Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Retailer Spotlight of the Month: Junior's

A classic American-style restaurant, Junior's is known as the home of New York's best cheesecake. Since the 1950’s, Junior’s has been famous for great food, great fun, great service, and, of course, great cheesecake. They have a loyal customer base that comes from all over and all walks of life. With three thriving locations in New York City, the restaurant recently announced its decision to share its famous cheesecake (and its full menu ranging from steaks to seafood and sandwiches) with the rest of the country.  

Price Point: Affordable

Target Market:  Families and workers looking for American comfort food


Founded by Harry Rosen in 1950, Junior's landmark restaurant is known as the home of New York's best cheesecake. For decades, Brooklynites (and other New Yorkers) have gone to Junior’s to eat, laugh, and kibbtiz (argue) over cheesecake.

Over time, the restaurant became a very popular destination. In 1973 Junior’s cheesecake received a raved review from Ron Rosenbaum of The Village Voice saying that “There will never be a better cheesecake than the cheesecake they serve at Junior’s… it’s the best cheesecake in the material world.” That same year, New York Magazine conducted a blind taste test and rated Junior’s the best cheesecake in the New York. Since then, their cheesecake has won several accolades and awards including the "Best Overall Mailorder Cheesecake" from the Wall Street Journal and Best Food Gift NY from People Magazine. Junior’s popularity has attracted famous mayors, presidents, Hall of Fame athletes, authors, singers, movie stars and many more who have stopped by to try their famous cheesecake.

Alan Rosen with President Obama and Mayor Bill DeBlasio at Junior's

Expansion Plans

The restaurant is actively looking for additional locations to expand. With three NYC locations (in Brooklyn on Flatbush Avenue, in New York’s Grand Central Terminal and in the theater district on Broadway in Times Square), one at Foxwood’s Casino in Connecticut (just opened last summer) and another to open this fall in Boca Raton, Florida, third-generation owner Alan Rosen reports additional expansion plans at strategic locations, especially in places like Miami and Las Vegas and high-profile neighborhoods in well-established cities.

Inside Junior's Times Square location

Site Requirements: Looking for big-format locations (ranging 8,000 square feet)

Contact Info:

386 Flatbush Avenue 
Brooklyn, New York 11201

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

What is the secret to a sustainble neighborhood economic development strategy? Start by understanding regional market trends and clusters

This here is a cautionary tale about good intentions gone awry. ("Cuomo's $15 Million High-Tech Film Studio? It's a Flop", NYTimes, 8/22) The story starts innocently enough. The goal was to create jobs in an area with a struggling economy. In this case the State of New York invested $15 million in the creation of a high-tech film studio. The idea was to "build a sustainable film industry in Central New York from the ground up" according to this press release.

But there is a problem. Economic development simply does not work like this.  "If you build it they will come" is largely a myth. Creating jobs, much less building an industry from scratch, is more often than not a fool's errand. A viable economic development approach must therefore be rooted in local opportunities, strengths and market reality. In many cases, it means being on the look out for industry clusters that have already deemed the market suitable. This is about developing a strategy that rests on improving the business environment for an existing industry cluster--a much easier lift than starting from scratch. While the cluster approach is not new (it is embedded within a long history of market-based economic development planning synonymous to many with Prof. Michael Porter) it unfortunately remains mysteriously absent from major public or non-profit led economic development decision-making strategies. And I'm not alone in thinking this. The Brookings Institute recently released a great paper, which I wrote about a few months ago, entitled "Remaking Economic Development" that made the point about clusters precisely, "Economic development should prioritize building strong business ecosystems for core industries, improving the productivity of firms and people, and facilitating trade— the market foundations from which growth, prosperity, and inclusion emerge."

