Tuesday, February 9, 2016

The most fundamental thing you need to know before you make your next downtown investment

What is the one most critical factor driving the success of your downtown economy? Getting this wrong could mean millions of dollars in wasted investment that fails to catalyze downtown - and could instead undermine it. Read on to learn more. 

Lessons learned the hard way
A few years ago I was working in a small waterfront community (name and places have been omitted to protect the innocent). To the north lay a large body of water (not many shoppers there!). To the south were certainly lots of people, but most were poised to travel away from the water and towards the malls that have located in more central locations. That said, the town had great bones. Main Street had a charming, pedestrian friendly feel. What’s more, walkable neighborhoods surrounded downtown. These homes, for the most part, had been well maintained and still evoked a feeling of small town living, where parents might send their kids downtown for ice cream with a few dollars in hand. This was the kind of place that many people might want to live.

Yet here we were – with a downtown that was struggling. The local movie theater was on the brink of closure. Vacancies were increasing. Downtown simply could not compete with the pull of nearby shopping malls, with their multiple offerings and centralized location. And even though there was more than enough parking downtown, much of it structured and behind the main street, the parking structures felt unsafe after having been neglected for years.  Dark corridors and broken elevators do not make for an inviting place to arrive for work or a downtown shopping trip.

Over the course of the project, I couldn’t help but notice that the community had also made infrastructure investments, some quite recently, that significantly undermined the downtown economy, and they probably did it without realizing it. Millions of dollars in infrastructure investment had recently gone towards street “improvements” around downtown that did very little for pedestrians, cyclists or those who use public transportation. The improvements were designed only with car owners in mind. It probably made sense at the time. I can imagine the conversation in City Hall … “most people drive, so let’s make sure we make driving through downtown fast and easy, and if they want to shop, let’s make sure they have more than enough parking.” Makes sense on some level. But what they also did was deprive residents of alternative options, options that might make a stroll or bike ride downtown part of an experience - an additive amenity that might make downtown an even more appealing place to visit. 

Unfortunately, poor decisions were made at many levels. The Mayor actively prevented bike lanes from being incorporated into a major streetscape improvement project. The rationale? The lanes would require maintenance and create a liability – costs the City could ill afford. In another instance, the recently reconstructed sidewalks connecting downtown to the surrounding neighborhoods strangely dead ended at major intersections, and often did not connect with existing crosswalks. Where crossings did exist, the crossing light offered barely enough time to cross the street before the light turned green. Everywhere we turned, we saw decisions that made OTHER places easier to access. Was it really a surprise that the downtown was suffering in light of the decisions made over the years? The slow chip, chip, chipping away of accessibility could be likened to the chipping away at the foundation of a house. At some point, the foundation fails and the house collapses.

Why you need to know about location theory
When thinking about access, it is important to understand fundamental economic theory, specifically “location theory”. Location theory states that businesses choose locations that will maximize profit. This theory is the basis of retail site selection as well. Being located in a place that is accessible and appealing to customers is critical to the bottom line. It is why Dunkin Donuts prefers the “inbound” side of the street – people buy coffee in the morning on the way to work. Or restaurants prefer to be on the “outbound” side of the street – people buy food on the way home from work. We also know that customers, especially in this day and age when time is a commodity, prefer to cross-shop, accomplishing a few shopping errands during a single visit. This is why retailers also prefer malls and shopping centers. These are often places designed for the time strapped shopper in mind. The concentration of stores draws more customers than a single store will on its own. (And on an aside, it is also why on-line shopping is so popular. What is more convenient than making a purchase from your home computer or smart phone? But I digress….)

Today I’m only going to tackle pedestrian and bike access....

