Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Growing a Business District one Rock-Climbing Gym at a Time

This nondescript building is home to the Cliffs at LIC, a 20,000 sf
facility that attracts hundreds of climbers a day.
Nearby businesses are starting to cater to these customers. 
The rock-climbing gym in Long Island City, Queens seems to be single-handedly changing the retail environment along a historically industrial stretch of this community, according to a recent article in Crain's. I was particularly interested in the take-away's from this article after a presentation we made last night to a small town of about 12,000 in Upstate New York. The community is looking for ways to drive pedestrian traffic to their small but interesting Main Street. Over the course of our lively discussion with City and County officials, business owners and residents, we agreed that events, activities and destination drivers are key to bringing people downtown to shop at the growing cluster of stores along Main Street. While there are many aspects to revitalization - one participant likened it to putting together a complicated puzzle - at least part of the revitalization effort will require supporting the businesses that have recently opened and making sure they succeed. In its most basic form, this will require getting more people in the door to shop and eat. That means putting on not only events - which we acknowledge can be challenging to manage and sustain, not to mention execute successfully - but also identifying opportunities to enhance the downtown experience through entertainment anchors. And this is where the rock-climbing gym in Long Island City comes in. The impact of this one business on the corridor - particularly with respect to driving demand for auxiliary businesses - has been tremendous and offers a few lessons learned.

  • Merchants communicated with one another and coordinated hours  in a way that benefited both. The owner of Cliffs at LIC personally approached Josh Bowen, the owner of John Brown's Smokehouse to tell him that his patrons, numbering about 500 on a typical weeknight, were often leaving their climbing sessions hungry and with no place to go. It is great that is happened in this community organically. What this speaks to is the need to create opportunities for merchants to communicate with one another on a regular basis to identify and act upon synergies. Do your merchants have a venue to do this? We worked in a community many years ago where the local restaurants and local theater were working at cross-purposes. The restaurateurs often didn't know when there was a show going on - and subsequently were understaffed and slammed with customers on nights when they didn't expect it. As a result, customers were often late for their shows. Do you think many people came back to recreate this harrowing experience? I think not. In this community, it became clear how important is was to create simple communication tools - monthly meetings of a newly formed hospitality committee (managed and staffed by the local Business Improvement District) and an on-line event calendar distributed via email to said hospitality committee were all ways to improve communication among businesses which in turn improved the experience for customers. Ultimately some of this comes down to the need to establish and cultivate administrative capacity to make sure these conversations happen, and that they happen frequently enough to troubleshoot issues that come up. 
  • The opportunity to build on the 'rock-climbing" retail micro-climate that is developing. By understanding what this niche market wants and needs, local business owners can capitalize on the spending potential of climbers. Whether this be food after a good session, or craft-beer, or coffee or a store selling climbing gear...all of these businesses can begin to form an ecosystem that is driven by the destination driver - in this case the gym.
  • The need to invest in experiential opportunities. I talk alot about the need to incorporate both impulse and ambient entertainment in our downtown environments. Think great public spaces that engage the user (one of my recent favorites is Campus Martius Park in downtown Detroit. Foosball, performers, music, basketball) these are all things that make going downtown more than just about buying goods. 

A foosball table at Campus Martius Park in
Downtown Detroit is a fun diversion that activates place. 
If we rely on downtown to be solely about the purchase - we are destined to lose the battle against retailers who offer wider selection at cheaper prices - either at the local big box shop or on-line. But experience is not just about what happens on the street, it also mean experiential retail, and the rock-climbing gym is a great example of this. In fact, a super-regional mall outside NYC recently revamped its interior courtyard with a ropes course. Even the big guys are internalizing these lessons. 

A rock-climbing gym is admittedly not for every community - but the concept of identifying a a unique offering or experience that drives pedestrian traffic, which in turn enhances the retail sales of nearby businesses, is a basic retail lesson for all of us.  

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

NoHo BID leads the pack with a .BID Domain

Last night I had the pleasure of welcoming Seth Taylor, Executive Director of the NoHo BID, as a guest speaker to my Downtown Economic Development class (which is offered through the Department of City and Regional Planning at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn). Seth spoke about his organization's efforts to rebrand and reposition the area known as NoHo - for North of Houston Street in lower Manhattan. If you are more familiar with SoHo, well this is its northern cousin.

After issuing an RFP for a design firm to help develop a new brand, logo and website, the BID settled on Box Creative, a SoHo-based graphic design firm. The new logo was evocative of the great architecture and high-end design aesthetic increasingly found among the district's businesses.

