Water Cooler Wednesday: Striking A Balance

An example of a downtown Urban Outfitters

An example of a downtown Urban Outfitters

Urban Outfitters is coming to downtown Delray Beach.

For some, this is either the ultimate in great news or a sign of the apocalypse—depending on your world view.

It’s neither.

Fortunately, cities are complex organisms that resist absolutes, so the presence of Urban Outfitters is neither the “answer” nor the end of downtown as we know it.

For those who long to do something other than dine or attend festivals downtown, the news that Urban Outfitters is coming to Delray was greeted with cheers.

After all, Urban Outfitters is considered a trendy retailer, although the chain has seen sales dip for the last three quarters.

The Philly-based chain is a publicly traded company that owns and operates over 400 retail locations across five retail brands: Urban Outfitters, Anthropologie, Free People, Terrain, and BHLDN.

For retail starved downtown Delray,  having a national bless your main street is a sign that the local market is considered a strong environment.

But for others–who fear losing the city’s charm and uniqueness–the news was a depressing blow.

In reality, the news is both something to celebrate and something to watch.

If we are to be honest with ourselves, Atlantic Avenue has been a tremendous food and beverage success story. But to be a complete downtown, you need retail, office, open space, culture, learning and residential opportunities as well.

Office is virtually non-existent and we have paid the price for a lack of product seeing local companies leave Delray when they grow out of their space and are forced to go to office parks in Boca or elsewhere. Others search but come up empty and settle elsewhere.

Developments in the pipeline promise to add significant office space, but the city missed a huge opportunity with The Strand when it approved a high density residential project on the railroad tracks (and steps to Atlantic) without requiring mixed use. I made a similar mistake when I served as mayor by supporting a project in Pineapple Grove that would have been a good “mixed use” office site.

Having residential downtown is necessary if we are going to have a complete downtown and we have done a decent job in that regard, but there is clearly demand for more housing, especially among empty nesters and “millennials” who want a walkable lifestyle close to shops, restaurants, culture and recreational amenities. It would be nice if there was a broader array of price points to give more people access to the downtown lifestyle.

But retail has been a struggle in the central business district for decades. In Delray, we have rightly preferred independent, “mom and pop” retail over national chains. When I moved to Delray Beach in 1987, rents on the avenue were $5-$8 a square foot with a 40 percent vacancy rate. Today, we have seen rents ranging from $70 to over $100 a square foot making it exceedingly difficult for independents to survive.

Couple that with competition from chains and the rise of ecommerce and you can see why it has been hard for retail to gain traction in what is still a seasonal economy.

So what do you do?
Surrender the goal of creating a complete downtown? No.

Give up your main street to chains? Nope.

Raise the level of discussion so you can better plan for today’s conditions? You are getting there.

Chain stores rely on proprietary formulas to decide where to locate. We can dream about a Publix downtown, but if your metrics don’t match Publix’s secret formula no amount of wishing will land you a store.

Fortunately, for those who don’t want to see the “malling” of Atlantic Avenue, downtown is mostly comprised of small bays—a design that favors independents. In addition, nationals often require lots of free parking and for those who attended parking guru Donald Shoup’s recent lecture at the Crest Theatre, smart cities are getting rid of minimum parking requirements and charging for their inventory of spaces.

If we adopt some of Professor Shoup’s recommendations, perhaps it would tip the scale away from nationals and toward smart independents.

As part of the downtown master plan done in 2001-02, we invited downtown retail expert Robert Gibbs to Delray to help guide some policies. He recently came back to Delray for a lecture.

Gibbs and others favor dense urban environments so that retail can be supported.

The master plan also called for the funding of what was called a “cluster” study, which took a detailed look at what was happening in Delray’s various “clusters” i.e. the beach area, West Atlantic, Pineapple Grove, central core, etc. 

The cluster study was a tool that can be used to provide retailers with analysis and information that hopefully can inspire them to locate their stores downtown. For instance, it produced information on purchasing power and desire for goods that can be turned into a pitch for smart, independent retailers.

I don’t think that anyone wants to see Atlantic Avenue overrun by chains, but having a few of the right nationals can help local retailers by attracting shoppers and rebranding Delray as not only a “fun” food, beverage and festival destination but also a viable place to shop. What are the right retailers and how much is enough are not easy questions to answer. Creating desirable downtowns and cities are more art than science.

While Amazon has disrupted the retail environment, there is still a strong desire for what is known as “experiential” retail. Therefore, people still like to shop in interesting stores and I would argue—interesting places.

Atlantic Avenue’s vibrancy and walkability makes it possible for independent retail to gain traction. Possible, but not easy; because of the headwinds mentioned earlier.

Still, updating the cluster study, reviewing parking requirements and marketing Delray as a retail destination will help. Shop local campaigns are also critical in building awareness and pride.

The Mayor’s lecture series also included some great design tips from noted architect and new urbanist Andres Duany who had some constructive advice for local merchants—make your storefronts and windows more attractive, stop worrying about height and make the city more attractive from the street or eye level.

It’s a long to do list, but an important one.

For a sustainable future, Delray Beach must be cognizant of not only current demographics but its future attractiveness.

For today’s top talent, the job market is only one thing to consider when choosing where to live. They also want a vibrant city to plug into, a creative place where they can network with other smart people, and a dynamic place where they can find their next job, says noted urban writer Lee Chilcote.

Delray has worked because Atlantic Avenue appeals to a wide variety of demographics—young and old, families and empty nesters. Urban Outfitters sees a market here, that’s not a bad thing. But what’s needed is a sustainable mix and a strategy to attract smart, independent retail as well.

The physical layout and the strong desire of people to “shop local” and support authentic places bodes well for independent merchants on Atlantic Avenue. But it will take engaged leadership and a strong recruiting and branding campaign to make it happen.