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Inviting Storefront Design Critical to Revitalizing Old Commercial Districts

April 2, 2012 Featured, Planning & Design, Retail, South City 31 Comments

Storefront design has a big impact on how we perceive an area. So often formerly inviting storefronts became closed over time as commercial districts went downhill. Lately, in many of these commercial districts, we’ve seen a welcomed return to inviting glass storefronts as the areas become filled with new establishments.

ABOVE: 3108 Morgan Ford Rd in Oct 2010

For many years the space behind my favorite bike shop, A&M Bicycles, was used for storage. Down the street Local Harvest Grocery needed to expand beyond their original space, a perfect match. Except for that awful storefront! No business was going to use the space with that front.

ABOVE: Work underway in January 2011
ABOVE: New storefront is inviting, improves district, April 2011

All up and down Morgan Ford Rd old closed storefronts like this one have been replaced by mostly glass storefronts. The visual impact on the commercial district is amazing, no longer does the street feel rundown.

  – Steve Patterson

Currently there are "31 comments" on this Article:

  1. Msrdls says:

    Great improvement. *(It appears, though, that the entrance is not ADA accessible, but it’s hard to tell just from the photograph.)   At another location….. Architect Doug Kassabaum did a great job also at Southwest Bank on Kingshighway when he blended all the individual storefronts over 15 years ago when the bank building was  expanded/renovated.

    • This pick was from a year ago, they may have a ramp by now.
      I’m not a fan of the Southwest Bank — I strongly dislike the monolithic appearance that was created. I’d like to see that undone sometime.

      • john w. says:

         There will be no fixed ramp at the entry, as this would result in the removal of the street tree immediately adjacent to the entry. There is a minimum of 4′-0″ clear passage at any point on St. Louis city sidewalks (at zero lot line properties, this becomes critical), and therefore the city, with the blessing of David Newburger of the Office on the Disabled, allowed a removable ramp to be used in lieu of the fixed ramp.

    • john w. says:

      The entry is accessible when a ‘suitcase ramp’ is used as needed. A projecting ramp would have required further coordination with BPS to have the street tree removed, and there was another option that was OK’d by David Newburger which was the suitcase ramp. This compact and mobile curb ramp can be used when the sill height is low enough, as in the case of Local Harvest, and so that is why it appears that the entrance is not accessible. Technically, it is not, but the city of STL is very accommodating where it can be, and this was as facade grant improvement project proving further that the city can partner with private interests to make our streets better places. This is among of growing number of facade improvement projects our firm has completed recently, and we are looking forward to more.

      • Msrdls says:

        Interesting reply, John W. How does the “suitcase” ramp work? If I’m in a wheelchair and wish to enter the store, do I call ahead and ask that it be put in place just before I arrive? I’m no architect, but sometimes we ‘aingineers’ like to play like we are. Wouldn’t an internal ramp have worked better, in conjunction with an off-set vestibule?

        • john w. says:

          I would encourage you to visit this store… go inside. You’ll readily see that there is no room for a 1:12 ADA ramp, and certainly no room for a vestibule enclosure. In rare instances, 1:8 slopes are permitted when certain technical infeasibilities are encountered, but this is in the case of a structural obstruction that cannot be moved, and not simply a street tree. To answer your question about the suitcase ramp, I would have to say ‘yes’, the shopper most likely calls ahead to have the ramp put in place. Though not terribly convenient for the wheelchair-bound, it is a workaround that has been OK’d by the Office on the Disabled. Please walk up and down the great shopping and activity streets of STL, and notice the many, many, many, many, many, many entryway stoops that are not accessible. If the previous occupant of the space was classified as the same use group by the building code (mercantile, in the case of Local Harvest), then the higher threshold of code compliance that changes in use group must meet is usually accepted as existing conditions. Imagine the task of making all existing buildings in the city, typically built many decades before current codes were not only adopted, but were even written based upon relatively recent federal law, accessible based upon current codes. There would be both a lot of facade and public-sidewalk-destroying alterations, and prospective business owners choosing not to proceed with renovation projects. Workarounds are critical in urban settings with often delicate, and non-compliant ‘historic’ structures that tightly hug the public sidewalk or simply do not provide for the necessary floor area to construct code compliant means of accessibility.

