Right-Sizing Retail

Right-Sizing Retail

The reality in retail for the past few decades has been a slow drain on Main Street as big-box stores siphon off shoppers leaving smaller venues to fend for themselves. Today the picture is even more complicated, with malls and mom-and-pop stores both struggling. With different agendas and tactics, government and developers are now both trying to shape retail in ways that will preserve urban character while growing the economy. Tom Stoelker grabs a shopping cart.

To drive up Broadway in New York is to stream past armies of smiling muliculti faces projecting the images of self-satisfied cell phone users, happy drugstore customers, and shoppers on a tear. And that’s not even the people on the sidewalk; it’s the larger-than-life advertisements featured in the chain-store windows proliferating where once neighborhood hardware stores, boutiques, and grocers were the norm.

Main Street retailers have been in a protracted fight to the finish for years now, with big-box retailers and malls bearing much of the blame. Now Manhattan’s mom-and-pop stores face the same destiny as the drugstore soda jerk as chain stores cannibalize two, three, and sometimes four or five consecutive small storefronts to satiate a need for more and more square footage. And then there are the banks, with Bank of America’s blazing red blurring into TD Bank’s emerald green, while Chase’s blue glow blends with Citibank’s cobalt. And this isn’t even honky-tonk Broadway at Times Square; it’s the Upper West Side. As signage and ads envelop entire storefronts, creating sidewalk-level billboards, they are gnawing to nubbins any remaining sense of neighborhood character.

Retailers—both large and small—are caught in a Catch-22. Today’s urban customer wants small shops and a homespun product while demanding the convenience, variety, and price that only the chains can offer. Mom-and-pop stores have the right look but not the economy of means to succeed without governmental intervention in the form of zoning. Large-scale developers are trying to solve the problem by curating retail experiences to appear more local, and on occasion even subsidizing rents for smaller shops.

Last month, New York’s Department of City Planning attempted to address the community concerns on the Upper West Side through frontage limits. “The goal is to preserve and restore multi-store frontages,” City Planning’s Laura Smith said at a crowded community meeting. “Banks deaden the streetscape.” With its residential side streets, the Upper West Side relies on the north/south corridors of Broadway, Amsterdam, and Columbus for shopping. The proposed “enhanced commercial district” along Amsterdam and Columbus would require two storefronts per 50-foot lot with no store exceeding 40 feet. While existing businesses would be grandfathered in, new banks would face the most stringent regulations, with a store frontage limited to 25 feet. How tenants expand beyond a minimum 35-foot depth is up to them. The intention is to encourage an upstairs or downstairs expansion rather than the current street-level proliferation.

Plenty of cities, indeed plenty of New York City neighborhoods, would envy the Upper West Side’s problems with its 6 percent vacancy rate. Certain areas of the Bronx would welcome any banks and chain stores, if only they would come.

Retail regulation by government is taking hold elsewhere and in different shapes. In New Jersey, for example, government influence over retail is coming in the form of state funding and tax breaks for big developments. Two mega projects under construction took in huge influxes of public as well as private capital. Both are using Vegas-style strategies to attract retail consumers, stressing the entertainment angles. The Revel casino in Atlantic City is a 6.2-million-square-foot retail behemoth that calls itself a “beachfront entertainment resort,” and American Dream Meadowlands will be a 7.5-million-square-foot “retail entertainment complex,” not a mall. Both ventures were on their deathbeds until the state stepped in last summer. Revel got $261 million to complete its $2.4 billon project and American Dream got $350 million in tax breaks for its $3.7 billion project.


The website of the American Dream touts the need “to capture consumer disposable income throughout all types of economic cycles […] as a world-scale tourist magnet.” Revel, however, has reached out to regional foodies by bringing in a host of culinary talent from New York, Washington, and New York.

But across major cities in North America, retail regulations vary widely. San Francisco arguably has some of the most restrictive laws limiting retail uses, despite the fact that the zoning of interiors can stir up issues of free speech, as well as state and federal jurisdiction. (A handy ruling from the California Supreme Court does say that states can use zoning to regulate for aesthetic reasons.) The San Francisco law limits “formula retail stores” in “noncommercial districts,” which is to say it limits chain stores from expanding into residential neighborhoods. If a store has more than ten stores nationally, it’s considered a formula retail store. Even Pet Food Express, a locally owned holistic pet food store, faced push back.

“The local merchants love it,” San Francisco planning director John Rahaim said of the code. “But some areas are looking for more activity and some chambers of commerce are saying why not loosen up.” Rahaim clearly has a love/hate relationship with the measure, saying that cities considering such controls should approach it with their eyes wide open. “Part of the issue is that San Francisco tries to regulate everything,” he said. “I think it works because it has kept character and scale, but you can put in some controls without an absolute hammer.”

