Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Round up: Roanoke thriving, commercial landlord buyout, the rise of maker movement, creating suburban main streets

The Small Appalachian City That’s Thriving

Roanoke, Virginia has become the envy of comparably sized towns. The once struggling town has found its place and is now attracting millennials to downtown when other small towns are losing them. The process began over a decade ago. READ ON to find out more.

Unibail Forges Path to U.S. With $16 Billion Westfield Deal

As the story of brick-and-mortar's survival against online retail continues, acquisitions are on the horizon for commercial landlords.  Europe’s largest commercial landlord, Unibail, has agreed to buy Westfield Corporation which has a stake in North American malls. READ HERE.

Source: www.cpexecutive.com
The Maker Movement and Urban Economic Development

This article from the Autumn 2017 Journal of the American Planning Association, sheds light on a topic that has been on our minds lately and has been an aspect of economic development in many cities: small-scale manufacturing. One major question asked, "How do maker enterprises function in cities whose primary economic bases have shifted from production to services?"

Urban love in suburban places continues as suburbs seek main streets. Contemporary models of main streets are adapting to the suburban landscape but are pulling in elements common in urban places such as complete streets, traffic calming elements, and the human scale. READ ON

LISC #CorridorChallenge Storefront Improvement Design Guidelines

Last month, we wrote about the importance of using PR and Communications to build buzz around important commercial corridor work – with the Commercial Corridor Challenge as a prime example. LOA has been working closely with the New York office of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) on the Commercial Corridor Challenge, a program funded by Citi Community Development that provides financial and technical support to some of New York City’s most underserved and rapidly changing communities.

As part of our work, we helped put together a set of guidelines that not only informs Corridor Challenge participants about relevant New York City code and regulation requirements related to storefront improvements but also suggests best practices for these improvements. With architectural expertise from Dadras Architects, the guidelines also features renderings of potential storefronts on Bay Street in Staten Island, Southern Boulevard in the Bronx, and Fulton Street in Brooklyn.

The guidelines covers a range of storefront improvements including signage, lighting, awnings, façade and paint and color. It offers visuals of best practices in each section so that users of the guidelines are able to easily understand and implement the improvements.  

Here are some highlights of the guidelines:
  • Avoid the use of security gates to increase store transparency. If necessary, open-mesh security gates on the interior can still provide visual access for security (preferred by law enforcement) and will not be subject to alteration by graffiti.
  • Maximize the visibility of your signs without compromising transparency of storefronts. This might include illuminating signs with separate light fixtures and ensuring signage does not block doors or windows.
  • Avoid waterfall-style awnings. Retractable canvas awnings are highly recommended because they get less dirty and last longer than fixed awnings.
  • Use interior and exterior lighting to illuminate your storefront and street. Adequate lighting is a proven crime deterrent.
  • Fix broken windows and avoid paper signage. Broken or boarded windows negatively impact the overall commercial corridor and paper signage obscures the business activity from potential customers on the street.
  • Use color and painting to enhance storefront appearance. Remember to coordinate colors to fit the context of the neighborhood.
By increasing the transparency, lighting, and physical attractiveness of businesses, the Commercial Corridor Challenge program hopes to provide long-lasting benefits to participating corridors by boosting foot traffic and improving sense of safety in these areas. For more useful tips around storefront improvements, download the guidelines here!

We hope this resource will also prove helpful in rethinking and redesigning your storefront.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The Original Food Hall

Nur Asri is an Associate for Larisa Ortiz Associates

Hawker centers in Singapore go way back. Its history goes back to the 1950s and 60s when migrants took up hawking on streets as a quick and easy means of earning a living. However, the conditions in which street hawking was being carried out were bad – drains were polluted, sidewalks and roads were strewn with trash and as a result, vermin were a common sight. The government became concerned about the state of hygiene in the city and, in the style of Mayor Fiorello La Guardia’s campaign in the 1930s to rid New York City streets of pushcart vendors, began relocating street hawkers to facilities with proper sewers, safe water and electrical lines, and full kitchen and storage equipment in 1971. These are now widely known as hawker centers. Hawker centers are semi-enclosed buildings that house a variety of food stalls serving food, drinks, and desserts that are almost always prepared to order. Sounds familiar, no? Read: The Modern Food Hall 

In fact, there are a number of similarities between the food halls that have recently grown in metropolitan cities here in the US and the over 100 hawker centers in Singapore.

1. Size and Layout
Stalls in both food halls and hawker centers are small in size. At hawker centers, stalls typically measure no more than 80-100 sf each.

Also, the seating layouts of both food halls and hawker centers promote a sense of community. Seating is dispersed throughout both and are not assigned to customers so it works on a first-come- first-serve basis. This means that you might very well be sitting with strangers during busy lunch hours.

2. Tenant Mix
Hawker centers feature food from Singapore’s various ethnic groups – Malay, Chinese, Indian – and is a direct reflection of local inhabitants. In food halls, offerings are also diverse, however, they may be less organic and more curated. Some food halls, for example, brand themselves as chef- driven halls and provide offerings that are completely distinct from local residents’ tastes and preferences.

3. Employment opportunity
Both food halls and hawker centers provide great inclusive employment opportunities. Given the low barriers to entry (presumably the smaller spaces ask lower rents compared to full-service restaurants or cafés), many more aspiring food entrepreneurs are able to enter the culinary field via these facilities.