          • Msrdls says:

            First I need to Google the address to learn directions. But I’ll attempt to find the time to take a look. I’m one who agrees with you about publc-private compromises necessary for things to click, even when proposed, major storefront modifications might have inspired a stubborn posture on the part of those charged with representing needs of the disabled..

          • JZ71 says:

            The building code does NOT supersede the ADA requirements, nor can the Office of the Disabled grant a waiver.  If any person feels like they are being discrimnated against because the building owner chose to not meet current ADA requirements during a major renovation (such as this one), then that person has every right to go to court and assert his or her claim of discrimination.  Compliance with the building code is NOT a defense against a claim of discrimination!

            Bigger picture, yes, the street trees present(ed) a challenge.  But given that the entire storefront was new construction, it should have been possible to both avoid the existing trees and to provide a permanent ramp by locating the door elsewhere on the facade.  Given that the ADA has been in effect for 20+ years, it’s about time we all quit hiding behind excuses and make compliance a true priority.

          • john w. says:

            Thanks for the lecture, Jim. Perhaps you could encourage people to tour the city of STL and find every possible violation of the ADA, and then hire a lawyer and sue. If you’d read my comments, you would have learned that the sill at Local Harvest is not exactly code compliant. A workaround was presented as an alternate to a conventional ramp as the sill height is low enough with respect to the public sidewalk. The ADA is not the building code, and vice versa. The ADA is enforced by the DOJ, and not the local building official. This is known. To correct you however, the entire storefront is not new construction, but instead only the window bays are new. The owner of this store also operates a cafe across the street, and several doors down. This cafe has an interior floor elevation that is high enough above the public sidewalk to require a conventional ramp to be constructed. The two situations were treated differently because of this difference in interior finished floor elevations with respect to the public sidewalk. I point to this example because I want to make clear that the owner of Local Harvest does not discriminate against those with disabilities, and elected to use the workaround presented by the city because of the obstructing tree. This very blog post, written by an author with a disability and sometime reliance on a wheelchair, addressed only the critical nature of inviting storefront design in revitalizing old commercial districts, and not the entry stoop.

            Perhaps you could encourage as many readers as possible to declare themselves discriminated against, form a large group, hire legal counsel, and file a class action lawsuit against the business owner. Perhaps you could also expand the sweeping raid of businesses with non-compliant circumstances to include hundreds of businesses. You could even run them right out of business if you can find enough non-compliant circumstances!

          • Msrdls says:

            I don’t have a dog in the hunt, but I was thinking that removal of the tree wouldn’t have been a biggie, but I’m almost certain there are other existing conditions to consider, not shown in the photograph, including an adjacent driveway, which may preclude use of a ramp installed parallel with the storefront. Knowing BPS was involved, I’m fairly certain that all alternatives were considered before this rather “make-shift” suitcase ramp was approved.

          • JZ71 says:

            You’re welcome.  And yes, I know that Steve is disabled, and no, I’m not advocating that everyone should go out and nitpick existing businesses over technical violations.  What hit my hot button was the assumption that there was simply no way to “provide for the necessary floor area to construct code compliant means of accessibility”, nor was there a way to provide a permanent exterior solution, either, for what appears to be, at most, a 6″ grade change.  We’re not talking multiple steps here, we’re talking one.  This was not a simple paint-and-new-flooring remodel, some serious money was spent improving the space before Local Harvest moved in (including a completely new storefront assembly installed in the existing openings).  Choices were made, and the choices included NOT to provide an accessible entrance, as is explictly required in the ADA.  “Work-arounds” may be acceptable to the city, but they certainly aren’t in the spirit of providing equal access to everyone.

          • john w. says:

             I’ll assume then that you are starting a running list of places of business that should comply with ADA standards, but have instead opened their doors for business by way of an accommodating city building division. I thoroughly recognize the true irony in my use of the descriptor “accommodating”, being that we’re tussling about non-accommodating physical barriers being passed as ‘good enough’, but with the incentives (improvement grants, for instance) provided by a city that is home to so many (formerly great, and awaiting their hoped eventual, reemerged great) commercial streets, we can be happy for the current efforts made by the growers of business activity.

  2. Jeffvstl says:

    Good post, Steve.   Another gripe of mine regarding storefronts is signage(or lack thereof). Overall, the signage St.. Louis’ commercial districts is woefully pathetic. I am so sick of seeing cheap “temporary” banners, cheesy awnings with basic stencil letters on them, window vinyl and tacky plastic signs that look like they were printed on an Apple II E that pass for legitimate signs for established businesses. 

