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.
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.
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).
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]