How planners can respond to the retail apocalypse

By Tiny Tim
Guest columnist

Last month’s story about the retail apocalypse by my new friend Mr. Scrooge made me so sad, despite all the roast turkey and plum pudding.  What would London be like without High Street? Without Harrod’s? Fortunately the staff at Carlisle/Wortman Associates returned to work after Boxing Day with some ideas about how Yank planners can respond to changes in the retail environment.

Laura Kreps spotted “The Great Retail Retrofit” by Citylab. The article describes shopping centers converting to into educational and health care uses, especially as the latter sectors grows. (Of course, communities may have to cope with the resulting loss of property taxes). Others are broadening into mixed uses, as is the case with Southfield’s Northland Center,

Concept drawing for Northland Mall redevelopment

with a redevelopment plan that incorporates retail, residential, office and green space. Sterling Heights has endorsed a mixed-use design for Lakeside Mall that could guide future development. The city of Westland turned a former Circuit City store into its new city hall,  providing a vital new anchor for the remaining businesses in the area.

Few Michigan communities have a regional shopping center but many have strip centers, from small to large. Useful-community-development.org offers this essay on strip mall redevelopment.  The article advises communities to inventory their strip mall space and evaluate demand. Communities might establish a moratorium on new such developments, rezone the sites or offer incentives for redevelopment. We are especially intrigued by the idea of converting these sites into residential uses, especially when they’re adjacent to other residential, have basic needs within walking distance or are located on transit lines.

Megan Masson-Minock advises communities with shrinking retail to not overlook neighborhood stabilization programs.

“All of those retail workers live somewhere. If they lose jobs in numbers, it will hit neighborhoods as well,” she said. And, of course, communities need to cultivate their local business garden, providing small business assistance and helping entrepreneurs grow.

Communities breathed a sigh of relief in October when the Michigan Supreme Court ruled that closed big box stores couldn’t demand assessments based on their vacant status.

Then again there’s this article from Forbes, painting a less dire picture of the future of retail.

“Looking ahead, the customer will continue to demand greater experience from their physical store interactions – as e-commerce will continue to be a channel geared solely to functionality,” Forbes says.  “So the stores that can combine convenience and value with great experiences will continue to win, those that don’t – will close. Expect physical stores to become more fluid in the transaction process, e.g. less waiting in cash-register lines. They will also take on more of a showroom feel, with meticulously curated products to enhance the browsing experience. There will also be a greater emphasis placed on connecting with the customer through interactive environments designed to entertain – not purely sell.”

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