    Illuminated hanging signs contribute to a funky, diverse streetscape and add to a sense of permanence in the neighborhood. St. Louis needs to emphasize and enforce attractive, permanent signage in its business districts.
    There are funds available for a sign through the Facade Improvement Program. We used it to fund our illuminated sign on Cherokee Street. Totally worth it. I can’t even tell you how many customers we’ve received who just happened to be driving by and “saw the sign”. I feel very strongly that signage goes a long way in enhancing the image and identity of a business. 

    • Thanks! Yes our outdated views on signs comes from the 1960s/70s when it was thought our commercial districts should be remade to emulate the suburban mall — uniform facades and signage.

      • Msrdls says:

        I think the City has unoffically relaxed a bit on signage and is allowing downtown businesses to bend the rules a bit to install more than blade signage and single flat-face signage. I know that variances are granted to certain developers/owners, based on individual needs.   Maybe the City needs to revamp/reissue signage restrictions based on the direction that downtown St Louis and neighborhood developments appear to be  heading

  3. JZ71 says:

    One, I like what’s happening here.  Two, it’s happening because a) most of the parking in the area is on street, in front of the businesses, and b) the business(es) occupying the spaces actually want to display what they’re selling in the windows.  Three, I disagree that “So often formerly inviting storefronts became closed over time as commercial districts went downhill.”  More often, they were reduced and covered over because of energy conservation efforts and because retail marketing moved from visual displays for pedestrians to advertising in newspapers, on television, and now, online media (Macy’s downtown is just one example).

    Windows are like any other tool, they need to have a use and the need to be used correctly.  As you correctly noted, when this space was being used for storage, windows were correctly viewed as a negative.  If the space were used for office space, and not retail, as many other smaller, older, urban structures now are, widows would be appreciated and used for natural lighting, but likely with window coverings added to increase privacy for the tenants.

    The real challenge comes when the majority of the parking is not on street, but is in parking lots behind the buildings.  As in this example on Chippewa http://g.co/maps/2qmw8 (and many others) shows, once the “front” moves off of the sidewalk, then the whole reason for having display windows is greatly reduced.  To achieve what you’re looking for, it’s going to take more than just providing windows, it’s going to take regulating interior design and how spaces are actually used.  Allowing windows to become billboards isn’t much better than allowing them to be boarded up.

  4. Moe says:

    Its plain and simple…people shop with their eyes.  Make it appealing through the window and it will be luring the customer in.  Board them up, clutter them up….makes it very uninviting. 
    As far as overhead signage, I think there needs to be a happy medium…we don’t want neon signs that could land a 747, but we want signage to stand out enough to again, lure in the customer (from further down the street)

    • JZ71 says:

      Extrapolating further, I think that Steve’s headline, “Inviting Storefront Design [is] Critical to Revitalizing Old Commercial Districts” is only partially correct.  A more correct headline would be “Inviting Stores [Are] Critical to Revitalizing Old Commercial Districts”.  Storefronts, by their very nature, are meant to be transparent, it’s what’s behind them that really attracts customers and pedestrian traffic.  A store with crappy merchandise and poor service behind an excellent storefront is less likely to succeed and to help revitalize an old commercial district than a store with with good merchandise and great service behind a crappy storefront.

  5. Moe says:

    I don’t understand how calling ahead or any other method is any different than some of the other methods used….push buttons at doors for instance is any different.  And while it may seem such a “simple” thing to put a ramp in…it is those “simple” things like ramps with only a 1″ height difference, small slope, etc that give insurance companies headaches.  These are the things “normal’ people slip and trip over.  And the driveway next to them is not a parking lot, it’s an alley.  And I think an entrance in that alley anyway with it’s large amount of traffic would be extremely more dangerous.
    But it’s amazing how this discussion morphed from a positive on storefronts to a negative on a ramp.  And yet not one of the complainers has bothered to pick up the telephone and ask Patrick why he didn’t put the ramp in?  But thats just me…

    • Msrdls says:

      In Missouri, planting orchids in an outside planter and expecting them to survive the winter represents a poor plant selection, even if the other plants used in the planter are winter-hardy. All components of a redevelopment plan need to be considered before the plan is implemented. Sometimes–not always– a plan should be shelved because all its pieces don’t make sense. Sometimes the pieces that don’t make sense  impact the overall design feasibility more than those that fit together. I wonder how the insurance company would react knowing that some overworked bussboy forgot to pick up the “suitcase” ramp and some evening walker tripped over it while exercising his dog? We all know that this could easily happen.  The storefront design is pleasing to view (I commend the architect). I initially questioned accessibility because the absence of a ramp is so flagrant. Time will tell if the “suitcase” ramp is a good idea, or if someone will be outside some evening with a chain-saw, concrete forms and a ready-mix truck trying to figure out some way to pour some sort of a ramp.