Tips for taking stock of pedestrian and bike accessibility
When considering how accessible your downtown is, take stock of the following:

Bike access – Bike share programs and bike infrastructure are blossoming throughout the country. And where they have, local businesses seem to benefit. In New York’s Chelsea neighborhood, an NYC DOT study found a 49% increase in retail sales for locally based businesses after bike lanes were introduced compared to a 3% increase borough-wide. As biking becomes more popular as a mode of transit, local business districts, which are more accessible, are in a better position to draw customers from a larger trade area. As you assess your “bike friendliness”, ask yourself these basic questions:
  • Does your district offer safe passage for those biking to the district? And are the lanes safe for cyclists of all ages?  In New York for instance, only children under 12 are allowed to ride on sidewalks. As a mother of a 6 year old – I would be thrilled if I could craft an afternoon of bike riding with my son, stopping to eat here or there. But the bike lanes in my neighborhood are shared with the road – not ideal for a little boy still learning to steer properly. So instead we leave our bikes at home, or load them into a car and leave the neighborhood.
  • Are there sufficient locations to secure a bike when you reach your destination? If people have concerns about where they are going to lock up their bikes, it could deter their decision to visit your district. Consider that a single parking spot can support 10+ bike parking spaces. Wouldn’t businesses prefer ten shoppers over one who arrive by car?

Pedestrian access – There are two kinds of pedestrian access to consider – one that involves simply getting there and another that involves what happens once you arrive. Those are two different things. Lifestyle centers, for example thrive on the latter. Most customers arrive at these glorified malls - many of which attempt to mimic the Main Street environment – by car. Once they arrive, the quality of the common areas or “Main Street” is what they are there to experience. Like any mall, the owner tries hard to ensure a continuity of retail and an attractive environment. These places try very hard to achieve walkability.

The other kind of pedestrian access is about tapping the built in residential demand from people who living within walking distance of the shopping area. Here is where the “walk appeal” of all the streets and connections to downtown start to make a difference. Why is that? Because walk appeal is often psychological. A five-minute walk through a parking lot feels substantively different than a five-minute walk along a vibrant city street or leafy attractive sidewalk. A short walk on a hot day feels is much less appealing when there is no shade. A resident or office worker will walk further if the downtown environment is more appealing, when there is window shopping to be done or a cool spot to enjoy a nice view. In City’s like New York or London, walking a mile to one’s destination – a 15-minute walk – is not uncommon.

As you consider the pedestrian environment, ask yourself these basic questions:
  • Is your downtown environment riddled with gaps in the pedestrian environment? Did you know that even 50 feet of a “poor” environment can keep people from walking past? In 2006 I was working at the New York City Economic Development Corporation, and as part of a rezoning along 125th Street – which at that time was seeing lots of taking up ground floor retail space – creating dead zones in the evening. What we found was that even these minor breaks in continuity affected people’s perceptions and how far the were willing to walk. So take stock if your district. Is there a vacant lot that needs to be activated? A bank that shuts down at 5 pm? Retail that closes and pulls down roll down gates? All of these things make an environment less appealing to pedestrians. So the businesses located on the other side of that gap, whatever it is, will see fewer customers as a result. 
  • Is the five-minute walk shed from your downtown comfortable to walk? Is it safe to walk? Is there proper lighting? Is there shade to protect pedestrians during hot days? I am working in a community right now with a great opportunity to connection a waterfront marina – with lots of visitors to downtown. The problem? A creek and bridge that are uncomfortable to cross lies between the marina and downtown. While most locals think the distance of ¼ mile is easy to walk, on a hot or even warm day, the is brutal.  The sidewalk is narrow and unprotected from car traffic.  Improving the bridge crossing for pedestrians, or even building a pedestrian only bridge across the river – not an insignificant undertaking – is necessary to seam these two assets together. 
Admittedly, every community is just a little bit different. Transportation habits and mores differ by location. Weather, land use patterns, income and demographics play a role in determining what these habits are in different places. While this mean that these principles should be tinkered with and customized for every place, at the end of the day a successful downtown will be easily accessible to as many people using as many forms of transportation as possible. The next time you look at your downtown - try looking at it from this new perspective.

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