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How will we fill up downtown's retail space?


Next year could be a turning point for downtown Rochester – if we're lucky. If the new apartments and condos fill up, if the projects still on the drawing board become a reality, if we haven't over-built....

That's a lot of if's, but the developers insist that there's a market for what they're creating. If so, there'll be a lot of new people living downtown. And that's really good news, for the city's tax base, for businesses and arts organizations that operate downtown, for the community in general.

But many of these buildings will be "mixed use": residential and commercial. And in addition to offices, "commercial" often means restaurants (which could quickly result in oversaturation) and "retail." Stores. Where you buy things.

Maybe there'll be a few actual stores, with stuff to buy inside. But everybody knows what's happening with retail. Online shopping is gobbling up a lot of it.

It was interesting, then, to come across Sidewalk Lab's article "Street Life After Retail: 5 Scenarios That Imagine the Future." And the ideas in it are worth thinking about as city officials, developers, downtown residents, and urban activists think about downtown Rochester's future. As the Sidewalk Labs article says, "lively streets are the hallmark of great cities," and what's inside the buildings determines how lively the adjacent streets and sidewalks are.

If developers set aside the first and second floors of their new residential buildings for retail, and that retail doesn't materialize, those spaces will be dead. And so will the sidewalks.

The authors of the Sidewalk Labs article conducted what they called "a thought experiment," looking at the history of retail changes, retail trends today, technology, social trends, and other things and came up with five possible futures for urban retail spaces – three that they think would have a positive impact on downtowns, two that would have a negative impact.

The positives:
  1. "Mutable markets": temporary retail setting up in existing space. Pop-ups, in other words. Social media and "digital wayfinding" technology makes it possible for short-term businesses to get the word out and attract customers. Their temporary nature and flexible space demands make the use inexpensive. And the changing content and diversity of uses and customers creates interest.
  2. "Indie guilds": groups of individual businesses – offering handmade items, maybe – share space where they can make and sell their creations. This idea, too, would foster creativity, diversity, and pedestrian interest.
  3. "Community commons": In this concept, Sidewalk Labs' writers picture a wide variety of uses in the first-floor space of apartment buildings, uses that serve the building's residents and others: day care, senior health center, community programs....

The two concepts with negative impacts, according to Sidewalk Labs:
  1. Focusing on high-end retail and similar uses, which causes the area to become "an elite fortress;"
  2. Using vacant lots as "automated retail dispensaries," where robots put together online orders from shipping containers or trucks and customers drive in to pick them up, a use that turns adjacent streets and sidewalks into "the domain of machines."

None of these are flashy concepts. And, in fact, the three positives bear a striking resemblance to the concept proposed by activists who want to keep Midtown's Parcel 5 as a civic-square type of space, available for a variety of public uses.

As downtown's population grows, there'll undoubtedly be a demand for some additional traditional commercial uses – restaurants, small retail and service businesses. But there's already a good bit of empty space downtown, and we're creating more as development on such sites as the Inner Loop infill continues.

A good number of organizations and websites like Sidewalk Labs are focusing on the future of first-floor spaces in center cities. They can help us expand our vision a bit as we lay out the future of our own center city, to make sure it's the lively, diverse place it needs to be.