ReTales: How Trying Too Hard Messes Up Main Street

In taking on the foibles of our built environment, author James Howard Kunstler makes a point of noting that he’s neither an architect nor planner. Instead, he’s the everyman, and his profession is dutifully pointing out that the emperor has no clothes.

I’m in a similar position. I’m not an architect or planner either (or a retail consultant, for that matter). I’m an interpreter of such folks, taking the wonky banter that characterizes their various disciplines and making it accessible to the concerns and interests of regular, everyday people.

My perspective comes from common sense osmosis, not formal instruction. Granted, I may still wear disciplinary blinders to some degree, but I propose they’re less a bulky optical barrier to greater context and more like something Lou Reed would have worn in 1968.

Today, I set my gaze on Main Street retail. Probably to the chagrin of my far more educated colleagues.

All across the country, Main Street retail is hurting. In some cases, this is a reflection of far more complex, and often regional, economic factors. But in others, it’s in places that have made great strides towards creating (or recreating) thriving downtowns.

That’s the kind of place I’m talking about. As our urban renaissance gathers greater momentum, we need to look at ways that common practices can either help or hinder municipal efforts to encourage a more viable economic environment.

Bob Gibbs, tellin' it like it is.

Retail consultant Bob Gibbs often stresses that, for Main Street to be successful, it needs to heed the lessons of the mall. Reduced to a sound bite, this is often cynically dismissed as a suggestion to “mall-ify downtown,” but Bob’s suggestion actually reflects a much more nuanced reality: For decades, the business of malls has driven meticulous study of consumer behaviors. Literally reams and reams of data exist, telling savvy retailers everything from how to keep shoppers shopping to why they walk into one store and not another to which way they’ll turn once they get in the door.

Good, old-fashioned human behavior stuff. Universal and predictable. Which is why it’s just as important to the many hands of Main Street as it is to the top-down tyranny of the mall. Understanding what attracts people, and what repels them, is a constant. And what you’ll find is that certain details have surprising impact. None are killers or saviors in their own right, just potential barriers or assets towards larger goals.

So what happens when a city does its job–engineering walkable streets, making urban-friendly revisions to its zoning ordinance, recruiting business and development–and it’s time for the private sector to take over? To my eye, a lot of good but also a looming potential for missed opportunities.

Below are a variety of examples of what can happen, taken from my own town of Decatur, Georgia, five miles east of downtown Atlanta, site of the upcoming CNU 18:

This is a classic instance of an architect committing the sin of forced variety, which reflects both a cursory understanding that diversity provides interest and a developer’s fear that unrestrained expression by individual tenants will impact the marketable value of the units above. Thus the crudely differentiated facades at street level, which attempt to provide said diversity but in a controlled and sanitized way, coupled with signage and awnings that are meticulously coordinated.

Ironically, the resulting mish mash lacks both the allure of authentic, organic diversity and the modernist appeal of artistically-minded aesthetic consistency.

Other projects avoid such temptations for forced differentiation, sticking instead with safe consistency:

The problem, as my colleague Nathan Norris points out often, is that, by playing it safe aesthetically in the form of consistent signage and awnings, it’s “boring the humans.” That is, in trying to remove any element of unpredictability, it takes on a level of banality completely devoid of the very elements of unexpected visual interest and delight that draw people.

Such attempts at safe consistency aren’t limited to traditional projects. Here, a postmodern project attempts something similar. The difference, to its credit, is that its approach to signage allows retailers more freedom in their brand expression and that can be an interesting thing. However, it occurs in a way that’s far more oriented towards passing traffic than towards pedestrians on the sidewalk. For them, it’s still an overly-sterilized environment:

Similar results occur when comparable tactics are applied to older properties. Below, in an effort to improve the presentation of an historic commercial strip, oversized coordinated awnings were added which, in addition to hampering individual retailers’ ability to differentiate themselves through unique branding, also limit visibility of individual enterprises:

So what does work? First and foremost, avoiding the conventional wisdom of the last fifty years. As we’ve increasingly separated our retail from our office from our residential, it’s become incumbent on each individual project to be the whole. Create a total environment or folks might drive somewhere else. But Main Street is counterintuitive to such thinking. Each individual project is not the whole but, rather, is plugging into and contributing to something larger.

Simplicity trumps over-thinking. Diversity beats consistency. Many hands outperform controlled authority.

Consider this example of getting things right. From a developer or landlord’s perspective, it requires the least effort. It’s essentially one building–with no great investment in reinvention architecture–broken up into a series of shopfronts. Each is given a blank, easily modified canvas and afforded the freedom to be who they are. In response, the whole becomes infinitely more compelling–not just to shoppers but to anyone–than any of the examples already provided:

What emerges? Different colors. Different approaches to awnings. Different types of lighting and signage. In short, a more intriguing and inviting environment and a greater contribution to the whole. Even from the perspective of marketing upstairs residential units, which often drives the skittish, overly programmed approach (common with new downtown projects), it’s far easier to sell life on a happening block than on a block gap-toothed with empty storefronts where no one willfully chooses to shop.