As reported by JLL, startup costs are much lower and lease terms more flexible in food halls than traditional retail leases. Lease terms for food hall vendors are typically one to two years, much shorter than the five- to 10-year terms that landlords command for conventional full –service restaurant spaces.

4. Social space
With more food halls being located in mixed-use developments and transit-oriented developments, they are also becoming more physically accessible to wide range of customers. This has also been thecase with hawker centers in Singapore. Many are located in residential neighborhoods or near transit stations and therefore has successfully served local residents, workers, and visitors.
As a result, food halls and hawker centers provide a great shared space for informal social gatherings, community events and programs. For years, hawker centers have served as meeting spots for the elderly during the day as they sit and enjoy coffee and toast. Families also gather on weekends to eat together without spending too much money.

However, despite these similarities, the modern American food hall hasn’t quite matched up to the hawker center of Singapore. There are stark differences between the two.


1.  Customer
Legacy Food Hall in Plano, TX famously tagged in posts on social media site, Instagram.
While food halls here in the US strive to meet the needs and preferences of a variety of consumers from low- to mid- price points, how many can really show a diverse customer base? Food halls here in the US often have carefully curated brands and marketing materials that, for the most part, appeal to millennials and mid- to high- income customer segments.

Meanwhile, in Singapore, the hawker center is the place where Singaporeans from across income levels and ethnicities gather to eat with purpose at all times of the day. At lunch time, business types, taxi drivers, students, and the elderly are all seen queueing for the very same Chinese noodles or Malay fried noodles. This is largely because price points are extremely low that customers run the whole gamut from blue collar to white collar and even the creative in-betweens. Everybody needs quick and cheap food from time to time.

The main reason that price points remain so low at hawker centers however is due to ownership and management.

2. Ownership/ Administrative Capacity
Today, the Singapore government continues to own the majority of hawker centers across the country.  Prospective hawkers have to bid for available stalls and pay rent to the government at subsidized rates. These subsidies allow product prices to be kept lower than that in shopping mall food courts.

Of course, I’m not saying that food halls should be government- owned and operated to truly achieve the diverse customer base it’s currently seeking but it’s important we realize that the profit motive of private food hall developers and operators are often misaligned with the community, economic, and social benefits that could be attained.

In order to maintain the mission of low cost culinary offerings for diverse customers, partnerships and support from public bodies or non-profit organizations must be built to ensure that food halls resonate with local customers and communities. These supporting bodies may even be able to offer complementary community programs at low cost and therefore attract a wide range of customers from the neighborhood. Diversifying ownership of food halls might just solve its issue of not quite reaching the masses in its current branded state.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Is micro manufacturing the future of main street?

Nur is an Associate for Larisa Ortiz Associates

Empty storefronts on the main commercial
street in Nunda, NY (Photo: LOA)
In the last year, we’ve worked in a wide range of communities – from the bustling and dense metropolitan streets of Cambridge, MA to the quiet and seasonal towns of Hudson and Livonia in upstate New York. No matter where we’ve gone, the growing trend of online shopping continues to bring bleak prospects on the future of main street storefronts. Many sit vacant in the communities we’ve worked with and although pop-up retail concepts (as we’ve written about here) can be a quick, short-term solution to filling these ground floor spaces, we continue to wonder what else might feasibly fill these gaps?

Well, the answer that is beginning to surface in a few towns across the country, is Micro Manufacturing. For years, Euclidean zoning has prohibited all manufacturing uses in residential areas across many cities and downtowns to keep out “nuisance” such as noise and noxious by-products. Naturally, mentioning the word ‘manufacturing’ in a downtown discussion will raise eyebrows amongst the misinformed. Micro Manufacturing however, as we will discover, is a unique form of manufacturing that can bring more jobs, uses and vibrancy to underutilized spaces downtown than it might ‘noxious by-products’ and ‘noise’. Here’s why.

Dough on Lafayette Avenue in Brooklyn, NY produces dougnuts
for sale direct to consumers and wholesale to cafes
and Whole Foods across the City. Photo: NYHabitat.
Micro manufacturing, or small-scale manufacturing, is characterized by artisan goods that are produced in small quantities using small hand tools or light machinery. These goods can be made direct for consumers or for other businesses (for example, baked goods that can be sold wholesale to delis, cafés or restaurants). Recently, in the US, this subset of manufacturers has grown exponentially due to the growth in consumer demand for ‘local’, ‘homemade’, ‘artisan’ goods. In addition, technology has ensured that access to online marketplaces has lowered barriers to entry for such small scale producers. 

Since many of these micro manufacturers don’t require large floor plates to carry out production, they are extremely viable tenants for the many small- to mid-sized vacant storefronts that plague our main streets, provided zoning is made flexible enough to support these uses without having to undergo substantive variance proceedings. In our work in Cambridge, MA, for example, a small microbrewery that was both producing craft beers on-site for wholesale purpose and selling beer on tap direct to consumer in a tasting room was required to apply for a variance given that it did not fit the traditional ‘retail use’ category as outlined in the city’s table of uses.

Moniker Warehouse in East Village, San Diego hosts not only makers
but also events open to public and consumers. Photo: Moniker Group.
Consumer-facing producers that create high-value items with small equipment, like jewelry, scarves, and small furnishing goods, typically require small workshops that measure 400-800 SF each. Housing eight to ten of these artisanal producers in a single storefront will not only remove the break in retail continuity on Main Street but also potentially increase foot traffic through the creation of a new, experiential destination for those visiting downtown. I’ve seen beautifully embroidered purses being made in real-time at markets in South East Asia and have always been enthralled by the process. Once or twice, I’ve even stopped to chat with these women making the goods and trust me, these have become some of the most memorable consumer experiences for me. Imagine creating a storefront/workshop full of such opportunities in your downtown! 