    • Msrdls says:

      It’s Thursday night. I’m disabled and use a wheelchair, and I’m going to the corner restaurant for dinner at my favorite family-run Italian restaurant. They just reopened after being shut down for a four-month renovation. I remember to call ahead for “the ramp”. Papa’s in the kitchen and takes my call. He hangs up and yells to his son, the bussboy: “Get “the ramp”. Everyone in the dining room hears him and wonders what he’s yelling about.  The kid’s busy, he says to himself that he’ll get to it. He gets busier, and he forgets to get “the ramp”. Meanwhile, I arrive. It’s starting to sprinkle. I parked my car two blocks away because the designated disabled parking space is occupied. The rain is picking up. I wheel to the restaurant’s new storefront, admire the design and immediately I ask myself: WHERE’S “THE RAMP”? The rain is getting heavier now, and I’m really starting to get wet. I knock on the door. Papa’s screaming at the dish washer because she just dropped a tray of dishes. All the patrons are talking and having a good time. No one hears me knock. Then I remember I had  left my cellphone on the kitchen counter, in the charger. I locate my car keys and tap loudly on the now storefront glass (I notice it’s thick and appears to be well-insulated–nice touch!). Everyone hears me, including all the other patrons and even Papa. Papa screams at the bussboy, who loses control and drops another tray of dishes on the floor. The bussboy runs to locate “the ramp”. By this time, I’m really wet. Papa, the dishwasher, even Grandma run to the door. Grandma hold it open, as if to say, “Come in”. I just stare at her. Meanwhile, the bussboy runs to the door with “the ramp”. Papa and the bussboy wrestle with “the ramp” to put it in place. Papa’s screaming at the bussboy, telling him to apologize to the “poor man”. Papa rolls me in. The other patrons try not to stare, but the entire restaurant is silent. Papa offers me a 50% discount coupon for my next visit.

      • Highly unlikely scenario.

        • Msrdls says:

          I agree that all the events may not occur as described (I was attempting to make a point),  but if it happens only once or twice, is that OK? I wonder what happens if snow and ice begin to fall after the ramp is put in place, before the disabled guy leaves the restaurant to go home. What happens if the ice “freezes” the ramp in place? It doesn’t take much for ice to cover up an item left on the sidewalk, making its removal difficult. Does it become a “tripper”– a potential obstruction to other pedestrians, or is that scenario “highly unlikely” also? At least a fixed ramp is usually poured with at least one handrail rail, announcing its presence in a snow-covered sidewalk.   I might question if I’d want to be a part of any design that appears to rely on paperclips and rubber bands.  But I have to say that the storefront design is very appealing and authentic~~but “aingineers” are easily impressed!

          • I’m not a fan of the ramps but as someone that uses a wheelchair I’ve used a few in the last four years. If someone uses a power chair like I do they’re not going to be heading out to dinner in the pouring rain no matter where they wish to eat. If they drive themselves but use a manual chair they aren’t going to head anywhere where they might have to wheel themselves two blocks in the rain from where they park. Eventually the sidewalks will get redone and the tree will be sacrificed, the temporary ramp placed out when needed is good in the short term.

          • Msrdls says:

            ….and you of all people are missing the point! If I’m disabled, and if I WANT to eat out on a rainy night, and if I CHOOSE to park 2 blocks away or, god-forbid, if I decide to wheel on down to the restaurant without benefit of car, I SHOULD BE ACCOMMODATED, without benefits of paper clips, rubber bands and special effects. Period. Even if I don’t own a phone so I can call ahead, even if I might have FORGOTTEN to call ahead….even if I’m pissed about having to call ahead and decide to just not do it!!!

            ….about removing the sidewalk and the tree, and perhaps adding a bump-out to create more space for a permanent ramp:

            ….”tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
            creeps in this petty pace from day to day
            to the last syllable of recorded time…..”