Another exciting element of the branding effort was the website. The brothers who run Box Creative suggested to Seth that he consider a .BID domain to maintain consistent branding across all platforms. Seth didn't realize that you could select a .BID domain over a .COM domain - and neither did I! He explained to the class that the .BID domain was developed for auction sites, but of course works perfectly for Business Improvement Districts. He went with NoHo.BID as his website address and never looked back. The domain name is streamlined and clean, just like his newly designed logo and website. Take a look!

I thought this was too good not to share. With 2,500+ BIDs across the country, this is an idea whose time might have come!

Making Commercial Districts Age-Friendly

Seniors comprise a growing segment of the population and can be great assets to businesses. As a BID manager pointed out during last week’s IDA panel Making Commercial Districts Age Friendly: “Seniors are the most loyal customers”.

In fact, as part of the Age-Friendly NYC, a citywide initiative promoted by the NY Academy of Medicine, NYC Office of the Mayor and New York City Council, a number of local BIDs began incorporating age-friendly measures to make their districts more welcoming to their increasing number of seniors. Three BIDs, Bed-Stuy Gateway, Westchester Square and Myrtle Avenue Brooklyn Partnership, shared their approaches with the audience including:

Discount for seniors, which can take many forms such as a percent discount just for this age group, or a percent discount on products and services targeted for them (which has shown to be a popular alternative in districts where older adults don’t want to be labeled as seniors).

Source: Myrtle Avenue Brooklyn Partnership

Installation of additional seating throughout the district to provide resting opportunities for seniors and people with walking difficulties.  The installation of benches in front of businesses had also a positive outcome to business owners: one dry-cleaner reported a 20% increase in sales after a bench was installed in front of its store.

Source: Myrtle Avenue Brooklyn Partnership 

A tour of new businesses: one district created a special tour to introduce local seniors to new business with targeted services and programming and was very successful.

Senior Resource Guide: includes a map showing businesses with services designed specifically for seniors, many of whom lack the computer skills to find this information online.

And many of these approaches were actually developed by local seniors themselves through a of series community engagement events, as in the case of Myrtle Avenue, Brooklyn.  

Finally,  it’s important to note that many of the measures to make districts friendlier to seniors are also great for other age-groups, including children and mothers with infants (that have to move around with baby carriers and strollers). So more points for this initiative: an age-friendly district is welcoming to seniors and other age groups alike.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Measuring Impact through Pedestrian Counts

Imagine if you went through school without a getting grades or even feedback on your work? How would you know when you needed to work harder, or smarter, to do better?

In the world of Business Improvement Districts, using data to measure and demonstrate impact is becoming more important than ever. That was why I really enjoyed Gemma Noble's presentation at IDA today. Gemma is with Springboard, a leading provider of visitor/pedestrian counts. Not every BID collects ped counts, and when they do, they hire a planning or transportation firm who puts a guy with clicker on a corner. As our world becomes more automated, this is increasingly an antiquated way to measure the impact of programming, and certainly less valuable than being able to measure pedestrian traffic on a 24-hour basis.

I enjoyed seeing the different ways in which ped counts were used...some of the more interesting examples included:
  • using the data to demonstrate to city officials that high ped counts during a major holiday warranted additional security. 
  • using the data to determine whether an event was successful or not - because you have the counts to prove it!
  • being able to measure the impact - before and after - of significant public realm improvements
  • being able to compare pedestrian counts against the sale of retailers in your district - and demonstrate to businesses the fact that your events and activities are directly correlated to their sales
Being able to tell the world you are doing a good job reinforces the value of your BID, supports your request for additional resources to make more impact, and helps build employee morale and motivation. A win-win for all.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

The IDA Conference is in full swing...and we are sharing our insights!

This years annual conference of the International Downtown Association promises to be a good one. The energy is palpable - and it is always connect with old friends and make new ones. We will be sharing insights and tweeting throughout the conference, so be sure to follow us on twitter! @cdadvisor #IDASF

I was particularly excited to co-present a session sponsored by the International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC) with David Greensfelder, of Greensfelder Commercial Realty. His firm is the preferred developer for CVS in the SF region and he was chock full of great insight into what drives the decision making of commodities retailers like grocery stores and drug stores. I really enjoyed seeing what goes on "inside the box" of these retailers, most of whom use sophisticated, data driven retail site selection strategies. I did not know, for example, that CVS site maps the incidence of AIDS cases in neighborhoods to determine the strength of a particular SF site. From a business perspective, this makes sense because it is one strong indicator of market potential.

David made no apologies, telling the crowd "retail doesn't want to go in space just because it's there, it's got to be a good location that makes sense."  For public sector officials and urban planners this is an important message. One example he shared from a downtown mixed-use project he developed demonstrated the importance of flexibility in use restrictions. In the example David showed, his project allowed for flexibility in ground floor uses - including shared office space and housing that could be turned into retail at a later date. The project next to his did not - it had traditional retail spaces on the ground floor. While his project has no vacancy on the ground floor, the project next to his was continually vacant. In this weak market context, requiring ground floor retail in an effort to activate the street clearly backfired. As a City Planning Commissioner for the City of New York, I am increasingly aware of how zoning regulations play a role in either supporting or undermining truly successful retail environments, so I particularly appreciated this example.

