Home » Big Box » Recent Articles:

Cities Chasing Retail

The April 2007 issue of Governing magazine has an interesting cover story called, The Retail Chase with a subitlte: Cities will do almost anything to land the story of their dreams. From the article:

Much of the change in the retail market is happening not just within cities but in the middle of downtown. All over the country, young professionals and empty nesters — people with disposable income to spare — are moving into new lofts and high-rise condos. Those new residents have to shop somewhere. In downtown Minneapolis, now home to 30,000 people, three grocery stores are coming, and not one of them requested government subsidies. “For years, all the cities in the Midwest wanted to have a Michigan Avenue,” says Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, referring to Chicago’s famous high-end shopping street. “Michigan Avenue is spectacular, but we’re not all going to have a Michigan Avenue.” What’s evolving downtown now, in Rybak’s view, is a hybrid retail model where destination shoppers can still buy $200 shoes, but where the people living upstairs can find a dry cleaner. “Focus on the housing first,” Rybak says, “and the retail will follow.”

The above is valid, we don’t buy expensive shoes everyday (I never do). What we do need are groceries, toiletries, prescriptions, basic clothing and dry cleaners. A number of these are available in downtown St. Louis currently. But really, every neighborhood needs to have these in close proximity (… a short walk).

The online version of the issue also has some additional interviews with retail experts. One of the three is Robert Gibbs. As it turns out, Gibbs was in town recently as the retail consultant to DPZ on the Dardenne Prairie town center charette. He was certainly interesting to talk to and he did a great job communicating retail strategy to the general public. One of the things he stressed was having high design standards, explaining that retailers have several store models and will simply do the least they can get away with in the community. Retailers, much like home owners, don’t want to overbuild for the area. Gibbs indicated high standards for store fronts and lighting were very important. From one of the online-only articles:

It’s generally agreed now that the underserved markets are urban markets. From inner cities with low-income populations to high-end wealthy cities, urban centers are vastly under-retailed for lots of reasons. If you’re a retailer and you’re growing your stores, you have to figure out how to get into urban locations. To do that retailers are doing things they never would have considered five years ago. They’re modifying their old standards for store sizes in order to fit on smaller, more compact sites. They’re lowering their parking standards. They’re even changing the merchandising mix to fit the urban consumer. So there’s a tremendous opportunity for cities to attract retail.

You mean, we don’t just have to accept the type of store the retailer builds in the exurbs? The city of St. Louis is underserved from a retail perspective. We can have our cake and eat it too: higher design standards and still attract retailers seeking a market in which to grow their business.

Cities don’t have to turn themselves into a mall, but they do have to do what shoppers want. Last year 70 percent of all sales occurred after 5:30 at night. If downtown is going to compete, it has to have stores open in the evenings or on Saturdays. It has to offer the goods that people want to buy at the prices people want to pay. Last year only 2 percent of all apparel sales occurred in downtowns. In that 1950s, that’d be more like 90 to 95 percent. Downtowns have lost almost all their market share. Most are either entertainment districts or they sell knick-knacks and antiques and other things we don’t need.

Yes, evening hours are harder on the mom & pop stores but if that is when the public has time to shop that is when you need to be open for business. This is not the 1950s anymore, mom works to help the family get by so she is not out at 2pm shopping. Despite being gay, I do not go antiquing.

Cities should have a master plan to show how they can accommodate modern retail. Cities should have a written policy saying they want to be competitive and gain market share. Cities need to have high design standards for signage, lighting and building design and be willing to enforce those standards. And they have to have a public parking strategy.

Are you folks down at City Hall and the downtown partnership getting this? A plan, a policy and “high design standards” that are actually enforced! And by “parking strategy” I don’t think Gibbs is advocating the razing of historic structures for additional parking garages, he is referring to good parking management. Gibbs continues:

Cities can get back up to 30, 40 or 50 percent of market share with a policy. There’s a demand for retailers. A lot of them want to locate in downtowns. A lot of cities don’t know that.

The eight or ten cities we consult in have this huge unmet demand. Even a blue-collar town with modest income has a big demand for shoes and apparel. Urban consumers drive farther than normal to get goods and services, and the goods and services they do get downtown they overpay for. That’s the norm. Old Navy knows that now. Target knows that.

Gibbs give a good reason why we can demand higher standards:

Time matters for retailers. Stores have to open to keep their stock prices rising. A development director for a chain is told to open five stores in a region by a certain date, and if they don’t open he gets fired. So those people will go to a city only if the city can give them some assurance that the store can open by a certain date. That’s hard to do.

