New Urbanism for All?

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Key West corner store with cottages beyond

classic corner store in Key West

   We New Urbanists have an important choice to make, because our current rhetoric don't square up with our metrics in some important ways. If you listen to our aspirations, we'll tell you that 2/3 of Americans prefer thriving neighborhoods that are compact, mixed-use, and walkable over sprawling suburban subdivisions, and we'll tell you that those people should all be able to live that way… once we build enough of those neighborhoods and repair enough sprawl. But our rules of thumb sometimes tell a different story.

   Hazel Borys hosted a PlaceMaking@Work webinar in December with Bob Gibbs based on his new book, New Rules for Retail. The ensuing tweet chat is what started this whole Neighborhood Retail BlogOff. I haven't yet read Bob's book (it's on order) and I have high regard for him on many counts, but one of Bob's rules of thumb is that it requires 1,000 homes to support a single corner store, and more than that to support anything else. I responded by blogging that if that's so, then any neighborhood with less than 1,000 homes would have no hope of any mixed-use, and could therefore not ever be more than a residential subdivision.

brick corner store in German Village, Columbus, Ohio

one of several corner stores in Hazel's former neighborhood -

German Village, Columbus, Ohio

   Hazel's well-reasoned reply began with a foundation of physics, leading up to a discussion of where rules can be broken in urbanism. The post is full of useful facts, but she dismisses my post because it used Seaside as an illustration, and a resort doesn't follow normal rules of thumb.

Fair enough… but the questions at the end of this post are about everyday neighborhoods instead of resorts, so I'm curious to hear her thoughts on them.

boutique storefronts in New Haven, Connecticut

New Haven boutiques

   Sandy Sorlien posted next, with a plea to "be quotidian." It's cool to have friends who are a lot smarter than me, but it does make for lots of dictionary searches. "Quotidian," it turns out, means "everyday, ordinary, or average." She goes on to explain that neighborhood retail should first of all stock regular everyday needs before even thinking about boutique products. I completely agree, and that's the point of this post as well: where do you have to go to get your basic necessities? And can you walk or bike to get there?

Marsala's Market in New Town at St. Charles, Missouri

neighborhood market in New Town at St. Charles, Missouri

   Patrick Kennedy followed with pointed questions about subsidies of neighborhood retail. Without doubt, a corner store needs subsidies in a neighborhood's early years, but those subsidies boost sales because prospective homebuyers typically consider a corner store to be a significant "amenity." I put "amenity" in quotes because it's real estate jargon for something that should really be considered a necessity. Kaid Benfield tells why: because when shops and services are within walking distance, we walk more and drive less.

   John Olson makes an excellent point that retail should be adjacent to the neighborhood it serves, whereas some neighborhood diagrams show it centrally located, where it likely will fail. More on that in a later post. And then Chip Kaufman posted four additional rules of thumb for making neighborhood retail work.

Philadelphia townhouses

neighborhoods without a lot of townhouses are very unlikely to

exceed 10 homes per acre

   But let's get back to the central question: does the 1,000-home rule of thumb overturn our foundation principles? New Urbanists in the US have forever insisted on a quarter-mile radius as the limit of a neighborhood because that's about as far as US citizens will walk instead of driving. That radius encloses roughly 125 acres, but unless every street radiates from the center, the walks are longer, so the effective neighborhood size is closer to 100 acres. This means that unless the gross density is at least 1,000 homes / 100 acres = 10 homes/acre, you can't even have a corner store. I hate to break it to you, but only a tiny fraction of the American landscape contains more than 10 homes/acre.

   There's another way to make it work. You could have a corner store that serves 2-3 neighborhoods, but then only 1/2 to 1/3 of the people could walk to the store because everyone else would be too far away… and that only works when the gross density is at least 3-1/2 to 5 homes per acre.

   But this isn't New Urbanism for All. Instead, this is New Urbanism for the Few. Is that really what we stand for? Principles that add up to a niche market for the privileged few? I thought we were better than that… aren't we? If we're not satisfied with rules of thumb that prevent a mix of uses in every neighborhood (degrading the neighborhood to a residential subdivision) then how do we account for the experts' assertions that the retail will fail? What has to change in order for it to work? And not in some ideal future, but with the conditions on the ground today? More questions than answers… there is work to be done.