Photo: Detroit Kitchen Connect.
Micro manufacturers involved in food processing and food production are also another group of potential tenants for ground floor vacancies. Although these producers require more than just a small space (they need the right kitchen facilities, storage/cooling facilities etc.), they are incredibly crucial to the growth of food and dining businesses in a city. Many producers that start in shared kitchens measuring a meager 5,000 SF have gone on to establish full-service restaurants, expanded to roving food trucks, or even created special sauces for restaurants across cities. Providing a small, starting platform for these producers in a form of a shared kitchen on the ground floor of your downtown can mean much more for your dining scene in years to come. 

While it’s great that micro manufacturing might be the answer to the future of Main Street, its benefits indeed go far beyond filling vacant ground floor retail spaces. Micro manufacturing can increase supply of locally-made goods and services (thereby increasing a city’s ‘Shop Local’ brand) and also increase sales tax revenues. Most importantly, micro manufacturing is also a great source of inclusive and well-paid employment for downtown residents. There are minimal risks involved in entering this sector which means that underserved, low-income, minority individuals can more easily participate in the economy. Research from the Brookings Institution even showed that advanced industries (which includes small-scale manufacturing) pay more than retail at every education level.

So how can our downtowns and cities show even greater support for micro manufacturers beyond providing space on Main Street?

Create a one-stop shop for micro-manufacturing assistance and resources

Current small business services provided by governments often aren’t tailored to the unique needs of micro manufacturers.  As a result, it is important to create a physical or virtual one-stop shop for all resources specific to these businesses, including legal assistance, loan/ grant funding support, workshop space leasing guidance, mentoring and networking services, and advertising support.

Launch a collective marketing brand for micro-manufacturing

This may be local or even regional marketing campaigns that highlight micro-manufacturers and their unique goods and services. An online directory of all participating manufacturers and products will raise awareness of consumers and businesses to available local producers. The Made in Baltimore Campaign was funded by a grant by the US Economic Development Administration and has led to the creation of a seal that is given to all members to use on products, packaging and promotional materials, and also led to the creation of events celebrating the culture of manufacturing in Baltimore, MD.

Establish a governing body overseeing all of the above functions
In Knoxville, TN (also branded “The Maker City”), a Mayor’s Maker Council has been established to develop a shared vision for the region’s diverse maker community and raise awareness of local micro manufacturers and their goods and services. Fifteen members currently sit on the Council, all appointed by the Mayor.

In order to ensure the vibrancy and continuity of our Main Streets can be saved by micro manufacturing, we need to ensure that administrative, financial, and zoning/land use tools are put in place to support these micro manufacturers first. We can’t wait to see how our future main streets evolve and adapt to the changing needs of micro manufacturers!

Friday, December 8, 2017

Understanding Airport Retail

Nur is an Associate for Larisa Ortiz Associates

Dubai Airport Duty Free Shops.
Photo: Simon Chapman
The holiday season is upon us and many of us are taking trips home to spend time with family or vacationing on a beach somewhere. We join the millions of airline passengers around the world passing through airports and spending money on souvenirs, last-minute toiletries, and even food and drink while waiting for departure. The number of passengers flying has risen every year since 2009. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, U.S.-based airlines carried a record 823 million passengers last year, up from 798 million in 2015. 

If you’ve only traveled to a handful of airports in the US and have only ever seen a Hudson News stand or Applebee’s restaurant, you’re likely wondering, “What’s so great about airport retail?” Well, on the whole, airport retail is doing much better than main street retail. Around the world, airport retail sales rose 4 percent in 2016 and is expected to reach $90 billion by 2023, according to Credence Research. In the US and Canada alone, airport retail is expected to rise to $10 billion by 2020 from $4.2 billion in 2015.

When we take a closer look at specific retail categories, some stores in airports appear to be experiencing better sales than their main street counterparts. The most obvious examples are of course the newsstands/ book stores, electronics/ gadgets, and specialty gifts/ souvenirs stores. These are all last-minute goods that travelers have often forgotten to pack or are looking for as gifts for loved ones back home, and have virtually no other option except to purchase right before boarding a flight at the airport.

High-end Harrods Department Store at London Heathrow
International Airport. Photo: Henry Burrows
Another retail category that is also doing very well in airports in recent years is ‘Clothing and Accessories’ – particularly that of luxury brands. Last year, clothing and accessories accounted for more than 50 percent of revenue share in the global airport retail market. The luxury lines of clothing and accessories, in particular, are meeting the preference and style of a large share of affluent travelers who are willing to spend more with their high disposable incomes. Today, luxury retail is booming in ‘hub airports’ that have a large number of connecting international flights. Terminal 3 at Singapore’s Changi Airport, for example, features a wide range of upscale boutiques and brands such as Bottega Venetta, Burberry, and Gucci. 

With such a large share of the retail market, it’s important that cities and governments (typical owners of airports) take time to understand airport retail and its various customers in order to enhance the experience of retail in these unique microclimates.

The Three Main Types of Airport Retail Customers

First, and most importantly, there’s the traveler. Travelers, as you might have already guessed from personal experience, are looking for a wide range of goods – from the unwieldy ‘replacement item’ to the seasonal and trendy souvenir or gift.

