Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Roundup: "Brick & Mortar is Dead," Right Turns on Red, Local Loyalty, Grocers Disappearing Act, Neon Heaven

Brick & Mortar Is Dead

A short, graphic and infographic heavy, article regarding e-commerce's continued dominance over in-store shopping.  It introduces new terms "showrooming" and "webrooming" - I for one am guilty of showrooming. It also spotlights how brick and mortar stores are taking on new on-line connected purposes and highlights the rise of young global digital buyers.

It’s Time for U.S. Cities to Ban Right Turns on Red

Cars making right turns on red lights are becoming increasingly dangerous to pedestrians. NYC already bans RTOR and other cities are catching on to the policy to reduce unnecessary pedestrian deaths.

How Much Loyalty Do I Owe My Local Shops?

Point and counterpoint by CityLab staff regarding whether we should feel guilty for abandoning your local shop for an equivalent new one. They have good points to both sides.

Map: New York City's Disappearing Grocery Stores

Curbed NY gives you an interactive map of the growing number of NYC grocery stores that have shuttered in the last few years. These closures aare leaving some neighborhoods without an affordable option for groceries—or any option. They point out that many factors have led to these closures and a majority are in Brooklyn.

And in other news...
There’s A Neon Warehouse In London And It Is Basically Heaven
If your district could use the soft cool glow of neon, may we suggest this place.

Introducing “Retailer Spotlight of the Month”

Through our work on retail attraction we often come across a variety of chain-lets that are growing and looking for expansion opportunities. We also come across a number of commercial corridors who are retail ready and actively looking for retail prospects. Building relationships is a big part of what we do, so we thought would be a great idea to create a monthly post that profiles expanding chain-lets to provide our readers an extra resource in their retail attraction efforts.  Every month we will be featuring a new retailer, so if you have retailers expanding in your district and would like to share in our blog, let us know!

Retailer Spotlight of the Month: Caffe Bene

Caffe Bene is an international coffeehouse chain designed after European open-air cafes. In the US Caffe Bene sells a variety of hot and cold beverages (coffees, teas, smoothies and its signature Misugaru), pastries, sandwiches, and a variety of waffles and gelatos. 

Image Source:

Price Point: Moderate

Target Market:  Coffee enthusiasts, families, tourists and office workers.

Image Source:

History: Caffe Bene was founded in 2008 in South Korea and has rapidly expanded to other countries including the U.S. (over 100 stores), Canada (1store), China (283 stores), among others. 

Image Source:

Expansion Plans: In the US Caffe Bene adopts a franchise model and is actively looking for expansion opportunities in both urban and suburban locations.

Image Source:

Site Requirements: Caffe Bene adopts a flexible floor plan model which allows stores of a variety of sizes and locations, from prime Times Square real estate to convenience commercial corridors in more modest working class neighborhoods.  According to their marketing materials, their suitable locations include non-traditional sites such as airports, hospitals, convenience stores, cinemas, hotels, zoos, casinos, museums, amusement parks and sports arenas.

Image Source:

Contact Info:    New York
1430 Broadway, Suite 1401 New York, NY 10018
Franchise: 800.284.8053
Office: 212.575.5484

Los Angeles
5670 Wilshire Blvd #760 Los Angeles, CA 90036
Franchise: 844.833.3500
Office: 323.933.3500


Monday, March 21, 2016

Are we ready for a world where parking requirements decrease by 80%?

Density and car ownership are often at odds. We know density does great things for cities. The concentration of people, businesses and transportation all play a powerful role in economic growth. Yet cars - and the parking they require - undermine that growth every day in a variety of ways. Cars create the need for streets, parking lots, and circulation that do little to enhance the experience of urban living. As a society we further exacerbate that problem by requiring more parking through zoning than we might need if alternative transportation options were more readily available. The issue hit home for me the other day someone asked me how often I drive my car (I live in a very dense, walk able urban community in Queens, NY). I thought about it quickly and realized I only drive  about 2-3 times a month, and mostly to run errands, go grocery shopping at the local warehouse club, or visit family outside the City. The remainder of that time, my car sits unused in an on-street parking spot taking up valuable space in the urban environment.

So what happens when we acknowledge that cars are highly underutilized commodities that are parked 95% of the time? Are there solutions out there that would offer people the convenience of car ownership without the societal burden created by the need for parking?
Imagine yourself driving around in one of these cute BMWs.
This could be the future of  downtown car ownership. 
BMW is among those testing out new solutions through their DriveNow program. The program is already functional in a few European cities. And while the San Francisco program was stalled owing in part to an unfriendly regulatory environment, they are actively looking to expand in the New York market. The concept is this - what if you had access to a fleet of cars that were parked in your building? Assume these cars were at your disposal whenever you wanted - to pick up groceries, visit a friend, go on a day trip somewhere. Studies suggest that one car share vehicle displaces between 10 - 15 owned vehicles. This means that instead of parking, we could build more housing, support more retail, and develop more public space, all of which would make urban environments even more attractive places to live and work. Just think, instead of two lanes of parking, you could have just one lane parking, which would allow for wider sidewalks with more landscaping and amenities like outdoor dining, not to mention provide an additional buffer between the pedestrians and traffic. The impact on our downtown's would be nothing short of revolutionary. And what if these cars were electric cars - which is the BMW model? We could further improve air quality too. Win, win!