   ~Steve Mouzon

   Note: This post is part of an extended Blogoff on the viability of neighborhood retail. The most recent posts from BlogOff participants are as follows:

   1/31/12 - Chip Kaufman Guest Post - Neighborhood Retail, Chip Kaufman

   1/29/12 - Neighborhood Retail Dynamics, John Olson

   1/11/12 - When shops and services are within walking distance..., Kaid Benfield

   1/5/12 - Retail BlogOff, Patrick Kennedy

   12/28/11 - BlogOff: Neighborhood Retail, Sandy Sorlien

   12/23/11 - Retail: When it bends the rules and breaks the law, Hazel Borys

   12/21/11 - The Necessity of Hope, Steve Mouzon

Legacy Comments

Steve Mouzon · Board Member at Sky Institute for the Future

Here's the latest Neighborhood Retail BlogOff, which asks a simple question: what happens when our ideals don't line up with our rules? What do we do now?

Feb 6, 2012 11:47am

Kaid Benfield · Senior Counsel for Environmental Strategies at PlaceMakers

Reading this chain, I am learning a lot but struck by Duany & Speck's point in The Smart Growth Manual (sec. 5.4) that every neighborhood of 300 or more dwellings and/or jobs should have a corner store, which will be more economically viable if clustered with other neighborhood amenities. D&S grant that a subsidy may be required but argue that many neighborhood features require subsidies and this may be just as important. I tend to agree at least as to aspiration, but it's a long way between 300 and 1000. The question shouldn't be "can it work at less than 1000?" but "what do we have to do to make it work?"

Feb 6, 2012 12:15pm

Kevin Hamak · Owner at Farmer K, LLC

My neighborhood in Durham has approximately 500 housing units (probably 3/4 is single family) within a 1/4 mile of our 2 corner stores. Granted I am in the middle of the old city but it does prove that if designed properly, a neighborhood can sustain a corner store. Now of course not everyone walks to the stores and they do get plenty of traffiic from outside the 1/4 mile zone. 
And there are many other neighborhoods around the old "urban walkable" neighborhoods that often have corner stores every few blocks. And we are working towards getting actual small grocery stores now to fill the need for grocery in these neighborhoods (mine included, although I am just a 10 minute walk from the Farmers Market; but that's only 2 days a week).

Feb 6, 2012 1:46pm

James Breuckman · Detroit, Michigan

Bob's assertion holds water. It's based on household expenditure surveys and it holds up if you inventory corner stores in a given trade area.
I'm not a huge fan of subsidies, and retrofitting our towns to have the density necessary to support a corner store with walk able households is a very long term goal. Seems to me that it starts by rethinking how corner stores are designed and built. By providing them in a small mixed use node that is accessible by foot to some of the necessary 1,000 households, and then catching drive by traffic for that other 1/2 to 1/3 of the population that is always going to prefer sprawl we can start to transform areas.  
In short, isn't there an opportunity to allow sprawl dwellers to subsidize nascent pockets of walk able urbanity that can serve as catalysts to build to the necessary density over time?

Feb 6, 2012 11:48pm

Mike Huston · Works at DPZ Partners

I agree that this is a critical issue for NU that needs to be "solved." If we can't deliver viable neighborhoods that can support their own corner store, then we really have not produced something much better than the typical suburban development. Perhaps this is a problem for an urban-savvy business student or entrepreneur. What combination of goods and services could be combined and supported in a neighborhood of say 500? Is it a corner store with an espresso bar and evening wine bar? Could it also receive packages for all that stuff we now order online? There must be a business model that could work for a population less than 1,000.

Feb 15, 2012 12:01pm

Patrick Daniel Sunter · Tutor, Guest Lecturer, Research Assistant at The University of Melbourne

Very interesting series... does consideration re: subsidies include whether they can help the corner store be more cost-competitive with the supermarket that is 10-15 mins drive away. Eg in my case I have a corner store probably <5 mins walk away, but if the items are mostly 50-100% more expensive than the supermarket...

Mar 8, 2012 8:27am


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