April 22, 2014 > Taking Back our Agora. And Other Wisdom from Retail Experts
Taking Back our Agora. And Other Wisdom from Retail Experts
By Christina Briggs, Economic Development Manager
LetÕs just get this out of the way first. For those of you who donÕt know what an ÒagoraÓ is, itÕs defined by Wikipedia as Òa central spot in ancient Greek city-states É and the center of athletic, artistic, spiritual, and political life of the city.Ó
After decades of urban planning exercises (and sometimes even contortion) to segregate where we live, where we work, and where we shop, there is a movement afoot to increasingly co-mingle these activities Ð and thatÕs where todayÕs retail is thriving. This was a prevailing theme as the retail industry descended on Fremont at the International Council of Shopping CenterÕs (ICSC) 2014 Northern California Alliance Program last week.
The Alliance Program is a special ICSC initiative that provides forums for the public and private sectors to network, share ideas, and explore retail development opportunities in local communities. This yearÕs event included two elements. First, 10 different cities from across the Bay Area presented new retail development projects in a retail runway, a Òquick-fireÓ format providing just enough information to pique interest from the audience. For our part, this was a great opportunity to highlight the downtown plan and the revival of The Globe.
The runway was followed by a deep dive into retail industry trends with the help of an all-star panel, including Doug Wiele of Foothill Partners (developer), Dena Belzer of Strategic Economics (economist/urban planner), and Charles Kahn of KDA (architect). The discussion was revealing and provided stark examples of how dynamic retail is, which is why planning for Òtraditional retailÓ is not only vague, itÕs probably illogical. With the Internet really comprising only 9 percent of retail sales, there is still a need for brick-and-mortar retail spaceÑbut, according to Kahn, ÒIt just has to be interesting, folks.Ó
And mixed-use does not necessarily equal interesting. Smart design coupled with strategic locations, such as near transit, is where retail is best positioned to succeed. It combines the right elements Ðproximity to residential and workplace environments and the place-making attributes to draw people in. Of course, this all comes with the backdrop of soaring rents and housing prices in the Bay Area, which the panel agreed will likely lead to the continued rediscovery of once-forgotten neighborhoods and a greater importance of side streets for up-and-coming merchants.
Our takeaway? Cities need to be flexible and cannot zone their way to great retail. ItÕs like a dog chasing its tail. The retail world will continue to pivot and evolve just like consumers do. But in the Bay Area, we have the opportunity to be trend setters on a national scale for how we come together again as a community in our own agora, whatever that may look like.