Director's Column

Trends on Main

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Next month at the National Main Streets Conference in Des Moines, our “State of Main Street” report will profile up-to-the-minute trends in the Main Street field, putting the spotlight on local innovations and development trends in our districts.

But the trends we see OFF Main Street can be just as important for our historic commercial districts, and that is the subject of this column.  Recent news from our peers in the planning, smart growth, and retail development fields paints a pretty consistent picture, one that every downtown professional should see.

Death of the Strip

According to Edward T. McMahon, Senior Resident Fellow at Urban Land Institute, the 50-year-old love affair between retail and strip centers is coming to an end.  For years, planners have struggled to improve the strip without much success, but now “they are getting help from the marketplace.”  Evolving consumer behavior, high gas prices, and internet shopping are re-defining these strips as “retail for the last century.” 

The future, says McMahon, belongs to town centers, Main Streets, and mixed-use development.  The recession proved that we have too much retail, leaving us with about a billion square feet of vacant space.  Town centers and Main Streets, on the other hand, have fared better, perhaps, says McMahon, because they provide a “place-making dividend” and a “park once” environment that consumers are increasingly looking for.  Putting a final nail into the strip mall coffin, these centers are losing the big boxes that once anchored them, making them virtually impossible to finance, according to many experts.  So where will the big retailers go?  In some cases, it might be Main Street.

The Big Box Discovers Downtown

According to Chain Store News, Wal-Mart Stores announced that it would open “hundreds” of smaller-format stores over the next three years, placing 30 to 40 smaller units in rural downtowns and urban neighborhoods this year alone — two places they have avoided in the past.  These small-scale, “downtown-friendly” stores will be branded “Wal-mart Market.”  Already, we have heard from two Main Street districts where this national chain will become part of the downtown mix.  And Wal-mart may not be alone.  Last year, Target announced plans to remodel the century-old Carson Pirie Scott department store in Chicago.  Small-format stores could be next for them as well, suitable for a Main Street near you.  

Bright Spot of Shrinking Cities

According to Robert Steuteville, writing for the New Urban Network, the 2010 Census was bad news for the overall population of many cities, even when their downtowns grew in the number of businesses and residents.  Big cities had the most dramatic stories — both Chicago and St. Louis, for example, suffered substantial population declines.  At the same time, however, the downtowns of both cities gained people in huge numbers.   

The bottom line, according to the planner: places that lacked commercial and social vitality did not fare well in the last decade, but those with “high levels of walkability, density, and mixed use are a different story.”  Sound like someplace we know?