With good zoning & urban design codes we, as a city & region, can demand better retail design. It will not be offered to us on a silver platter, we must ask for it — no — we must demand better. The chain’s development director, faced with termination for not opening enough stores, will work with us and reluctantly pull off the shelf one of the more urban formats used in other cities. Walgreen’s will not abandon the City of St. Louis. They are on a mission to be in every part of every city and state. They are also trying to beat CVS in the race to tap new markets. QuikTrip is in a similar situation.
Wall Street doesn’t give a damn about St. Louis or if a new store is urban or has a big parking lot in front. Their concern is new growth as evidenced by new stores and eventually, steady or growing same store sales. Period. All these national retailers want to make sure they please their shareholders and Wall Street. They build the very least they can get away with and still please investment analysts that track their stock. If a reasonable urban design code requires good sidewalk access, bike parking, and caps the auto parking then the retailer will go along — that is much easier than answering to shareholders when the stock takes a dive.

Part of the problem is that retailers generally don’t build their own buildings. They work with developers, often local developers, to construct & own the facility and lease it back to them. In the St. Louis region we have a limited number of such retail developers like THF, Koman Properties, and DESCO. These developers, through campaign contributions throughout the region (Missouri & Illinois) keep things favorable to themselves. High design standards? Not for them! They will cite retailers demands but we know that really isn’t true. If they want to stay in business they will need to comply with the community’s design standards. Do you think THF included all the trees in the Chesterfield Flood Commons project out of some altruistic reason? No way! Chesterfield has high landscaping standards. With enforced design standards in place a developer can go back to a retailer and say, “our hands are tied, [insert municiapity] requires that you [insert requirement].

In addition to some basic demands, non-financial incentives can be used. For example, parking can be reduced if the developer includes bike parking (up to a point, and distributing the bike parking throughout the development). Many cities use creative incentives to improve design by giving developers choices that will make the project look & function better and not really add to the overall costs.

It is time for St. Louis to stop acting like a city losing thousands of people every decade. We are on the upswing per the latest figures from the census.


New Target Store Includes Bike Racks, Access Blocked by Shopping Carts

Big box retailer Target just opened a new store in the suburban St. Louis municipality of Dardenne Prairie in a center called, oddly enough, ‘Dardenne Town Center.’  Like most suburban centers this one has some good and bad elements.

dp - 34.jpg

View of Target approaching from sidewalk off Henke Road — Yes, a continuous sidewalk from a public street to a big box front door.  Landscaping, seen in the left of the above image, helps soften an otherwise harsh facade.  This type of greening can easily be included in strip/big box centers without blocking that all important visibility from major roads.  Note the extra shopping carts in the image.

dp - 30.jpg

Above we see a lone cart in the way of one side of bike rack intended for two bikes (one each side, parallel with the carts).  Someone arriving from the adjacent neighborhoods via bike could easily move this single car and secure their bike.  But what if more carts were here?

dp - 32.jpg

You see, Target made the effort to include a total of four such bike racks for a total of eight bike parking spaces.  Unfortunatetly, store staff uses these racks to help align their extra carts outside the store entrance.  The availability of bike parking depends upon the location/use of extra shopping carts.  This is a common, but avoidable, problem if only the planners, architects and engineeres on these projects gave more thought to shopping cart storage and bike parking.  With lots of extra room along the front of the store, bike parking could have easily been located elsewhere and have avoided conflicts with the carts.  Again, this is a brand new store — only open for a few months now.

The Dardenne Town Center was developed by Opus Northwest, the same developers at the Park East tower in St. Louis’ Central West End neighborhood. Thankfully, Dardenne Prairie is working with urban planners from the firm DPZ on a real town center.  Designers from DPZ already have suggestions on how to improve this newly built retail “power center” which includes a JC Penny, Shop-N-Save and numerous smaller stores and a few restaurants.


Loughbrough Commons – No Accessible Entrance After Six Months

Next week marks the six month anniversary of the opening of the Schnuck’s grocery store at the auto-centric Loughborough Commons big box/strip center (see post from opening day). To date, developer DESCO has failed to provide an ADA-compliant accessible entrance from the public street to either of the open businesses. The Americans with Disabilities Act, you may recall, is not building code but is in fact federal civil rights legislation.

Part of the public sidewalk along Loughborough was removed and has remained open and muddy alll winter — forcing pedestrians along Loughborough into the street. Heading into the center is a minimal sidewalk which does not appear to comply with the maximum slope requirements for an accessible route. Now that I have my new digital level, I will be able to verify the slope of the sidewalk and how compliant or not it may be.
Ald. Matt Villa took exception with my comments at the time that Loughborough Commons didn’t welcome pedestrians, stating that it was not finished yet. Well Matt, do you have a timeline from DESCO on when we will see an ADA-compliant accessible route from the public street and from building to building? A year? Two years? Five years?


