Part Three of a Three Part Series – By Donald Powers, AIA, LEED AP, CNU
Note: This piece is written about Main Street in East Greenwich, RI, however we believe that many of the general issues and recommendations discussed in this series can be applied to main streets everywhere
In Parts One and Two of this commentary, I asserted that our Main Street was less than it could be aesthetically and economically. Central to my theme was that aesthetics and retail health were related: to the degree folks want to be on Main Street for the sheer enjoyment of it, the retail performance will improve. I claimed that the assumed problems, such as the lack of parking in front of stores, and an average retail unit size that was too small for most national “credit tenants” (e.g. J. Crew, etc.), might not be the source of the problem. These elements may even be assets, if properly understood. I promised to be more positive in the third part and offer some constructive suggestions. So, I am convinced that traditional main streets succeed economically to the degree that they succeed socially, by being a “place” that people want to be. Solve for that issue and the other structural issues such as perceived or actual lack of parking and the insufficient “floor plates” of 100 year old buildings become easier to deal with. I’ll outline here a few concrete approaches towards improving the social / aesthetic part of the problem, and then add some thoughts on those “structural” issues such as parking.
If the key to improved health of individual businesses is the creation of a place which people want to visit, then it follows that each business owner has a stake in the overall health of Main Street. That reasoning has lead to the creation of entities called Business Improvement Districts. In B.I.D’s business and building owners join to create an association whose goal is the improvement and maintenance of the main street as a whole — for the benefit of each member’s business. It is essentially a private tax used to supplement normal municipal services. In Providence it has been deployed successfully in the Downcity Neighborhood to maintain plantings, repair sidewalks, pick up litter, direct shoppers to parking, and manage cultural and promotional events. The result is a palpably cleaner, safer, and more pleasant place to be, resulting in more folks being there and shopping.
Whether or not it is formally constituted as a B.I.D., this type of cooperation, as embodied in the Chamber of Commerce for example, is key to the health of each individual business. Interestingly, the best business development techniques are often not about selling things. In Providence’s Downcity neighborhood, property owner Cornish Associates has helped to create a deep sense of community by sponsoring and promoting neighborhood cultural events. Three years ago they built a temporary park on a vacant lot they ultimately intend to develop. In the meantime, this park, with its regulation bocce court, outdoor movie screen, and patch of grass has become the epicenter for a whole community of Downcity residents and regular visitors. Thursday evenings begin with the bocce games between teams cobbled together from residents and local offices, they progress to a free outdoor showing of classic movies, and may continue on to dinner, drinks and music in any one of the restaurants that dot the neighborhood. Our office is next door to this park; I can attest to how successful this cultural asset has been to the business climate of the neighborhood. I could see a similar effort on Main Street, either privately driven or done in conjunction with the Town and the Main Street Coordinator.
If you want to create a place folks want to be, design matters. The efforts at beautification that the Town has taken such as banners, maintained plantings, and public art are excellent and should be continued. But the public space is also formed by private storefronts. Several store owners have done an excellent job of creating interesting, vibrant storefronts and display. Many owners, however well meaning, may not have the retail experience or design sense to do the best job. Several recent storefront renovations have resulted, ironically, in the kinds of “improvements” that diminish the pedestrian appeal of the street: too little display and glazing, poorly designed signage, lack attention paid to the “design” of the sidewalk outside, lack of façade and display lighting, etc. Many of these businesses would be happy to do a better job if they knew how or were given direction. To that end, a recent program sponsored by the City of Warwick targeting the retail neighborhood of Conimicut may be instructive. The city utilized a small amount of Community Development Block Grant monies to fund a storefront design assistance program. A qualified architectural firm (mine) was retained to provide qualifying business or building owners an integrated and illustrated menu of specific improvements to their frontage with the goal of making them more retail-appropriate and appealing to pedestrians. Our (small) fee was paid out of the CDBG monies on a per owner basis and the owner left with a clear roadmap to renovations that both solved their goals and were integrated with an overall vision for the street. As I recall, about 7 of 20 or so businesses availed themselves of the program, a respectable ratio.
