Friday, June 26, 2015

Gil Penalosa inspires a discussion about communities that meet the needs of everyone from age 8 to age 80.

Making communities safe and welcoming to all people regardless of age, income, race or ethnicity was the topic of a panel I moderated at the ICSC Midwest Urban Forum in Detroit this past week. One panelist came from slightly further afield. Urban planner Gil PeƱalosa, former Parks Commissioner for the City of Bogota, Colombia (where his brother Enrique served as Bogota's Mayor) offered a compelling vision and rationale for communities to meet the needs of people from the ages of 8 to 80 - which is why he founded a non-profit based out of Toronto called 8-80 Cities.
Gil Penalosa, former City of Bogota Parks Commissioner speaking at the IDA Midwest Urban Forum in Downtown Detroit. If you are wondering about the empty chairs in the started raining and we improved beautifully by bringing everybody onto the stage with us! 
He succeeded in painting one of the more compelling visions of a walkable downtown that I've heard in a long time. He started by asking the audience to imagine an 8-year old child that they love. Then he asked them to imagine an 80-year old senior that they love. He finished by asking "would you feel comfortable with that person walking or crossing the street in your neighborhood? Would you send them along to the nearest store to grab a pint of milk and eggs?" By putting walkability and safety in these very personal and blunt terms, he said more in just a few sentences than most people can say with charts and graphs in a half hour. 

This challenge, making communities realize the importance of connectivity, walk-ability and bike-ability to local commercial districts, has been coming up for us more and more here at LOA, particularly when we deal with neighborhood commercial districts that are struggling to remain relevant as shopping destinations. When you talk to business and property owners in many of these districts - our most recent project in a small NJ town comes to mind - they complain about lack of parking. Yet in this case, the district is surrounded by fairly well off walkable neighborhoods. Unfortunately, over time the safe walkable/bikable connections between the commercial district and the neighborhood they serve have been eviscerated. Roads widened and sidewalks narrowed to accommodate vehicles moving at faster and faster speeds. So the impact of road expansion is two fold. Not only are cars encouraged to speed, but when people consider going to their local commercial district, they hop in their cars. And once they are in their cars, a few extra minutes takes them someplace with more parking, more retail offerings and more selection. In this environment, traditional commercial corridors struggle to compete. 

So what are the elements of a successful walkable, bikeable commercial district? Here are a few:
  • Bike parking. Adequate,convenient places to safely park your bike. 
  • DO: Consider setting aside adequate parking for bikes.
    One parking space can fit up to 12 bikes.
  • Bike lanes. This is not just about bike lanes on the commercial street, it is also about outfitting connecting streets with bike lanes that offer safe and convenient access to the district from nearby neighborhoods. 
DO: Do your best to create safe, dedicated bike lanes.
In Long Island City, Queens the dedicated two-way bike paths
offer cyclists safety at a very busy intersection. 
  • Sidewalks wide enough, safe enough, and comfortable enough for an 8 year old, or an 80 year old, to walk on.
DO: Even streets without trees can be comfortable for pedestrians.
In Great Barrington, MA awning provide much welcome shade during hot days. 
  • Slow(er) moving vehicles. Consider traffic calming measures that prioritize pedestrians at crossings. 
    DO: Bump-outs are a way to give your road a diet...
    and narrow streets are a great way to slow down cars. 
  • Pedestrian lighting. The traditional cobra head light does a great job of lighting streets at night, but what about sidewalks? Pedestrian lighting is scaled to offer light for those who use sidewalks. 
    DO: Pedestrian lighting is for pedestrians. Cobra heads are for cars. 
  • Benches. Offer a reprieve for seniors and when placed in front of stores, are more likely to be monitored. 
    DO: Find out if your businesses can set out benches in front of their stores.
    If the regulatory powers that be allow it, it can be a great way to offer kids and elderly much needed reprieve between visits to stores. 

