The Great Energy Leak Inherent to Strip Retail Centers
We have all been there. The great local restaurant, bar, or business that managed to land in what otherwise would be a lonesome, anonymous strip center that could be in the Virginia Tidewater region just as easily as it could be in the Inland Northwest. Against great odds, these destinations become points of reference lodged in people's minds amidst the Rite-Aids, Office Depots, and Walmarts that have littered and confused our built world.
What amazes us is not that these special local haunts stick with us but that they do so despite their otherwise unmemorable setting. These shops, often products of great local investment, are unfortunately muted behind the uniform screen of concrete, stucco, and parking lots that we have come to associate with the automobile-oriented retail strip. They are practically invisible to the cars bumbling along divided highways to their predetermined destination and survive largely through Yelp, Urban Spoon, or even the traditional word of mouth.
One wonders, in fact, if the recent proliferation of these great establishments is due to the Internet as the prerequisite enabler of great spots in anonymous locations where location and visibility is not necessarily as relevant as a collection of great reviews, an easy-to-use website and some competent search engine optimization. Throw in a few bucks for Google map awareness and you are off to the races attracting a clientele through means largely independent from the rather unfortunate selection of leasable square footage.
But does having a great establishment in the strip make the strip, itself, memorable? Our experience tells us that the attributes of a memorable place extend well beyond the uses where we spend our money. When we go to a fantastic restaurant that looks out to a strip-center parking lot hidden behind a uniform stucco wall, the act of coming to the restaurant is suddenly just another errand. Opening a front door that could have easily been the one used to enter the adjacent TJ Maxx diminishes the essential uniqueness of this place. Indoor furnishings attached to the commercial bleakness of strip retail structures are reduced to three-dimensional extensions of the website that initially attracted you.
That this is tragic is self evident. Our local small businesses are the bedrock of our local economy and the energy behind what makes my town or neighborhood different than yours. But energy alone is not enough. Our favorite places are equal parts energy (the uses) and the setting (buildings, streets, and public space). Experiences are shaped not only through destinations but by the process of coming and departing from these destinations. One without the other is akin to having great gift wrapping around an empty box or a handmade present lost in a stack of identical brown boxes. A Rite-Aid on a great street in a beautiful building is, in the end, not any more memorable than a great bar in an impoverished strip center. Our memory relies on both energy and setting.
We have, therefore, an energy leak. With new, locally-inspired places popping up in strip centers, an economic engine exists that has not previously populated this type of development. However, situated as they are, the vibrancy that local businesses bring have no ability to power the other uses that surround it or activate the public spaces they address (social gathering in parking lots is neither popular nor, in most cases, permitted).
The energy leak is attributed to the following weaknesses of strip center retail:
- Traditional visibility is only granted to large conventional anchors that are typically dark outside of normal business hours. This is particularly a problem after sundown where a small user next to a mostly dark and ominous next door anchor diminishes the attractiveness of coming to such a place.
- Minimum square footages in strip retail often outstrip what upstart businesses can or should take on. This either greatly impoverishes the owner or pushes him to overspend on tenant fit up. It also has the effect of making the place feel empty even when, by most standards, the number of patrons would be sufficient. This negatively impacts repeat business.
- With minimal ability or permission to personalize the front of the shop, the personality of the retail cannot make its 'gift' to the street and is reduced to the lowest common denominator of the strip aesthetic. This has the effect of making the place anonymous which increases reliance on the Internet and other means of non traditional visibility.
- Without a common street and mix of uses, the vitality created by the shop fails to have a multiplier effect on the broader economy and, likewise, the broader economy is unable to compound the success of the shop. Think, if I have to get back into my car after dinner, how likely am I to go for a night cap or cup of ice cream at the next strip center over?
- A drive-to customer base negatively impacts both the experience and market capture for any establishment. A place perfectly suited for serving children is at the behest of a willing parent. Seniors are similarly restricted from patronizing such places. Safety issues also abound in places that serve alcohol. Jurisdictions that require parking for places that serve alcohol should just sit back and think about what that really means for a moment.
The remedy, of course, is not to be found in limiting local businesses as we should be doing everything we can to support such risk taking and investment. The energy level is there but it is in the setting that we must focus. A paradigm shift requires three stages:
Stage One: Unburden the market and rework city ordinances (now)
We must align private and public goals to allow the city to work for retail engines and retail engines to power the city. Most legacy city codes are working against small businesses and inhibiting the city's ability to benefit from that energy. The regulatory framework should be adjusted such that:
- The street is as important as the uses that front on it. Highways and 8-lane arterials just don't cut it any more.
- Establish maximum setbacks from street, not minimum. This maximizes exposure to customers and minimizes land waste.
- Allow for and encourage mixing of uses to allow for a less cyclical patronage.
- Be concerned more with the setting and building type than the uses that are inside
- Tax parking to account for the social costs of free parking. Doing so will allow developers to make market-driven, not regulatory, parking decisions.
Stage Two: Incremental densification (now to 10 years)
With the many retail centers in various states of decline, a transition to memorable places of lasting value will take time. Leases come due at different times so the change will be incremental. This will necessarily be market and landlord driven. Therefore, in this stage we can:
- Strategically re-tenant. This approach just doesn't fill available space but begins to program uses such that significant synergies can be met between them and that economic multipliers can be achieved. Clustering symbiotic uses will reinforce the energy of a place, allow for shared programming, and encourage repeat visitors.
- Densify Strip Centers. Conventional shopping centers are extremely inefficient and need to increase the amount of productive square footage. We have seen in some areas that as much as 70 to 80 percent of the land is tied up in streets and parking lots with only 14 percent of the land used for leasable square footage. Densifying also means increasing the number of uses in the same or less amount of square footage to mitigate against the risk associated with having only a few large tenants.
- Mix uses. Rather than just having shopping uses, we must start incorporating office, institutional, and residential uses. Doing so will increase the viability of the retail.
- Break down the development pads. Strip centers, particularly large anchor destination retail centers, occupy large blocks with few points of entry. Access and circulation (for cars, buses, bikes, and feet) must be increased to better connect what could be a vibrant urban core to surrounding uses. The core and its surroundings mutually depend on one another. If users are constantly kicked back out onto congested arterial roads, connectivity is diminished and economic energy is impoverished.
Stage Three: Redevelopment of strip centers as resilient, memorable places (5-15 years)
As malls and strip centers near the end of their design life, they will be replaced with more efficient structures. New buildings will likely occupy less of the landscape but have a greater number of floors than their one-story predecessors. Redevelopment should be organized around a normal and interconnected pattern of streets and blocks.
While this transformation will take time, we may find it accelerating as we begin to fully understand the expense of maintaining large-footprint strip centers amidst a rapidly changing market demand that is asking for more integrated and engaging places. The uses on the private side are scrambling to meet this demand. Only when we match this transition with a physical environment that supports this new energy will we fully be able to capitalize on this economic engine.