To make things even more complex for airport retailers, even within this customer segment of travelers, there are various subsets of travelers – the business traveler, the vacation traveler, the domestic traveler, and the international traveler – with wide-ranging needs, price points and consumer preferences.

The most lucrative consumer market, however, appears to be the growing group of travelers with high incomes, travelling for business and travelling internationally. These consumers are seeking exclusivity in products and are not heavily affected by price points.

Regardless of type of traveler, one thing remains constant – they all have limited time to browse and they are also captive foot traffic from post-security point on. Often, travelers dwell between 60 to 90 minutes in the airport from check-in to boarding and, according to a DKMA report, passengers who spend more than 60 minutes at the airport are +33% more likely to buy F&B, +27% more likely to buy retail and +13% more likely to buy duty free than passengers who spend fewer than 60 minutes at the airport. It is therefore important that airport retailers are strategic about merchandising and store layouts to maximize customer attention.

The second airport retail customer is the airline crew or airport staff. Growing up with both parents in aviation meant that I was always getting stuff purchased at airports – my mother would sometimes buy take-out dinner after work from the restaurant in the airport or get groceries from the convenience store at the airport – this was all regular to me. But think about the thousands of employees who come in and out of airports daily for work and need affordable and convenient meals throughout the day and last minute grocery!

Finally, the family member picking up and dropping off travelers make up the final key group of airport retail customers. These customers are looking for balloons and flowers to greet their loved ones or a final meal with friends before sending them off. Many airports in the US don’t offer more than a Starbucks and diner in the departure level and almost no retail at arrival level. This is a large chunk of airport customers whose needs are being ignored.

Best Practice: Asia-Pacific

In Asia- Pacific, the picture is different. Airports are already being designed with shopping as a key use for travelers, airport/airline staff, and for the general public. After all, retail accounts for approximately 30 percent of non-aviation revenues made by airports so why not maximize the benefits?

Today, Asia Pacific is leading the growth for airport retail, according to Bain & Company. In the region, it is common to see large international airports there with edutainment options, family-friendly restaurants, and even convenience/grocery stores for the families and friends waiting in departure or arrival halls. It is no wonder that it is the largest regional airport retail market accounting for 41 percent of revenue share in the 2015 global airport retail market.

The Slide at Terminal 3 Singapore Changi International Airport.
Photo: LittleDayOut.Com
In Singapore, Changi International Airport features two full-service Fairprice grocery stores and ‘Family Zones’ equipped with children’s playgrounds and giant slides. These amenities are used year round not just by families in transit to another destination but also families waiting on loved ones to return on a flight. With over 400 retail and service outlets and 140 food and dining options across approximately 979,515 square feet, the whole gamut of airport retail customers are easily able to find goods and services for any time of the day and year.

Hong Kong traditional street fare at the airport. Photo: Joe Allen
In Hong Kong, traditional Chinese and Hong Kong style coffee shop eateries are located across both terminals for both travelers to sample traditional cuisine on the way to their next destination and locals to enjoy a quick and affordable meal. Amongst their entertainment options, travelers and the general public can count on an aviation discovery center, IMAX Theater and simulation golf facility to pass their time at the airport.  

Challenges of Airport Retail

Getting airport retail to reap full benefits from its captive audience, however, requires a lot of upfront investment. Airport regulations requires that a lot of retail inventory may be subject to checks. There are also often no truck bays for easy delivery access, especially in older airports, which means retailers spend more time and money transporting their goods to the store. Not to mention the higher staff salaries that go into operating stores that must remain open at least between 7am and midnight. Alan Gluck, chairman of Airport Economic and Concession Consultants, reports that airport retailers have annual operating hours that are twice that of a similar storeoutside of an airport.

Tenant improvement costs are also often high as retailers are required to scrap all interior fit-outs at the end of each lease term, leaving new retailers with a new canvas to completely design and build from scratch.

Support Airport Retail

Airports play an important role in economic development. In a 2012 CityLab article, Richard Florida called out two studies that found associations between airport passengers and both metro population and employment growth, while controlling for other factors that would be expected to shape growth. In a study by economist Jan Brueckner, a 10 percent increase in passengers in a metro area was found to generate a one percent increase in regional employment. It is therefore incredibly important to boost the sources of revenues for airports in order to ensure their sustained performance and retail, as it turns out, is the leading or second biggest source of revenue for most airports.

Airport Express Train at Hong Kong International Airport.
Photo: Fabio Achilli
Firstly, the airports in the U.S. need to start competing with those in other regions like Europe and Asia-Pacific in terms of tenant mix, merchandising and price points. Travelers have wide-ranging needs and preferences, and airport retail needs to be able to cater to these various groups. In addition, the needs of the general public and staff working for airlines and the airport itself also need to be accounted for. In Singapore, the Changi International Airport sees its affordable food courts and eateries packed to the brim daily at lunchtime with employees working for various airlines or even families with children after school. This also likely due to the strong public transit connections between the airport and residential neighborhoods and downtown Singapore. Most residents across the country are able to get to Changi International Airport in less than an hour by public transit (cab, bus, mass rapid trains), and likewise in Hong Kong.

