Thursday, March 1, 2018

How to mitigate construction in your downtown

Nur Asri is an Associate at Larisa Ortiz Associates

Downtowns and cities around the country are undergoing rapid physical transformations whether due to re-investment or adaptation to technological advancements. However, during the process of transformation, roads and sidewalks are often torn up and diverted, street furniture and public spaces are re-designed and replaced and the shopping environment is essentially disrupted.

Regardless of the length of time in which the disruptions occurs (two months or a whole year), customer traffic for retail businesses will be affected because downtowns appear to be less accessible by car and even more difficult to navigate on foot. Furthermore, construction often occurs during the day (and during peak visitation times!) and can be loud and dusty, resulting in an overall unpleasant shopping experience.

Downtown businesses associations and storeowners across the country are adopting a variety of strategies to mitigate the impacts of construction on their operations, sales and visitation.

Here are some steps that you can take to maintain business vitality during your downtown transformation: 

‘Still Open for Business’ Signage
These signs help increase visibility of stores to pedestrians and vehicles passing through your downtown. Customers often assume businesses are closed during construction and are therefore quick to make the decision to drive past and go somewhere else altogether so it is crucial that accurate information is relayed to customers through these signs. Include the names of businesses that are open and directions to any alternate business access, and make sure the signs are placed at key intersections and entry points to your downtown. Some cities have also gotten really creative with their signs:

In Arlington, MA, Capitol Square Business Association plays around with the regular text found on construction signs.

In the City of North Bend, where roads were being torn up for an infrastructure project to bury utility lines and replace the sidewalks and street trees, sign spinners were hired to sing, dance, and do cartwheels while holding out signs that say ‘Downtown Business are Open!’

Signs, however, are only one part of the solution. There are many more steps that need to be taken to ensure that downtown businesses aren’t severely impacted by the process of transformation.

Marketing/ Promotion
Many business associations have dedicated resources to organizing district-wide marketing campaigns to educate customers about construction work and businesses that still need their support during this time.

Pre- Construction
In Madison WI, marketing efforts began two years before construction occurred in order to inform locals that stores and restaurants would remain open throughout the process. The guerilla campaign was extensive and consisted of yard signs, community newsletters, local media coverage and even a Facebook page.

During Construction 

The Myrtle Avenue Brooklyn Partnership launched an ‘Eat Drink Shop [HERE]’ Campaign. The Partnership rolled out bright yellow signs and handouts that list all of the businesses that were open during construction. 

Meanwhile, in Bangor, Maine, (and also downtown Coral Gables) happy hour events ensured that customers were still coming downtown after dark despite the facelift it was undergoing. Bars affected by the construction zone participated in the ‘Hard Hat Happy Hours’ events, which took place weekly. Customers who attended were then rewarded with highly coveted downtown parking passes and gift certificates to local businesses to drive return visits. Similarly, many other downtowns have also handed out coupon books to entice customers to continue shopping thru the construction period.

Valet parking
When convenient on-street parking spaces are temporarily lost to construction activity, customers may be less than willing to patronize downtown stores if they have to park in parking garages/lots located farther away from the retail core. Every effort should be made to ease the driving customer’s journey (especially if the majority of your downtown customers are arriving by car!) and this might include a valet service.

In Birmingham, MI, where construction through the city center is expected to take about 4-5 years, the city’s promotional arm Birmingham Shopping District is planning to provide valet service that would allow customers to drive to the edge of the construction site to drop off their cars before hitting the rest of the downtown on foot.

Painted fences/barriers
Finally, there are creative ways to turn construction fencing and barriers into public art. Back in 2012, we featured Alliance for Downtown New York’s RE:Construction program. Since then many more downtowns and cities have also turned to art as a way to mask the eyesore of construction. In 2013, the Downtown Ithaca Alliance put out a call for artists to adopt 8x4 plywood panels that were put up as fencing around the reconstruction of the Commons public space. Selected artists were invited to paint directly on to the panels that stayed up throughout the construction period.

In downtown Seattle, WA mural artists and artist-teams have created 200-foot long murals now on view on the Civic Square construction fence. The site will be home to a mixed-use, high-rise tower and open space that will complete the city's Civic Center Campus.

While the above strategies aim to ease the impact of construction for customers, there are also steps that need to be taken to mitigate the impact on business operations.

Even without the complications of construction downtown, loading and unloading of delivery trucks is already a common issue faced by business owners. Without a well-thought out contingency plan, your downtown may face heavy congestion as a result of trucks double-parking on narrow side streets.

To avoid this, pre-planned alternative delivery routes must be identified for affected drivers and relayed early on so that staff are alerted to the change of procedures. In addition, detour signs must be posted clearly to guide delivery drivers. Where possible, alleyways may be re-purposed for loading/unloading during construction phase.

Low-interest loans
With larger-scale construction projects, many cities such as Portland, OR and Salt Lake City, UT have set precedents for dedicating resources to offer low-interest loans to affected businesses. Salt Lake City’s Economic Development Office, for example, established a revolving loan program and set aside funding for light rail construction mitigation up to $20,000 at 3% interest per applicant. Successful applicants simply had to be within one block of construction and be able to demonstrate how they were being impacted.

Finally, with additional financial and technical assistance, business owners might even consider implementing another method to reach customers if they don’t already have one. Starting online delivery services can certainly nudge customers who are unable or unwilling to navigate through construction to continue to support downtown businesses.

Make sure your downtown transformation works for you
The menu of strategies offered here cost lots of time and money to plan and implement. (Note: Birmingham Shopping District set aside $100,000 just to carry out a promotional campaign including free valet parking and shopping coupons). Depending on the capacity and resources of your downtown, and also the scale of construction happening, you may elect strategies that work best for your businesses.

Most importantly, ensure that you start planning early and work very closely with local merchants to ensure their buy-in and support for your elected strategies.

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