So why all this discussion about regional economic trends and clusters? Aren't we talking about neighborhoods? Well, without the region there is no neighborhood economy. So when it comes to developing a viable neighborhood economic development strategy we need to next these efforts within a larger regional market. This means identifying industries that are already making a go of the opportunities and competitive advantages of an area, from a skilled labor force to critical infrastructure to the presence of complimentary firms. These are all the factors that enable a business to generate profit. Consider the unique local factors that led Hershey to build his factory in Pennsylvania--proximity to lots and lots of cows who produce milk, the main commodity in milk chocolate. Or why Detroit's auto industry has stuck it out in Detroit--there exist a cluster of suppliers, manufacturers, distributions, researchers, etc. that are quite difficult to move and replicate elsewhere. Putting these clusters on a more aggressive growth trajectory, whereby they are able to lower costs, grow profits, hire more people and fill more vacant real estate space is the opportunity that we have in our urban neighborhoods.

A study commissioned by Indianapolis LISC
offers insight into how a local
non-profit can tap regional economic trends to
build a real estate investment and job
growth strategy in low-income urban neighborhoods. 
The Indianapolis chapter of the Local Initiative Support Corporation (LISC) is helping lead an effort of this kind by commissioning an report that served as a guide for industrial investment strategies in urban places. The findings? Three clusters showed "particular promise and a competitive edge for Indianapolis...Food Manufacturing and Distribution, Business to Business (B2B) and Technology." The recommendations offer the beginning of a road map for how LISC, one of the nation's largest CDFI's, can help grow industry clusters through targeted, place-based real investments. Some notable recommendations include supporting feasibility analysis for industrial buildings and developing accessible expertise around site selection, industrial building re-use and conversion.

Another approach is helping to absorb build out costs for the kinds of capital investments necessary for the Food Manufacturing Cluster. Ensuring space can accomodate enhanced refrigeration and electrical loads, or can support high-quality processing and distribution all while maintaining high health and safety standards requires a site by site analysis to determine feasibility and any gap financing needed to make a project viable.

The solutions aren't always easy - in some cases they involve developing regional working groups that will open lines of communication between the public and private sectors to guide and inform investment and policy initiatives over time. As it turns out, engaging a broad spectrum of private sector partners and ground-truthing potential public investments might have made a difference between a great New York Times piece and an embarrassing one.


This is the final in a three-part series exploring ways communities are playing a greater role in planning and developing their tourism industries. Guest blogger Joe Bly is a former documentary producer and writer, going beyond film and television to tell stories of social and urban progress.

Platforms like Airbnb that facilitate short term rental (STR) can make any property owner a proprietor in their local tourism industry.  City governments across the country are responding largely with regulations and restrictions on private, short term rentals. 

Is there a municipality doing the opposite – embracing, supporting, or even helping coordinate short term rental as part of economic and tourism development or community tourism planning?

I know a couple that lives in Cambridge, MA, just across the river from Boston.  But they are not there right now.  They are driving in a minivan with their four, yes four, children under the age of ten, and they’ve been travelling all summer.  They can take the time because they are both public school teachers, off for the summer.  But they can’t go home – they rented it out by days and weeks for the entire summer on Airbnb.

Each year they pack away their household to move out and convert their home into a rental.  Their freewheeling, vagabond season is half vacation, half job.  The longer they can stay out of their home, the more money they can salt away in savings.  It’s not about a greater vision of building community-based lodging capacity in Cambridge, nor upending chain hotels; just the gumption of one family to pay for their four, yes four, children to go to college.

The vast majority of hosts on Airbnb, VRBO, or any of the sites that facilitate short-term rental are doing so as individuals, trying to turn extra rooming space into income.  This is why there has been such a groundswell, seen all over the world – 640,000 Airbnb hosts in 57,000 cities - precisely because its driven by individual entrepreneurism. 

But there are collateral benefits of STR, beyond the individual host.  Airbnb has recently been making great strides in public relations to research and publish figures articulating in several ways the local economic benefit that Airbnb facilitates.  Their findings claim that Airbnb generates hundreds of millions of dollars in rental and tourism spending in major cities, Airbnb guests stay longer on average than hotel guests, and therefore end up spending more money locally.  Additionally, and most interestingly, Airbnb brings guests and spending to neighborhoods off the beaten path that normally don’t benefit from tourism.