Friday, June 19, 2015

More "Signs" of Things to Come: Wayfinding Goes Digital

Yesterday's post included mostly "old school" examples of wayfinding kiosks and signage. Today we share some higher tech examples. The benefit of these systems is that cities can more easily generate revenue from advertisement, and changing information (like new businesses or activity updates) is easier.

In Chicago, Elevate Digital has over 100 kiosks distributed throughout the City at high traffic locations. The touch screens allow people to interact, view tourism information and even snap photos. And a partnership with Groupon allows users to purchase daily deals and see real-time offers directly from the screens. The firms shares a portion of advertising revenue with the city government. The firm is now looking to expand to New York and Miami. Other similar firms include: Blue Outdoor, EYE Malls, GSM Worldwide Media, JCDecaux MallScape, and RMG Mall Media.

In New York, while not digital, the new wayfinding systems were developed by PentaCityGroup as part of WalkNYC in an effort to give pedestrians clear visual language and graphic standards that would help them find their way around.

And in malls, like those owned by Simon Properties, new "digital concierge" services are providing shoppers with information and advertisements.

Bus stops are also an increasingly popular form of digital advertising that can also include directory information while generating revenue.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Round Up: What's your Sign? Directories of all shapes and sizes

There are many ways to help direct downtown visitors to their final destination. We like to catalog and collect these examples and from time to time share them with our readers. We recently went through the pictures we have taken of the many downtown's visited over the years and collected a round up of the directories and directional signage we have come across. There is something here for everyone...
Victoria, BC. This stand alone directory is located
along the City's picturesque waterfront park

Great Barrington, MA: This small town, known for it's historic fabric and
summer tourist season, has a wonderful historic directory at the gateway to Railroad Street. 

In Salt Lake City, the downtown Mall, City Creek, tries to blend into
 the urban fabric, but the traditional mall directory gives away the secret. 
Not to be outdone by City Creek, downtown
Salt Lake City has it's own free standing directory.

Pioneer Square, Seattle, WA: Very functional,
directional signage points people in the right direction at Pioneer Square. 
A directory for Essex Street Market, New York where
small speciality food purveyors occupy small booths.
This sign is located outside of the market along the street. 

Commercial District News Round Up

What is Urban Decay? (And Why the Answer Matters)
Very interesting read regarding urban decay, how to define it, the legal battles over fighting urban decay, and how to resolve it.  This story mainly focuses on California and their development of urban decay laws that deal with environmental analysis for proposed projects, typically big box stores.
Image source:
Mall-centric no more: Aging suburb targeted for a sweeping makeover
An area in Fairfax, Virginia called Seven Corners, near Arlington, is being considered by city officials for a major overhaul that would include three new residential villages and roads over the next 40 years. The idea is to make a more livable environment, friendly to pedestrians, and oriented to nearby public transportation. The area used to be occupied by a mall, which is a question of our times, "How to retrofit former malls and surroundings to meet today's needs"?
Image source: Fairfax County Office of Community Revitalization
Are Cities Becoming Less Authentic?
In a quest to understand Millennials, Klaus Philipsen discusses the other most desirable attribute that Millennials seek: authenticity.  This desirable authenticity is also disappearing, as he documents, in many major American cities such as Baltimore and with it taking away important historical artifacts. Philipsen notes that in Baltimore this means that historically significant black sites are being replaced by Starbucks, Chipolte etc without sensitivity to the history and authentic fabric of the neighborhood.
Image source:
Detroit relights neighborhoods at blazing pace
The installation of nearly 40,000 LED streetlights, that are both brighter and more energy efficient than the previous lights, is expected to be completed by the end of July, about six months ahead of schedule.  Lights are going up in streets that have not had street lights for two decades in some cases. Statistics are already showing decreased burglaries, larcenies, vehicle theft and other property offenses - 18% decrease from the same time last year.
Image source:
Meet the 606: Chicago's New Elevated Bikeway and Park
A time lapse video takes you through the new 606 in Chicago, an elevated bikeway and park similar to the highly popular High-Line in Manhattan.
Image source:

