The Destination Crawl

All shopping centers need those stores that customers consider a destination. Those stores that people will go out of their way to shop at. Destination stores must be located within the walkshed of each other in order to create a series of destinations that customers can visit without getting back in their cars.

One way to think of a series of destinations is like a bar crawl. You start at one bar, then walk down the street to another one, then further down the street to a third. You might not walk directly from the first bar to the third bar because they are too far away from one another, but because the second bar is in the middle all three become walkable. Similarly, a shopper might walk from Target to Kohls and then on to the grocery store, even if Target and the grocery store are too far from one another to walk between directly. This is the Destination Crawl.

Unfortunately, most suburban regional shopping centers, the type that are encouraged by cities due to municipal financial incentives, are not designed to place their destination stores within each other’s walkshed. It becomes impossible to do the Destination Crawl.

The Car Oriented Shopping Center

The DistrictA wonderfully terrible example of the unwalkability of suburban regional shopping centers is The District in Tustin, California. The District is located on the former Marine Corps Air Station, Tustin, best known as the home of the world’s largest wooden blimp hangars. The District was a brown-field development that started as a completely blank canvas that was pan flat. With this blank canvas, the developer was able to create a hellish landscape for pedestrians and a nightmare for motorists, a rare combination.

Shoppers at The District who want to go grocery shopping at Whole Foods and then go to Target either have the option of walking 1,000 feet through a parking lot and jaywalking across a four-lane road, or getting in their car and driving between the two stores. Shopping centers, even ones where customers primarily arrive by car, don’t have to be designed this way.

The unwalkability of The District is entirely due to the fact that its buildings are arranged in a ring around the parking, instead of clustering the buildings in the center and placing the parking to one side. The District gets it even worse, because it’s designed so the buildings front on the parking lot and turn their back on the surrounding streets, so people from neighboring communities can’t even conveniently walk into the center.

A Destination Crawl Redesign

Instead of placing buildings within a sea of parking, and creating further barriers to walkability in the form of wide roads without safe places to cross on foot, the developer could have created an overlapping series of destinations that would have enabled a Destination Crawl. This would require moving the buildings closer together and making the walk between destinations more pedestrian friendly.

The most helpful change to the design of The District would be to make the path between destinations more walkable. Right now, to get around on foot requires cutting across parking lots at a diagonal. Doing so is very inefficient and quite unsafe. Direct pedestrian paths need to be provided between destinations. In order to create these direct pedestrian paths, buildings must be square with one another. The street network within The District is unnecessarily curved, causing the building and their associated parking to be at odd angles to one another. These odd angles ensure the most direct path from one destination to another is a diagonal path through the parking lots.

IMG_6184In addition, these paths need to be comfortable in scale and feeling for people on foot, not just crowded along the front of buildings or exposed traversing a wide-open parking lot. When visiting The District, it’s clear that the developer knew how to build for pedestrians, the mall at the center of the development is wonderfully walkable. Unfortunately they didn’t extend this understanding to linking the destinations on the outskirts of the center together.

Another helpful change to the design of The District would be to move the buildings closer together so that the distance between destinations, door to door, is no more than 500 feet. This ensures that it’s only a couple of minutes walk at a nice slow pace between destinations. While making the pedestrian paths more walkable can increase a destination’s walkshed, destinations must still be located close to one another in order to achieve overlapping walksheds and enable a Destination Crawl.

These same principals for a Destination Crawl can be applied to a city’s downtown or any other neighborhood center. By placing destinations in close proximity and providing pedestrian friendly connectivity, any city can support a Destination Crawl. Without these two key components, it’s impossible to achieve walkable communities because it will remain more convenient for customers to drive between destinations instead of walk.

Local Wealth

One point that has been mentioned several times, but not examined, is the need for local businesses to have access to local sources of wealth, for both debt and equity1. In many cases, multi-national banks won’t lend to small businesses, so local financial institutions are the only way for local businesses to access the capital they need to grow. A community that shows broad-based support for its local financial institutions is one that will bootstrap the growth of the community’s wealth by ensuring existing wealth is reinvested locally, instead of globally.

