Thoughts on Retail District Revitalization

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Thoughts on Retail District Revitalization

A favorite author, commentator and wise sage on the downtown scene is Della Rucker (above).  I first met Della in 2010 and had her speak at the 2011 Michigan Small Town conference. I have since run into her at several other conferences here in Michigan. Then and now, Della has always had a refreshing, frank and amusing take on downtowns.

Here’s an excerpt from Della’s newly published “Short Shot” entitled, What We Thought We Could Do, and What We Can Do: The Secrets of Retail District Revitalization,   -Al Hooper


Commercial districts, like any part of our communities, operate more like ecosystems – complicated sets of interrelated and interdependent elements.   We desperately want to believe that there’s a Magic Lever we can push that will make everything better. But if we’re honest with ourselves, and with the history of commercial revitalization in the 20th century, we have to admit that it’s nowhere near that easy. We have messed up a lot of cities by believing that if we just do this one thing, everything will be great.

For a long time, we have given a high proportion of our energy and money to the physical design or improvement of our places, and I think that’s because this was the part we could see, touch, manipulate. And sometimes we did good, and sometimes we did a lot of good. But after the ribbon cutting, too often we learned that the physical changes stayed on the surface, and didn’t percolate through the rest of the system the way we had hoped.

If we are serious about helping our local economies work better and helping commercial districts thrive, we need to keep in mind that what the place looks like is only one part of what makes a business district work.

Here’s how the notion of too much vacant space and the need for uniqueness might work together.

Take Vacant Buildings for Instance. Of course, sometimes people think that the vacant buildings themselves are the problem, and the message becomes just get something in there! Vacant buildings can certainly have a negative impact, especially if they’re not secured or they’re creating a safety issue. But vacant buildings are also necessary to a healthy economic environment – especially if you have small independent retailers and service providers. Vacant buildings are a natural part of the life cycle of businesses and commercial districts, and in a mature commercial district, vacancies are critical to being able to support the kind of growth and change that keeps people engaged.

Also, it’s a pretty well-documented fact now that we have far more total retail space in the U.S. than our population can support. A study in Northeast Ohio documented that the amount of square footage in the region devoted to retail was on the order of double what conventional models said the amount of income available could support. More recent studies have shown that the average amount of retail space per person in the U.S. is also about double what it is in Europe (and we do not have twice as much money).

Uniqueness Matters, Really Matters. The value that we attach to a product (a watermelon, a fish tank, a car) is directly proportional to the degree to which the thing in question provides something that is useful in a unique and appealing manner. It is that uniqueness that separates a low-cost, strictly utilitarian commodity from a product to which we attach a premium value. It is what entices us to pay more for an original piece of art than a reproduction, to search more stores for a statement necklace than for a basic string of beads, to have a wedding dress tailor-fitted but buy everyday clothes off the rack knowing that we’ll have to push up the sleeves a bit.

The same is true for products, for businesses and for commercial districts. You will not build a vibrant commercial district by being “the next” something, or “a lot like” some other place. That was the thinking that led to the construction downtown of suburban-style shopping malls, and we’ve seen how wildly successful those have been.

What makes you unique is what makes you valuable. That uniqueness may not be appreciated by every possible visitor or customer, but it will be worth more to those who find it valuable. Finding and articulating that uniqueness, for a store or for a district, becomes crucial to success.

Converging at Vacant and Unique. One of the important things we can do to support a healthy commercial district is, ironically, keep the place from having too much commercial. As we discussed, total market demand for commercial space is declining nationally, both because of overbuilding and because so much retail is shifting online.

So rethink your retail space: maybe a boutique really only needs a small storefront, not the whole first-floor space, because a large amount of what they sell is on the internet. Maybe they can co-locate with something else. For many contemporary small businesses, conventional storefront spaces are actually too large: businesses need less equipment and less inventory on site than they did years ago. And a small business whose money is tied up in a lot of inventory is often a small business heading for trouble.

Maybe a restaurant could operate in that storefront without an expensive commercial kitchen if it does its meal prep at its sister space down the street…or the seldom-used kitchen in the church down the block. Does your code permit that? Many don’t.

In many places, the definition of what’s permitted in a retail space needs to be loosened up– both because there’s not enough demand to justify it, but because uses that bring people into the district for other reasons will do retailers more good than another marginal tchotchke seller.

Could that space be a preschool? Performance space? Sports training? Co-working? In the right location, with the right management, uses like these and more could become powerful anchors in the new retail landscape. We need to look at creative alternatives to use the oversupply of traditionally retail spaces, (some of which may need help getting off the ground).

Commercial districts change, and that’s OK. Let’s help them change intelligently.