Walkabout: Everyday sharing may be right route to successful retail

Urban Design Associates project describes and celebrates 'everyday squares' that draw people and patrons

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Years ago, while sipping coffee at Tazza D'Oro in Highland Park, I lit on a troubling truth about community development before I had even heard of the term. It was instinct to worry about the coffeehouse's future; it seemed to me -- and, I assume, to others -- to be all by itself as a retail attraction in Highland Park.

Now it isn't; Bryant Street around the corner has bounced back to life.

In a new study that architect Joe Nickol orchestrated for Urban Design Associates, Tazza D'Oro is cited among 10 catalysts that thrum life into neighborhoods every day in small, mainstream ways.

UDA identified these places as "everyday squares" and developed an online guide to share the little secret that's not such a secret if you consult your instinct as respectfully as you would engineers, transportation planners, economists and even architects. The guide is available at www.urbandesignassociates.com.

"Urban designers think about broad sidewalks, and in almost every drawing there's a plaza or a big public space," said Rob Robinson, an architect who worked on the Everyday Squares project. "Those can be great, but they're often too big and maybe in the wrong places."

Big places can succeed, of course. Southside Works, Bakery Square and Market Square have all captured lively audiences. The point is that creating vibrancy doesn't require millions of dollars, state or federal funding, an assemblage of properties, major infrastructure alteration or even debt.

It is an elusive recipe, though, because a little magic is involved. Lots of places that shouldn't work in fact do work because of something just beyond the right words or description.

"Like this place," Mr. Robinson said, pointing to a photograph of a tiny, sunken, public space shared by cafes off Wisconsin Avenue in Washington, D.C.'s Georgetown neighborhood. "From an urban design standpoint, everything is wrong. It's not visible, it's too small, you've got stairs, there's no signage -- and yet it's a magnet. And it started before there were tweets and texts."

UDA's interest is in identifying places with the best potential to accommodate a cluster of eclectic attractions that feed off each other's energy for a maximum amount of the day. Together, they enhance sales and social potential -- for example, a bakery with a sunny courtyard near a great lunch place near a small club that brings people out at night.

Mr. Robinson said the prescription for designers and developers might be a choreography of small spaces, bolstered by shopping strategically for tenants as large-scale developers do.

Over the past year, UDA staff visited neighborhood places, interviewing customers, entrepreneurs and people on the street, and documented their findings.

"Agents of change can be the tiny, even marginal, businesses," Mr. Robinson said. "Gestures are often very tiny -- a tiny moment, a little piece of the city, an eddy in a stream that catches you up in it. It's like a body language."

All it might take is one entrepreneur expanding to the sidewalk or adding a little nook that his business can share with the adjacent business. Bees-to-honey places are often scrunched together, spilling into each other, offering two or three experiences at the same time.

When I think about the places that attract me, I can't land on any one thing or aesthetic. I love charming, cozy places, but I also like sprawling, messy settings like the Strip District. There's nothing pretty about it except for everything about it -- the smells, the crowds, the buskers, the possibility of discovery, the likelihood of seeing people you know.

It's magical, synergistic, even collaborative.

The Urban Gardener, a small nursery on Brighton Road in California-Kirkbride, is another of UDA's 10 places. It has nothing around it. Mr. Robinson said it is an anchor that entrepreneurs and developers in many cities would flock to. Brighton Road is crying out for that.

One risk to anchor pioneers is being alone too long, especially in languishing "main street" retail corridors. If one or two other businesses don't jump in to create traction, the anchor could die.

Trying to reanimate streets that once had everything after decades is arduous, thankless work that often flat-lines. Community development professionals know this too well. But there may be small, affordable success in the design equivalent of gestures and body language.


Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at www.post-gazette.com/citywalk.

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