Another way to encourage appropriate design is voluntary design standards. Mandatory design standards are notoriously difficult to implement, stirring up all sorts of legal and political hornet nests. But what is sometimes distasteful as law is often welcomed as a suggestion. Union Studio recently prepared a set of suggested design guidelines for the Village district of Jamestown. These guidelines went well beyond the blunt instrument of the zoning ordinances minimum setbacks and maximum building heights to suggestions regarding minimum amount of glazing in a storefront (70%) to correct proportions of windows (more vertical than horizontal), to “correct” and “incorrect” storefront lighting. The guidelines work on the assumption that 90% of business owners are more than willing to do what they understand their community would like them to do if it does not interfere with their own business goals. In fact, most welcome the assistance and the clarity of direction. Where an owner has a differing aesthetic or intent – if it doesn’t violate the broad brush of zoning, they are free to pursue it. Assuming it could be defended as a public service (and I assert it can be) such a program could be extended to the storefront display as well, helping retailers design and light displays that would be many times more effective at enlivening the street and increasing sales then some of the faded, dusty, ill-lit, and boring displays that handicap certain sections of Main Street.
It shouldn’t be overlooked that the most certain way to get pedestrians to stroll Main Street is to get them living there. To that end town policies are correctly set to encourage creation of new Main Street residences. But downtown living has its hassles and hazards, like the strange allure of Main Street to guys on very, very loud motorcycles. It is a very shrewd decision on the part of the town leaders and police to pursue this issue and make it clear that “quality of life” will be supported by ordinance and enforcement. If the central point of this column is that Main Street will thrive to the degree it is pleasant to visit, or live on, then absolute attention should be given to preventing as many nuisances as we legally can. As the “broken glass” theory of community policing demonstrates, these seemingly inconsequential irritations, can have a disproportionate effect and poison the whole appeal of Main Street if not caught early.
Lastly there is parking. It’s been noted that there is a disconnect between the actual amount of parking available on Main Street and the perception by customers and storeowners that parking is lacking. Even when they are aware of available parking its perceived remoteness is, apparently, unacceptable and so customers balk and shop in the strip malls of Rt 2. I’ve stated that the approach to this problem is two-pronged: First (assuming the studies are correct and there is enough parking), make customers more aware of it and, second: Try to make them less aware of the distance they must walk from their parking spot to their destination. To this, I’d add a third: Better management of the parking that does exist close to stores to make it more often available. We all know how to do this, so a long dissertation is unnecessary, but a list may help:
- Better signage directing cars to the municipal lots that do exist. Residents know about the public lots, but if you were just visiting, is there enough “advertising” of the available spaces to direct you?
- Better enforcement and shorter term parking for on-street spots. Interestingly clients rarely have trouble parking in front of our office, in the heart of Downcity. The two hour parking, metered and rigorously enforced, works to keep spaces in circulation. In ten years in East Greenwich, I have never actually seen an overtime ticket issued on Main Street.
- No on-street parking by employees. Actually, this is probably pretty well practiced by the most storeowners, at least as it pertains to the spots directly in front of their store. Do we have mutual agreement, however, that parking further down, in front of someone else’s frontage is also verboten?
- Shared parking, leased parking, and cooperative parking arrangements. In any retail district such as ours, the available parking is obviously not distributed by need. Some owners have excess capacity at certain times which might coincide with another business’ peak need. And vice versa. Within the function of the Chamber of Commerce or a B.I.D. might be assistance brokering of this “asset” to encourage cooperative arrangements among business owners who might, on their own, never imagine the benefits of cooperation. For our design study of Jamestown, we identified a potential of an additional 50 to 70 parking spots within the village if all the business owners were to cooperate in the formation of a shared lot, internal to the block, accomplished by granting easements to one another. It is a radical idea and one not likely to be adopted until the development pressures are far greater than they currently are, but physically, it would be easy.
- Valet parking. Even if I am right and excess parking exists elsewhere and we agree it can be brokered to the benefit of individual owners, it does not solve the problem of adjacency. Valet parking can help. It does not need to be limited only to restaurants, though few other types of businesses probably generate the peak need that would justify the staff. Still, it can be imagined that groups of adjacent owners might cooperate to hire valets during their peak demand, if they had an arrangement for sharing an off-site lot.
Relative to some of these suggestions, particularly the ones that require an almost utopian level of cooperation and mutual consideration, the question probably comes to many readers’ minds: Are you crazy? Possibly (probably). But that doesn’t negate the fact that every one of my suggestions has been accomplished elsewhere. Some of these ideas require cooperation among a few private retailers, some require municipal cooperation. The ideas are not impossible, only unlikely if we don’t examine all of the causes and possible solutions.