If Not Retail, What Will Enliven the Ground Floor of the City?

“When you walk the streets, you see vacancies on every block in all five boroughs, rich or poor areas – even on Madison Avenue, where you used to have to fight to get space”

Faith Hope Consolo quoted in NY Times Article by Corey Kilgannon

For those of us who regularly follow the conversation about retail, over the last few years it has been described as “an apocalypse”, a “revolution”, or as an industry in flux that will not settle into its “new normal” for some time to come. As part of our daily design lives we are often reading several things at once that are relevant to our practice as architects, our love of cities and our interest in placemaking. Over Labor Day weekend, three such publications about retail converged, and made us question anew, what is the future of retail and what will the ground level urban landscape look like?

While reading Jan Gehl’s Cities for People and Doug Stephens’ Re-engineering Retail, an article in the Sunday Times chronicled the dearth of retail store closures around New York City (“A Vibrant City’s Vacant Look” by Corey Kilgannon, Sunday September 2nd, 2018). While one could delve into the “whys” behind this, as architects of urban places, we are more attuned to visioning the “what if”. How is the public realm impacted when a significant percentage of ground floor retail disappears? What new programming will we need in our cities? What will invite people to engage on the pedestrian level, other than passing through on the walking portion of their commute?

In Doug Stephens’ book he suggests that the physical retail realm is not obsolete, but that it is in a process of being reconfigured.  He believes (and we agree with him!) that people inherently crave shopping and will continue to seek it out, despite having most of our needs met by online transactions.  He cites the reasons for shopping as 1) the thrill of the hunt or discovery, 2) the fact that we are social beings and we are naturally drawn to crowds (how many times do we judge a good restaurant based on the level of activity within?) and 3) physiological (anticipation of a good find triggers the release of dopamine, and who can resist that?!).  He surmises that retail will need to shift its focus from products to experience.  In New York City, for example, Sonos has transformed a retail space into a destination where individual listening modules allow customers to hear music in a contained space, with artwork chosen to compliment the music.  People will ultimately be drawn to brick and mortar retail because of our intrinsic need for visceral stimulation.

“We will travel to a shopping space to learn, play, experiment and experience in a way that is simply not possible from home – with or without technology”.

Doug Stephens, Reengineering Retail (p. 145)

A compelling programming model for vacant storefronts is the current trend toward co-working spaces.  Co-Working Creatives like Rough Draft in NYC offer flexible work space with many amenities such as natural light, shared printing and copying, outdoor seating, personal lockers and bike parking, and even basic kitchen niceties.  As Stephens suggests, a popular venue will naturally draw individuals to it, which will in turn enliven the streetscape. Communities can legislate ground floor uses through zoning ordinances and overlay master planning guidelines.  We believe that makes for an empowering experience for residents and city officials to revision their public realm.  Specifically, how might the ground floor level be re-purposed beyond traditional commercial use, to allow for more creatively engaging spaces?  We look forward to considering this topic further, as we partner with the City of Newton to analyze revisions to their zoning ordinance. 

In Jan Gehl’s book, Cities for People, the author pays close attention to what or who is being invited into a space.  As cities expanded their streets and highways, thereby “inviting” additional cars, traffic increased, and the public realm suffered.  Conversely, in cities such as Melbourne, Australia that have focused on inviting human activity by adding bike lanes, wider sidewalks, and pedestrian streets, public spaces have flourished.  But, as Gehl points out, it is not just the density of people that makes for a good city, but the sorts of activities that are offered that allow passersby to linger and enjoy occupying the space, and the quality of the edges that define the space.  At Form + Place we are ever aware of the role that “lively edges” can play in animating a space.

As Kilgannon points out in the NY Times article, New York City is beginning to reflect the shift in retail brought about by our increasing dependence on online retail (and the same can be said for many other cities as well).  So again, we wonder, what becomes of these empty spaces?  Shuttered storefronts are the extreme opposite of “lively edges”.  How might we re-imagine these “edges” to support active and engaging spaces? 

When a building owner experiences a vacancy that persists in being hard to fill with a long-term lease, one option is to make that space available for pop-up stores. This requires a little active management on the part of the owner but the pay off in the form of location awareness and brand enhancement can be substantial. A use that fosters community engagement and event opportunities can be an ideal programming move, by bringing people out to the street and into the space. Given the prevalence of companies like Storefront that specialize in connecting building owners to creative entrepreneurs and established brands for short term and seasonal pop-ups, it’s clear that the pop-up market has potential to be an active catalyst in rebranding blocks blighted by vacancies and lacking energy.

Just as the retailer LL Bean has reverse engineered the co-working craze to be part of their brand and broaden their footprint of market presence, couldn’t a building owner, previously looking for typical retail or dining tenants reverse engineer the prototypical storefront space to be suited for office or residential users? What’s stopping them? Is it the perceived price that a “retail” space must fetch per square foot? Wouldn’t it be interesting to house a co-working space for a local university? Or a co-studio space for the students of a local art school or group of artists? Is there synergy in the making of art and “storefronting” of art in the same location? In the end, the market will continue to be driven by our human nature and need for social interactions. As social beings, we inherently crave a public forum to come together to exchange ideas and experiences.

Photo credit L.L. Bean

Photo credit L.L. Bean