Comment of the Day: Isn’t Nearby Retail Enough?

COMMENT OF THE DAY: ISN’T NEARBY RETAIL ENOUGH? Retail Litmus Test“I don’t understand the ground floor retail ‘litmus test’ that is applied to every new building proposed for downtown/midtown. That is, it is not a ‘good’ building if it does not have a retail component. I understand the desirability of having nearby retail and a more ‘walkable’ downtown, but why do we have to have retail in the same building as the apartments as long as the retail is nearby? Here, there is retail right across the street, and the Main street corridor is only a few blocks away! Doesn’t it make sense sometimes to build a single-use building that is more conducive to its purpose as long as the other elements of a ‘walkable’ city (like retail, offices, services) are within walking distance?” [SH, commenting on The Best Views Yet of Hines’s Market Square Apartment Tower and Its Downtown Headlight] Illustration: Lulu

23 Comment

  • I agree with most of this. For example, I don’t see the benefit of the new Hines Market Square apartments having ground floor retail with so much already going on in that area. I think it would be nice if they extended the N. Travis/Orange line of the tunnel to meet that building, but that’s another issue (though that would be a major draw if I could walk to work while picking up donuts and breakfast tacos in the comfort of AC).

  • ‘Ground floor retail’ looks like a recrudescence of the old model where the proprietor and his family lived above the shop. There are more floors nowadays, and I doubt whether any current shopkeeper in Houston could afford to live in his building, but old traditions die hard.

  • One answer to your question is that it is the “density” of ground floor retail that actually makes an area walkable and interesting. When you have “clusters” of retail, individual businesses thrive off of each other by bringing a greater number of potential customers to the area. If you have a block with retail, 2 blocks without, then another retail block, followed by 3 more empty blocks, who wants to walk around something like that? The Galleria, Rice Village, and Highland Village are all successful because people go there and have a density of retail from which to choose, all in close proximity to one another.

  • Assuming population density is desired, you would of necessity need to combine all components in one space. Sure, right now we can do single-use buildings, but that’s short-sighted. I think that’s the reason there’s a push for mixed use.

    That, and from an aesthetics standpoint, it’s incredibly boring and sometimes unpleasant to walk by other people’s ground-level balconies and all the junk they put out there.

  • I don’t think every building needs ground floor retail, but it is pretty dumb, I think, when you see a residential midrise with no ground floor retail and a cheap shopping strip right next to it with a huge ground level parking lot wrapped around it. It doesn’t lend itself toward the walkable urban center idea, nor does it create a coherent vibe.

  • I’ve been to parts of San Francisco, Oakland, and Chicago where most residential did not have retail on the ground floor; you walked to the local commercial street for your errands and fun. The retail on those streets often did not have residential above; sometimes it was just one-story buildings. Still, these were great, appealing, walkable urban neighborhoods. It was the nice sidewalks, easy-to-cross streets, tight street grids, and lack of fronting parking lots (and blank walls) that made them walkable. The all-residential buildings were perfectly pleasant to pass by on foot (OK, maybe a few too many garage doors in SF).

    You only need so much retail space in any one location. Having retail on the ground floor of every urban residential building is begging for an oversupply of space. You have to be really, really densely populated to support most retail on the basis of a pedestrian-shed only, so even a neighborhood that has dense residential by Houston standards will not support a huge amount of retail space based on walking distance only. A better strategy in Houston at this point is trying to convince commercial developers to build their retail buildings up to the sidewalk, with parking on the side or behind (and build a nice sidewalk while they’re at it), rather than begging residential developers to put ground-floor retail in. What we want from the residential folks is to not put in long blank walls – the fronts of the units or other types of “active space” like the leasing office, fitness room, etc. will do just fine. Though retail, of course, can be very nice when it is put in (and occupied).

  • The key word there is “if” or ‘as long as’. GFR means that there will be residential, retail and walkablity and it is a great way to guarantee those 3 things. As we know in Houston we cant count on the developer across the street to go commercial or that the retail across the street wont be fenced up townhomes in two years. With the little use of urban master planning and lack of zoning, each lot is on its own island. So true, you dont have to have GFR, but if you dont, you are depending on a larger combined effort to create something great, and unfortunately that doesnt happen often.

  • Simple answer: the retail downtown is insufficient to sustain the number of people that should be coming to live downtown in the next decade and for the fast growing office market. Things are ok right now. But it is getting crowded at restaurants in the tunnels and above ground during lunch. Main St. is coming back in a big way should spread out its momentum to the Hines apartment tower instead of coming up on a dead end at the building.

  • Unfortunately, the reason these developments are done this way has nothing to do w/ ‘how much retail is already in the area’ or the need to be more ‘urban’…. Ground floor retail w/ a fixed residential/office component above demands huge rents that can’t be duplicated with ground floor residential/office. The developers of these buildings are maximizing their return, both by getting these rents as well as adding a ‘draw’ for the tenants above, whether residential or office. When you’re shopping for an apartment or an office, you pay a premium to be in a building with great restaurants/services available on-site. I’m not saying I agree with this, but it’s the simple economics of it.

