Friday, January 23, 2015

Utility Boxes Get an Artistic Upgrade

Scott Landfried is LOA's newest staff person, blog contributor, and graduate student in planning at Hunter College. 

You know those clunky gray metal boxes at intersections. They are a bit omnipresent around cities but easily looked past. These unwelcoming boxes of variable sizes and rectangular shapes sit at most intersections, along our streets, next to buildings, and in commercial corridors.  Wouldn't it be nice to see what a little creativity and initiative can do to turn bland into beautiful?  Many cities are doing just that.

Calgary, Canada (Image
& Artist: Sam Hester)
In a recent article I saw, Minneapolis is taking the initiative to put the paintbrush and power in the hands of its citizens.  The article weighs the pros and cons of paint versus vinyl wrapping and points out the reportedly difficult approval process.

Calgary, Canada
Streetscape artwork and improvement are valuable as node or landmarks, something that attracts and draws, something that becomes connected with the character of the district itself.  I can imagine two people arranging plans to meet to eat and shop saying something like, "Let's meet at the A to Z box" or "Meet me at the bright box on 16th." "Let's meet at that gray bland box on 9th," said no one, ever.

Toronto, Canada (Image: Kayla Rocca)
Check out our Pinterest account for other great utility boxes. While looking for good examples, I was reminded of my many years living in Austin.  I remembered seeing utility boxes painted (possibly unauthorized) while driving or biking the streets and enjoyed the brightness and creativity they offered.

Artist: Kristine Heycants
Image: City of Minneapolis
Here are some interesting points regarding utility box programs:
  • initiated in many cities as graffiti abatement programs,
  • boxes are typically painted by professional artists selected through application process,
  • not just any box can be painted but typically only utility boxes owned by the city,
  • typically painting of boxes can cost anywhere from $800-1800 and is covered by the city or community groups.

Other links and readings:
Calgary Utility Box Public Art Program
Boston's Paintbox Program
Glendale, CAs "Beyond the Box" Program
Rochester, NY - Painted Utility Boxes
Google image search: "painted utility boxes"

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Who is powering the Main Street economy?

Patricia Blakely at The Merchants Fund sent me a great report today on the importance of immigrant business owners to "Main Street". [Bringing Vitality to Main Street: How Immigrant Small Business Help Local Economies Grow published by the Americans Society and Council of the Americas and the Fiscal Policy Institute]

The report underscores what I have seen time and again in my work in diverse urban communities, and particularly in secondary urban markets. Close to home, this includes communities like Ossining, NY where Mexican and Ecuadorian immigrants have opened businesses, and Glen Cove, LI where Central American immigrants are more prominent. In both cases, these communities have seen an influx of immigrant business owners who have seized opportunities in the downtown area.

The report has lots of interesting and little known facts about the importance of immigrants to traditional commercial districts.

Top Twelve Little Known Facts about Immigrant Main Street Business Owners
  1. Immigrants make up 28% of Main Street business owners, while accounting for only 16% of the labor force and 18% of all business owners. 
  2. 61% of gas station owners are immigrants
  3. 53% of grocery store owners are immigrants
  4. In the Los Angeles area, immigrants make up fully 64% of all Main Street business owners. 
  5. Immigrants are 10 to 15 percent more likely to be business owners than their U.S.-born counterparts. 
  6. They make up 18% of all business owners, but take home 13% of business earnings.
  7. Immigrant workers are absorbed into the economy with only modest displacement of U.S.-born workers. 
  8. Between 2000 and 2013, immigrants accounted for 48 percent of overall growth of business owners. 
  9. Between 2000 and 2013, immigrant Main Street business owners increased by 90,000 and U.S.-born business owners declined by 30,000. 
  10. Immigrants accounted for all of the growth in Main Street businesses in 31 of the country's 50 largest metropolitan areas. 
  11. Asians make up 49% of all immigrant Main Street businesses, ethnic whites make up 26% of immigrant Main Street businesses and and hispanic/latinos make up 20% of Main Street Businesses. 
  12. The top three immigrant groups that make up Main Street business owners include Koreans, Indians and Mexicans.  
This data serves as a policy clarion call to governments to actively help immigrants build their businesses, take advantage of incentives and initiatives, and improve the bureaucracies associated with business basics, like licensing and inspection.

With that, I'm off to my favorite local spot to grab a taco...yum.

The report defines "Main Street" businesses as those that fall in three board sectors: Retail, Accommodation and Food Services, and Neighborhood Services.

Monday, January 12, 2015

What do you get when health care needs and vacant retail space collide?

An Urgent Care Clinic recently opened
on a busy retail corridor in my neighborhood. 
For anyone driving past commercial strips lately the answer is obvious. Urgent Care Clinics. 

Retail medicine is what this is being called - and urgent care providers are looking for many of the same things that other retailers looks for - visibility, convenience and lots of traffic. The high visibility is important because folks often don't plan visits to urgent care as they would with their regular doctor. So a tucked away office just doesn't cut it. Patients instead go to the places they remember passing on the way to and from work, or the one next to a store or shopping district that they frequent.  

And watch out, because the industry is growing rapidly. In 2014 the industry took in $16 billion and handled 160 million visits. According to Bloomberg News, "the number of walk-in retail clinics in the U.S. has risen 20% since 2009, to 9.400 last year". 

Landlords like medical tenants because they have good credit, sign longer leases and are willing to pay the kinds of rents that landlords have come to expect. The industry is structured much like traditional retail, including independently owned chains like American Family Care, based mostly in the Southeast, and Concentra, a publicly traded company with 300 locations nationwide.

So the next time you are trying to figure out what to put into vacant ground floor retail space, you might want to consider taking a look at urgent care clinics. Below are the top five largest chains. 

Resources and reading: