Thanks to the incredible efforts of our Project Fellows Hayes and James Slade of Slade Architecture and Fiona Cousins of Arup over the last few months, we've obtained invaluable information about lessons learned and best practices that could help to inform our design guidelines, from key city agencies, designers, developers, business improvement districts, and community development organizations that influence NYC’s commercial and streetscape development.
Participants included representatives from:
Participants brought up many types of retail in consideration for our design guidelines: grocer, bank, dollar store, cell phone store, pharmacy, medical office, gym, restaurant, bar, lounge, shared office, light industrial and manufacturing, laundromat, pre-k, and senior services.The first question when deciding on retail types should be, “What is our primary goal with this space? Serve a specific community need? Activate the space?”
Pros and cons of various retail uses were discussed:
Sometimes the challenge for vacant spaces is unmatched resources. For example, a BID (Business Development District) could host a brokers breakfast to introduce them to local businesses to secure lease-up, but many of the areas targeted for new housing don't event have a BID.
It's key to respect the surrounding physical and social context when designing retail spaces. Cookie-cutter commercial corridors are going to work for no one. But building off of a basic set of standards would make developers' work much easier.
There are many factors to consider, of course. Scale is one of them. New HPD projects will vary widely in terms of their size, dictated mostly by the available land. Some retail spaces in these new developments will be appropriate for big supermarkets; and others will need to fit into the street wall around them.
Perhaps a grading system of spaces might be helpful in determining the most effective type of commercial activity. Retail spaces could be tiered by context or square footage to ensure they fit in with the existing streetscape.
How pedestrians engage with storefronts is another layer of consideration. "Maybe it's fair to say that outdoor seating should only go in specific places, like near bus stops or in areas with a large aging population, and not near liquor stores," some stakeholders pointed out.
Benches were indeed a special point of interest: "Benches with backrests are good for support…Benches with dividers are good to discourage people sleeping on them…"
Green infrastructure is also a vital part of storefront design. Tree planting is required in new developments, and commercial property owners should maintain these green strips, which is often neglected for one reason or another. The Hudson Square BID has put together a maintenance guide for these amenities and kindly offered that it be incorporated into our design guidelines.
We shouldn't miss parking. Parking space attracts customers and provides logistical convenience. It's a great asset for small and large businesses alike. Although there were mixed feeling as to whether the convenience of parking takes away from the pedestrian experience, which is the essence of vibrant streets.
Obviously, you can have benches, trees, and parking lots if you have enough space. Many participants agreed that streetscape amenities should only be added when the street is wide enough to accommodate them. Otherwise they become a hassle for pedestrians rather than improvement.
Pedestrians also engage through signage. Blade signs, which are installed perpendicular to a building, were said to be the most effective in attracting customers. It might be wise, however, to include a maximum signage requirement in the design guidelines to tame competition.
And transparency…It's very important that people walking by see what's inside. "Small and squished windows, as well as low-ceiling heights, have left spaces on Atlantic Avenue vacant for over seven years," said one participant.
"Deals moved into a major corridor in Bed-Stuy, and their clean merchandise display in storefront windows influenced other 99 cent stores to clean up cluttered store windows," said another.
On the other hand, a flood-zone retail study shows that 70% and above transparency is detrimental. The study also considers higher floor to ceiling ratio to be more resilient; if there is no dry flood proofing, mechanical systems must be elevated.
On top of all the "good design" recommendations, there are the City regulations. Signs can't protrude from buildings, for example. There are floor plate restrictions to consider, too, and depth limits can hinder development. There is an eight feet minimum clear path requirement for any streetscape.
City-led redevelopment in neighborhoods should have a minimum baseline of good design that is realistic for the existing market structure.
Standards provide perspective and quality, but what it really comes down to is financing, as many stakeholders acknowledged.
There might be an excellent study that details the profile of a neighborhood and its needs, but it's the businesses with high competitive leverage that survive; and not necessarily the operations the neighborhood is in the most need of.
That leaves community facilities requiring a strong local partner to be successful.
Financing is also a big piece of the puzzle that typically dictates design elements. Conversion loans result in the developer being too leveraged to lend capital for tenant-based improvements, meaning that developers often times shoulder any specialized or high design costs. Defining capital devoted to retail space, as well as expected revenue generated from rent and tenant improvements, are crucial first steps in starting projects.
On top of that, one needs to break through the vicious cycle of banks not or barely lending for locations with low market rates, and businesses that are hesitant to take the risk of being the firstcomer.
In this high-pressure climate, "design for flexibility" becomes a key principle. "Don’t build out a restaurant space that can't accommodate another use if a tenant isn’t secured," one stakeholder said.
Mayor Bill de Blasio has pledged to preserve or construct nearly 200,000 units of affordable housing – enough to house between 400,000 and 500,000 New Yorkers. In his recent State of the City address, he stressed, “We must lay the foundation now for the strength and stability of New York’s future…a future of greater equality and opportunity.”
At the Design Trust, we’re committed to laying the groundwork for this ambitious plan.
For our Laying the Groundwork project, we're working with the NYC Department of Housing Preservation & Development to create a set of guidelines for the design of ground-floor retail spaces in new affordable housing developments.
This project will ensure that new mixed-use developments include the type of spacious, flexible storefronts that can attract local entrepreneurs, provide vital services like banks and grocers as well as community facilities and cultural amenities. Which in return will support vibrant streets and happy residents who enjoy their neighborhoods.
Market is the big gorilla in the room. Designing retail space that can be repurposed helps immensely in the unpredictable market.