Urban retail

More of these, please

The growth of retail establishments downtown has not kept pace with the growth of neighborhood population. Why? In part because populations must reach tipping points before retailers will consider new locations, and for certain businesses our population is just not there yet.

However, another reason is that downtown doesn’t have the right available space in the right locations. Take the growing Second Avenue district and the retailer Charm (above), in the 2300 block of Second Avenue between 23rd and 24th Streets. There are bars, a coffee shop, a corner bodega, and a skate shop on the block–all very complementary to Charm’s vibe. What we now need are a couple more retailers to step up and join the district–and indeed several have been searching for small space at reasonable rents. But it’s proven very hard to find.

Not the best and highest use of this corner

While there is plenty of vacant retail storefront downtown, much of it is too big. If it were subdivided into smaller, reasonably priced spaces it would be easier to fill. Unfortunately many building owners don’t want to go to the expense of speculative renovation for a market that’s still seen as pioneering. Above is the building at the SE corner of 24th and Second Avenue North, right down the street from Charm. Most recently professional offices, it was bought last year and is seemingly vacant: it’s storefront blinds are drawn, and no renovation work evident. It’s a big blank non-contributing element to the district right now.

Better and higher use

Last year we worked on a concept project with the previous owner (above) that would have created smaller retail storefront spaces on the first floor, and updated the building with a clean, graphic aesthetic complementing our 2nd Row project of 2007. If this city had a Redevelopment Authority, perhaps it could’ve identified this property as key to the growth of the Second Avenue district, bought or leased the space, performed the necessary renovations, and then marketed it to retail and restaurants. We have nothing like that here, which inhibits our getting traction or critical mass again and again (although Main Street Birmingham has had some success with similar ventures in the commercial centers of Woodlawn and Avondale).

Getting proactive

Once again, the smaller city of Mobile to our south is ahead of the curve: the Downtown Mobile Alliance (equivalent to our Operation New Birmingham) has acquired a spacious former retail space on Dauphin Street downtown (above) and created the Urban Emporium. Here, start-up retailers can rent small spaces with shared overhead, checkout, etc.–a retail incubator, if you will. It allows retailers interested in downtown to introduce themselves to the neighborhood at minimal expense. The idea is they grow a customer base, and then graduate to their own space elsewhere downtown. Birmingham needs to do something similar. Otherwise, we’ll keep losing opportunities like our aborted project above, while eager but frustrated entrepreneurs keep searching. Their search may lead  to other neighborhoods altogether if we don’t have a plan in place to accommodate them.

Critical mass is typically a combination of the organic and the planned. Here on Second Avenue North the organic has come a good ways. It’s time for some planning to keep it going. More on that next post.

[thanks to Downtown Mobile Alliance for the Urban Emporium pic]

11 responses to “Urban retail

  1. I had 4 or 5 boutique businesses approach me about the 300 sq ft space beside El Barrio. The space is actually the front entrance to my residence and to the self storage units upstairs, so it would require access for these customers to pass through. Understandably the retailers didn’t feel comfortable with me and my storage customers wandering through the space all hours.

    I know at least one of them is still in the market, and I’d be happy to pass along a contact name if you know of anyone looking for tiny tenants for a project like that.

    • You’re confirming my own experience–people want to open more boutique retail, but the spaces aren’t matching the tenants. Understandably you can’t use a passageway for others as a retail space…If anyone around the Second Ave. district DOES have this type of smallish space (500 SF or less typically), the tenants are often able to do renovation themselves: please let us know!

  2. Nicely done, Mobile. Proud of my hometown.

    • Mobile has a smaller urban fabric, which in some ways has allowed them to focus more strategically. That’s no excuse though; we need to be thinking creatively like Mobile is. Thanks.

  3. How can we get the ball rolling on a redevelopment authority here? That seems like something that ONB/Main Street would be interested in promoting. Do you think City Hall would be receptive?

    The retail incubator idea is very, very smart. We definitely need that here.

    • I have strong hopes that, once ONB and Main Street merge, we will finally get momentum towards a RA or at least a revamped entity with similar authority and mission. It can’t come soon enough! Thanks.

  4. Having recently visited Boston, do you think it’s possible to get anything close to the street level retail seen in some of the older buildings in that city here in Birmingham?

    • A lot of the ground floor retail in Boston has been continuously used for retail for a long time, with landlords continually updating space for new needs and trends…while here much of our urban retail space is unchanged from 1910 or 1940. Of course, the demand in Boston for modern urban retail has been healthy in many neighborhoods for a long time, while here it’s something only our grandparents remember…that makes it more challenging.

  5. I think it’s a smart business move to subdivide retail spaces into small ones. It’s better than letting their storefront remain vacant, isn’t it?

    • Yes–although unfortunately downtown, so many buildings are owned by absentee landlords and/or families who have long paid off the building–that given lack of incentives and low property taxes, there is less desire to subdivide (as an up-front speculative cost) than one would think. Thanks.

  6. Pingback: Deactivating storefronts | Bhamarchitect's Blog

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