Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Why is retail important to building strong communities?

Nur is an associate at Larisa Ortiz Associates

Whole Foods Market covers over 428,000SF of ground floor 
retail space in St Paul, MN.
Our work at LOA often entails diagnosing problems facing neighborhood retail corridors and offering recommendations and actions to take to revitalize these areas. More often than not, these retail corridors were once vibrant commercial districts that fell into decline following demographic shifts. This, as we all know, was a result of the flight that took place in the 60s and 70s as many middle to higher income families left urban neighborhoods for suburban homes. This shift led to urban neighborhoods falling into decay with increasing pockets of disinvestment and retail stores closing from the lack of residential and worker spending. Most recently, we have seen the trend impacting South Fourth in Mount Vernon, NY where retailers are struggling to attract local customers with poor sidewalk infrastructure, vacant lots and decaying buildings. Fortunately, this trend is beginning to reverse as more people move back to downtown neighborhoods and reap the benefits of living, working and playing in close proximity.

As this upward trend continues for urban neighborhoods, there is now an urgent need to revitalize the formerly vibrant neighborhood retail corridors that were home to a variety of businesses. Promoting and enabling neighborhood retail corridors can take the form of tenant recruitment and marketing strategies, however this assumes that the corridors already have existing physical assets to support existing businesses and attract new ones.

The typical market-led business attraction strategies may only serve to better inform commercial real estate agents and potential retail tenants about the untapped opportunity and market demand in these revitalizing neighborhoods. However, often, these neighborhoods themselves don’t have sufficient viable commercial spaces to support the retail tenants that might be interested in the market. This would then call for redevelopment and more specifically, mixed use developments that can both provide housing for residents hoping to move back to urban areas and provide commercial space for retail, restaurants and even offices.

In fact, the most direct intervention to promote neighborhood retail development is to develop new commercial real estate in the form of ground floor retail spaces and these may be led by the public sector, private sector, or even public-private partnerships. In fact, public sector-led projects can often “act as catalysts of further neighborhood development, with the expectation being that public investment in one or more key initial projects will lead to greatly increased private (unsubsidized) development activity.”

As urban neighborhoods start to get back on their feet with more ground floor retail, a myriad of economic and social benefits may also arise for local residents, particularly in areas that are still seeing a concentration of poverty or lower income families.
One South Market development in downtown San Jose.
Firstly, the presence of neighborhood retail at ground floor often has an incredible impact on overall neighborhood vibrancy and safety, and can create a positive image for the area. In fact, neighborhood retail has often been described as the ‘front door’ to a community, acting as a signal for the direction and types of changes occurring in the area. As retail offerings and storefronts improve, locals also will likely perceive the whole neighborhood as improving and becoming more vibrant.

In fact, ground floor retail, when designed well with transparent facades and welcoming signage, can result in additional lighting on the streets in the evening. If the stores operate into the night, for example restaurants and convenience stores, then these businesses will also contribute to more eyes on the street with patrons and employees coming in and out of the stores. These traits although often negligible can certainly contribute to neighborhood safety and other quality of life factors.

Neighborhood retail can also serve to provide key services to residents in the immediate area, including medical facilities, daycare centers, hair and personal care salons, and finance and tax service centers. These services would be especially important in neighborhoods that are attracting young families with children and working parents. Over time, the easy access to these amenities can even influence the location decisions of more households, potentially inviting even greater retail market demand from local residents.
Shops + Lofts at 47 in Chicago,IL features 55,000SF of retail

In addition, the retail and offices that fill ground floor commercial spaces can often become main employers for urban neighborhoods. Shops & Lofts at 47 in Chicago, IL for example is a mixed use development with over 55,000 ground floor retail SF. It is currently occupied by a Walmart Neighborhood Market, Subway, Burger King, Associated Bank and Uncle Remus Chicken, and as of 2016, there were about 35 full time employees working in the single development. Other than retail, medical service centers located on ground floors are also well-paying employers (in fact, ground floor commercial spaces are often suited to large medical institutions seeking outposts for supplementary services such as eye clinics). Overall, retail and services in revitalizing urban neighborhoods provide great job and even entrepreneurship opportunities, particularly in lower income areas.

Finally, neighborhood retail is key in solving for food deserts. Often neighborhoods that have experience the decline and decay of previous decades have lost major anchor grocery stores and are now the face of healthy food equity gap. By creating new and well-equipped spaces for large and small grocery stores to enter the neighborhood, many more residents will be able to gain access to fresh produce and essential goods that were not so easily available. Some revitalizing urban neighborhoods have even seen immigrant business owners that are bravely entering new retail spaces, offering culture-specific grocery items and thriving.

Pinecrest project in Cleveland will feature ground floor 
retail, office, residential, and public plazas.
Retail is important to building strong communities in our neighborhoods as it contributes to street vibrancy, neighborhood safety, job opportunities, and access to key services and healthy food.  As we continue our work on neighborhood retail revitalization and leading development, or business attraction strategies in emerging neighborhoods, we need to maximize the benefits to local residents who will continue to live, work and play in these areas for years to come. 

For more resources, check out:
Beyard, Michael D., Michael Pawlukiewicz, and Alex Bond. Ten Principles for Rebuilding Neighborhood Retail. Washington, D.C.: ULI–the Urban Land Institute, 2003. http://uli.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/TP_NeighborhoodRetail.ashx_1.pdf

What difference can a few stores make? Retail and neighborhood revitalization. Rick Jacobus and Karen Chapple, 2010. http://communityinnovation.berkeley.edu/reports/Retail-and-neighborhood-revitalization.pdf

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