Thursday, September 30, 2010

Asking for Better Edge Retail

At the edge of many small towns – and on the periphery of larger cities – you will find a landscape of single-loaded shopping centers, indoor malls, myriad parking lots, neon signs and standardized, vanilla landscaping. One town has been taking tentative steps toward altering this landscape by articulating what it wants and asking for more from retailers who want to develop and locate on Easton’s edges. Before we talk about the example of Easton or the characteristics of better edge retail, we should think about the power of this simple statement. By taking the time to articulate what it wants to be, wants from its development and wants from developers, a town is tremendously empowered to negotiate. This is not a difficult proposition – though it does require a time investment. The power to negotiate based on a clearly articulated standard should result in higher quality (though not perfect – as you can see by looking at even the best examples of standards for strip retail development) development.

Over the course of the last month, the Easton Star-Democrat newspaper has run several articles (1, 2) about the second phase of a suburban retail project on the west side of the town of Easton. The paper also ran a story this week on the debate representatives of Olive Garden restaurant had with Easton’s planning commissioners over their inability to adapt the architecture of their restaurants to Easton’s citizens’ expectations. Easton is one of a few towns on the Delmarva Peninsula with a relatively vibrant and healthy retail district at its center. The retail downtown is a tremendous draw for visitors from around the greater Chesapeake region. Easton is often featured in the Washington Post, Baltimore Sun and even New York Times travel sections. The built environment in Easton is a major draw for tourists and contributes to the viability of the town’s retail and tourism industries.

The characteristics we’re talking about are:
• Buildings built close to the street
• Parking on the street or behind buildings – NOT in front of buildings
• Many openings (doors and windows) on the street facade of buildings
• Narrow street section with building heights in almost 1:1 proportion to street width (the purpose of this is to create a comfortable space for people, rather than an open moving district for automobiles)
• Street trees, bike infrastructures, benches and trashcans – important street furniture for attracting people

Washington Street, Easton, Maryland

These characteristics are known by us – if not by name, at least by sight – in relation to downtown areas just like Easton’s. However, they are not – and should not be – exclusive geographically to central areas. The decision to locate development further and further from town centers is a separate issue entirely. Development – whether retail, office, residential or otherwise – could still be designed to incorporate the characteristics listed above.

The new proposal for Waterside Village in Easton sheds itself of its initial effort to incorporate some of the principles of walkable retail urbanism (see the site plan and rendering from the web site to get a sense of what I’m talking about).

Waterside Village Site Plan (Waterside Village web site)

The fact that the proposed senior apartments replace office space is a reasonable decision. Residential space over office space is preferable as it extends the hours of active use in the area. Office hours are between 8:00am and 6:00pm and are similar to retail uses. Longer hours of activity increase safety, vibrancy and longevity of the site.

According to the Star Democrat story, “the architectural design and community space that was proposed for the buildings in the Westport Commons application would remain the same” and “the Westport Commons development proposal has not been withdrawn”. This isn’t to insult the quality of the Westport Commons proposal, only to say that the decision to place the senior apartments behind the Target building should take into consideration the context of the site, and not simply be a plan for another site, moved onto this plot of land.

The Town clearly sees they are worthy of better, as the commissioners have “expressed concern that the proposal was not consistent with design aspects of the town’s comprehensive plan.” Easton’s planning commissioners – in this instance – “recommend” the applicants make two changes. (You’ll recognize the recommendations from our earlier list of characteristics of high quality retail districts – like downtown Easton.)

The two recommendations:
• Make the development truly mixed-use; change some of the retail buildings from one-story to two, by putting residential units above retail.
• Move some of the parking to the rear or sides of the buildings.

As the commission noted, the comprehensive plan “encourages” residential space above retail. The ordinances governing Easton’s built environment could better reflect the principles laid out in their comprehensive plan. However, the developer making a contribution to the built environment has a responsibility as well.

Let’s recall that the ingredients of a successful and attractive retail area as we consider the following statement: “…the developers specifically avoided that formula because it would create competition with businesses in the downtown area, where residential above retail is frequently found.” Rather than worry about competing with downtown areas, edge retail should be a complementary district that may have room for larger tenants. Edge retail can still learn from and mimic the characteristics of downtown retail districts that shoppers love.

New suburban development – incorporating the design principles of traditional downtown retail districts.

In the Easton example, the developers argue with my suggestion by saying residential uses are “inappropriate” because they are only targeting 5,000-square-foot-plus “junior box” retailers. Countless examples – and all trends – are proving this wrong. It’s working in Pittsburgh, Vancouver and in hundreds of other developments (nicely presented by CoolTown Studios here). I’m not comparing a shopping center in Vancouver to one in Easton, but if it works at a large scale, it is unlikely that at a smaller, more human scale it should be any more difficult. I am confident that the creativity exists among small town developers in Easton and elsewhere that can craft a workable coexistence of retail and residences.

Mixed-use development in Vancouver, Canada with housing above big-box development.

Plan comparing typical rear-loaded strip shopping mall with parking in front versus innovative mixed-use shopping district (Ten Principles for Reinventing American Suburban Business Districts, Urban Land Institute, 2002)

The other request of the planning commissioners was for the developers to move some of the parking to the rear or sides of the retail buildings. The applicants responded that retailers would not want to occupy a store where shoppers would have to encounter trucks, loading docks and other back-of-house functions. This ethic is more likely applied by retailers than reflected by shoppers.

Retail set into a parking garage in a new development with features of a vibrant street (Ten Principles for Reinventing American Suburban Business Districts, Urban Land Institute, 2002).

When citizens in Easton or other towns want to complain about low density strip development and fields of parking lots, they look to their leaders. The burden of local leaders is being met as they adopt design guidelines and ask these probing questions of developers. It is the responsibility of those who develop retail on the edge to recognize that these types of single-use buildings set behind parking are the opposite of innovative, creative development that our Towns are asking for and we should expect.

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