material and are intended to break apart as the tree grows. 

Friday, May 2, 2014

Malls dead? Big cities resurgent? Maybe, but not so fast.

In 2011,the Wall Street Journal announced "No McMansionsfor Millennials”. The Gen Y generation, those born between 1980 and 2000 and who number 80 million have made their preferences clear - 88% want to be in an urban setting, according to a survey conducted by the the KTGY Group at the National Association of Home Builders annual conference that year. This factoid was part of a fantastic keynote speech given by Chris Beynon of MIG this week at the Business Improvement Association of British Columbia/InternationalDowntown Association Western Regional Conference in Victoria, BC (where I was also presenting). As always, Beynon is a joy to watch, and his presentations are chock full of thoughtful insight into trends that suggest the future belongs to downtown, as long as we are prepared to grab it. His presentation got me to thinking, is downtown truly winning the fight against traditional malls? Are the malls really “dead”, as he seemed to proclaim?
Do younger folks want this?
Or this? 

I would be more than happy for this to be the case – but  I think practitioners need to continue to take the competition for shoppers quite seriously. In fact, embedded within the same WSJ article....while 88% of the Gen Y generation may WANT to be in an urban setting, cities can be “so expensive” that places with many of the same amenities in the suburbs (like shopping, dining and transit) will “do just fine.” And because malls are owned by single-owner entities, they have the kind of ability to morph and respond to market conditions in a way that the traditional downtown, with multiple owners and objectives, simply cannot. In a later session that day, I also heard the downtown practitioners from Calgary, Canada (where it snowed ALOT this year) complain about the difficulties their merchants have when competing with indoor, climate controlled malls. 

While it is true that only one new enclosed mall has been constructed since 2006 (in Jonesboro, Ark) owing in part to changing consumer habits (thank you Amazon), malls are changing to be something else…a bit more like downtown. Malls are getting wise to the changing needs of consumers. They are incorporating a wider variety of uses, from play spaces and activities in their common areas, to housing and office space. And the malls that remain traditional malls are not taking the beating from the internet lying down. They are actively reinvesting in their properties to remain attractive places for shoppers to spend some time. As the Wall Street Journal noted in 2012, “In an attempt to keep shoppers coming—and to squeeze more revenue out of established locations—mall owners and retailers are shifting to renovations.” (Malls Get Facelift to Pull In Shoppers, WSJ, 12/18/12). 

And while Gen Y and millennials seek urban environments, they are increasingly finding some of these environments outside of the expensive major cities.  My nieces – both of whom are in their 20’s and were raised in suburban New York – are now starting their careers and both have a strong desire to live in suburban communities. They visit small suburban downtowns like Nyack, NY to go out with friends for drinks and dancing, but they like their cars, they like the suburban lifestyle and they really don’t consider moving to the “city” a viable option. "Too expensive" they say. "Not enough space." "Good for a night out, but not for a lifestyle." And as a mom with a four-year old son, I understand the appeal. A little extra space, a small yard, a good school without too much stress associated with the decision…all of these things are driving some of my own friends from my wonderful urban neighborhood of Jackson Heights to options in the suburbs. And these suburbs are morphing too, offering urban elements in the small downtowns that are scattered throughout the region. My friends, with their cute home in Beacon, NY, within a stones throw of a walkable, pedestrian friendly downtown, have a pretty good thing going on. And yes, they also go to the mall, because where else are they going to actually try on clothing and purchase the shoes and school supplies that their kids need for school? So it seems, we have a long way to go before we kiss the mall goodbye.