  • The overarching idea is not only walkability but also diversity of uses. Nothing kills a neighborhood like having a single-use are that is only active for several hours. Keeping an area busy as much as possible helps with self-policing and acts as a sort of advertising in that users are more likely to pass a neighboring business along the way. It creates a critical mass of activity that builds off itself.

    More variety of uses requires smaller spaces. By offering smaller spaces, it’s easier for lower rent tenants to move in.

    The ground level uses don’t necessarily need to be retail either, but the best uses are ones that are frequented the most for shorter durations.

  • You need closely spaced retail without parking lots and blank walls to have an interesting, lively street scene. But you need to have lots of residential units in order to have the people to put in that street scene. You can hope people drive from further away, but then you need to provide them parking, and big roadways, which kills your street scene. Best way to have a lively street is closely spaced retail with residences stacked above.

  • “‘Ground floor retail’ looks like a recrudescence of the old model where the proprietor and his family lived above the shop. There are more floors nowadays, and I doubt whether any current shopkeeper in Houston could afford to live in his building, but old traditions die hard.”
    Do you really think this is what all the fuss is about? Have you ever visited any city outside of Texas?

  • More expensive land = greater need for productive uses of said land otherwise the holding taxes will eat you alive. Houston and Texas have cheap land and therefore unproductive use of much of that land.

  • As a practical matter, “nearby” is probably not good enough. The tendency will be for every developer to rely on the other to provide the “nearby retail”, so no one will do it. It is a decision that is without a doubt driven by cold, hard economics, so there is no easy answer.

  • In places with zoning, you tend to see single-use retail, or GFR with residential or offices above, on a few main commercial streets, with single-use residential on nearby streets. There is a lot of incentive to do ground-floor retail on those streets, because there are few alternative sites zoned for commercial use. In un-zoned Houston, OTOH, since the retail can go anywhere, the opportunity cost of single-use residential is much lower.

  • Do the same people who enthusiastically ride their bikes and meet at parks for ‘Boot Camp’ type workouts also require convenient accessibility when it comes to dry cleaning, coffee/Wi-Fi, and adult beverage cafes?

  • Simple answer; Who would want to live or work on the first floor of a Mid- Rise Building? Especially in Downtown or Midtown. Why not use the ground floor for retail, where a higher rent per square foot could be charged? It’s “Mixed- Use” which should have been the Swamplot “Design Cliche of the Year” Award. Everything seems to be “Mixed- Use”, which I applaud. Build up, not spread out.

  • The simple fact remains that ground floor retail is not in high enough demand in Houston for a developer to justify the cost and the risk. The people who scream for ground floor retail so they can walk to a drycleaners are not the customers, the businesses who would occupy those places are the customers, and they to date don’t want it.

  • in a lot of other cities with abundant ground floor retail, i’ve found that those type of areas/neighborhoods with plenty of it are generally not in high demand and are less desirable areas to live.

    it raises the question of why this is something we’d want to push for without seeing a clear market demand or need for it. I would think it’d be pretty easy to prove that a residential building with ground floor retail would be less favorable to renters/buyers.

  • One other issue: the residents living above the retail are not generally sufficient to sustain the retail establishments on the ground floor. So a large proportion of the clientele still has to come from elsewhere, and many of these people will arrive by car. In a mixed-use development, this usually means parking in a structure some distance from the front door. Many tenants still fear that this will drive potential customers to a competitor with more convenient parking.
    Take for example, a dry cleaner located in a the 1st floor of a mixed-use building, vs one in a strip center with half-a-dozen parking spaces in front. The typical customer will save several minutes by choosing the latter over the former.
    It’s not a coincidence that the retail tenants in smaller mixed use developments are disproportionately food-and-beverage operations (where length of visit is longer and valet parking is common), and larger mixed use developments are essentially shopping malls (where the model is ALSO park wherever you can and walk to the stores you want to visit).

  • @ Angostura: Totally agree with your statements, also builds upon my earlier points. In Downtown and parts of Midtown, on-street parking is often forbidden at key hours. This is a major disincentive for ground floor retail oriented to any kind of non-dining convenience-oriented use, like dry cleaners. I believe the parking prohibitions apply to the streets around Market Square, except for the diagonal parking on Preston.

  • “in a lot of other cities with abundant ground floor retail, i’ve found that those type of areas/neighborhoods with plenty of it are generally not in high demand and are less desirable areas to live.”

    What cities/neighborhoods are you talking about? In almost every city I can think of where this kind of development exists, the highest demand neighborhoods are precisely those with a thriving ground floor retail scene. In New York this includes Upper West Side, Upper East Side, and Greenwich Village; in Washington D.C. pretty much the whole downtown area, DuPont Circle, Adams Morgan; in Boston the North End, Harvard Square, Coolidge Corner; in Philadelphia Rittenhouse Square; in Chicago the River North area, OldTown, Wrigleyville, Hyde Park; in New Orleans the French Quarter; in San Francisco Telegraph Hill and the waterfront area; etc., etc. Of course some of these cities have dumpy neighborhoods with ground floor retail, but the worst neighborhoods are the districts with no retail, just block after block of dark buildings where the streets are dangerous at night.

  • It’s a marketing ploy, folks. Like Tuscan out in the ‘burbs.