Drawing from historic design parallels, we can create the New Main Street that is responsive to our world
By Todd Larner
In the era of amenity-driven master-planned communities, developers, and builders are constantly trying to create new and exciting facilities to draw people to their projects. They have to get creative in a competitive marketplace by integrating attractors beyond the ubiquitous recreation center and pool complex. Many of these facilities are private or quasi-private spaces with use restrictions and home burdens. The integration of a commercial or retail as an amenity component is a trend that is gaining momentum.
In the past, large-scale communities treated retail as a horizontal or compartmentalized land use that would come online once there was justification or enough rooftops could sustain the businesses. But today, we are implementing retail as a driver in the earlier stages of development—most notably, the quintessential American Main Street. We weren’t the first to invent the main street, but as America grew and expanded westward in the 18th and 19th centuries, a definable pattern and program began to emerge. They were pedestrian scale, local, and were an attractor for speculators and pioneers looking for a new start. The big difference is that these places evolved over time. Sometimes taking 25 to 50, or even 100 years to mature. Today we don’t have the luxury of time and we need to create an instant definable place that is attractive and economically sustainable for the project. We can draw inspiration from historic precedents that have survived multiple world wars and pandemics. Distilled down, Main Streets are simple, flexible, and walkable. They are places that are both private and public at the same time.
The New Normal
Adapting to the new normal isn’t a simple exercise with informational uncertainty and changing tendencies. But drawing from the historic parallels, we can create the New Main Street that is responsive to today’s merchants and patrons.
Safety and Security
First and foremost, safety and security are critical in any retail design. Patrons need to feel that the space is clean, open, and as safe as possible to visit and linger. Store owners need to feel that their spaces protect their merchandise and property. The symbiotic relationship between parking and sidewalks is critical in defining the pedestrian realm.
The car is a necessary evil that our modern communities need to accommodate. Parking codes for retail reinforce their necessity and shop owners demand it for their patrons. So as opposed to fighting it, streets should em brace the requirement and use it to protect the sidewalks. Parallel or angled parking should be incorporated in front of shops. This serves two-fold in protecting the pedestrians from moving vehicles and allows visibility into retail shops. These in-front opportunistic spaces provide visibility for merchants and allow for expanding service of curbside pickup. Symbiotically, there needs to be enough room for people on the sidewalks to shop and pass each other, respecting social distancing.
Adaptable Building Design
Architecture will play a critical role in defining the space and reinforcing pedestrian scale. Buildings will need to respond to permeability for both patrons and merchants. Promoting healthy indoor environments with natural light and airflow has been in practice with retail and office environments for years. Now is an opportune time to implement sustainable building design. Beyond indoor environments adaptable buildings need to be flexible in design and leasable space. Main Streets should have a broad mix of tenants that complement each other. Each have their own needs, but all require essentials like restrooms, back of house circulation, and storage. Consolidating these requirements streamlines sanitation and serviceability for the building.
In most instances, Main Streets are only a couple of blocks. When people talk about great pedestrian retail places, we often refer to a district or neighborhood, when it is typically only one or two blocks. By keeping the Main Street to only a few blocks we minimize exposure and reinforce the economies of scale for maintenance. When you make it too long, that collective broad mix of tenants suffers because people don’t feel comfortable and resort to their cars to go from one place to the other.
As we all face the realities and impacts of this global pandemic, master planned communities need to adapt and evolve. Amenities need to accommodate different buyer tendencies that go beyond the community pool and clubhouse. Main streets provide a different community and amenity experience, one that is experiential and pedestrian in scale.
Todd Larner is a senior principal and director of planning at WHA. He is also an adjunct professor at the University of Southern California where he teaches graduate level urban design. Read more at www.whainc.com.