Secondly, like its counterparts on Main Street, airport retail also needs to up its omni-channel game in order to remain relevant and competitive amongst the traveler market. Many airports in Asia-Pacific are working on mobile apps with maps that help travelers navigate the building once they get there so that they can save time on browsing stores to visit and meals to purchase. Airport retailers are also allowing travelers to use their store apps to order food or items online before having them delivered directly to boarding gates, or partnering with airlines to enable click-and-collect service via inflight e-tail.

The airport is a truly complex micro-climate of retail that many cities and governments need to be more active in understanding. There is a large untapped potential in raising revenue for airports through retail and as owners of airports, municipalities are well poised to help bolster the retail environment for travelers, airline workforce, and the general public.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Grocery Retail Attraction in Food Deserts

Dan McCombie is a research associate at Larisa Ortiz Associates

We've had a couple of projects of late where clients have asked us to determine if their district has enough unmet demand to support a new supermarket. Though the client's reasons may vary from case to case, more often that not it stems from concerns with food access--typically in lower income and majority-minority communities. We've likely all heard the term "food desert" used before and understand its basic premise. Perhaps we've heard the USDA definition: a low income census tract where 33 percent of the population resides more than one mile from a supermarket [1]. But a comprehensive understanding of food deserts also acknowledges other variables like cost of transportation, rates of car ownership, and the price of groceries. It's also important to make the distinction between food deserts and food swamps--areas that have an abundance of convenience stores, fast food and junk food, but lack healthy choices. The purpose of this post is not to dispute the criteria used to understand food deserts (or swamps for that matter), but to think more critically about how district managers might respond to issues of food access and how they might start to engage in dialogue with prospective grocery retailers. What follows is a sequence of steps in service of that purpose:

1. Conduct a leakage analysis

Prospective grocery operators look at a lot of different site selection criteria, but at the top of the list is going to be how much unmet demand they can capture within a set trade area. As a district manager, this is obvious and its the same whether your talking about supermarkets or Starbucks.

By their definition, food deserts are likely going to show some unmet demand simply because they lack a supply of existing grocery options. What is at issue is if that demand, which is based on the discretionary income of the community, is going to be sufficient to attract a retailer (which explains why lower income communities are more predisposed to food-desert status).

The Food Marketing Institute calculated average annual sales per square foot (PSF) of selling area for supermarkets at roughly $620 in 2016 [2]. So what would a prospective grocery store retailer need to see in unmet demand to be convinced to build, say, a 10,000 SF store? The equation would be as follows:

Store size in SF * Annual sales PSF = Annual unmet demand
10,000 SF * $620 PSF = $6,200,000

In other words, if I'm a grocery retailer and you want me to open up a 10,000 SF store in your district, I'm going to need you to show me at least  $6.2M in leakage. Keep in mind that 10,000 SF is a relatively small size for a grocery store. A typical 40,000 SF supermarket is going to need to see almost $25M. This is where some industry research into specific retailer site selection criteria becomes critical. Different retailers are going to tend towards different size formats. Some value-oriented chains are also going to be more adept at addressing lower- versus higher-income bands based on their product mix. This will ultimately inform what is within the realm of possibility for any grocery retail attraction strategy [3].

2. Identify secondary site selection criteria

Having covered the main site selection criteria, further industry research should reveal what else is of concern to your prospective retailer. What do traffic counts look like within the trade area? If you have two prospective sites, one on a road with 10,000 average daily vehicles passing by and the other on a road with 25,000, its likely the latter that will be more attractive to a retailer. Does either site provide a lot near a signalized intersection with easy egress and ingress? Are they in areas that allow for freight traffic? Is there insufficient space for parking but proximity to a robust public transit system? Again--different retailers have different criteria and research should inform what is most feasible. 

3. Identify additional site specific challenges

Won't spend too long here except to say that even once you've found a parcel that meets the criteria of a specific retailer, there are other issues to address. Who owns the parcel? Will there be issues with land assemblage and acquisition? Does the zoning support a supermarket? Even if all the other boxes are checked, these issues can bring about long, expensive, and even contentious deliberation which may ultimately scuttle the project.

4. Improve access to existing grocery options

Let's say the issues in the previous point were impossible to resolve, or you never got past the first step of this sequence because your retail leakage analysis revealed insufficient demand to support a grocery store in your district. One thing we can't allow ourselves to do is ignore the facts or run away from the numbers. Instead we should ask the necessary question: Can food access be improved by creating better connections to what already exists? 

This satellite image of desire lines across an active rail evidenced how one
food desert sought to address their own issues with food access
What about a delivery service with online ordering? Though this appears to be a growing trend within younger urban demographics (read: FreshDirect, Instacart, Shipt), we've heard stakeholders express concern that its less feasible for communities without reliable internet access, that some customers still prefer to choose their own groceries by hand, and that some perceptions exist that delivery services are simply a means for discouraging marginalized populations from leaving their community. Whether those perceptions are real or imagined is irrelevant. If the demand doesn't exist, for whatever reason, a delivery service will not be sustainable. 

How about a shuttle service to an existing store? This is more a question of capacity. Who provides the shuttle? Are there local supermarkets that might consider subsidizing such a service, either as a means of generating revenue or as a long term break even position in order to improve their brand image? Might they be more amenable if a public or nonprofit partner complemented the effort with programming initiatives like guided shopping tours and healthy cooking demonstrations? These are all initiatives that we've seen done in service of better connectivity to existing supermarkets.

Programming, such as showcasing local and/or healthy products,
can be a great way to create dialogue between retailers and the community

The main point is that improving access may be the de facto strategy if unmet demand is insufficient. And that means reaching out to customers to determine what strategies might appeal most to them and to retailers to determine where opportunities for partnership might exist. 

