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.

How Driverless Cars will Revolutionize the Suburbs

While some believe that driverless cars will create more traffic, they present a great opportunity to increase the density of our suburbs, as long as we’re prepared to take advantage of that opportunity.

The doom-and-gloom view of driverless cars imagines that every car that’s currently driven gets replaced by a driverless model. In this view, each family still owns two or three cars. Worse, because driving time can be used productively, long commutes become less burdensome and living in a suburban community far away from work becomes more acceptable. In this view of driverless cars, the amount of vehicle miles traveled increases exponentially, greatly increasing carbon emissions due to driving. This view has some truth to it. Driverless cars will increase driving, but it’s one way we can invest our current carbon budget to create a more sustainable future.

Driverless cars are not the only near-future development in transportation at work, a harmonious development is the increasing popularity of on-call taxi services like Lyft and Uber. Once driverless cars are permitted by the states and come to market, Lyft and Uber will end up replacing their current drivers with fleets of driverless cars. Since the driver is the most expensive part of their systems, they will have great incentive to employ fleets of driverless cars so they can bring down their operating costs.

Self-driving taxi will enable suburban residents to give up their cars without giving up the mobility and autonomy they currently enjoy. Once car ownership starts to decline in favor of self-driving taxis, all of the areas that are currently used for car storage can be repurposed to more productive uses. This will enable our suburban neighborhoods to become more dense and walkable, and eventually will lead to a declining need for car trips in the first place.

The biggest benefit for suburban neighborhoods is that garages will be able to be converted into livable space. A standard three car garage can be converted into a very livable granny flat. These types of accessory dwelling units could conceivably double the number of people living in a suburban neighborhood. Increasing the density of these neighborhoods in such a way will provide an adequate number of people to support local, walkable retail. Unfortunately, many cities have ordinances prohibiting the conversion of garages into livable space, because they don’t want the cars they expect to be in those garages on the street creating a parking problem. As driverless taxis become viable, cities will need to rapidly amend these ordinances if we are to take advantage of the opportunity to densify our suburban neighborhoods. The sooner these ordinances are amended, the more quickly we can transition our neighborhoods to be walkable and sustainable.

There are some other small ways removing car storage from our residential neighborhoods will improve walkability. Currently, many residential streets are designed to accommodate on-street parking which wouldn’t be needed with driverless taxis. Reclaiming this space that’s currently dedicated to parking will enable for wider sidewalks, separated bike lanes, or landscaped parkways that can make a neighborhood more walkable. Additionally, the driveway curb cuts for each house would be able to go away. If you’ve ever pushed a stroller down a residential street, you know how annoying curb cuts can be, and leveling out the walking surface by removing them will enhance a neighborhood’s walkability.

In addition to adding density to our residential neighborhoods, cities will be able to take advantage of the land currently wasted on parking in retail centers. This can take the form of additional retail space, if there is a demand for it; additional homes, creating tent-pole density adjacent to retail; or a combination of both. In a world full of driverless cars, all retail centers will require is a small area for pickup and drop off, similar to a valet or taxi stand.

As the densities of both our suburban residential and retail neighborhoods increases,not only will they be walkable, but they will begin to be able to support transit in a reasonably efficient manner. Once suburban neighborhoods are walkable and have transit, the need for cars, even driverless taxis, will be reduced. Driverless taxis aren’t a cure for all the ills of the suburbs, many other changes to our land use policies and patterns of development still need to occur and can occur without the further development of near-future technology. We should spend the majority of our efforts changing what we can today, but we also need to be thinking of the technology of tomorrow and working to set up an understanding of how it can create a more sustainable future so when that technology materializes we can make that sustainable future a reality.

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.
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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

Link Roundup – Friday, January 16, 2015

This week’s Link Roundup brings us a couple stories about the death of auto-dependant retail and the renewed life of walkable retail, a prediction on instability in the Middle East and its impacts on oil, transportation, and the continued decline of our suburban communities, one city’s attempts to save a half-developed neighborhood, and the places kids play.

  • Saudi Arabia Plunges into an Abyss. ┬áJohn Robb, who has a sterling track record of predicting events in the Middle East, sees Saudi Arabia as ISIS’s next target. The impacts on the price of oil and the global economy would be dramatic if the current Saudi state is destabilized. This would rapidly drive up the cost of transportation, and likely speed the demand for urban, walkable communities and hasten the decline of our suburban neighborhoods.
  • The Child Inside. “A community not built around children is no community at all. A place that functions socially is one in which they are drawn to play outdoors. As Jay Griffiths argues in her magnificent, heartrending book Kith, children fill the ‘unoccupied territories’, the spaces not controlled by tidy-minded adults, ‘the commons of mud, moss, roots and grass’. But such places are being purged from the land and their lives. ‘Today’s children are enclosed in school and home, enclosed in cars to shuttle between them, enclosed by fear, by surveillance and poverty and enclosed in rigid schedules of time.’ Since the 1970s, the area in which children roam without adults has decreased by almost 90%. ‘Childhood is losing its commons’.”
  • Dallas shoppers turning to small retailers for unique holiday gifts. “Alternative shopping is more popular than ever, with Dallas shoppers looking for unique items, from the bohemian to the upscale. The Bishop Arts District has blossomed, and the Design District, Henderson Avenue, Deep Ellum and the Plaza at Preston Center are all largely populated with shops run by their owners.”
  • What to Do With a Dying Neighborhood. “There are very few stories where a half-finished development has been saved from ruin. The rescue of one such development, by the city in which it is located, is being heralded as a potential solution to some of the worst mistakes of the housing crisis.”
  • The Shopping Mall Death Spiral. “The shopping mall is the epitome of America’s Suburban Experiment. From a local government standpoint, it was the golden chalice of development, a winner-take-all prize in our race to the bottom. Whoever got the mall was able to steal from their neighbors that fraction of a sliver of retail taxes that local governments receive. When consolidated in one place, that could add up to a significant amount of money, at least for a while.”

The Problem with a clean-slate approach to redevelopment

During the late 1970s and early 1980s, Anaheim’s historic downtown was a seedy red-light district. Despite the fact that downtown dated back to the founding of the city in 1853, with a traditional street grid, mid-rise masonry buildings, and a Carnegie library, it had become overrun with adult bookstores and a movie theater that played adult films. It was, quite simply, the embodiment of the negative stereotypes of urban living that were so popular at the time. The Anaheim Redevelopment Agency’s solution to this situation was to bulldoze the vast majority of the historic buildings, re-route and expand the major thoroughfares, and replace everything with car-focused development. Over the past thirty years, Anaheim’s redeveloped downtown has stagnated and fallen once again into disrepair, while neighboring cities such as Orange and Fullerton preserved their historic downtowns to create vibrant urban districts.

This clean-slate approach to redevelopment is not a successful strategy for rebuilding our suburbs, and especially not our downtowns. The rapid destruction and redevelopment of entire neighborhoods displaces existing users, destroys any existing economics and community activity, and creates far too much supply of new development to be absorbed by the market. The result is a neighborhood with continued anemic economic and community activity, similar to the condition before redevelopment. In short, the redevelopment effort ends up being a failed investment into the community. Continue reading The Problem with a clean-slate approach to redevelopment

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.
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