That sounds great!  Town planners everywhere must be leaping to figure out how to support this boon.  Cambridge Office of Tourism must be trying to figure out how to coordinate with my friends?  Well, much more independent research will be needed to verify the accuracy of Airbnb’s calculations, as well as to understand the impact on the entire lodging and tourism sector.  And it gets more complicated from there – certain Airbnb activity bumps up against existing commercial regulation and town codes.

So the STR PR effort has gone into industry wide advocacy.  In 2013, Airbnb, HomeAway, and TripAdvisor together set up and funded their own advocacy group, The Short Term Rental Advocacy Center.  Their mission seems to be to promote favorable research and publicity like above, and also to stay abreast of the avalanche of state laws and municipal codes that are being altered every day as each town and jurisdiction reacts to the surge in short term rental trends.

The Short Term Rental Advocacy Center Website

The STRAC website and any stroll through the public minutes of town planning meetings reveals that most locales are scrambling to beef up regulations and restrictions to private and short term rental in an attempt to stave off the most rampant abuses of unregulated commerce and the worst side effects of pocking neighborhoods with crash-pads and party houses.  Therefore, STRAC will also trumpet legislative victories, and examples of city and court decisions that protect owners’ rights.  I asked STRAC is they knew of any towns that were somehow incorporating Airbnb activity into their economic development strategies.  A spokesperson, pointed me to Galveston, TX one of their favorite STR-friendly cities.  Why?  The official tourism website lets you search vacation rentals and one of the only city regulations is that hosts must provide a card to guests about noise ordinances.

Hands off, yes, but more laissez faire than coordinated.

There is another model, the closest thing I could find to local government facilitating Airbnb activity and doing so in a way that can direct some of the benefit towards shared community resources. 

Ithaca, NY

In June of this year, Tompkins County, home to the town of Ithaca and Cornell University, became the first in the state to strike a very interesting arrangement with Airbnb – the collection and payment of the local room tax.  Tompkins county has for many years required the estimated 170 Airbnb hosts to pay a 3% occupancy tax on the rental fee, the same as hotels and bed and breakfasts.  However, this created a huge compliance headache.  Individuals, far more often than businesses, were not aware of the requirements or how to charge the fee, and even less equipped to calculate their personal tax implications and how much they owed the county.  Then it fell on the county government to try to collect owed taxes from residents.  In the new deal, Airbnb will automatically add the tax to any rental in Tompkins County, and will be responsible for remitting it directly to the County. 
‎Tompkins County Planning Department, Tourism Program Director Tom Knight, emphasizes that the agreement was in essence about solving a compliance issue in a way that now guarantees 100% payment.  A 2014 report estimated that Airbnb rentals in the county that year amounted to perhaps 1 million dollars in revenue –possibly representing approximately $30,000 in room tax.  A majority of the total occupancy taxes will continue to be put towards promoting tourism to the region and investing in tourism infrastructure.  Knipe is careful to point out that the program is new and will need to be studied to assess if more coordination with Airbnb or its hosts will become part of the long range strategic plan.

Downtown Ithaca

Related Tompkins County tourism statistics:
-          Over 900,000 visitors annually, one of the highest in upstate New York
-          Over $2 million per year collected in occupancy taxes and invested in tourism
-          Estimated 10,000 annual room nights through Airbnb
-          Airbnb room tax represents roughly 1 – 1.5% to that budget
-          More cities upstate are looking into similar arrangements

Are Tompkins County’s 10,000 Airbnb room nights actually adding net tourists, or siphoning 10,000 nights from the local hotels and BnBs?  That’s the subject of another blog.  What’s interesting to this series’ theme of community tourism planning is the role that Airbnb and similar platforms could play. 

Already there is the power to bring more residents into participatory roles in their tourism industry.  They become more involved.  And they are easily connected.  We describe the peer-to-peer structures in terms like “members” and “communities”.  Particularly for locales with little lodging industry, Airbnb could be an essential part of tapping existing lodging capacity that is closer to the community and can be utilized quickly and with little investment. With input from the community, city codes supportive of STR could be updated.

Tourist attractions and events could coordinate with Airbnb hosts – for example, if there were an upcoming festival, promotion efforts could be shared with Airbnb hosts, so that they are abreast of every opportunity and can adapt their own marketing.

