The current economic doldrums have brought out all sorts of vacant storefronts – not just a tell tale of the economy, but a fascinating take on urban anthropology.
At first glance, they would indicate that the economy is down, that the activity that previously existed at that location fell victim to a recession. Any retail leasing agent would be quick to point out that marginal locations die first, and that the economy is really in bad shape if the vacant storefronts syndrome were to hit the more sought after locations and properties.
At a deeper investigation, one may wonder if the types of commercial activity that went on in any given vacant storefront is sustainable economically, and if things picked up, would this type of activity resurface?
The concept of selling goods changes presentation and architectural trappings often. In North America, we’ve seen a progression of:
Open Air Markets
Stores arranged along a main street, accessible on foot
Stores arranged along commercial highway strips, accessible by car
Open-air shopping plazas, approached by car, then accessed on foot
Mall-ified pedestrian street, which closed a street to all but pedestrian traffic, to recreate the open-air shopping plaza concept in an urban setting
Climate controlled, enclosed shopping mall in a suburban setting, with anchor tenants (usually department stores), approached by car but accessed on foot, where every day is always a pleasant 72° Fahrenheit (20° Celsius) regardless if it’s winter or summer
The climate controlled enclosed shopping mall even saw an urban version, closing off streets and creating“superblocks” with inward focuses. While the classic examples may be Eaton Center in Toronto, the Galleria in Philadelphia or even the ZCMI Center in Salt Lake City; a more iconic version may be Rochester’s Midtown Plaza. Opened in 1963, it virtually recreated a controlled suburban environment in an urban setting, complete with a promotional “courtyard” featuring the “Clock of the Nations” that commemorated one of twelve different countries every hour and an elevated “kiddie monorail” made by the Louden Machinery Company of Fairfield, Iowa – also found in department stores like Kresge in Newark, NJ, Sears on State Street in Chicago and the Meier and Frank Department Store in Portland, Oregon. (Let’s save the kiddie monorails for another entry, I do write about transportation devices from time to time)
And I’m not even touching on further developments like festival markets (Faneuil Hall in Boston, the Inner Harbor in Baltimore), power centers (name your suburb) and big box retailers (even real cities are clamouring to get big box retailers).
Who knows what the next step will be. Web based e-commerce seems to be picking up, but my guess is that retail – as in going out and shopping – is too much of a social event to be relegated to a computer screen.
The bigger question is something like, who knows what will happen to all this vacant space, and what sort of impact will this redevelopment have on the visual image of our cities…