In Better Block projects, the areas we look to revitalize are often former streetcar stops, which are neighborhood Main Streets that conform to Dave Sucher’s “three rules for a walkable neighborhood.” The important form of the street, buildings built to the sidewalk without setbacks for parking, are often disrupted over time due to structures being demolished creating “gaps in the teeth.” These gaps are often converted to parking lots which break up the walkability of the block but are deemed crucial to the business which no longer has the luxury of heavy foot traffic the streetcar once provided. This parking problem solves one issue, but creates another.
While developing concept plans to activate the historic wall, the gaps are where we find the energy of the street rapidly decline. Other common issues are half walls, or places where one side of the street is intact and the other side has been leveled. The symbiosis of the two walls is important to create a street that feels alive and hugs the public space correctly. Fortunately, temporary ways to re-engage these gaps is to use things like food trucks, or biergartens which begin re-stitching the street. Unfortunately, many people don’t see the necessity for having these spaces tightly interconnected and activating each other in a way that allows the parts to help the sum. Where we see this most commonly working correctly is in the suburban mall, a place that has re-appropriated many of the successful concepts of a Main Street. In fact, to simplify the analysis of what works and what doesn’t work in a Better Block, we’ll often ask “Would it work in a mall?”. Specifically, taking the example of a half-wall street, we could ask the question, “Would a mall with a hallway that one side is empty and the other side is full work well?”. It might work partially, but it wouldn’t be nearly as successful as both parts together. Also, looking at several of the new mixed-use developments occurring where the retail on the bottom floor is homogenized and all of the store fronts have little detail and appear to be one similar store front after another, would that same aesthetic be appealing in a mall? This is often what shopping strips employ, and those with the least detail and differentiation between facades lack character and are often described as feeling artificial.
When developing plazas or similar commons, we look at areas like food courts for examples. In a mall, these areas are open spaces edged with food retailers that all manage the public space. To be successful, we’ll look at bringing in tables, chairs, then lining the edges of the square with multiple food options (where it be food trucks, trailers, or tents). An area we often have to mitigate with vendors is the fear of losing business due to perceived conflicts of competition. What is important is for those vendors to note that what makes a district feel complete is having multiple options that create a dense feeling of mixes that all engage the space and bring as much foot traffic to the “commons” as possible. The series of options that are presented create spaces that people want to gather around and the “rising tide raises all ships” phenomenon can be seen.
If using the mall reference as an example, imagine a large food court with one food vendor. It might receive all of the foot traffic, but it will also make the space feel isolated and empty.
Realizing the complex symbiosis of the businesses with the public space is important to making a place feel vibrant and inviting. Although many suburban malls are in decline, the principles behind their walkability, mix of retail and food, public space engaging with private space, and facade detail can all be referenced in Better Blocks. Understanding the clustering of storefronts and noting how even small gaps can dramatically reduce the success for the relationship businesses have to the street is crucial and can make or break projects.