For most communities, the financial system works something like this: people save and invest some part of their income. The savings are deposited in their account with Bank of America, Chase, or Wells Fargo; the investments are made through a mutual fund. The bank takes their deposits and lends that money to large borrowers around the world. The mutual fund manager purchases stocks from companies generally based in Delaware, with their headquarters in a major metropolitan area and operations globally. None of this money that the community saves is loaned or invested to the businesses in their neighborhoods. Continue reading Local Wealth

How Municipal Finance Creates Regional Shopping Centers

Despite the benefits of locally owned businesses over chain retail and big-box stores, many cities still strive build regional shopping centers which require major chain anchor tenants. By in large, cities rely upon sales tax to fund municipal services, especially in states like California which suppress property tax revenue. Of course cities have other sources of revenue, such as Transient Occupancy Tax (TOT) and developer fees, but sales tax is a major source of municipal revenue for most cities.

Adding small, neighborhood retail centers generally don’t increase sales tax revenue for a city. For the most part, the shops in a neighborhood retail center are interchangeable. Each one has a grocery store, a pharmacy, a dry cleaners, a couple of restaurants, and a liquor or convenience store. As their name implies, neighborhood retail centers serve the neighborhood they are located in. Rarely will people go out of their way to shop at a neighborhood retail center since all of the same stores can be found closer to their own neighborhood.

Regional shopping centers are different because they do attract residents from other neighborhoods and cities, bringing with them sales tax revenue that otherwise would have gone somewhere else. This is why regional shopping centers are so often located at the city border or adjacent to major thoroughfares, so that they are convenient for residents of other cities to access and shop. This is the major reason why cities try to attract regional shopping centers, and to consolidate local community and neighborhood retail into these larger centers that will create a regional draw.
Continue reading How Municipal Finance Creates Regional Shopping Centers

The Importance of Local Business

Local businesses are vital to creating and sustaining a strong sense of community, and to the economic well-being of that community. While big-box stores provide the appearance of value to the consumer, they degrade the character and economic potential of the community as a whole.

The value proposition of chain retail and big-box stores to both the consumer and to cities is apparent. The consumer can buy more at lower prices, increasing their standard of living at the moment. Cities can get an infusion of jobs and the promise of increased property and sales tax revenue. It is this immediate and, more importantly, easy to articulate gratification that makes big-box stores, chain retail, and the regional shopping centers they often inhabit so popular.

The argument for small, local business is much more difficult to articulate, and even when it is well articulated people often don’t want to wait for the rewards a vibrant local business community has to offer. But those rewards can be prodigious for a community. Continue reading The Importance of Local Business

The Suburban Spiral of Decline

One of the outcomes of bankrupt suburbs and climate change is that many residents will be left with stranded assets. Quite simply, they will own property that they can’t sell, and will either be stuck or forced to simply walk away from their homes. It might be hard to see that decline while driving through today’s apparently affluent suburbs, but the same could have been said about Detroit and other Rust Belt cities in 1965. This is a powerful argument in favor of rebuilding our suburbs when confronted by residents who don’t want to see their neighborhood change. It is in their own self-interest to allow for some change which would make their neighborhood economically sustainable, instead of allowing their neighborhood to enter the Spiral of Decline.

The Spiral of Decline

Suburbs that are unable to sustain funding for basic city services, such as police and fire services, and street repair, end up in a Spiral of Decline. First, the least valued city services are cut, such as libraries and community programs, which reduce civic engagement and sense of community. This, in turn, drives down property values because people don’t feel as connected to their community. Continue reading The Suburban Spiral of Decline

Our Bankrupt Suburbs

One of the two big reasons suburbs need to be rebuilt are that they are not economically sustainable. The suburban built environment invariably leads to long-term economic decline and bankruptcy unless it’s redeveloped. Suburbs do not support vibrant economic activity, and they are expensive to maintain.

Suburbs, as they are being built, create substantial economic activity. The jobs and purchase of raw goods required to build roads and homes and shopping centers creates a huge infusion of money into a community. For some suburban communities, this development can last for decades. However, once construction stops, the economic activity that those communities can sustain is limited.

The majority of economic activity found in suburban communities is chain retail and restaurants, which provides some sales tax revenue for cities but limited opportunities for jobs for residents. A statistic that is used to justify suburban development is that every 100 homes built creates 93 new jobs. While additional jobs are a good benefit for a community, suburban development does not create enough new jobs for there to be even one new job per new household. Suburbs, without the benefit of a neighboring urban core, create structural unemployment.
Continue reading Our Bankrupt Suburbs