Friday, November 20, 2009

Between Blight and Gentrification

Diana DeRubertis over at Planetizen has a good article on retail in neighborhoods. In my daily work we are always challenged by the balance of blight and gentrification. While we want revitalization it still needs to be a balanced approach that keeps the old (retail) and the new in harmony for the neighborhood. Here is the article:

Is there a happy medium between the run-down liquor store and the gourmet shop? What is the best form of Main Street retail, as people move back to the city and re-emergent neighborhoods acquire shops and services that were once lacking?

I’ve lamented the disproportionate number of liquor stores in San Diego neighborhoods that are otherwise revitalizing. Even though these shops also sell convenience items and provide an honest living for their owners, they do little to enhance street life. They could offer much more to their respective communities, both in terms of product selection and storefront design. Given their centralized locations, it’s a shame that they hide from the street (the corner of Main Street, in this case):

These would not have been acceptable retail outlets to earlier generations who relied on streetcars and walking for shopping. To reduce vehicle-miles traveled, the current generation needs easy access to a central market, at minimum.

An ideal replacement for the omnipresent liquor store is an affordable merchant that carries fresh groceries and appeals to a diversity of shoppers. By serving the daily needs of residents, it could become a gathering place that activates the street and defines the neighborhood. What sometimes appears instead is an upscale business that screams “gentrification”, a term that has come to be regarded as an undesirable flip side to blight. Such businesses, on their own, do not sufficiently rejuvenate small retail districts because they offer too limited a product selection for an exclusive group of people. When the local store sells only hand-crafted chocolates, residentswill need daily trips to stores outside of the neighborhood.

The best retail mix is often found in cities and towns that are well connected to a college or university — perhaps because students and professors have a limited budget but selective tastes. Students are also more likely to not own a car, so groceries and good restaurants need to be within walking or biking distance. A number of university towns boast cafes, used book stores, ethnic restaurants, grocery stores, office supplies, pharmacies, and specialty food shops — all affordable and all walkable from campus and residential neighborhoods.

Within these larger or established retail districts, there is a place for everything, including liquor stores and exclusive boutiques. But on Main Street, particularly when it’s the only show in town, the central market should live up to its name.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is a very insightful article. I think this is also a supply and demand issue: i.e., what are the societal conditions that create a demand for so many liquor stores? Thanks for sharing this.