Airbnb guests as a community could coordinate with the business community so that information on local restaurants, retail, and attractions could be provided to Airbnb guests the way that is standard at hotels and motels.

Airbnb can cooperate in a tax programs similar to that in Tompkins County
The Tompkins County model serves as a starting point for town and tourism planners, especially cities of lesser means, to regulate yes, but also coordinate with and harness that energy and revenue in ways that involve more of the community in the planning, and create more shared benefit.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

The fallacies of retail market analysis and why looking at the numbers alone is a recipe for failure

Here is something to chew on. One of the biggest factors in the success of your downtown or commercial district has nothing to do with local purchasing power. As any broker or retailer can tell you, retail success is based on a variety of conditions and as a firm we have always taken a comprehensive approach to understanding retail environments, one that extends far beyond leakage calculations. As urban planners, we are also quite cognizant of the impact of the physical environment and its role on successful retail. Whenever I train downtown practitioners, I tell them to think about their job this way - "your job is to create the conditions to ensure businesses succeed, to 'set the stage' for a retailer. If you can do that well you have done a good portion of what you were hired to do."

So while understanding market demand is a critical and often a first step in determining opportunities for downtown retail, we have always posited that retail market analysis requires an analysis of much more than market demand. Our approach, developed over nearly twenty years of field work, looks at four key areas - the physical environment, the business environment, the market demand generated by residents, employees and visitors, and the adminstriative capacity to improve and manage the district over time. In fact, these four elements are part of a tool we developed for the City of New York and funded by the Local Initaitive Support Corporation called the Commercial District Neighborhood Assessment tool (CDNA). I like to call it "Commercial DNA". The goal of the assessment is to understand the fundamental and dinstincive qualities and characteristicts that make a commercial district unique - much like our DNA is what makes each of us unique. This kind of asset-based retail analysis is by nature much more comprehensive, and allows us to develop a clearly defined set of improvements, interventions and activities that will build off of local assets and ensure more viable and sustainable retail environments.  

This post focuses on one specific element of the Commercial DNA assessment, that of the physical environment and in particular issues of access, convenience and visibility. The failure of a retail environment to ensure these fundamental conditions are met can ultimately undermine retail performance in subtle but destructive ways. Below I’ve outlined a few issues that we see come up quite frequently when looking at traditional downtown environments. This is certainly not an exhaustive list, but it’s a good start for those looking to diagnose “access” challenges. 

Two Starbuck exist comfortably across the street from one a
nother along Mission Street in San Francisco.
For many goods and services, customers are driven by convenience and ease. The minute you ask a potential customer to wait at a light and make a left hand turn across a few lanes of traffic, you have decreased the likelihood that they will do it, and therefore decreased sales volume for a business. The same holds true the minute you ask a shopper to cross a busy street to grab a cup of coffee on the way to work. This is precisely why there are two Starbucks across the street from one another on Market Street in San Francisco, for instance. And it is also why Dunkin Donuts’ site selection criteria includes being on the “in bound” side of the street, or take-out food businesses want to be on the "out bound" side of the street to grab customers on their way home from work. In both cases, the idea is to faciliate an easy purchase in every way possible. Basically, it is a basic human reflex to find the shortest distance between two points, and downtown retailers need to find ways to make sure customers can easily walk in the front door with the least hassle possible. This is one reason why we perform a block-by-block analysis in our work, because each block and each corner holds unique challenges and possibilities for retailers that often must be addressed.

Stores, particularly mom and pop stores that do not advertise like national chains, need visibility from every angle to compete.
Years ago I met the owner of this ice cream store in
Downtown Bethesda, MD, (then Gifford's)
who told me that this vertical ice cream cone made a huge
 difference in sales when he put it in. Clearly Haagen Daz agrees. 
When a quick glance by a passing pedestrian or motorist is your only form of advertising, you better work hard to make sure you are catching the customer's eye. 
If buildings are blocking visibility or if signage is non-existent or only facing one way, the lower visibility will affect sales volume. This matters even more for convenience shopping when there are no anchors. For many businesses, and especially mom-and-pops, the lost of even a single every matters. This is why 150 feet can matter to a retailer deciding between a corner location (called an “end cap”) with high visibility from all angles and a mid-block location. 

