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How to Reinvigorate Retail-Anchored Downtowns in a Post-Pandemic World

June 25th, 2021 by

Downtown economies need to reimagine retail. With empty storefronts plaguing Main Streets across the state and country, the How to Reinvigorate Retail-Anchored Downtowns in a Post-Pandemic World panel at the 2021 New Jersey Planning and Redevelopment Conference offered insight about the future of downtown retail amid a time of uncertainty. Recognizing that the pandemic rewarded retailers that were “adaptive, resourceful, and capable of reinvention,” the panel described a large-scale placemaking project in the redevelopment of key sites in downtown Westfield and offered a forward-thinking perspective for attracting and retaining retail.

“Retail today is not necessarily what you think it is,” explained Bob Zuckerman, the executive director of Downtown Westfield Corporation. Westfield is a case study in retail reinvention, made evident by businesses that include a retailer that provides 20 different selfie-stations, one that is a DIY paint bar where customers can create their own home decor, and a tattoo studio that is more akin to an art space than an ink parlor. Not only are these examples of a new kind of retail, but the selfie-station business also repurposed a shuttered clothing store, and it draws people from all over the region.

A traditional retail store that we all recognize is one in which consumers enter the store, interact with products, purchase a product, and walk out with the product. But Richard Heapes, senior vice president of Streetworks Development asked the fundamental question, “what is retail?” In trying to understand what people love about shopping and why they go shopping, the conclusion was that retail is “any interaction between a consumer and a product, good, or service.” Contrast this with online shopping, which is simply buying a product without physical interaction or context. This understanding of retail enables the market to expand beyond the traditional retail model to encompass other elements that can include the “historic, social, functional, and organizational foundation for any downtown.”

What’s happening today is what Heapes calls “bricks and clicks,” which refers to a retailer bringing its product to the online marketplace from a brick and mortar store, or vice versa. Noting that online retailers don’t generally make a profit, Heapes highlighted that they are “feeling the need to have a storefront.” The value of a storefront over e-commerce is that the consumer can have different kinds of interactions with a product, be given service and immediacy, and have a place to return the product. Even Amazon is opening storefronts.

Retail space goes hand-in-hand with public space, and their adjacency demands that they complement each other. Dan Biederman, president of Biederman Redevelopment Ventures, stressed the importance of community engagement when designing programming for open spaces to draw on the knowledge of “those who best know the town.” Activating the downtown is critical to drawing people in, and programming should rotate uses and times so that different groups are targeted at appropriate times. For example, run a Tai Chi program at dawn, something for families in the late morning, then accommodate office workers at lunchtime, students in the afternoon, and residents in the evenings.

In terms of retail, the future won’t be an extrapolation of the present and there is never a “new normal” for retail because it evolves in unpredictable and innovative ways, according to Michael Berne, president of MJB Consulting. Considering the economic impact of the pandemic, there was a relatively low fallout for businesses as a whole, which Berne attributes not only to things like eviction moratoriums and community goodwill, but to the ability of businesses to pivot. He wants to dispense with the idea that the macro-level oversupply of retail space overburdens downtowns because retail happens at the micro level, leaving open the likely possibility that any given downtown is leaking sales. There are various retail models that don’t ascribe to the traditional, capture the benefits of both “bricks and clicks,” and are able to evolve and be resilient. For Berne, signs of the market point to “better days ahead” for downtown retail. 

For downtowns to hope for better days, local zoning and land use needs to be ready for it. Phil Abramson, founder and CEO of Topology NJ, frames the responsibility of local planners in terms of needing to focus on downtown growth, empowerment, and innovation. A post-pandemic geography—where most homebuyers and corporate site selectors are bound for suburban downtowns—is emerging very quickly. Abramson warns that, “location matters more than ever” in markets and economies, and towns need to step up with things like zoning flexibility, intentional public space design, and streamlined permitting for new and innovative uses. Along with responding to changing needs, planners need to recognize the inequities brought into sharp focus by the pandemic.

Westfield Mayor Shelley Brindle, who moderated the session, said it best by declaring that “great downtowns with a vibrant retail presence don’t just happen. [It takes] proactive planning and ability to adapt to the times.”

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