Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Livability Indicator #13 - Holes in the Wall


I recall sitting in the interview room for the Downtown Dallas Masterplan project when the question was asked, "how do we compete with the suburbs for retail?" This is the wrong question for a downtown, any downtown to ask.

I've talked a bit about the future of retail, and where it needs to be, but in a more livable downtown (one in which there is more people because of increased livability) retail can work almost anywhere, hence the existence of "holes in the wall" or those favorite third places or restaurants that can be found in many cities in the world.

Many cities that I've consulted with have followed up this question of "why doesn't retail work here?" with the worry over how to get the parking to work.

The answer to both is that you can't. You can't compete with what suburban retail does despite the best efforts to the contrary (and would you even want to?! It's failing everywhere if you haven't noticed).

First, malls throughout the country, of which exactly none are being built currently, are usually parked at between 4 and 5 spaces per square feet of leasable retail space. I'm guessing downtown at the moment has somewhere between 4 and 5 THOUSAND spaces per square foot of retail space. Hyperbole? I'm not even sure. That should tell you something.

There is TONS of available parking at nights and weekends, the times when conventional retail is busiest (b/c many people are working M-F/9-5, but people don't WANT to park in all of these parking spaces because they don't feel safe. They don't feel safe exactly because there is too much parking. There is that vicious circle again. More people, more eyes on the street, the more ownership and responsibility we take for our space, the more defensible the street, space, and city become (I've dealt with this same issue at many hospitals that surround themselves with surface (or even structured parking) only to find their neighborhood become blighted and unsafe to visitors).

Furthermore, have you ever found parking to be easy in NYC or any other place worthwhile? Sorry for the rhetorical question, but to be sure, the answer is no. The reason is because people want to be there. Moreso than you can ever account for in any parking metric. And that is a good thing. Once again, this is sociopetal space that is attractive to people and designing for cars and parking is never the answer.

I would like to elaborate briefly on competing with suburban retail. Just because we see investment in some new retail locations, that means we are seeing disinvestment and decay in others. I recall seeing a commercial strip in San Angelo, TX and it was pretty telling to see about every mile or so away from downtown was a retail cluster at an intersection, exactly as it should be.

The problem is that as you moved further away from downtown, you could literally date the retail development by the decade it was built based on form and style, the 50s retail, the 60s, the 70s, the 80s, the 90s and finally the 21st century big box power centers, each exceedingly less walkable than the one prior, all in decreasing stages of disrepair and occupancy (with the power center being under construction). The retail was essentially cannibalizing from the other retail leaving behind blight that, in turn, then affected the neighborhoods immediately adjacent.

This was the physical embodiment of our over-retailed landscape, stretched too thin within an increasingly more sparse residential landscape. None of it was embedded within its community, an emergence of local economic need and marketplace, and clearly unsustainable.

The common response might be, well people chose to live less densely to have more space, and drive to the store, that is there choice, which could be fine except for a couple of issues. First, it's creating a "market" that is solely reachable by car foisting car ownership on all socio-economic segments of a population. Second, as gas price fluctuations have shown it is an extremely brittle system that threatens our vary basic human needs of shelter and food security. Third, it creates a burden upon taxpayers thru the creation of such excess infrastructure. Lastly, the inertia created by the entropic cycles of decay and creations of new autocentric (sociofugal) places means creations of even newer retail centers would be in order, furthering the process.

Compare the taxpayer dollars to build all of that infrastructure on a per year and per capita vs. say, Campo dei Fiori, the daily market in Centro Storico of Rome.

So if competing with suburban retail is clearly the wrong direction, what is the right direction towards making not just retail work, but having little holes in the wall restaurants?

The answer to making Downtown more livable is by taking away car space and turning it into usable people space, which includes developing surface parking lots (at this point, by whatever means necessary), reverting one-way streets to two-way (this can be done incrementally, but is necessary for retail success), and removing lanes of traffic for both on-street parking AND more sidewalk space. (It is probably also necessary to do an audit of the width of every travel lane in and around downtown and cap the max width as well, but that is a detail).