Retailers will also wait for the right site, even if it means foregoing a market entirely. A few years ago we talked to CVS about a location one block from a subway stop in a market with high demand and limited drugstores offerings. The response was “come back to us if you can get us that corner location. There is no way I can go to our real estate committee with anything less than what we consider a 100% corner”.

That brusk response is not uncommon, but some of the challenges of a site 1/2 a block off a 100% corner can be offset by signage. Our work a few years ago in Mount Washington, Pittsburgh, PA bore this out. After blade signs were introduced down a sleepy street, pedestrian counts increased by 30%, businesses reported increased sales volume, one jewelery store owner was able to keep his store open a few extra days a week and vacancies declined.

Enough parking, but not visible or comfortable to use
The walkways in Shadyside, PA to rear parking lots are well
lit and attractive. Source: Google Streetview

In many downtowns, the problem isn’t a lack of parking, but rather a lack of visible parking directly in front of the stores that shoppers want to patronize. Of course many will argue that people don't park in front of the store they want to visit when going to a mall, so why should downtown be different? In theory, that is true, but the problem is that struggling downtowns do not function like the malls (yet). They often have successful retailers and restaurants interspered among vacancies or less attractive offerings. The take away here is not to solve for the problem by putting lots of parking in front of a given store, but rather increase density of offerings so that shoppers can in fact patronize multiple stores at once, rather than a single destination. 

South Orange, NJ has nicely landscaped
walkways to rear parking lots. 
Another issue with parking is the perceived inconvenience of parking in a lot that is a block or two from a shopper’s ultimate destination. To make matters worse, sometimes the public realm between the lot and the retail area is so poorly tended that a block long walk can feel a lot longer. For example, in areas where heat is an issue, the lack of shade trees can make a short walk oppressive. Other issues include lighting, or giving shoppers something interesting to look at while they walk. Without these improvements, walking can be uncomfortable and unappealing. Some communities have addressed these connectivity challenges fairly well – South Orange in New Jersey and Shady Hill in Pittsburgh come to mind. Both have invested in well tended landscaping and pavings along these mid-block alleys that make the experience of walking to/from the parking lot more pleasant.

Inadequate Street Crossings
Even minor barriers affect shopping behavior. Asking shoppers to walk to the end of the street before crossing results in a loss of shoppers and sales volume. We worked in one community in New Jersey where the lack of a mid-block crossing was resulting in significant detrimental affects for all businesses. Whereas the district could have felt cohesive, offering 60k + sf of total offerings and drawing from a larger trade area, retailers and property owners made it more difficult for shoppers to patronize both sides of the street. In fact, you were prohibited from parking in one lot and patronizing businesses on the other side of the street. Instead, you were expected to get back in your car and park in the lot across the street if you wanted to patronize a business within 50 ft of your already parked car. Once a drive is in the car, they are likely going elsewhere. This only means lost business for all businesses.

As I said, this is certainly not an exhaustive list, but it gives you insight into the variety of issues that we consider, beyond discretionary spending power, that make a difference between a successful downtown retail environment and one that is struggling.

Please check out our website ( for more information on how we can help your community. 

Monday, August 8, 2016

Retail Site Selection 101: What Can We Learn From the Closure of Walmart Express Stores?

This month's Planning Magazine reports on an issue that affects many of the commercial corridors we often work with: business closures. The article "Big Box Bust?" covers the closing of Walmart Express stores, a new retail concept that sought to provide customers of less dense communities a streamlined version of its full-size stores.While Walmart Supercenter stores average 180,000 square feet, the Express stores were between 12,000 to 15,000 square feet (about the size of an average Walgreens store) and focused on a few grocery items and other key essentials.

As the article noted, the closing of Walmart Express stores affect more rural geographies and areas with limited access to groceries and other daily essentials. The closures of all Express stores (and not of the Supercenter stores) means that this was not an issue exclusive to a particular community but it was a problem with the larger strategy and criteria of how Walmart initially chose its Express sites.

