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Should Online Shopping Change How We Use Ground-Level Space?

Urbanist Jane Jacobs' support for mixed use development has long been seen as the best urban design strategy, but this vision assumed that the retail space under housing could be rented. What if that is no longer the case?
February 19, 2017, 7am PST | Keli_NHI
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Brandon Bourdages

Should ground-floor use go from retail to housing?

In San Francisco, the closing of once-popular San Francisco restaurants and the decline of longtime Union Square pillar Macy’s raise a question: Have the fundamentals of urban retail changed?

If the answer is yes, San Francisco could move to reduce retail requirements in new housing developments while adding badly needed housing, which would represent a dramatic change in “best practices” for urban neighborhoods.

Jane Jacobs’s support for mixed-use development with “eyes on the street” has long been seen as the best urban design strategy, but this vision assumed that the retail under housing could be rented. What if it cannot? Or, what if the only market for these retail spaces are for offices closed on evenings and weekends? Such uses do not offer the ongoing street activity that created Jacobs’s famed street “ballet.”

As San Francisco and other large cities combat their housing shortages, the requirement that ground-floor space under housing be for retail should to be open to debate. We may conclude that the city should not be giving up housing units for retail spaces that are not wanted or needed.

National Trend

An intriguing article out of New York City found that despite the economic upturn, vacancy rates are up in every Manhattan retail corridor. Some argue that unlike past downturns, this one is not cyclical. Brokers believe that “brick-and-mortar retailers will shrink dramatically during the next few years, so supply of retail space will outweigh demand for it.”

I recall that over a decade ago, Berkeley Daily Planet Editor Becky O’Malley questioned whether Berkeley had too much retail in light of people’s shifting purchasing activity to the internet. Urban America’s buying habits have shifted even more dramatically since that time, raising questions as to whether it’s time to rethink the popular model of mixed-use development.

Like nearly everyone else, I prefer the look of mixed-use streets. I bemoan the Tenderloin’s unusual lack of mixed-use housing, despite challenges finding quality tenants for existing spaces. Jacobs was correct: mixed-use streets are more interesting, and have more energy and foot traffic.

So before we give up on mixed use, let’s consider how San Francisco and other cities can maintain successful retail in an online world...

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Published on Friday, February 17, 2017 in Shelterforce/Rooflines
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