            Timing is everything, and sometimes it just ain’t time to do something.

          • Well I am disabled and I’ve tried to visit places that didn’t even have a temporary ramp to help me get inside. I visited one place that had a sign next to the door saying to ring the bell for assistance — but that buzzer was up 3-5 steps.

          • JZ71 says:

            I think what you’re missing (maybe), Steve, is that you’re quick to point out accessibility failures in an autocentric, suburban context, yet you seem to be willing to accept them if they occur in an urban environment.  Significant money was spent here, similar to the significant money the Bread Company spent on Chippewa to add a drive-thru (earlier post).  I get that you want to encourage a walkable, dense(r) urban environment, and I accept that St. Louis is not seeing a lot of new construction, so we’re “stuck” renovating older buildings in the city, but I’m getting tired of the excuses and “misses” when they could have been addressed for little cost on major projects IF someone had been thinking and/or had pushed for full(er) compliance.

          • As you know interior ramps take up significant floor space. Had they poured new sidewalks without building a ramp I’d be all over it. But I’ve talked to them and know they are working with the community improvement district and the city to get new sidewalks in the area. As long as they have a temporary ramp I can wait. The Bread Co. doesn’t have a temporary solution to get me from the public sidewalk to the entrance which is why they are now working on a fix.

          • JZ71 says:

            I hope you’re right, but my experience with CID’s and new sidewalks is that usually the sidewalks are removed, then replaced at the same elevation, mostly because the city wants a safe cross slope and insists on starting at the top of the curb, not aligning with existing door openings on private property.

  6. Moe says:

    I got Msrdls’s comment.  I knew he was making a “what if”.  But let’s face it.  Not every person handicapped or otherwise is going to get everything they want when they want it.  Sure permanent ramps would be great, but it wasn’t possible.  Nor could they drill through the alley side of the building.  Does that make it difficult for handicapped persons?  Yes, is it fair? probably not, but that is why the ADA specifically states ‘reasonably accomadations” otherwise we would be making it so expensive, the only option would be to build new and build outside the core…is that what we want?  No.  We are trying to rebuild a city with whats already here.  Do we have to layover and play dead? NO, but we have to learn compromise when it is appropriate.  And yeah, it would be nice if the “if’s proposed by Msrdls would be met because “If I wanted”.  But  just because one wants doesn’t mean a business has to go bankrupt.  It is economics.  And that is fair, as unfair as that sounds.

    • JZ71 says:

      No, this is/was about choices, very reasonable ones.  The grade change between the interior floor and the existing sidewalk is 6″-8″, which would require a ramp that is 6′-8′ long.  We’re not talking about multiple steps, we’re talking about just one, but the obstacle to someone with mobility challenges IS that first step.  The old “storefront” was essentially a solid wall, the new one is primarily glass, so locating the door(s) was not a given and it/they could have been located where it would have been possible to add an exterior ramp that would have avoided the existing trees.  Someone (building owner, tenant, architect) CHOSE to not comply with the current federal requirement that at least one entrance be (made) accessible to people with disabilities, it was a conscious decision.  The “reasonable accomodation” clause does not apply to every project, especially when substantial modifications are being made.  

      I would argue that keeping just the shell, then adding a new storefront, new electrical and lighting, new HVAC and (likely) new toilet rooms and a new roof constitutes “substantial modifications”, for which a permanent ramp becomes a relatively small incremental cost.  And no, this not that unusual.  I’ve had multiple clients over the past 20 years make similar choices, betting that they won’t get challenged on their decisions, and most of them have not been challenged.  That doesn’t make it right, it just makes it a business decision.  I get it, many people, especially small entreprenuers chafe at being told to do something they don’t want to do or that they see as stupid or irrelevent.  The real issue is one of inclusiveness.  We’ve moved past the days of “Whites Only” drinking fountains.  We need to do the same thing with retail entrances, “Able-Bodied Only” is not an acceptable answer.  You may view it as “Not every person, handicapped or otherwise, is going to get everything they want when they want it.”  I view it as subtle, but very real, discrimination.  You can frame it as “It is economics”.  I’m a big believer in economics, but complying with all regulations is a fundamental part of being in business.  You rarely “go bankrupt” improving accessibility, you just make it that much easier for more customers to come in and spend their money, that old cliche that you gotta spend money to make money!


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