Durable Growth

The shrinking role of retail in planning cities

Office over retail mixed-use in downtown Napa

Office over retail mixed-use in downtown Napa

In 1962, when I was a nine-year-old living in south Sacramento, Macy’s announced plans to build a store in downtown Sacramento.  It was big news for the adults in my world.  It was also big news for Sacramento, a point of new-found pride in a town that often thought of itself as falling short in comparisons with San Francisco and Los Angeles.

I wasn’t quite sure I knew what Macy’s was.  I doubt I’ve yet seen “Miracle on 34th Street”.  But I sensed the buzz of excitement about Macy’s coming to town.  Retail stores mattered.

I thought back on those days of innocence this week as word came out that Macy’s would close another 100 stores to instead focus on its internet businesses.

Macy’s isn’t a factor in most walkable urban districts, but the message still stands.  Retail stores are shrinking in importance and shrinking quickly.  And it’s not just the old-line department stores like Macy’s.

The failure of enclosed malls is well-known, with photos of derelict malls rivaling abandoned industrial plants as ruin porn.

Downtown retail is increasingly antique stores and boutiques rather the diapers and canned soup that make up daily shopping lists.

Many strip malls have storefronts lined with butcher paper and leasing signs out front.

The new generation of open malls, whether the conventional configuration with giant parking lots fronting on supersized strip malls or the downtown-emulating lifestyle centers, struggle to fill their space.

Even residential over retail mixed-used, the backbone of many walkable urbanist plans, often can’t find enough tenants to fill the retail space created.

We needn’t like this direction, much as many bemoaned the abrupt loss of a great number of newspapers a few years back.  But lamenting the shrinking role of retail won’t make a difference, just as it didn’t with the newspaper downward spiral.

Instead, our role is to accept the inevitability of the change and to adjust to it.  (Earlier this week, I listened as the Windsor City Council and Planning Commission debated whether to give developers the option to substitute horizontal mixed-use for vertical.  I agreed with those who argued to hold firm on vertical, but at the same time wondered if they weren’t fighting over a corpse.)

Petaluma had the dual good fortune of updating their downtown development code just as the slide in retail was becoming evident and of having a far-sighted planning firm, Opticos Design, doing the update.  As a result, the amount of required sidewalk retail was reduced to levels that will hopefully be more consistent with future demand.

The reduction of sidewalk retail has urban design implications.  Although a level of pedestrian interest must be maintained to promote walkability, with interest being one of Jeff Speck’s four keys to walkability, the relationship between the sidewalk and a home is fundamentally different than between a sidewalk and a store.  (Long ago, I noted some examples at BART TOD projects.)  Opticos understood this and gave good design direction in the Station Area Masterplan.

Macy’s isn’t coming back nor is the number of local bookstores likely to rebound.  The future will belong to those who quickly accept this new reality and adjust their planning to accommodate it.

When I next write, it will be to offer my weekly list of opportunities to get involved in the public advocacy for urbanism.  As fall creeps closer, the list is beginning to grow.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

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