Another major take away was the role that even minor inconveniences play in site selection. I have always known that coffee shops like to be on the "inbound" side of the street for instance. That is the side of the street that accommodates the traffic (automobile, pedestrian or otherwise) of people who are going to work. David mentioned again and again and again the importance of accessibility and convenience. He had us close our eyes and imagine sitting behind the wheel of a car that is low on gas. Do we make a left hand turn across two lanes of traffic on the way to work (and keep in mind we are already running late), or do we keep on driving on fumes to find a gas station on the right side of the street? Nearly everyone, myself included, indicated they would keep driving on fumes. The power of accessibility and convenience is a powerful message that those of us in the public sector - if we can create a district that is easy to get into and out of, easy to find through wayfinding and signage, easy and comfortable to get to not just by driving, but by biking and walking, we have helped create the conditions for successful retail, and made our districts a little more attractive to the retailers looking for good locations.

With that, I'm off to the IDA Board Meeting! I look forward to the rest of the conference and to sharing more of our insights from sessions!

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Roundup: Surgeon General rare push for exercise, placemaking projects, transportation trends translating out of urban core, big box parking lot solutions for peds

Surgeon general pushes people to start walking, communities to step up

The surgeon general, Vivek Murthy, on September 9th encouraged Americans to take a walk, to combat sedentary America, but he asked communities to also step up to make neighborhoods easier and safer for foot traffic.

Photo: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

4 Cities Get $3 Million Each for Placemaking Projects

ArtPlace America granted funding to see art and culture intertwined not at the end of the project but throughout, in an effort to make art and culture the focus of community projects. "The winners include Cook Inlet Housing Authority in Anchorage, Fairmount Park Conservancy in Philadelphia, Jackson Medical Mall Foundation in Jackson, Mississippi, and Little Tokyo Service Center in Los Angeles."    More coverage here.

Will Big City Transportation Trends Translate to Small Town USA?

With the rise of transportation options in urban core America - Uber, TaskRabbit, Lyft, Seamless, etc - to deliver people, food, and services, those in the periphery are at the cusp of figuring out how to make it useful for them as well but finding few options.

Photo: AP Photo/Mark Lennihan

How to Make Big Box Stores Less Terrible for Walking: 8 Expert Tips

Big Box stores are not going anywhere, especially in America, and the vast majority are not designed for the pedestrian but for the personal automobile making them a dangerous destination by foot.  This article gives guidance to the big boxes to help get their non-auto patrons safely to the door.

Photo: @fineplanner/Twitter

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Is upstairs retail the new normal?

I was struck by a Crain's piece I read today entitled "Retailers find bargain-basement prices upstairs". What they are finding is that there is increased interest in second floor space by some retailers. As certain commercial districts see rapid rent increases in the price psf of ground floor retail space, some intrepid entrepreneurs are findings second floor space more appealing - and certainly less expensive. But there are caveats. This approach does not work for everyone nor can this be replicated in every market.

That said, there are retailers who succeed in making this happen . As we like to do here at the office, we took some time to think about when and where we have seen second floor retail makes sense. In general, we have found that second floor retail works under the following circumstances.
  • By and large, impulse shopping does not drive sales for these businesses. These businesses are destination retailers. As one retailer said in the article "suits are never an impulse sale."
  • These retailers are savvy with social media. They know how to use the media and internet to drive visitation because location and visibility, the basic visitation drivers for most retailers, don't work in their favor.
  • This kind of retail works when the differential between ground floor retail price psf and upper floor psf has to be significant enough to make the upper floor sufficiently worth the trade off. That means stronger urban markets where demand for retail exceeds what can be provided by existing ground floor space. 
  • Retailers who make the leap often employ visual aids to overcome the lack of visibility. For example, one retailer in the article hung lanterns up the stairwell to "draw eyes upward." Sandwich signs, creative lighting, blade signs on the building, window decals...anything that gives a customer reason to contemplate looking up is key. A few years ago our firm did some work on a facade program in Lower Manhattan. Midtown Comics, a destination comic store located on the second floor of a building on Fulton Street, engaged the architect on the project to design great decals and bright purple awnings that were hard to miss. 
  • Being a recognizable brand with a following can help. Great service
Being on the second floor isn't for the faint of heart. It requires a heftier commitment to marketing and promotion, but some retailers and restaurateurs are finding that the payoff is worth it.