The last point is the one I want to dwell on the most because the type of street a retail store or restaurant is on, determines whether it can be considered a "hole in the wall" or not. By definition these are hard to find places, NOT on the main streets.

In Dallas, we almost have to create the types of streets that would typically house "holes-in-the-wall" as the retail destinations because the streets that move the most traffic are such hostile streets that they ONLY work as retail space if there is a full football field of surface parking buffering the store from the street. = Sociofugal space, which as I've said, age incredibly quickly.

As I type this Dallas appears to applying "streetscape beautification" to Elm Street, in the form of new bricks. I'm generally of the opinion that if a pig is a pig, it is better to not spend the money on the lipstick as the fundamental issue with why retail doesn't work on Elm or Commerce is that they are bad streets.

Retail wants to form at intersections. They are the highest visibility areas, with the most amount of movement happening in front of them.

As a place grows, it might link two retail "nodes" which then expand because of the increased synergy generated by the movement between the two (provided the distance is not too great).

This is how it might look in built form, with the most amount of density occuring where the most amount of activity would be, the busiest retail being at the ground floor of the orange buildings, and "holes-in-the-wall" finding their way into cheaper space somewhere in the yellow. They don't need the visibility because either quality is the determining factor in their business or they don't require the shear number of customers to support their business model (which generally means higher prices via higher quality).

This is taking advantage of the "movement economy". You can't just make this happen without designing appropriate streets however.

In Dallas, what we tend to to, is to create retail places off of the primary movement streets because, as I pointed out yesterday, we don't design streets to take advantage of all of the visibility and movement happening on them in a safe and beautiful manner because through some theology, an engineering text says what is up is down and what is left is right.

The fundamental problem is that this is limiting the success of the businesses and further limiting the potential quality of the neighborhoods, because commercial space wants to be on the busier streets with residential preferring the calmer, internal circulators.

For example, I give two of the currently more active places in Dallas: West Village and Main Street/Stone Street Gardens. I plan on talking more about the specific design detail flaws of West Village another time, but the point is clear. The developers/architects knew they were dealing with hostile roads so the turned inward.

I've talked about Main Street before, but here is another diagram showing it between Elm and Commerce. Stone Street Gardens is a nice space now, but I would argue that despite Campisi's relative success, its vitality today is more due to its relationship to Main Street and that other than extremely nice lunch hours on weekdays that it can be pretty lonesome closer to Elm Street.

Nice days and the downtown daytime population provide the necessary density for a relative hole in the wall to work (as in a restaurant on a "street" with no vehicular traffic). But, for more retail success and downtown to work on the whole, it needs much greater density to support the night and weekend business as well. You know how frustrating it is to find an open restaurant on Sunday in Downtown Dallas?

But alas, this post isn't about what it takes to create that density (BALLS!) so much as it is about showing what indicators exist for downtowns that work. A couple of my favorite areas of cities have hole in the wall restaurants in areas you would never expect, and many times these are the best places to eat as the primary roads are taken up by conventional chains and tourist traps.

One of which obviously is New York which has holes in the wall all over the place. Last time I was there, we even found one of Bobby Flay's restaurants on a street that was little more than a service alley for some of the nearby hotels. No matter, quality and brand covered for lack of locational identity or prominence.

Below is the best restaurant I ate at in Rome (and most expensive). It didn't need much traffic and for a while, I didn't even realize it was a restaurant until doing some investigatory work. It has density and a residential base proximate to support its business (and assuming these google street views are relatively recent, the business looks as though it is doing just fine 8 years hence).

Lastly, is Old City Philadelphia. It is full of these little carriageways bifurcating city blocks defined by busier streets. Yes, the busier streets (particularly the intersections) attract the majority of bars, restaurants, and starbucks, but these tiny side streets are home to their fair share of businesses as well because their calm and attractive enough to house density to support such niche businesses in a manner that people want to be in.

Queen Village,PHiladelphia