In this post, I wrap up musing about Robert Pela’s challenge to implement authentic retail shopping experiences in downtown Phoenix, an issue he raised during Urban Planning Week in early April. When it comes to retail shopping, I’m inclined to libertarian thinking. Just as consumers verify what they desire in consumer goods, I think the market tells you where to locate the marketplace. Our city has unique assets to experiment with, allowing “crowd wisdom” of downtown dwellers to determine the best city center locations for appropriately-sized stores. Consider all the vacant lots and buildings in the downtown grid south of I-10 and north of Jackson Street between 3rd Avenue and 7th Street. These vacant lots and underdeveloped sites support installing local shops to test market demand for various types of food purveyors like bakeries, deli/cheese shops and other specialty food shops – and optimal sites for these merchants.
How can the City move forward the experiment? First, revise the Downtown Code to authorize for limited periods “pop-up” facilities to house small merchants. If food trucks can attract hundreds of customers living and visiting downtown, why should pop-up stores (without wheels) be less attractive? Merchants should be allowed to erect small shops in repurposed ISOs – cargo storage containers – on vacant lots and even on rooftops of buildings having strong flat roofs, such as city parking garages. What would be the result of having a pop-up group of stores on a few public garages downtown open at least during October through April when air conditioning doesn’t have to run 24 hours daily? (I’m not arguing that air conditioning isn’t needed during peak shopping hours where perishables are sold. Still, a merchant can supply a room-sized air conditioning unit to sufficiently cool the shop’s interior for a few hours daily.) The experiment would reveal the optimal permanent locations for these stores. LOT-EK is spearheading the use of a series of ‘incuboxes’ – re-purposed shipping containers that will be used as pop-up shops and concept stores – in the total makeover of Pier 57 in downtown Manhattan. New York’s City Council has backed the plan. The shops will reside topside of the redeveloped pier center. You can read about the concept and see renderings of the Pier 57 proposal at http://www.lot-ek.com/#UNIQLO-POP-UPS. Does using an insulated cargo storage container as a store on office rooftops or garage top floors sound nutty to you? Well, do you plan on parking on the exposed top floor of a public garage if you can avoid it? The uncovered rooftops of public garages generally are reachable by elevators; and they’re empty most of the time on weekends, evenings and otherwise most of the time when employees of public agencies have any choice at all over where they park.
The second city initiative is to promote City government as an “authority entrepreneur,” to borrow from Edward H. Ziegler. Let the City donate (or rent at nominal sums) sites to promote the experiment – sites turned over to merchants under temporary licenses with all necessary utilities lines installed for connection and otherwise ready for occupancy when the ISOs are anchored in some fashion to avoid adverse effects of occasional inclement weather and danger to shoppers. Indeed, the City could provide each merchant with a standardized “pre-wired and plumbed” ISO to move onto an available site. Since ISOs are fundamentally indestructible anyway (corrugated steel walls, floors and roofs, “compromised” only to the degree of openings cut for doors, windows and air conditioning units), the containers can be recycled and moved between locations when one license lapses and another commences. The City ought to make these units available to applicants for a retail license who can prove prior experience in retailing and the financial capacity to be able to cover its business expenses for a minimum period of one year. With a license and an ISO available, all the new downtown merchants need provide are staff, merchandise, floor and window coverings, food handling and other health/safety licenses and proof of liability and property insurance insuring themselves and the City. (Yes, of course it’s more complex, but this is the picture from 10 thousand feet aloft. Big ideas require one not to get lost in the minutiae at the moment of the idea’s inception.)
Phoenix will recoup some of its outlay to merchants by imposing a modest business license fee/tax on sales from temporary locations. Why should Phoenix make this investment? One, because it’s time for our City to be proactive, not simply reacting to downtown initiatives inspired from the private sector. Two, our citizens across the City (not just downtown) have everything to gain by an in-migration of skilled workers and members of the so-called “creative class” who want to live in a more vibrant downtown. Three, by enabling retailers other than hotels, bars and restaurants to succeed downtown, the City messages the development and mercantile communities that government is “on board,” welcoming commercial density that doesn’t diminish the pedestrian scale – which in turn will encourage other “big ideas” for making our city’s center livable, that is, eliminating the need to bust out of downtown to find the commodities of daily residential life.
After a few years of experimenting with various “pop-up” locations for specialty food shops and small groceries around downtown, consumers (both permanent dwellers and students in dorms) will tell downtown Phoenix where they want to buy their eggs, meat, dairy, paper products and baked goods. Perhaps the answer will be “Circle K,” if its business model is superior to those of small merchants. Maybe a few “micro-centers” will be identified downtown optimally serving the local population. Then, the city can determine where local public transportation ought to “daisy-chain,” delivering residents to and from those shopping nodes by jitney-style transportation, where there is a more or less fixed route, with occasional deviations for a special stop–like Houston is doing in its downtown. Let the experiment begin!