When working on retail attraction projects we often we see communities trying to make their corridors attractive to retail businesses without understanding retailers' rationale and decision making process.While every retailer follows its own site selection process, several factors are universal and key to business success. On the following paragraphs we go over some of the basics of retail site selection, discuss some overall lessons learned from the closing of Express stores and briefly consider  the role planners can play in retail attraction and site selection.

Site Selection Basics

Trade area: retailers must understand where most customers will come from and how far they will be willing to travel to a particular store. The trade area determines the boundaries in which to collect demographics, a key and vital information to understand the market demand and the viability of a location.  It also helps retailers plan regionally and avoid placing too many stores together and “cannibalizing” each other.

Demographics: retailers must know who the customers are, what they buy and how much they typically spend. Armed with this data, retailers can set criteria to evaluate distinct sites and geographies.

Physical attributes: when examining sites within a trade area, retailers will not only check the location of competitors but also the presence of other businesses that share similar customer-base and can complement (and attract) customers to its front doors (also referred to as co-tenancy).

As important are the sites’ visibility and accessibility. Retailers want their stores to be seen and to be easily accessible by their customers, whether they are coming by car, bike, foot or public transit.

Cost per square foot: A site’s visibility, access and co-tenancy all influence cost per square foot and ultimately the store’s bottom line. As discount retailers generally run on tight operating margins, any increase in a location’s leasing costs (with all other factors remaining equal) could make a store economically unviable.

In the case of Walmart’s Express stores, the site selection strategy may have played a key role to the concept’s demise. The majority of Express stores were located within 10 miles of a Supercenter, which Walmart believed would complement customers’ trips to these Supercenters. Additionally, as the Planning magazine points out, stores were serving relatively isolated, thinly populated trade areas where household incomes were well below the national average. In its analysis, the consulting firm CDS Community Development Strategies found that more than 80% of closed Express stores needed a trade area of 100 square miles or more to reach 5,000 households (equivalent to 5,000 households within a 5.7 mile radius). In comparison, convenience retailers such as Dollar Tree requires a population of 20,000 within 5 miles and 7 Eleven requires 5,000 within 1 mile.

Thus, with thinly populated trade areas, thin operating margins and entrenched competitors, Walmart Express stores experiment didn’t last.

Planners Contribution
Planners and other community leaders can play a significant role in the site selection process. They can help retailers by providing and interpreting data about local traffic patterns and future development plans that might affect market demand as well as by providing valuable information of community preferences and lifestyle.

Planners can also provide significant contribution to communities willing to attract retailers. Knowing how a community fits into retail trade areas and what sites might be most attractive to retailers can help local communities not only by allowing them to target appropriate retailers, but also to optimize their time and resources in pursuing the right ones.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Round Up: Urban Taxidermy, Tightening the Rust Belt, Tips for a Successful Art Tour, The Elements of Placemaking

Jargon Watch: "Urban Taxidermy"

As cities struggle to maintain character of neighborhoods and commercial districts, they are conflicted between two options, the preservation of old buildings versus allowing development to proceed. By preserving a district you also preserve a "walkable, vibrant streetscape where people want to be." Enter Urban Taxidermy.

Robert Allsopp defines urban taxidermy as "the art of preserving, stuffing and mounting buildings for lifelike effect to simulate an intrinsic social, cultural or commercial vitality."

Before urban taxidermy.
After urban taxidermy.

Do Parts of the Rust Belt ‘Need to Die Off’?

Experts suggest that struggling Rust Belt cities must look to the future of their cities by slimming down strategically through "smart decline."  Smart decline refers to "the ways in which cities can plan around population loss and find ways to manage it (and maybe grow again one day)." Some strategies include moving lowest density occupants to compact neighborhoods, building greenbelts instead of maintaining untraveled streets, encouraging urban farming or letting the barren areas revert to nature.

Helping the Public Enjoy Art

A multi-tiered approach to getting people out for an art tour in downtown Des Moines, Iowa offers some ideas on how to attract visitors to your district for one-off events and beyond.

Public Space at the Crossroads of Everything

The "place" in Placemaking is the combination of many more elements than you might've previously even considered.