A Case Study in Suburban Retrofitting

A recent article by Dean Saitta in Planetizen about retrofitting dead suburban malls caught our eye. The article covers a dead mall in Belmar, CO, where the former Villa Italia Mall was redeveloped as the Public Plaza at Belmar, a mixed-use New Urbanist development that includes a network of public streets, public spaces, as well as shopping, dining and living options that are more reflective of a traditional downtown than a suburban mall. Lifestyle Centers, open-air shopping centers like these, are definitely not a new concept, but we especially like this project for a few reasons. Perhaps most significantly is that 10 years after its construction, it seems to have matured well. Today more than 2,000 residents live within the area, and the project generates $200 million a year in retail sales, or 2.5 percent of the town's total sales tax revenue. 

Belmar, CO site,
formerly Villa Italia Mall

Belmar...the basics:
  • the former mall, a 100-acre superblock was turned into 22 blocks of public streets in a classic grid complete with public infrastructure and amenities that support the case for public/private partnership 
  • public plazas were completed that provide the community with a civic gathering spot, and that include large windows in adjacent stores - this in an effort to add visibility and transparency between the public and private space 
  • features wide sidewalks and narrow roads that encourage walking and slower traffic 
  • the project has one of the country’s largest solar panel systems (8,000 solar panels generating 20% of the site’s energy needs) and almost 88% of the site's materials were recycled or reused from the former mall site, 
  • includes housing that was constructed in the American mercantile style that reflects Denver’s architectural history

May Map
Site Plan for the Plaza at Belmar
Mixed-use buildings and public plaza
make up the core of the Plaza at Belmar 

Malls were struggling and the development community responded
The issue is widespread. The NY Times reported in 2011 that of the 1,100 enclosed regional malls in the United States, a third have experienced reduced sales and increased vacancies and a third are in financial distress. All-in-all that is a lot of real estate, much of which is in first-ring suburbs. Fast forward four years and many of those malls are being retrofitted and given urban face lifts. 

Suburban retrofitters are beginning to understand the need to honor the human scale, making it less about the car and more about the person. Under performing parking lots are being reduced in size, given bioswells for runoff, additional landscaping and more sidewalks for increased pockets of walkability.  The idea is to bring the city to the suburbs. Many cities - San Antonio, Memphis, Portland, Miami to name a few - have adopted New Urbanist principles that are in line with suburban mall retrofitting. Commercial districts see opportunity as well to create main street centers in new or converted developments to continue position themselves with the market. As Nielsen reports, cities are ideally wanting to attract not just Millennials but Millennials with higher median incomes that are settling down but desire the urban feel and amenities. The trend towards suburban retrofitting fits nicely with the interests of Millennials. 

Financing is always a consideration when discussing a large-scale retrofit and a successful example was seen with the Mueller Development, home to former Robert Mueller Municipal Airport, in Austin, TX. Catellus Development Corp was responsible for building the infrastructure of streets and utilities upfront, while the city retains landownership until vertical development takes place, relieving Catellus of carried land costs and allowing development of individual parcels to proceed incrementally to meet market demand. This has allowed the development of Mueller’s downtown core to come after the residential and internal demand was created.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Getting (un)Wired

Back in 2013 news came of several districts in NYC getting wired...or unwired rather.  Ten commercial corridors got free Wi-Fi in New York City, under then Mayor Bloomberg, and were selected through the Wireless Corridor Challenge, led by the NYC Economic Development Corporation.  That means that in December 2013, people were able to receive wireless internet in corridors in all five boroughs. 

Image source:
Recently, the Flatiron Partnership, who has offered free wireless internet since 2011, announced substantial expansion of their existing Wi-Fi network in its two Public Plazas at Broadway, Fifth Avenue and 23rd Street.

