Wednesday, May 3, 2017

A Good Place for a Coffee Shop

For a long time, I've advocated for more urban, higher density, mixed-use development in places like CityLine and Palisades and Brick Row and Eastside and on and on. And generally, I have been disappointed with the result. At best, we ended up with mostly multi-use (not mixed-use) developments (apartments over here, a strip shopping center over there, and an corporate office campus off in the corner). At worst, we ended up with a 1980s style apartment building without even the claim of mixed-use.

Take, for example, GreenVue apartments on Greenville Avenue between Arapaho and Collins. Within walking distance of a DART station, it was a good location for catalyst mixed-use project. Instead we got a 1980s-style apartment building that was built to be "retail ready." No mixed-use. No retail. No offices. Just four stories of apartments that someday, maybe, can be retrofitted to have some retail. If the market demand ever appears. Sigh.

So is it time to change my mind?

The potential game-changer is in an article in CityLab, "How to Survive a Retail Meltdown". First the sad facts: "the retail sector lost approximately 30,000 jobs in March alone, with thousands of store closings projected through 2017. At this pace, store closings in 2017 are likely to surpass the Great Recession year of 2008." Some of these jobs are going into e-commerce like I find it increasingly difficult to lobby for more retail development in Richardson in the face of national statistics like that.

The CityLab article focuses its strategies on so-called greyfields, that is, the sites of abandoned malls and big box outlets. CityLab calls for "easing ’70s-era anti-urban use and density restrictions in and around downtowns, as cities like Buffalo and Baltimore are doing with their zoning updates." The idea is to open up these greyfields for redevelopment in new form.

But Richardson has only a tiny old downtown and few malls, old or otherwise. Richardson's problem is not greyfields, but aging strip shopping centers. My hope was that in the new developments we'd create a new urban form for Richardson, and eventually those old strip shopping centers would be bulldozed and redeveloped in the new form. But as I've come to see in GreenVue, that ain't happening in the new developments. It seems to me that the strategy (if there is one) is to build more standalone apartments in hopes of creating enough density to stimulate demand for those dying strip shopping centers. Time will tell how that goes.

That brings me to a suggestion by CityLab that I hadn't considered before. A suggestion that just might lead me to quit beating my head against the wall of mixed-use new development that for various reasons isn't happening and start beating my head against a new brick wall. CityLab calls for "clearing out stodgy old lists of permitted and prohibited uses and allowing for small-scale mixed-use development in urban residential areas — think corner delis and neighborhood shops."

I'm reminded of a neighborhood effort in southwest Richardson to tear down a row of houses and build a pocket park — Durham Park. It's a neighborhood success story. But why stop with a park? How about changing zoning to make it easy for someone to turn a corner house in a residential neighborhood into a coffee shop or a doughnut shop or a deli? Maybe I should quit trying to bring retail to apartment living and start lobbying to bring retail to single family neighborhoods. I think my head is sore already.


Stephen Springs said...

I doubt many folks in single-family-home suburbia, myself included, relish the thought of living next door to a business. That's why we live where we do. I'm all for density and multi-use, but it's not correct fit for every area in a city, least of all established single-family neighborhoods.

I would submit that while the demise of retail as we know it is certainly a major influence in current development, another key issue is simply cost. Smaller scale projects like redeveloping old strip centers are simply very difficult to pull off financially. There is a lot of inertia to overcome. Few developers are altruistic. There are many quicker/cheaper/easier ways to make a profit. This is why you see remodels as opposed to true redevelopment. Cost of entry.

The other factor is simply rooftops. You can't have viable retail without enough nearby customers. So true multi-use by definition requires a lot of rooftops. The GreenVue example is an illustration. Though it looks "biggish" retail there is unlikely because it is relatively isolated and doesn't have enough of it's own rooftops to sustain it.

Stephen Springs said...

My apologies - you can ignore the first paragraph. I cross-posted this comment and missed editing that one out. Not quite on topic.

Mark Steger said...

Stephen Springs, thanks for the feedback (and apologies that the blogging software doesn't permit editing comments).

Of course many homeowners would oppose rezoning. Some would welcome it. I wouldn't try to impose this citywide. It should be something decided neighborhood by neighborhood and then only if there's a significant majority willing to do it. That hypothetical majority will never arise unless we begin talking about it now.

Most apartment complexes are being built as "relatively isolated" islands. With that development style, there will never be enough "rooftops" for mixed-use. Even in a neighborhood of single-family homes, there are not even enough rooftops to support retail on a large scale. But a single coffee shop? Maybe.