Principles of urban retail planning and development
In his new book, urban planner Robert Gibbs considers the challenges and opportunities associated with designing a more sustainable retail-scape.
For as long as I’ve known him, which is about 15 years, Bob Gibbs has had one foot in New Urbanism and the other in the realm of mainstream retail calculations. His aim has been to help urbanists develop stores, restaurants, and centers that will thrive despite retailing’s generally high failure rate.
New urbanist planners are skilled at envisioning lovely, sociable retail settings; the president of Gibbs Planning Group in Birmingham, Michigan, wants to make sure the designs pay close attention to economic reality and consumer behavior. “The retail and shopping center sector is the riskiest of all principal real estate sectors,” he warns in this 243-page book, which distills what he’s learned from advising developers and designers around the world.
In a preface, Yaromir Steiner, founder and CEO of Steiner + Associates, which developed Easton Town Center in Columbus, Ohio, argues that too much of the new urbanist approach has been “based on romantic and outdated notions of retail” — including “retail concepts that do not exist, store sizes that are not feasible, and commercial and mixed-use centers that lack critical mass.”
Gibbs, who has consulted on more than 500 public and private town centers, is experienced in avoiding such pitfalls. He starts this book with an unexpected observation: “People do not need to shop.” They can postpone many purchases, often for a very long time. As a result, retailers have to be certain that they’re offering what the customers are looking for, with the right image, at an acceptable price, and in formats that take into account how much time people are willing to devote to shopping.
In recent years, retailing has settled into seven main formats: convenience centers, neighborhoods centers, community centers, regional centers, lifestyle centers, town centers, and outlet centers. Gibbs describes the size, siting, drawing power, and other characteristics of these seven, plus an older format that’s been tried in a number of new urban developments: the corner store.
As an economic realist, Gibbs doesn’t advocate the mom-and-pop corner stores that dotted urban neighborhoods 60 or 80 years ago. Many of those couldn’t make a go of it once most Americans acquired wheels. Corner stores are hard to support in a brand-new development except when specific conditions are met.
“In densely populated traditional neighborhood developments (TNDs), a corner store can be economically sustainable within the neighborhood when sited on its primary street,” Gibbs advises. But it will typically need about 800 to 1,000 households — as many households as a typical 160-acre TND contains. Some factors can make the corner store viable with fewer households close by. A location on a road carrying 10,000 or more cars a day is one such factor. Specialization in niche products such as wines, liquors, or baked goods is another. Even so, the store will have to operate long hours, opening early and closing late, to offset its expenses.
Convenience centers — typically 10,000 to 30,000 square feet of gross leasable area, including a chief tenant such as a small specialty food market or pharmacy, plus others such as a bagel store, bakery, bank, coffee shop, deli, or dry cleaner — need about 2,000 households, the equivalent of two TNDs, Gibbs calculates. Convenience centers often are freestanding, linear buildings behind surface parking — a physical form that produces little sense of place. Gibbs shows how these centers can assume more appealing forms, such as an “L,” a “U,” or a “market square” — shops facing three sides of an open area. (The fourth side is a street or lane with on-street parking.)
“Convenience centers cannot be supported by transit stops alone,” he cautions. “The typical commuter tends to be in too much of a hurry or simply unwilling to carry purchases to or from work.”
Gibbs presents numerous plans, sketches, and photos to explain the potential configurations of retail centers. Among them: the single L center, the double reverse L center, the half-block center (Easton Town Center in 1999 was the first modern example), and the retail crescent center (a curving retail street that diverges from the major road).
For the most part, retailers still favor auto-oriented layouts that do a terrible job of placemaking, but there are signs of growing flexibility. Supermarkets like Copps, in Middleton Hills, Wisconsin, have adopted less regular floor plans, for a more pedestrian-oriented environment.
Among the leading retail companies, he sees progress: “Their standard plans for suburban stores have been entirely reconceptualized into more flexible schemes that can be adapted to historic multistory buildings and to small blocks lined with parallel parking.” Even discount, big-box retailers “have begun to adopt new design techniques that allow them to integrate into, and harmonize with, walkable urban centers.”
Stores and civic uses can work together, as they did in towns and cities decades ago. “Recently,” Gibbs notes, “developers and retailers have discovered that the town center’s mix of civic uses, such as libraries, can increase consumer traffic and improve overall economic performance.”
Throughout Principles of Urban Retail, Gibbs alerts readers to economic constraints that impede ambitious urban visions. Can a lifestyle center developer be enticed to put housing or offices above ground-floor retail? Usually not, he says. Such a multi-level format “can increase building costs by up to 25 percent, an expense that cannot be offset by increased rents.”
“In the boom days of the late 1980s and 1990s, many communities were willing to contribute land, parking decks, or direct public subsidies” to make mixed-use town centers feasible, he observes, But today, “such public assistance is seldom available,” so a retail center “must be sustainable in its own right.”
Gibbs warns against wasteful spending. Don’t lavish money on fancy sidewalks, he advises. Spend your limited resources instead on storefronts, signs, and visual merchandising. Be sure that sidewalks are frequently cleaned and promptly repaired. Choose moderately priced street and sidewalk furnishings that can be replaced every eight to ten years. “Even the most carefully designed and crafted bench will appear old-fashioned within ten years,” he points out.
Lighting, outdoor dining, tree-planting, way-finding, parking, awnings, window displays, finance — Gibbs presents advice on all these topics and on many others. He concludes with case studies of 14 “historic city centers,” from St. Andrews, Scotland, and Charleston, South Carolina, to Wasilla, Alaska (actually not so historic), and 14 new town centers, from Birkdale Village in Huntersville, North Carolina, to The Grove in Los Angeles.
Every component of this book is organized systematically. Gibbs conveys his expertise with rigorous clarity. This guide should prove invaluable for anyone who wants to do retail in a way that adds to a community’s character and also makes economic sense.