At the other end of the spectrum is Toronto. Rollin Stanley, currently the planning director of Montgomery County, Maryland, spent more than twenty years at the Toronto city planning department, much of it spent on contemplating public experience on the street. He prefers the sidewalk observations of urbanist William “Holly” Whyte, whose counterintuitive studies found that people actually gravitate toward sidewalk logjams. Stanley said sometimes the best approach to zoning for retail is to take no action at all. He pointed to the haphazard growth of commercial districts in Toronto’s immigrant communities. “You can hardly walk through Chinatown, but that’s what’s wonderful about it,” he said.

“In Toronto things will evolve, the fronts will change. The best are a real hodgepodge: Victorian row houses with the ugly box on top. That is really dynamic—we never could’ve planned for that.”

Philadelphia is attempting to walk a fine line with a spanking new zoning law passed in December; it addresses concerns with facade details but shies away from the kind of limitations being applied in New York for fear that they would discourage reviving empty storefronts. Their new zoning law focuses instead on facade articulation and street lines.

Back in New York, developers are taking a carefully curated approach to cater to the estimated 10 million yearly tourists expected at the World Trade Center (WTC). There, about 635,000 square feet of retail will be connected within the immediate vicinity of the project. WTC’s retailer, Westfield Group, is holding their cards close, but Brookfield Properties’ vice president of leasing David Cheikin indicated that their $250 million renovation of the World Financial Center by Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects will attempt to achieve the best of both worlds, mixing luxury with local. Cheikin said the company hopes to place “the no-name designer next to the big names.” With fashion facing the World Trade Center side of the complex, locavorish delights will spill out into cafes on the Hudson River side. What Mario Batali did for Italy through Eataly, Brookfield hopes to do for New York by offering Finger Lake wines, North Fork veggies, and Hudson Valley cheeses.

It’s not an exact science. Sometimes even seemingly successful local formulas like Grand Central’s Food Hall and restaurants—an example of great retail curating by a government agency, the MTA—welcome the attractive force of an established national brand. In November, Apple replaced the steakhouse Métrazur with a 23,000-square-foot showroom. The computer giant paid $5 million to get the restaurant to skedaddle and then wrangled a $180-per-square-foot deal from the MTA—less than the going rate of $200 square feet. Unlike other Grand Central retailers, Apple will not share any portion of its revenue with the MTA. This didn’t exactly sit well with established tenants. After a spate of bad press, the MTA announced that it would be seeking someone else to take over leasing 200,000 square feet of retail at the new Grimshaw-designed Fulton Transit Center near the World Trade Center, emphasizing the agency’s desire to concentrate on running transit not shops.


Mixing it up makes sense at every scale. Brooklyn College professor Sharon Zukin, author of Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places, notes that in the urban retail economy, some people shop for price and others shop for the aesthetics of the experience, but most do both. “I’ll buy Tylenol at Duane Reade and most of my food at Union Square,” she said. “Our lives take advantage of the different kinds of consumption spaces. ”Zukin is a big fan of the Upper West Side initiative, arguing that zoning is one of the few elements available in the government’s arsenal to foster diversity. She also believes that landmark districts now play an unwitting role. “Historic preservation has risen as a tool of social purpose even though it was certainly not by design,” she said. “It’s a default strategy since we don’t have policy that controls uses.”

One of the main concerns about zoning for diversity is that a formulaic approach could actually create a homogenizing effect. “That’s what Broadway has lost on the Upper West Side,” said Zukin. “A homogenized look, whether it’s old or new, is not good. New Yorkers thrive on the jagged edges. The hand-lettered sign next to the modern plate glass is what attracts people.”

It’s been exactly 50 years since urban activist Jane Jacobs described the sidewalk ballet in front of her home on Hudson Street in Greenwich Village. Developers from Seattle to New York are now trying to replicate her notions of mixed-used community while zoning departments from San Francisco to Toronto try to preserve the ones that are left. Jacobs wrote that neighborhood vitality was due in part to the trust between retailers and their neighbors: “It grows out of people stopping by the bar for a beer, getting advice from the grocer, and giving advice to the newsstand man, comparing opinions with other customers at the bakery…”

Just a block or so from where Jane Jacobs wrote her seminal book, designer Marc Jacobs, no relation, is now holding court. The designer fills four storefronts on Bleeker Street and two more outposts sit on streets nearby. Ralph Lauren grabbed another four storefronts. High-end clothing chains take up the rest of the block, on this, the city’s latest fashion strip. The classic Village storefronts seem almost cynically preserved, like Jane Jacobs in quotation marks. On a recent unseasonably warm January night, the sidewalks were clogged with tourists. Pin spots delicately lit the haute goods. As visitors popped in and out of the narrow storefronts, few exchanges were made. Conversations with shopkeepers were limited to the product. No advice was given, none was offered, and the locals were few.