However, this solution is not without it's challenges. As they say, the devil is in the details. Part of the problem is that at peak times everyone wants to use the car (say Saturday afternoon), so you need the right volume of car share vehicles to make this work. There are many entrants in this market that are actively working to figure out these details. Besides BMW these include car2go and Enterprise.

For those of us working on downtown issues, we should prepare ourselves for the impact because we will among the first to experience these changes. Car sharing makes the most sense, of course, in dense, pedestrian friendly communities like the ones we serve. New residential development in urban places will provide downtown practitioners some of the earliest opportunities to partner with car share providers. Now the question is, will our cities be prepared with the right regulatory requirements and flexibility to allow for these new technologies? Will banks underwrite loans for buildings with reduced parking? And will retailers accept lower parking requirements when they have little experience with these new models? Clearly, these chapters remain to be written.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Five Design Principles that Every Facade Improvement Program Should Incorporate

By Patricia Voltolini, Associate, LOA

What is the first thing you notice when you visit a commercial district? Storefronts and buildings probably make that list. Great storefronts are critical to a vibrant street environment. They engage passersby and contribute to active street life. Not surprisingly, façade improvement programs have become a common and effective tool in many commercial district revitalization efforts.

Yet many facade programs go wrong quite quickly. Without design guidance, the "after" might not look much better than the "before", and resources spent will have less impact than you might like. Unfortunately, overcoming this issue can be a challenge. Many BIDS, BIAs or CDCs working to revitalize low-income or distressed corridors do not have the budget to engage a retail designer to help prepare and review façade improvement applications. Even when they do, this person is often not a retail design expert.

With that in mind, we thought it would be helpful to share some of our own insights as they relate to the key takeaways from a wonderful new publication entitled, Laying the Groundwork:Design Guidelines for Retail and Other Ground-Floor Uses in Mixed-UseAffordable Housing Developments, prepared by the Design Trust for Public Space in partnership with the NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development. The publication is the result of extensive research and collaboration from a broad range of design and retail experts - including our own Principal, Larisa Ortiz - who served on the advisory panel. It is available for purchase on the Design Trust website.

While the report outlines best practices and provides practical guidance for those building new retail space in mixed-use buildings, we think it also provides excellent insight for those looking to develop facade improvement programs. A good facade improvement program not only impacts the overall look and feel of the district, but if done with certain principles in mind, can help businesses achieve higher sales. Incorporating these concepts into your facade program design will help ensure that the program meets the objectives of your district stakeholders as well as the businesses themselves.

So keep in mind the following key principles as you design your facade improvement program....

1. Maintain Transparency

There is growing recognition of the importance and value of transparency in driving retail sales. A transparent storefront invites customers inside with products and services on display. It also discourages crime by providing what urban theorist Jane Jacobs called “eyes on the street”. Making the facade as transparent as possible allows for a full visual exchange between indoors and outdoors. Customers and shopkeepers inside the store see what is happening on the street and pedestrians outside see the activity and offerings in the store. This interdependent relationship benefits both customers and retailers. 
The same storefront with different window treatments create a very different corridor environment. The previous merchant (also a pharmacy) completely covered the windows and failed to create any visual connection to the interior of the store. The new pharmacy made the windows completely transparent, and uses them to showcase products while allowing enough visual exchange between indoors and outdoors.

In order to maximize transparency, the design guidelines recommend having 70% of the façade surface completely transparent between 2’ and 10’above sidewalk-level, with measures in place for attractive privacy solutions when needed.

In many urban districts, retailers (even after a façade improvement program) cover their windows with sales posters and signs. Store-owners want to attract customers with these signs but in doing so they block visual connection between inside and outside and often create an uninviting storefront. A customer who can't see inside a business is highly unlikely to walk inside.

One way to keep the façade transparent and place signs  at the lower (or upper) section of the storefront, immediate below (or above) eye-level.

The same facade before and after renovations. The image above (before) shows all windows entirely covered with signs, a typical feature of many supermarkets and delis in urban districts. The image below shows the same supermarket after a facade renovation. Despite significantly covering the windows with sales posters, the owner  made an effort to keep some level-of transparency by placing signs below and above pedestrian eye-level.

