Of coffeeshops, banks and Fritz Zwicky


For months we’ve been waiting with muted anticipation (and frankly, apprehension) for the opening of the 360 Café– a hybrid of Peet’s Coffee and a Capital One 360 bank branch–just down the street , so that when it finally opened yesterday, the normal-ness of it all was almost a letdown.  When I stepped in during lunch break, a few professional-looking people were milling about in a setting not unlike your average neighborhood Starbucks. The only give-away were the employees, neither barista nor bank teller, who welcome you to the future of retail banking with alarming alacrity.

Certainly this is not the first time strange retail program mixes have worked (and even worked well) together; my local hipster bowling alley is attached to a pizza parlor and bar, and has taught me the unexpected delight of inebriated bowling.  But this is different: it’s a high-dollar collaboration between corporate behemoths, and in all likelihood an expensively “engineered” experience, born out of the methodology and rhetorics of innovation consultants like IDEO.

The café/bank could have, for example, come out of a “Zwicky Box” exercise, where a product—either a bank branch or a toothbrush—is broken down into  its constituent functions (“hold toothpaste”, “hold money”), purposedly reconstituted in random combinations, and repackaged as “disruptive innovations”.  Methods like these are now part of the standard lexicon of design schools and, by way of its infatuation with design thinking, business schools as well.  And as more and more industries—be it retail or health care—begin to deal with their innovation anxiety, “disruptive innovations”, of the sort embodied by the 360 Café, will only become more common.


Fritz Zwicky, Swiss astronomer, might take some credit for the 360 Cafe.

It’s instructive to think about what all this means for architects and urban designers, whose traditional purview it is to creatively imagine the use of space. Certainly many things will keep going the way they have.  But for a certain class of high-dollar, high-concept building and public realm projects, they will increasingly and somewhat uncomfortably share the job of defining program and user experience with consultants whose sole job is to “cause some trouble” with ideas and not worry about their physical materialization.  The irony is just that this latter group read the same design thinking textbooks in business school, and now justifies its value based on the same notion of creativity, of which we designers have for so long thought of ourselves as the sole custodians.


Coffee Carts and Vacant Storefronts

Pronto Kiosk by Aidlin Darling Design, San Francisco

Don’t get me wrong, this coffee cart is cute and the perfect embodiment of the intersection of DIY Urbanism and Live!Work!Play! development strategies that are popular in high value cities. But how do we reconcile solutions like this with the issues facing cities like Springfield and Lawrence, Massachusetts, where vacant Downtown retail space is a significant economic development and urban design challenge?

Vacant building action plan, City of Lawrence, Utile

One answer might be to borrow the entrepreneurial and life-style focused ethos of the coffee cart to attack the vacant storefronts directly. The key is to persuade often-absentee landlords to provide their ground-level space to business start-ups gratis or at very low cost. But it’s the convincing that will be difficult, since the cost basis of these buildings is low and the relative costs and risks of tenants is relatively high in terms of insurance, security, and increased scrutiny by City code officials.

One solution might be a public policy that helps to pay for the minimum costs of getting potential coffee cart vendors into the buildings for test runs of six months or one year. These costs might include minimal electrical upgrades, new locks on doors, and an insurance policy that indemnifies building owners as much as possible. In addition, this policy would need to clarify that the “leases” are for temporary occupation to avoid the need for costly code upgrades that would paralyze the program. Partnerships with local community colleges and branches of state universities would be key. Start-up ventures could be a central focus of business programs, thus incentivizing storefront experiments on an on-going basis.

If even ten percent of these ventures stick, it will make an enormous difference on the Main Streets where we are doing a lot of our planning.


Boston Bike Update

For anyone who questions the relevance of bicycling in the civic dialogue of this city, check this out!


Last night was the annual Bike Update from Boston Bikes in historic Faneuil Hall and it was a packed house. Pretty cool that this event shared the same stage with the likes of Samuel Adams, Frederick Douglas, John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama to name only a few. Keep up the good work Boston!