Eight steps to better retail areas

New tool identifies eight concepts to create better retail areas and create place in your community.

Washington D.C office of Planning recently launched its Vibrant Streets Retail Toolkit to assist areas within the district in creating successful retail places. The toolkit details eight steps that can be helpful to any community looking to create a successful commercial area or downtown.

The eight steps may seem rather basic and obvious but it is the implementation and application of these concepts that create a successful retail place. Most Michigan communities could benefit from the application of these concepts to their retail areas. Let’s look at these steps:

  1. Managed: Retail areas need to have someone or something in charge to oversee development and activities. This can be a Business Improvement District or Downtown Development Authority, or another non- profit organization. The key is having a central point to get everyone on the same page and working towards a goal.
  2. Retail-appropriate: Retail areas need to be retail-focused. For a retail area to be successful, it needs to have less than ten percent non-retail such as offices, churches or vacancies. Two or three non- retail establishments in a row can break up the walkability and end pedestrian activity and shopping.
  3. Mixed: Develop a mix of retail opportunities. These should reflect a mix of targets such as various ages, incomes and income levels representative of the surrounding residential areas. Often retail areas become targeted toward a specific demographic group and are more vulnerable to economic shifts.
  4. Safe: Shoppers need to feel safe, which can be helped by good lighting, storefronts with good visibility and activities that encourage people to use the public spaces.
  5. Championed: A large public or private initiative or project can drive success in a retail area.
  6. Anchored: Successful retail areas have an anchor institution. This can be a civic or cultural feature that brings people into the area. In other smaller areas, this anchor can be a grocery store.
  7. Walkable: Outdoor cafes, wide sidewalks and a comfortable environment with pedestrian amenities such as benches and shade make a retail area more attractive. Lighting is important to extend activity into the evening.
  8. Unified: Retail areas gain a sense of identification or unity though consistent branding, similar architectural style, a historical district or simply by being in good repair and attractive. It is much easier to repeatedly attract a shopper to a district than a single establishment.

These concepts all have one central theme, creating a place where a high level of retail activity occurs. This can only happen if retail activity is clustered in nodes along streets or at intersections. Retail that is spread out too thin does not have the density that creates the level of activity needed for high-quality retail areas. Michigan State University Extension provides training and resources on how to create high quality retail areas. Contact your local land use educator for more information. 

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