Cities and towns across the country are being challenged with how to revitalize auto-centric, sprawling corridors into more pedestrian friendly, thriving destinations. At the same time, the retail industry is experiencing a major economic shift. How can these dated commercial strips be transformed into more attractive and innovative streetscapes?
To help answer this question, ULI Atlanta convened a panel discussion on Thursday, June 29 featuring remarks by ULI senior fellow Ed McMahon, a national expert on health and real estate, sustainable development, and land use.
Ed shared his belief that health and the built environment are intrinsically linked to giving us a sense of place, a term he called the place making dividend. Ed reiterated that in this new economy distinctiveness and character matters equally as much as place. Think about conventional stores like Sears and K-Marts who have suffered from years of plunging sales. When looking at their closures through a place making lens, it helps explain why independent retailers, like bookstores are seeing a resurgence of sales up 30% since 2010. Beyond the retail environment, Ed stressed that redevelopment should focus on the healthy corridors approach. This considers how our streetscapes and linkages can promote health, equity, and environmental sustainability.
People want an experience. “Retail will change more in the next 5 to 7 years than it has in the last 30” said Herbert Ames, vice president at EDENS. People want to spend their time in a well-designed, intentional space. Chef-led restaurants, boutique retail and unique fitness concepts will continue to thrive in this new paradigm. “People can do a lot of things online, but they can’t eat or workout!”
Steve Shroud sees a similar trend in Roswell, GA where he has done a great deal of community consensus building for mixed-use developments. The organization he leads, Roswell Inc. promotes economic development by forging public-private partnerships with the City of Roswell. Steve highlighted that you need to help people see a vision and overcome the fear of change. Once the community has bought in, it allows the downtown core to thrive. Steve uses the example of Roswell having 23 chef-led restaurants as a mark of this success.
Infrastructure improvements can help seek buy-in too. Expanding sidewalks, installing bike lanes, greenspaces, moving utilities and parking garages underground create more options for people to enjoy the space said Jerome Hagley with Carter and Associates, one of the firms behind the City of Sandy Springs $300M City Springs project. These kinds of improvements must be intentional, like the desire for Sandy Springs to increase walkability. It’s worth the investment in spades. Ed McMahon pointed to other corridors where key transportation infrastructure such a BRT (bus rapid transit) has been catalytic to creating healthy, more sustainable retail destinations.
On the regulatory side, strategies like form-based code helps developers expedite the zoning process while providing the community assurances about the character of their community. Caleb Racicot with TSW added that working with communities to shape their future through updating these codes is critical to the success or failure of any new project. Caleb has seen these successes come to fruition through the revitalization and historic preservation of Downtown Woodstock and Glenwood Park in Atlanta.
Ed McMahon closed by highlighting that an estimated 2.8 million acres of greyfields will become available in the U.S. over the next 15 years. Rethinking retail corridors is among the greatest upcoming real estate development opportunities, to create more sustainable land use in urban and suburban markets. Atlanta has had great success with our Livable Centers Initiative creating walkable nodes across the region and now is the time to focus on the links between those successful nodes, and the corridors, for a healthier, more vibrant Atlanta.
 Greyfields can be defined as outdated strips like malls and shopping centers that no longer attract significant investment or economic activity.
This event is part of a quarterly series hosted by ULI Atlanta which gives special attention to ULI’s core mission to provide leadership on the responsible use of land and create sustaining and thriving communities here in the metro Atlanta region. To stay abreast of upcoming events, please visit: atlanta.uli.org/events
By: Daphne Bond-Godfrey, Director, ULI Atlanta