Not surprisingly, all of this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to making Main Street work. But it’s a good place to start, as cities and city boosters increasingly come to understand that getting buildings to meet the sidewalk is just the start of getting them right.

As for right now, I wouldn’t say the emperor has no clothes. I’d just suggest he rethink the outfit.

— Scott Doyon


  1. I agree completely. As a former retailer, visual uniquity is crucial for attracting client traffic. Even in these waning days of mall shopping, the storefronts of tentants are vibrant and unique, albeit corralled in the “look” of the mall design.

    Years ago…many, I’m afraid…I assisted an elderly gentleman who had entered I store I managed in Dallas, Texas. After greeting him and offering assistance we struck up a conversation, and I asked him what brought him into our store. Frankly, to my eyes, due to his very advanced years I could not imagine why he had entered my store which contained very upscale modern furniture, gadgets, and gee-gaws. He said ( and being years ago, this is a paraphrase): Your store entranced me with its’ entrance and window displays. I need nothing but could not resist coming in.”

    After he left the store, my assistant came up to me and, with WIDE eyes, asked if I knew who that man was and I replied I did not. My incredulous co -worker squeaked: “THAT WAS STANLEY MARCUS of Neiman Marcus.”

    I shall never forget that moment or the lesson learned about the “face” of a store.

  2. Downtown Decatur does offer some great lessons in what works and what doesn’t. Some buildings still retain their suburban site layout (parking in front, etc.) but even some of those have been re-purposed very well. One example of good reuse, even though the site layout is not conducive to pedestrians, is the restaurant Watershed. Others, such as the strip center you mentioned (anchored by the CVS, complete with drive-through) are still failures. What is interesting to me is to notice which portions of Ponce de Leon, and other streets in downtown Decatur, have pedestrian traffic and which don’t. Also of note is how quickly the more urban fabric of Decatur gives way to suburban prototypes (Chick-fil-A). Design makes a difference in where we choose to linger or wander and what becomes simply a destination out of necessity.

  3. You are so right – diversity and self-expression need to reign with each storefront, for a walkable shopping environment. The photos display relatively recent projects that need design regulation- you can regulate design. Sometime ago city regulations should have been enacted to require certain design features – so that store facades actually change the shape of the larger building. Building owners should also recognize that their cheap facades will get cheap results and rents. The most attention should be paid to the first 15 feet in height from the sidewalk, so that store insets, entries, dividing pilasters, window bulkheads, small signs and window awnings and displays are present with variety in size, colors and materials.

    A community should also decide if it wants limits to colors – the boardwalk look can be off-putting for many if there isn’t a beach there. The use of bright colors should be limited to detail decoration, and wall planes might have variety within a range of colors, to avoid the screaming mimis. Otherwise the facade becomes a literal sign for the business which may not be in the community’s interest. These regulations should also apply to mini-malls even if surrounded by parking.

  4. Fenno Hoffman says

    Most excellent! You nailed it. If only this were taught in more architecture schools and taught just this way. Circumstantial and trendy variety at the street is the language of shop keepers everywhere, vying for our attention. WHat I love about well done multi-story buildings is the calming, comforting consistancy of the upper floors above the street chaos, calming the space above it, then capped off with a more riotous skyline of rooflines, penthouses, railings and whatnot to form a tripartite design – very classical really, with great shoes, a tidy midriff (great abs) and a great hairdo. Hot!

  5. There are some elements of a mall (common hours, having one or two anchors, clustering, managing parking) Main Street wants to replicate, but that Main Street can’t stop there. Nor can Main Street stop at creating walkable urban street designs, having business- and customer-friendly zoning, and offering building design guidelines (for both new infill and existing or historic structures). There needs to be promotions, in the form of events and image-campaigns and ads for the Main Street that encourage people to come shop there. There needs to be a commitment made to authenticity –the flavor and heritage of the town should be leveraged in the architecture, business mix, and events. All of these important elements of Main Street are what helps each individual building and business plug into something larger and they help avoid the overly-sterilized environment rightfully lamented in this blog. There are hundreds of Main Street districts throughout the US who are getting it right and are seeing strong sales and new businesses opening despite the recession. (Look, for example at the second paragraph of Ellensburg, Washington’s blog But their commercial strips aren’t thriving because they aren’t controlling storefront and awning design – just the opposite. There are historic-preservation-based economic development organizations (led by community volunteers and stakeholders) charged specifically with helping the commercial area and providing small business training, recruiting businesses, producing events and image campaigns, sensitive design improvements and so much more. They are called Main Street programs – learn more about them at

  6. Well written! It seems that in addition to some intelligent forethought and effective master-planning (which gives design autonomy to individual retailers, etc, etc) there should be a push to establish an online database where cities can post their attempts and successes. their understanding of human needs, local solutions that might work elsewhere. This way, cities with similar problems need not repeat the work of task forces in other cities, thereby saving taxpayer dollars. Kind of a shareable city API or something.

  7. You nailed it. We wrestled with the same challenge at Citrus Square in Sarasota. Each stroefront pops out and is easily replacable – in fact one was, before we even finished the building. Let me know if you think we were seccessful.

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