Retail on My Mind

Seems I’ve got retail on my mind. It all started in December, with Bob Gibb’s Placemaking@Work webinar, whose tweetchat sparked a Neighbourhood Retail BlogOff led by Steve Mouzon. Then last week Victor Dover’s PM@W webinar followed up with ideas about tactical retail, where he talked about the next version of mixed use being smaller, quicker, and more organic.

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On the Street: The DNA of place and the ROI of movement

The corporate culture of our government has been a carte blanche to keep doing what we’ve been doing. This culture implies that what we’ve been doing works.

In business, last year’s income statement is a major driver in this year’s action plan. If a product or service was profitable, then it’s nurtured and grown this year. If a deliverable creates a loss, then change is made as quickly as possible.

Because governments are focused on GDP and jobs instead of ROI, the reasons behind decisions often get muddy. Return on Investment (ROI) is quite simple. It’s just the gain from investment less the cost of investment all divided by the cost of investment. How many times over your money will be returned to you.

And yet our governments aren’t geared to think this way unless it has to do with a change from business as usual.

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Retail: When it bends the rules and breaks the law.

Getting ready for a TEDx talk in a few weeks, I’ve once again been noticing how the places that I love the most usually break the law. The contemporary development codes and bylaws, that is, which are geared to the car, not to the pedestrian and cyclist.

Then last week’s urban retail SmartCode tweetchat with Bob Gibbs sparked a debate about the rules of thumb that govern the success or failure of the most risky development of all: retail. And when those rules might be bent by certain special circumstances.

Ready to geek out with me for a moment?

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Special Districts Getting All Mixed Up

Recently there’ve been rumblings of a very interesting trend among cities that have adopted form-based codes to guide the character of their neighbourhoods. That is, once a city begins to think urbanistically, they start to solve some really hard problems. And those problems lately have been to do with industrial uses, and how to reconnect industry to the walkable portions of the city.

Over the last month, I’ve lost count of how many emails and phone calls I’ve gotten asking for exemplary plans under form-based codes that incorporate industrial uses. I got one while I was writing this, in fact. Heavy industry is one primary thing zoning initially sought to separate. I am reminded of one of my favorite T.S. Eliot excerpts, from Little Gidding:

“We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started. And know the place for the first time.”

Not that anyone’s adding back in noxious uses to the ‘hood, but it is a very interesting turn of events.

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The Allure of Food: It’s not just a lifestyle. It’s a life.

All the recent talk of Agrarian Urbanism has sent me down a tangential thought process. The difference between life and lifestyle. Lifestyle has come to mean how we spend our money on the weekends – or maybe squeeze in after work – before we get back to the grind. Things that often have more to do with entertainment than community. Over the last 50 years or so, shopping and golf have become central national pastimes.

What if, instead, life became a little more organic again?

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“You’re terminated, hippie.” — Where does that leave local sustainability?

Federal government to sustainability efforts: You’re terminated.

In a blockbuster-style showdown, the House Appropriations Committee started a furor this month as they proposed the elimination of HUD, USDOT and EPA sustainability programs in 2011-12, as well as suggesting the rescinding of dollars already awarded by the Sustainability and TIGER grant programs. As municipalities, counties and regional COGs scramble to find ways to focus the weak development market forces into more sustainable patterns of walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods, the possible removal of the federal support is discouraging.

Looks like we’re gonna have to go indie.

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Monkey See, Monkey Don’t: Economic Development as a Whole New Animal

In the economic development world, we’re always trying to grow our economic base. And by that we mean goods and services that we export, not just what we use in our local markets. That might include university services, tourism, and any products that we pack and ship, or regional retail that we steal from our neighbors.

We see economic development in conventional terms, and we seek only to perpetuate the model, adding more of the same to the end of the chain. Another monkey from the barrel, so to speak. Continue Reading

Let’s Get Small: Placemaking as Antidote for Shrinking City Budgets

It’s that time of year, but it’s no holiday party in most city budget meetings. Cities across the continent are looking for ways to make ends meet. A quick survey turns up some sobering city deficits: New York $4.4 billion, Toronto $225 million, Washington DC $188 million, Houston $120 million, L.A. $87 million, San Diego $72 million, Cleveland $28 million. States are worse still: California $6 billion, Illinois $15 billion, Arizona $1.5 billion. Those are some major gaps to fill, before we make it to the federal level.

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Love Ain’t Enough: Put Up or Shut Up

Like any next, big something, placemaking is growing up. And in its role as gawky adolescent, it’s beginning to realize something most of us have long since come to accept: You can’t skirt by on youthful good looks forever.

Today, efforts to create more endearing and enduring surroundings are being subjected to decidedly grown up demands. And with them, smart growthers—from enviros to designers to code reform advocates—are learning one of life’s hardest lessons: Love will only take you so far.

Son, you’ve got to demonstrate sufficient returns. Continue Reading