Here are some numbers to give you an idea of Flatiron's wireless usage:

  • In 2014, while the network was still in development, over 175,000 users logged on 
  • In April 2015, an average of approximately 3,000 per day accessed the network
  • Increased usage anticipated this summer as more people spend time outdoors

As noted by Flatiron Partnership's Executive Director, Jennifer Brown, “The wireless corridor is an example of public/private partnership at its best, and further enhances the appeal of Flatiron as a destination in which to shop, dine and explore.”  Flatiron Partnerships partnered with several area property owners and commercial businesses to launch the WiFi corridor as well as received funding from NYCEDC.  This expansion further bolsters the corridor's reputation as a hub of technology and innovation with many tech firms and startups in the area. 

Moreover, offering free WiFi can have tangible benefits to businesses. Last year Devicescape commissioned a study by iGR of 400 small businesses that offered free WiFi to customers, including independent “mom and pop” retail stores like bars, restaurants, fast food places, coffee shops, clothing boutiques, book shops and salons. The results revealed that offering free WiFi increased foot traffic, the time customers on premises and the amount they spent in the stores.

Benefits of Offering Free WiFi
Image source:
As customers are becoming ever more attached to computers and smartphone devices, offering continued access to the internet in commercial corridors does more than strengthen its reputation as an innovation hub, it can boost visitor traffic and demand. 

For a full list to see if the NYC corridor near you is connected or for more information click HERE.

Co-written by Scott Landfried and Patricia Voltolini

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Small Business Economic Sentiment Survey: A Potential Tool for Commercial District Practitioners

John Lieber, Chief Economist at Thumbtack, forwarded us an interesting press release regarding Thumbtack's collaborative work with Bloomberg.  The Small Business Sentiment Survey is a "first-of-its-kind" monthly survey of small business economic sentiment across the United States of more than 10,000 small businesses.

Anyone can access the results and view the data at the national and state levels or by major city. The graphics translate the data in a clear and user-friendly manner. The results are updated monthly and can be filtered by industry and demographics, making it a very useful tool to examine business trends within and across distinct geographies. Additionally, each state and city has its own dedicated webpage showing detailed survey results for that area.

Image via
Thumbtack's survey reflects the specific demographic of small businesses with five or fewer employees, which according to the U.S. Economic Census comprises over 90% of small businesses in America.   According to the press release, no other comparative study or index has the same level of responses from businesses of this size, and Thumbtack is able to collect a large volume of responses via its network of more than 150,000 active service professionals.  As Jon Lieber noted, "We hope to offer new insights and a better understanding into what’s happening in this critical segment of the nation’s workforce and the American economy.”

At the national level, the major trends in the inaugural version of the survey include:
  • A 25 percent reduction in businesses citing “uncertain economic conditions” as their number one concern for the future.
  • Overwhelming optimism among small business owners about the future, as the vast majority of them (80 percent) predicted a revenue increase and better financial conditions in the next 3 months.
  • A national comparison reveals that businesses in Southern states are feeling the most positive about the economy, and that businesses in the far West and Northeast were the most hesitant in their positive views.
Despite greater optimism, the survey also reveals the top problems experienced by small businesses: from uncertain economic conditions and competition from big companies, to access to credit, poor sales and government regulations.

For commercial district practitioners seeking to better understand their business environment, this survey may provide more than a panorama of their cities small businesses: it provides points of comparison to understand whether business health in their districts (exemplified by current financial situation and outlook, among others) may be part of a larger trend (i.e. improvement in the regional economy, or advancement of particular business sectors)  and whether local challenges are exclusive to their districts or not. This knowledge can help practitioners to develop a broader view of local problems and to think more strategically about how to address them.

One important shortcoming of the Survey is that retailers are underrepresented in the sample, which makes its use for studying commercial corridors somewhat limited. This shortcoming does not invalidate the results, it just makes them more reflective of particular economic sectors that are better represented in the sample (such as professional and technical services, or arts and entertainment). Still, the Survey provides useful information, but its data should be used with caution when considering retail businesses.

For more information, you can check the following links:
Infusionsoft Small Business Market Surveys
National Federation of Independent Business - April 2015 report - "How Small-Business Owners Really Feel About the Future"
About Thumbtack 
About Bloomberg
Thumbtack's Small Business Friendliness Survey