When Ground-level Retail isn't Viable

2/17/2009 Uncategorized


Ground level retail, the panacea for recent dense urban development, never really panned out the way that architects and policy experts had hoped.  University Park in Cambridge and Lyme Properties’ development near Kendall Square are examples of well-intentioned local projects that do not support enough retail to activate the publicly accessible streets and spaces within the boundaries of the development.  The same issue is playing itself out on the South Boston Waterfront, were the island of development adjacent to the Seaport Hotel and World Trade Center can only support amenity retail such as bank branches, higher-end fast food for the local office workers, and a few restaurants that cater to the tour bus crowd.  In Kendall Square, there is a Starbucks in every other R&D office building, subsidized by the landlord to help market space in the floors above. Even in Downtown Boston, retail seemed to have reached a saturation point even before the current economic woes.  So what is the answer for the ground floor when the market cannot support a continuous liner of retail?  The answer in lower density urban areas of five stories or less, proliferating entrances to residential units and lobbies is an effective strategy for activating a street.  This approach requires the invention of building types other than super-efficient double-loaded corridors, a building logic that aims to maximize the number of units that can feed off of a single building entrance. 

But the answer for the mid-rise city of office buildings, life science laboratories, and mid-rise apartment buildings is less clear. One recent solution in residential development has been to increase the amount of common space amenities, propelled chiefly by a competitive arms race provoked by the recent development boom.    In  projects like 91 Sydney and 100 in University Park in Cambridge, the ground floors are brimming with social programming meant to entice 20-somethings to sign on.  An internet café, media room, party space, health club, and a kids play room, are just some of the hotel-like common spaces included in the building podiums.   The ground floor spaces are a loss leader, but are justified by the increased rents made possible by the amenities. The truth however, is that these spaces rarely get the intensive use of a hotel because social patterns are different; the transient population of a hotel is less familiar with the city outside the hotel door and is thus more likely to seek leisure within the building.  As a result, the ground floor uses do not contribute to the public realm as a hotel, despite the fact that they present a cheery enough face to the sidewalk in the evening when the lights of the mostly empty spaces are revealed.

For office buildings, the answer seems to be to increase the size and grandeur of the lobby.  The best examples of this phenomenon are the office buildings both built and planned on the South Boston Waterfront. Like the amenity spaces in market-rate apartment buildings, the lobby at least provides more visual interest than ground level office space with the vertical blinds drawn.

But if amenity spaces and retail cannot be the answer for the ground level of new mid-rise urban buildings, than what other options can be explored?  It seems that given that large floor plate sizes of contemporary buildings, some of the wholesale and light manufacturing functions of the city should be introduced into new commercial development.  This panel truck-scale would activate the district with ground level activity and bring in a population of workers that would encourage a wider range of small-scale amenity retail.


Boston Fish Pier  Vehicles pass under the Commonwealth Ice and Cold Storage Company building to access the largest fishing pier in the nation, ca. 1937 (Edwin Levick/Corbis)

The ranges of allowable uses in the district would need to be controlled by zoning to ensure that the ground level uses were at compatible with residential and office uses above.  Examples might include garment and small-scale product manufacturing, food wholesale operations, mechanical systems fabricators, and auto repair shops. Workforce and student housing would be more suitable for such a mixed-use district than the kind of market-rate housing that was geared to the upper middle class during the last development cycle.  Some buildings might even be geared to live/work scenarios, although initial construction costs can be higher because of increased fire protection and ventilation requirements.  The potential absorption rate of live/work units would need to be studied for a particular market; although at least one live/work loft building per Forest City-scaled development seems like a reasonable risk and an intelligent way to diversify the program of a development project.

At least one of the student-directed projects in the Yale Urbanism Studio is pursuing this approach to ground level programming this semester.  I will post the results of their research and design speculation as the project unfolds.