When Ground-level Retail isn’t Viable


Ground level retail, the panacea for recent dense urban development, never really panned out the way that architects and policy experts had hoped.  University Park in Cambridge and Lyme Properties’ development near Kendall Square are examples of well-intentioned local projects that do not support enough retail to activate the publicly accessible streets and spaces within the boundaries of the development.  The same issue is playing itself out on the South Boston Waterfront, were the island of development adjacent to the Seaport Hotel and World Trade Center can only support amenity retail such as bank branches, higher-end fast food for the local office workers, and a few restaurants that cater to the tour bus crowd.  In Kendall Square, there is a Starbucks in every other R&D office building, subsidized by the landlord to help market space in the floors above. Even in Downtown Boston, retail seemed to have reached a saturation point even before the current economic woes.  So what is the answer for the ground floor when the market cannot support a continuous liner of retail?  The answer in lower density urban areas of five stories or less, proliferating entrances to residential units and lobbies is an effective strategy for activating a street.  This approach requires the invention of building types other than super-efficient double-loaded corridors, a building logic that aims to maximize the number of units that can feed off of a single building entrance. 

But the answer for the mid-rise city of office buildings, life science laboratories, and mid-rise apartment buildings is less clear. One recent solution in residential development has been to increase the amount of common space amenities, propelled chiefly by a competitive arms race provoked by the recent development boom.    In  projects like 91 Sydney and 100 in University Park in Cambridge, the ground floors are brimming with social programming meant to entice 20-somethings to sign on.  An internet café, media room, party space, health club, and a kids play room, are just some of the hotel-like common spaces included in the building podiums.   The ground floor spaces are a loss leader, but are justified by the increased rents made possible by the amenities. The truth however, is that these spaces rarely get the intensive use of a hotel because social patterns are different; the transient population of a hotel is less familiar with the city outside the hotel door and is thus more likely to seek leisure within the building.  As a result, the ground floor uses do not contribute to the public realm as a hotel, despite the fact that they present a cheery enough face to the sidewalk in the evening when the lights of the mostly empty spaces are revealed.

For office buildings, the answer seems to be to increase the size and grandeur of the lobby.  The best examples of this phenomenon are the office buildings both built and planned on the South Boston Waterfront. Like the amenity spaces in market-rate apartment buildings, the lobby at least provides more visual interest than ground level office space with the vertical blinds drawn.

But if amenity spaces and retail cannot be the answer for the ground level of new mid-rise urban buildings, than what other options can be explored?  It seems that given that large floor plate sizes of contemporary buildings, some of the wholesale and light manufacturing functions of the city should be introduced into new commercial development.  This panel truck-scale would activate the district with ground level activity and bring in a population of workers that would encourage a wider range of small-scale amenity retail.


Boston Fish Pier  Vehicles pass under the Commonwealth Ice and Cold Storage Company building to access the largest fishing pier in the nation, ca. 1937 (Edwin Levick/Corbis)

The ranges of allowable uses in the district would need to be controlled by zoning to ensure that the ground level uses were at compatible with residential and office uses above.  Examples might include garment and small-scale product manufacturing, food wholesale operations, mechanical systems fabricators, and auto repair shops. Workforce and student housing would be more suitable for such a mixed-use district than the kind of market-rate housing that was geared to the upper middle class during the last development cycle.  Some buildings might even be geared to live/work scenarios, although initial construction costs can be higher because of increased fire protection and ventilation requirements.  The potential absorption rate of live/work units would need to be studied for a particular market; although at least one live/work loft building per Forest City-scaled development seems like a reasonable risk and an intelligent way to diversify the program of a development project.

At least one of the student-directed projects in the Yale Urbanism Studio is pursuing this approach to ground level programming this semester.  I will post the results of their research and design speculation as the project unfolds.



Urbanism and Buildings



Array of building forms from Siteless: 1001 Building Forms, by Francois Blanciak (2008); Laboratory building diagram from Urbanism Starter Kit, developed by Utile for Yale Urbanism Studio (2009)

Contemporary urban design discourse is focused primarily on the larger environmental and market economy processes that shape the urban environment. The chief proponents of a design framework catalyzed by environmental processes include James Corner and Charles Waldheim (among many others), and while many will claim that they have been given too much credit and have too simplistic of a message, they have fundamentally revitalized the practice of landscape architecture and have made their discourse the central discourse of urbanism in North American architecture schools today.

OMA, MVRDV, and a larger group of Netherlands-based firms represent another influential strain of urban design thinking in American architecture schools.  They see the relative unpredictability of market-driven and regulatory frameworks as fertile territories for design innovation.  Because many of their urban projects channel the relative unpredictability of the market to achieve urban variety of the kind that roughly approximates the character of cities that have grown over protracted time periods, their approach is analogous to the channeling of natural processes in the work of contemporary landscape architects such as SToSS and Field Operations.   

The influence of Landscape Urbanism and Dutch market-focused strategies is not only a consequence of the compelling arguments of its chief proponents but also the vacuum that exists in American architecture programs, since curriculums no longer embed their design studio pedagogy within a broader urban design framework nor include an urban design studio in the studio sequence.  The reasons for this include the overwhelming emphasis on building problems that invite highly expressive and individualistic solutions, no doubt fueled by the media’s obsession with signature buildings and their charismatic authors. 

Part of the success of Landscape Urbanism, beyond its inherent virtues, is that it is also a more environmentally-focused alternative to the equally persuasive discourse of New Urbanism.  While New Urbanism is a laudable framework for integrating architectural design within a larger urban design strategy, it is an approach that has been almost universally rejected in architecture schools because most of the proponents of New Urbanism are openly hostile to contemporary modes of architectural expression and most academics are openly hostile to the traditional architectural styles championed by New Urbanists.

Against this broad discursive context, the role of the building as the building block of city making has been lost.  In Landscape Urbanism, buildings are mostly contributors to the larger set of statistics that account for stormwater flow, energy useage, and the heat island effect.  And even in other manifestations of urbanism such as New Urbanism and mainstream urban design practice (as exemplified by Cooper Robertson and Sasaki), buildings are conceived primarily as edges to spaces, contributing both the wall surface for the spatial definition of the public realm and the ground level program to “activate the ground plane.”  In this conception, buildings are the background poché against which an open space network can be shaped and programmed. 

But this recessive role for buildings within a conception of urbanism is nonsensical when one considers that the individual building or assemblages of several buildings, as a measurable unit of economic development, constitute the fundamental logic of contemporary city-making.  The question for urban design discourse should be how to reintregrate the idea of the building, as a discreet urban artifact, into the systematic approaches of both the Landscape Urbanists and the market-attuned strategies of the Dutch. One approach is to consider market-driven buildings as prototypes, as we have explored through studios at Yale and Northeastern.  The value of starting a master planning process by inserting market-proven building types is that the robust logics of the real estate market are captured in architectonic terms.  With the types established as a base line for design speculation, innovation resulting from transformation of the pre-existing types or through typological invention can be measured against the logics of the prototypes. 

The other virtue of this strategy is that architectural issues can be addressed earlier in a planning process than is typical with a ground up process. The truth is that most contemporary market-driven building types are remarkably resistant to wholesale transformation given the embedded logics of the building types as informed by the real estate industry and office furniture manufacturers, among many other influences. Given the situation, perhaps there are productive parallel strategies:  tinker with the types but within the their own internal logics and/or find opportunities for enrichment at the points were the buildings meet the public realm.. Rather than conceived as poché, the buildings themselves create some friction back to the site infrastructure and shaping of the open space network. 

The building is back, not just as a one-off signature buildings, but as an assemblage of buildings that make up new city districts.