St. Louis’ Office on the Disabled Reviewed Plans for Loughborough Commons

I hate admitting I am wrong, but when it happens I face the music and admit as much. All these past few months that I have been showing you the poor planning at Loughborough Commons I assumed nobody with the city reviewed the construction documents for ADA compliance. After all, ADA is federal civil rights law, not a local building code. But, a regular reader was kind enough to point me to St. Louis’ Office on the Disabled, part of the Department of Human Services.
The following are the list of duties for the Office on the Disabled, per their website:

  • Information and Direct Referral. Office on the Disabled provides current reliable information on services, programs, issues, etc. for persons with disabilities to callers or office visits or through the mail. Standards for accessible design are available to architects, engineers, design professionals, and the general public.
  • Interpreter for the Deaf. Office on the Disabled provides interpreting for the deaf services for all city services, programs, and activities.
  • Residential Disabled Parking Program. Office on the Disabled provides reserved residential parking spaces for city residents with disabilities. (Click here for more information)
  • Parking Meter Exemption Permits. Office on the Disabled issues permits exempting persons with disabilities unable to activate parking meters in the City of St. Louis.
  • Americans with Disabilities Act Coordinator. The Americans with Disabilities Act Coordinator provides information on the ADA; provides reasonable accommodations for applicants and employees; offers training on the ADA.
  • Awareness Training. Office on the Disabled offers training on issues related to disabilities.
  • Public Use of TDDs. Public use of TDDs is available to deaf persons needing to make phone calls.
  • On Site Accessibility Consultation. Office on the Disabled provides advice and recommendations on facility accessibility for persons with disabilities.

I spoke earlier today with Dr. Deborah Dee who heads the Office on the Disabled. Dee indicated Loughborough Commons was reviewed by her office and that all projects are reviewed as part of the city’s “one stop shop for permits.” To what extent does this absolve the developer, architect, engineer and Alderman for the numerous problems at this still unfinished $40 milllion dollar project? Without a doubt it certainly changes the picture and calls into question the permit review process within city hall.


Loughborough Commons is Not Finished Yet

When I started writing about the failures of Loughborough Commons a few months ago I was reminded by Ald. Matt Villa (D-11th) that it is not finished yet. He is correct, work is still progressing even though the two main stores, Schnucks & Lowes, are open.

In addition to a number of possible out buildings and the need to finish an ADA accessible route to a public street it seems Desco is working to correct some of the poor planning on areas that were already finished. Yes, the not finished yet $40 million project is already getting fixes.


Above you can see a new black metal fence installed recently which blocks now former accessible parking spaces near the entrance. A similar parking arrangement on the other side of the entry remains.


From this angle you can see how the angle of the main entrance would make it a challenge to see oncoming cars if you were backing out of one of these spaces. Accessible spaces, such as these near an entrance, are ideal for many so they do not need to cross a main drive. Still, these must be designed and placed in such a manner that someone using them is able to easily navigate in and out of them. This is also an example of where the minimum sidewalk width required by law is just that, mimimum.


Before the change you can see how tight the space was. When extra shopping carts were stored in the area it completely blocked the sole planned walking route from Loughborough. Civil engineers are a critical part of any design team, they are necessary for a number of areas including water runoff concerns, accessing soil conditions, engineering curbs and other details on a given site. They are not, however, natural specialists in creating walkable & ADA accessible environments. Projects of this scale, especially those with over $14 million in public tax incentives, should have a consultant on board to ensure more than simple textbook minimum compliance. At this point I still question if they will be able to establish minimum compliance with respect to an accessible route.


Above is an earlier image between the Schnucks and the Lowe’s, but as of 1/1/07 nothing has changed here. Pedestrians, including those using walkers, mobility scooters or wheelchairs are directed into the pharmacy drive-thru exit! At this point these pedestrians have only a couple of choices, those who can will simply walk through the plantings/grass and those who cannot must either turn left and exit the drive-thru lane with the cars out into the main drive for the development or turn right and go head-on with the cars in the pharmacy lane for about 5ft (just outside of view in this image) until they get to what appears to be a drainage area which provides a break in the planter. In this direction someone will have to hope the cars leaving the pharmacy drive-thru lane see them. This second route would allow pedestrians to go down that direction but the slope is too steep for a return back to the Schnucks and out to Loughborough. And forget wheelchairs for a minute, what about young families pushing a stroller! We do want young families with kids in the area, right?

What is more amazing than having such major projects built without a planning/access specialist on the design team is the idea that we leave it up to our elected aldermen to ensure the public’s interests are being considered. With our 28 mini-cities with a city mentality we get varying results from ward to ward. Some aldermen seem to know their limitations and consult the city’s Planning & Urban Design Agency. Others, like Lyda Krewson, have ideal developers like Joe Edwards so these issues are rare. But folks like Ald. Matt Villa, who assured me before construction started that pedestrians would be considered, are clearly incapable of distinquishing between token gestures toward access and good community design. Yes, he is certainly a “nice guy” but that only goes so far — not even remotely close in the case of Loughborough Commons. And just think, Loughborough Commons is not even finished.