I had the absolute pleasure of spending a few days at the Seaside Institute taking a deep dive into what makes urban retail successful. Two of the leaders in town center design, Bob Gibbs and Terry Shook, led the class. An amazing amount of material was shared and much ground was covered. Here’s a quick recap.
Rules, Rules, Rules
Bob has developed a series of rules for retail design that he has developed and honed over a long career. He believes you need to know the rules, and should break them, but you need to be thoughtful about the breaking. A core example of one of these rules is that you can’t have more than 30,000 SF of retail in one place without an anchor tenant, usually a grocer – a rule which Bob was quick to point out is utterly shattered in Seaside. His book, Principles of Urban Retail Planning, cover these rules and much, much more.
Urban is Stronger
A good bit of the class covered the planning of new town centers – basically creating something like Seaside or Birkdale Village out of nothing. This is a very challenging undertaking with little margin for error. There were several examples of projects that broke the rules and failed for it.
On the very positive flip side, urban redevelopment is typically much more robust and able to accommodate more rule breaking, particularly if there is decent connectivity and access provided for carless users. A key concept for urban analysis is to look at income per acre instead of income per household. Bob was able to show that South Memphis had as much purchasing power as much more affluent neighborhoods when accounting for density of housing, despite much lower household income levels.
Terry suggested that the future of retail is not single-purpose development, and not even dual- or triple-purpose. He sees the future of development in providing whole communities, where retail, office, residential, hospitality, and civic elements are all in walkable proximity. New town developers face a heavy challenge in making this a reality. Their product type silos coupled with financing constraints make this a headache-inducing and arduous undertaking. Many developers specialize in one product type (residential, retail, hospitality, etc.), and their projects reflect that. A good example is that multifamily developers really understand apartments, and the upper floors demonstrate this focus. The ground floor retail usually suffers in these developments. Alternately, retail developers will tack on some upper level apartments after figuring out the retail and streetscape. Achieving whole community development is much more possible in an urban environment because you may only need to provide 1-3 uses in your development. Properly integrating into the surrounding community can take care of the rest.
Focus on the Storefronts
When actually designing the buildings, everything is about engaging the pedestrian and showing off the merchandise. This means you have to, have to provide great storefront and sidewalk space. The approach to storefront design from a century ago – when walking, not driving, to the store was the norm – nails this. They had to get it right and usually did. Highly-placed building frills, fancy parapets, and silly tack-ons are design moves intended to catch the eye of a driver traveling at 40 mph. This doesn’t apply or work for walkable urban retail.
One big reason why new urban retail development fails is that it’s expensive and that the architects focus their design moves in all the wrong places. Most retailers can only afford to pay a slight increase in rent relative to the auto-oriented retail down the street. From a dollars perspective, crappy auto-oriented strip malls often cost between $150-$200 per square foot (including site costs). Frilly, decorated town center development often comes in at double that price. A building that costs twice as much requires double the rent, which retailer tenants can’t afford. Therefore you have to be strategic in where the dollars go to create the best pedestrian experience in a way that ends up with achievable rents. Urban environments provide more room to flex this boundary, but the point remains.
My biggest takeaway from the weekend is the concept of curation. Great places, great retail environments are usually curated and cared for by some managing entity. Robert Davis and his wife Daryl have carefully curated the design, business owners, and business mix of Seaside since its founding. Their careful management and trial-and-error adaptation have made the place what it is today. Downtown Development Districts, Community Improvement Districts, or single ownership management cannot be understated as tools for creating great places, particularly in urban environments. This does not necessarily mean it requires a heavy handed, top down approach, but it does take a managed approach with support from bottom up business owners.
We also saw a few Seaside specific examples through a Lean Urbanism lens. The retail and restaurant development South of 30A leverages several great tricks, some not replicable under current building codes. There are several great restaurants on this side, some operating out of small shacks with no bathroom facilities. A few common and well maintained public toilets provide highly efficient infrastructure for all the restaurants at a fraction of the cost. Building occupancy loads are kept low in the shacks by providing separate pavilions for common eating by the beach. Current plumbing codes include patio space in determining bathroom requirements, so separating these patios via lease or otherwise helps this. The Airstream trailers along the north side of 30A work because they are technically vehicles, although most are likely never to move. These trailers work well because of the ample and gracious sidewalk that provides plenty of room for tables and chairs that are not part of a building.
These lean moves should not be discounted or scoffed at. Terry made a key point that you should plan your development for expansion, but that it should look finished from the start. Bob showed us a great example of this in Seabrook, Washington where mobile homes with highly developed facades were intentionally used to create a sense of place. These buildings help make the place now, and provide the opportunity for replacement later with a 3-4 story building when the market is ready.
Getting urbanism right is hard. Having successful and vibrant restaurants and retail are extremely important to generating the critical mass necessary for place. I really appreciated the opportunity to learn from Bob and Terry. They will be teaching an expanded three-day course in these principles at Harvard this summer. If any of my comments resonate with you, I highly recommend you attend.