Wednesday, October 29, 2014

What is the Secret of Suburban Downtown Success?

Peekskill, NY - a quintessential suburban downtown
New research in the field of commercial revitalization can be hard to come by. So I love coming across reports that help practitioners in their daily decision making about what to do - and what not to do - when it comes to advancing the cause of downtown economic development. To that end, the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission recently released a report ("Revitalizing Suburban Downtown Retail Districts: Strategies and Best Practices") on Suburban Downtown Retail Districts that I found quite interesting. The study considered 71 suburban downtown districts in the Greater Philadelphia region and sought to determine what strategies had the most impact on efforts to revive the districts and to further their economic development goals. 

What Doesn't Work
Before we get to that part, I particularly enjoyed reading the sidebar on what things DON'T work...they called this piece "Polices that Impede Downtown Retail Revitalization". Here are the things you DON'T want to do if you seek a successful downtown district. 
  • Constructing ring roads/bypasses 
  • Creating pedestrian only zones and parking in remote lots 
  • Relocating municipal functions away from downtown 
  • Removing on-street parking 
  • Creating one-way streets 
  • Losing a key retailer 
  • Opening of new shopping center 
  • Not addressing petty crime 
  • Failing to maintain the public realm 
  • Refusing national retailers/discount department stores
Source: Streetsense, 2012 via "Revitalizing Suburban Downtown Retail Districts"

What Does Work
So then...what are the elements of suburban retail district success? The study found that seven key elements were most critical to downtown retail success. These included the following:
  • The presence of a BID or Merchants Association - although notably only 12.5% included a professional, paid manager
  • Ample sidewalk width - i.e. wider sidewalks that accommodate more people - the average sidewalk was 8.5 feet, but went as wide as 15 to 20 feet in some markets (e.g. Princeton and Haddonfield)
  • A high "Walk Score" - a walkscore over 80 using
  • A low vacancy rate - less than 20% vacancy rates (with non-retail uses taking up less than 10% of space)
  • Available parking options
  • High traffic counts - successful districts see an average of 10,000 - 16,000 vehicles per day. 
The Main Takeaway
If we whittle this down to a few key takeaways, what I appreciate about these categories is that they reflect what other studies have shown, that there are four key areas where business district MUST focus to maintain a competitive advantage. These include ACCESS, AMENITIES, DENSITY OF RETAIL OFFERINGS and DISTRICT MANAGEMENT, which over and over again emerge as the most critical elements necessary for a successful downtown environment. 
  • ACCESS measured by traffic counts and available parking. 
  • AMENITIES measured by "Walk Score" which tell you how comfortable people are walking in the district. This includes the physical environment, which I define as anything "outside of the store", as well as how clean and safe the environment feels to the pedestrian. 
  • DENSITY OF RETAIL OFFERINGS measured in part by "Walk Score" AND by a low vacancy rate. I would argue that a town with a great Walk Score is a place with few missing teeth or gaps in the downtown environment. And finally...
  • DISTRICT MANAGEMENT. Whether you are a BID or a Main Street Program of a Merchants Association, a downtown steward is critical to manage, market and maintain a successful commercial district. 

So...are your commercial district revitalization efforts focused on addressed these four key issues? 

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