A quick thought on food swamps

As mentioned at the beginning of the post, food swamps are different in that there are existing grocery options, but their product mix lacks healthy choices. Here in New York we have the Shop Healthy NYC initiative, which I believe is a good example of an "adopt-a-shop" strategy that employs more carrot than stick. It encourages community members to create a dialogue with food retailers to address issues with obesity and food access. The community suggests what options they would like to see and reward the retailer by assisting with product promotion and marketing. Though the program is specific to New York, the PDF guides available on their website can serve as helpful templates more broadly [4]
"Food Swamp" 

Conclusion and Best Practices

I'll close by offering a few examples of best practices where a supermarket served as an anchor for a larger mixed-use project, and aided in catalyzing larger neighborhood revitalization efforts. The point here being that a supermarket has the potential to be a huge community asset. Not leveraging it to its fullest capacity, whether as an existing store or a prospective one, feels like a lost opportunity for creating a more successful district.

New Community Neighborhood Shopping Center
  • Location: Central Ward, Newark, NJ
  • Est 1990
  • Size: 55,000 SF
  • Grocery Anchor: Pathmark
  • Inline stores: Dunkin Donuts, Mail Boxes Etc, NC Print & Copy Shop, Grocery Delivery, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, Magic Fountain, Nathan's
  • Background: Conceived by the New Community Corporation as a catalyst for economic development in the predominantly low-income and African American Central Ward neighborhood. The development was a joint venture project between both the nonprofit and Pathmark corporation
Shops and Lofts at 47
  • Location: South Cottage Grove, Chicago
  • Est 2013
  • Size: 55,000 SF of ground floor retail + 96 rental mixed-income housing units
  • Grocery Anchor: Walmart Neighborhood Market (41,000 SF)
  • Inline stores: Associated Bank, Burger King, Subway, Fadi's Hair Salon, Uncle Remus Chicken
  • Background: A mixed-use project by The Community Builders nonprofit housing developers, conceived to revitalize Chicago's South Cottage Grove Avenue and 47th Street commercial corridors
Restoration Plaza
  • Location: Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn
  • Est 1972
  • Size: 300,000 SF
  • Grocery Anchor: Super Foodtown (25,000 SF)
  • Inline stores/uses: Applebee's Bar & Grill, post office, banks (x3), extension campus of the College of new Rochelle, Billie Holiday Theatre, Skylight Gallery, Youth Arts Academy
  • Background: A former abandoned milk bottling plant, the Plaza is owned and managed by the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation (CDC). The CDC was able to acquire the plant as part of Senator Robert F. Kennedy's actions seeking to create a national model for community development
  •          Source: https://www.restorationplaza.org 
[3] See examples: https://www.sprouts.com/real-estate/site-selection; https://corporate.aldi.us/en/real-estate/real-estate-opportunities/  

Thursday, November 23, 2017

The Secret to the LISC #CorridorChallenge. A Deep Dive around PR & Communications.

For nearly two years and counting LOA has been working closely with the New York office of the Local Initiative Support Corporation (LISC) to develop and execute an innovative program aimed at commercial corridor improvements in some of the city of New York's most under served and rapidly changing communities. The Commercial #CorridorChallenge is a collaboration between LISC, Citi Community Development, and the New York City Department of Small Business Services (SBS). Together these organizations are working in three communities to support very targeted and strategic commercial corridor interventions.

The program offers three competitively selected communities $50,000+ in funds for the implementation of "early action" activities meant to catalyze revitalization efforts and build the capacity of each community development partner. Direct funding for capital improvements is perhaps a bit standard - but what makes the program unique is the wrap around technical assistance in the form of data-driven strategies, PR and communications support (to help build awareness of the effort and build the credibility of participating groups), and follow up performance metrics (in the form of surveys and pedestrian counts) that will be used to help measure the impact of the initiative.

Today I want to take you behind the curtain of the PR and communications support that each group receives and that is intended to amplify their efforts. This program is not just about the small scale investments funded through the direct capital monies (though those are clearly central to the program), it is also about training the groups to use media coverage on a regular basis as a tool to build buzz around their work and its impact. This buzz is a critical element of the program accomplishes a number of things. First, it helps to attract both new customers and new businesses to the area and second it helps establish the bona fides of the participating organizations as leaders in commercial revitalization activities and partners to the local business community. The idea is to offer the groups success in immediate term activities over which they can demonstrate control, so that they build the confidence and credibility necessary to tackle more advanced activities over the medium to long-term. Some of you may recognize this theory from Steven Covey's "Circle of Influence" - and it under-girds the methodology of this program.

The elements of the PR support included and resulted in the following:
  • "Scribe" articles written by a professional writer that offer narrative summaries of the work and are posted on LISCs website, as well as blasted via email by both LISC, project partners and the community organizations. The first project summary was written by consultant Mark Foggin and can be found here
  • An experienced PR firm was engaged to supports a few key milestones, notably a press event announcing the program (in this case the selection of local businesses that will receive storefront improvement grants); the placement of editorial content in key news outlets; and the individual unveiling events (that are still to come) at the end of the project. PR firm Anat Gerstein Inc. supported these efforts and got us great coverage, including this piece in Crain’s New York Business, authored by Sam Marks, Executive Director of LISC NYC and Eileen Auld, New York tri-state director for Citi Community Development. We were also thrilled with the TV coverage and local media coverage that they got for us. Both NY1 and the Staten Island Advance covered the event. Unexpectedly, the local Councilwoman who participated in the unveiling created her own video as well. Yet another way in which the communications effort that was baked into the program leveraged even additional - and unexpected - media coverage. See below.  

