Recently, a panel at the annual International Council of Shopping Centers offered a list of important points that cities need to consider when trying to bring retail tenants to their downtown areas.

1. Don’t Start with Retail

Infill development in downtown Greenville, SC

Director of Economic Development in Greenville, Nancy Whitworth believes that you can’t simply just drop a shopping district in to the middle of downtown. “When you begin the revitalization process, everyone wants retail […] they want to immediately jump to retail. You can make a place look good, but if the market can’t support the activity, you won’t be successful.”

For example, Greenville, which is wildly popular for being a pedestrian-friendly, shopping community, didn’t start off that way. It didn’t start with retail, either. Greenville took almost 30 years to become the “Main Street” community that it is today. Whitmore continued, stating that they “concentrated on offices, then once [they] had a healthy office market, [they] gradually moved into entertainment.” With that, the city began organizing events and supporting its local performing arts and sports teams. Once Greenville became the sort of place people really wanted to be, retail came in to play. As a result, today, Greenville has several high-end, national retail tenants. They also have over 125 restaurants unique to downtown.

2. Don’t Chase Trend/ Use Subsidiaries as a Fix-All

Nordstrom in downtown Seattle

Bill Fulton, Director for the Kinder Institute of Urban Research, thinks that all cities want to see and use what other concepts and trends are working in other cities. Several years ago, that would simply mean bringing a multiplex to your downtown area. Nowadays, that means pulling for an “Apple” or a “Nordstrom.”

However, Fulton says that “The reality is, you have to understand your niche […] you’ve got to understand, you’re not always going to have the coolest thing.” Oftentimes, cities don’t consider that they don’t have the particular demographics to make certain retail tenants successful. This results in a lot of lost money.

Fulton boils it down to a “psychological problem,” which he defines as this: “ if the market isn’t providing what we want, all we have to do is subsidize it deep enough, and we’ll get it to work,’” Fulton said. “Sometimes, if you subsidize it deep enough, you will get it, but the underlying market won’t be there, you won’t keep it, and it won’t serve as the basis of what you’re trying to grow. You have to be realistic about who you are in the marketplace.”

3. Focus on Placemaking

Main Street in downtown Greenville, SC

Successful retail districts are a result of being a place, and being in a location, where people want to be. Whitworth says that Greenville is lucky to have a river through downtown complete with a scenic waterfall. It built around that asset, which helped draw people in. However, there were also four lanes of moving traffic with parallel parking, which took away from the area. “It was not an attractive place to be. So we narrowed down the street,” Whitworth said. The space was converted to have large sidewalks, giving way to pedestrians, and outdoor cafes and retail tenants soon filled the area.

4. Build a Critical Mass

East 4th Street in downtown Cleveland

Robert Stark, who is a mixed-use developer with Stark Enterprises, believes that successful projects come from taking advantage of already existing resources within any given city. “If you or your project can connect existing community assets, you’re a winner,” Stark said.

In Stark’s hometown of Cleveland, as well as other cities across the US, the “flight” to the suburbs over the last 60 years or so has left many underused, low-end office and retail spaces. But this worked to an advantage, because they were easy to convert in to residential spaces.

Once downtown living became popular again, amenities had to follow. In Cleveland in particular, 15,000 people moved back to the downtown districts in just 5 years.

“Transformational, critical mass retail development, requires mixed-use,” Stark said. “Anyone will agree. That’s what the urban condition is about: it’s dense, mixed-use, and putting people on top of each other who are doing different things at the same time who come down to the street and create this energy, this tension … between people.”

5. Clear Roadblocks

what are we selling potential tenants in downtown Jacksonville?

Carl Goertemoeller, Vice President of Macy’s, says that to attract high end tenants, it is important to make sure there is a clear path to opening. It is important to identify and appeal to project detractors early. It is also important to eliminate restrictions. Goertemoeller says, “”If it’s a marginal site, governmental factors are a check in the negative column. If it’s too difficult, they’ll say they’re moving on.”

Cities should use their knowledge of their community to their advantage when trying to sell a tenant on a location, then. Show potential tenants around the whole area, so they not only have an idea of the immediate location of their potential store, but also so they know the neighborhood, who they are selling to, and their existing competition.

Original article by Andrew Keatts of Rice Kinder Institute For Urban Research: https://kinder.rice.edu/blog/keatts070615/. The Kinder Institute for Urban Research is a multi-disciplinary ‘think-and-do tank’ housed on the Rice University campus in central Houston, focusing on urban issues in Houston, the American Sunbelt, and around the world.”