This dollar store has large windows (over 70% of its facade is glass) but the store owner has covered it almost completely with products, blocking any visual connection to the interior of the store.

Another common occurrence is having non-retail stores (salons, professional offices, etc.) with minimal transparency. These businesses should also be regarded with the same design standards as other retail businesses as they are also key components of the streetscape and as responsible for creating vibrancy in the corridor as retail stores are. In fact, the design guidelines presented in Laying the Groundwork  target not only retailers but also banks, laundromats, and even community uses like cultural space, healthcare and childcare facilities.

This facade provides an excellent example of what non-retail stores should look like (or not). The space on the left has a highly transparent and engaging storefront while still providing some level of privacy to its users. The space on the right, however, has windows but they're completely covered with shades and gates and impede any visual connection between inside and out.
In order to guarantee full transparency, facade improvement programs should add a clause requiring windows to be kept free (or with minimal) signage and that product display should not block vision to the store's interior. In fact, the  minimum of 70% transparency recommendation does not refer only to the substantial presence of store windows, but that these windows be kept fully transparent.

Exterior illumination provides light on the sidewalk and highlights the facade at night. Exterior lighting can also be used to accent trees and planting. An active, well-illuminated street frontage improves safety for retailers, residents, and the district. It also reduces the need for security gates by creating a safer street front.

One important consideration is the relationship between lighting and store signage. Both should be coordinated and the new façade design should minimize lighting presence above the sign, especially if the units above are residential.

2. Maintain  Connections between the Storefront and the Street by Minimizing Barriers
An active, well-illuminated street frontage improves safety for retailers, residents, and the district. It also reduces the need for security gates by creating a safer street front. Ideally, security gates should not be allowed in retail spaces under lease agreements. There are many other ways to provide security, including security systems with video, sensors, alarms, etc.

Unfortunately, in many urban communities, transparency is often trumped by safety concerns. For example, many retailers elect to put up solid security gates as a anti-theft measure. However these gates only serve to accentuate concerns about safety. Your facade program should discourage, or require, less obtrusive forms of security. If roll down gates are required, share alternatives to exterior rolls down gates. (See our previous post "Are there viable alternatives to roll down gates?")

Air conditioning units can also be barriers and jeopardize a facade design's  potential to creating vibrant streets. Avoid whenever possible the installation of air-conditioning units over doorways or having them protrude through the façade. Instead, plan the placement of louvers to enhance the facade and the quality of the retail storefront. Provide a clear zone for louvers on the exterior storefront. Finish louvers to match the color of the surrounding storefront elements so that they are an integral part of the facade design.

A store's visibility has significant impact on retail sales - this is why businesses pay more for corner locations ("end caps" in retail parlance) where the store is visible to customers from a variety of angles. Effective signage can also play a role in improving visibility. In pedestrian environments, signage that projects from the building (i.e. blade signs) offer pedestrians strong visual cues that there are businesses in the vicinity. In one community where we worked, the installation of blade signs increased pedestrian traffic down a previously quiet street by 30%. (See our post "Pittsburgh Neighborhood Unveils Strategies Aimed at Drawing Tourists")

3. Keep the Street Wall Continuous and Avoid Gaps

The conditions of street-level retail are intimately connected to the quality of the customers’ experience in your district. The benefits of well-designed storefronts extend far beyond district attractiveness. From fostering community pride to serving as catalyst for further economic investment, they create positive changes to the social, economic and environmental health of the commercial district and surrounding communities. Although this recommendation is not technically about facade improvements, it does suggest that by clustering facade improvements and/or creating a continuous street-wall of improved storefronts, the program can have greater impact. Consider using the the facade program in a targeted way along a single block front for a limited amount of time. Or design the program as an incentive to fill vacancies - perhaps by increasing the allowable grant contributions when used for a vacant space. 

4. Maintain Flexibility for a Variety of Potential Tenants

Effective retail spaces are flexible. In many districts, the needs of tenants vary widely. Offering flexibility means greater potential to fit the needs of a larger set of prospective tenants. One suggestion is to design the façade program so that it has the potential to accommodate multiple entries. Another is to require improvements that result in on-grade pedestrian entries to ensure ease of access. Consider a retailer whose customers are young families with children - a set of steps will cause immediate concern. How might a parent with a stroller make it up the steps? Or a senior citizen - or anyone with mobility challenges? 

5. Remain Distinctive so that Shoppers Can Easily Find the Retailer

Retail entrances that are clearly marked and distinct from other street-level uses (residential or office entrances) facilitate wayfinding and help catch a shoppers eye. While the guide suggests a minimum of 15 feet between any retail entrance and other uses, we think that clear visual delineations are more important than actual physical distance. Awning and other design elements, like signs, can be deployed in a way that ensures a retailer has a clearly defined entrance.