The truth is, community organizations frequently fail to toot their own horn - yet the ability to ensure that even small improvements make a big impact is deeply rooted in our belief that celebrations serve a purpose. They need to know that there is steward for the corridor and that yes, change is in fact happening. Economic development is by far one of the more challenging community change efforts - it is notoriously difficult to find funding for work that ultimately benefits individual business owners. This is why building awareness of the effort and getting media coverage is such an integral part of the strategy for corridor work in these communities - and why it is a central tenet of this innovative program.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Planning for Boomers: Here is why it matters and what to do about it

This post is the first a series that will attempt to illuminate how major demographic shifts will drive downtown retail and urban planning design decisions for decades to come.

    Sidewalk benches provide respite for older shoppers. Photo Credit: LOA
Today we talk about the Baby Boomers – those who at the time of this writing are 53 or older. While Millennials grab most of the attention these days, the truth is that when it comes to disposable income, Boomers still have more purchasing clout. Younger Boomers are also still in their peak earning years and continue to lead active lifestyles. But change is coming. In ten years, these younger Boomers will be 63. While still active, many will begin to seek environments that accommodate their changing lifestyles – kids out of the house, retirement looming and more leisure time.

The good news is that Boomers, unlike Millennials, still prefer in-store shopping. According to Chain Store Age, a 2016 study found that 84% of Boomers still prefer to shop in-store. While we know on-line shopping habits are changing quickly, this demographic still retains loyalty to brick and mortar experiences. So ensuring downtown remains a viable and attractive location for Boomers to shop and spend their leisure time should be a no-brainer.

Simple things like awnings help shelter
older customers from the elements. Photo Credit: LOA

Yet as retail futurist and author of The Retail Revival, Doug Stephens states so plainly, “physical constraints are an inevitable part of aging.” He also makes clear that the old ways of doing business will need to adapt to the changing needs of this powerful demographic group. Unfortunately, many communities are willfully ignoring this trend. In one community we recently surveyed, a business owner dismissed the “busloads of older visitors to town” who “do nothing to help the local economy.” According to the business owner, these visitors walk around without spending money. His comment was in response to a suggestion that the town explore accommodating and transporting the more than 3,000 annual river cruise passengers up from the waterfront to downtown - an uphill walk unlikely to appeal to many passengers. Yet these are passengers who pay on average $400 - $500 per person, per night for their cruise experience. Downtown retailers can ill afford to so readily dismiss a group of individuals with significant discretionary resources.

Another planning theorist, Gil Penalosa has expressed this concern in a different way. His “8 to 80” concept offers up the idea that cities should be designed to accommodate people of all ages, from the ages of well, 8 to 80. In general the principles behind these design accommodations for older adults will ultimately make the downtown shopping experience more pleasurable for people of all ages. So this is not about designing something “special” for a small subset of the shopper base. As George Branyan at the District of Columbia’s Department of Transportation states, "If we can design for the most vulnerable street users and those with the most specific needs, then we’ve made streets safe for them and everything in between.”
This looks like a "do", but the small size,
hard to read font and high-placement
make it hard for drivers to see
. Photo credit: LOA 
    It comes down to this, downtown stands to grow its customer base if it addresses the needs of aging Boomers. One opportunity involves helping Boomers find environments that allow them to both downsize AND live in environments where they can be less car dependent without losing independence. Walkable downtown environments offer this opportunity – while also ensuring an ability to maintain an active lifestyle and take advantage of essential needs - even when things like driving at night become more and more of a challenge.

    Moving forward, downtown planners will have to address the basics – things like the size and visibility of signs and the fonts that are used, places to sit, and traffic lights timed for faster walkers. This will mean providing more time to cross wide streets and making sure curbs are not too steep between the sidewalk and street. A number of cities are pursuing what they call “Safe Senior” initiatives, including Portland and New York. These kinds of efforts will provide the foundation for the growing senior communities fueled by the Boomers.

    The co-location of businesses helps older
    customers who are unlikely to walk long distances. Photo Credit: LOA 
    Below are some practical strategies for simple, targeted safety improvements that downtowns should consider as they plan major capital improvements last will last the next 10-20 years.

    Ease of Access
    • Make downtown offerings more compact. Downtown stores should be co-located and allow for ease of shopping from one business to another.
    • Ease of navigation. Work to strengthen the proximity of offerings and reduce the “friction” between stores. This means making a street easier to cross (i.e. mid-block crossings). Older adults may be resistant to walking down a long street in order to cross safely at the corner – particularly when the weather is inclement.
    • Wayfinding signage that is easy to spot and read is critical to helping both visitors and older adults find their way around downtown. This is particularly true when downtown parking lots are located behind the stores. The only people who know the parking is back there are regulars.

    • More downtown housing. As fewer and fewer baby boomers drive, downtown housing is a natural fit. It offers a mix of smaller units and density that allows them to take care of shopping needs without driving – which will become another reality as they age.
    • This walkway to rear downtown
      parking receives star treatment
      through murals that enliven the space. Photo credit: LOA 
    • Support for ridesharing options to help them get to and/from downtown. This is particularly important as downtown becomes a place to eat and dine. Older adults often have limited visibility at night, so safe rides, particularly after drinking, are important safety concern for all.


    • Benches for respite. Preferably facing the sidenot, or placed against a storefront
    • Trees that provide relief from hotter temperatures
    • Awnings to protect slow walkers from the elements
    • Lighting that allows older people to see where they are going – especially at night. Many downtown streets lack appropriate pedestrian lightings. Moreover, windows are either covered with grates or the display lights for windows are shut off in the evening.
    • Signs with larger font sizes. Also, these signs should not be placed too high. Seniors (and children!) have lower gazes.
    • Pedestrian signs (blade/banner signs in particular) to allow customers to see stores from a distance (and make decisions about whether they should walk further).
      Trees help provide shade and cool down a sidewalk,
      making for more comfortable walking environment. Photo Credit: LOA

    Pedestrian Safety
    • This walkway is the only connection between a parking area and
      the Main Street. Pedestrians are forced to
      walk on the street in conflict with car entering the lot. Photo Credit: LOA 
      Walkways to parking areas.
      In many traditional and historic downtowns, parking can be found behind the buildings. The walkways to those parking areas need to be well maintained and feel safe for pedestrians. Older shoppers in particular will likely have concerns over uneven asphalt or lack of a sidewalk for safe walking to/from their cars. 
    • Respite islands in the middle of the street to account for slower walking pace. Even if walking signals are timed to allow for a slower gait, some seniors may not be able to cross in time.
    • Maintenance of flat sidewalks – no bricks – to prevent falls. Maintenance of cracks to prevent falls.
    • Improved shoveling and ice removal to prevent falls
    • Opportunities and activities that encourage socialization – it’s not always about shopping. In fact, a visit downtown will rarely ever meet the majority of a family’s shopping needs.

    Monday, November 13, 2017

    Round Up: Alphabet city, mom-and-pop life cycle, scaffolding makeover, geographic polarization

    Google's parent company to build futuristic neighborhood in Toronto

    Alphabet, Google's parent company, has now moved on to more urban planning endeavors and with it has ambitious plans to transform a waterside neighborhood, which will house its Canadian headquarters, into an ideal neighborhood that reduces pollution, commute times, and landfill.

    And similarly in the US.

    A longform Curbed NY article gives another viewpoint to the saga of small retail decline. Closures are hitting suburban malls and desirable shopping neighborhoods alike. High-rent blight continues despite the typically understood invisible hand of capitalism — old businesses closing and new ones quickly replacing them which is broken.

    Scaffolding is about to get a lot less ugly

    Through a design competition, a new style of scaffolding has emerged. You might start to see it in person but for now it is in the initial stages of rolling out. Features of the scaffolding include transparent overhead and more decorative umbrella-like uppers.

    Richard Florida Notes Unexpected Effects of the Creative Class’s Rise

    And you thought that just politics was becoming increasingly polarizing. Now, according to Richard Florida, author of The Rise of the Creative Class and his newest The New Urban Crisis, cities have become increasingly concentrated and prosperous at a faster rate than previously assumed, causing unexpected consequences and geographic polarization.

    Thursday, October 5, 2017

    What does Amazon's search for a new HQ mean for downtown?

    Larisa Ortiz is Founder and Principal of Larisa Ortiz Associates

    People are talking alot about Amazon today. If Wikipedia is to be believed, at least 118 cities in both Canada and the United States have expressed an interest in being the place where Amazon ends up putting its headquarters. The company's search, and more specifically their search criterion, has broader implications for what the next wave of business growth will require from our cities.

    According to Citylab, the Amazon search is creating a "transit reckoning" for our cities. This is because Amazon has mentioned access to "rail, train, subway and bus routes" as among a few key site selection criterion. For many cities with limited mass transit options, this one requirement really puts a damper on their bid to bring Amazon to town. Atlanta, for example, seems to check all the boxes except for the unified transit system. When Atlanta officials took a look at the criterion, there was an call among many stakeholders for "real" solutions to the traffic congestion that plagues the City. Yet those solutions, as we all know, can only involve alternatives to the automobile. More cars and more roads won't help congestion, only transit of the "mass" kind can do that. Furthermore, mass transit without masses don't work - so density will be required. Cities looking to attract the businesses of the future would do well to heed this clarion call. Density and mass transit don't occur by happenstance. We need a few things to make this happen, including:

    • zoning codes that allow for higher densities as-of-right 
    • sufficient SF for the growth of commercial and/or industrial uses
    • meaningful funding for alternative modes of transit that get residents to and from their jobs easily and efficiently
    • investments walkable pedestrian environments and quality open space

    In fact, some communities are already ahead of the curve on these issues, including the Brooklyn Tech Triangle, a planning effort led by three major stakeholders in downtown Brooklyn, New York: The Downtown Brooklyn Partnership, the Brooklyn Navy Yard and the DUMBO Improvement District. The plan sought to corral city investment towards improvements that would position downtown Brooklyn as a tech destination and ensure that the district included many of the amenities required by industry businesses. The plan included recommendations with significant emphasis on transportation (which is already the envy of many communities), improved waterfront connections (the City recently invested in an entire fleet of new ferry's and started a frequent and very popular ferry service), enhanced bike share, as well as connections to other growing tech destinations (such as Industry City in Sunset Park). The plan is a great starting point for other communities looking to pursue similar initiatives. In the end, this is all good news for transit connected, dense downtown environments.