Archive for commercial development

Cities and spiritual needs

Centuries ago, churches, temples, mosques or other spiritual building anchored a city. For example, when the Spaniards founded cities and towns in the new world, they built a large church at the centre (along with a public plaza and a government building). Around the world people traveled to cities near and far in order to worship, as well as potentially to buy or sell in a market.

Today, visiting a religious edifice is not as likely to be the reason people visit or move to a city. Nevertheless, it may be that cities do still fulfill spiritual needs, but ones not attached to organized religion. At least, this is the suggestion in an Economist article from May 2007.

The article offers the hypothesis that cities today offer shrines to other cultural needs or passions that people have — and not all people will be attracted to the same urban places, even if they are attracted to the same city:

  • Shopping — consumer culture — is something that large cities offer in a much more grand style than smaller towns.
  • Special cultural opportunities are also offered in particular cities — such as unique museums (or museum collections), opera houses, and theater.
  • Finally, professional sporting events and venues offer a further “spiritual” option in cities. Based on the ways some sports fans worship their teams and heroes, the religious comparison seems appropriate.

Just as religious shrines used to form part of the city’s central core, today sports complexes, fashion forward retail streets, and cultural opportunities are flourishing downtown. Indeed, city planners today are often advocating building these venues downtown if they are not already there — fulfilling the new spiritual needs of residents.

Tower Envy?

After terrorists attacked and destroyed the World Trade Center Towers six years ago, many people wondered if the days of iconic skyscrapers were over. Would tall buildings simply be giant targets for future terror plots?

Would cities compete to have the tallest buildings? Would developers and architects want to be involved (or would there be insurance issues?).

This past week, the Burj Dubai became the tallest building in the world — and it is still under construction. It surpasses the CN tower in Toronto, also depicted in the adjacent picture, which claims the honour (although there is some disagreement if you check out skyscraperpage.com)

CN Tower officials say they will not relinquish their claim until construction is complete and the Burj officially opens. Tower Envy?

For Dubai, perhaps having the world’s tallest building fits with the city’s image and goals of creating this “over the top” world city on the edge of the desert. Everything that happens in Dubai seems to contribute to putting the city on the map as a world centre.

In fact, there is a proposal to build “Al Burj” also in Dubai, which would be 1200 meters tall! 400 meters higher than the Burj Dubai’s planned height of just over 800 meters.

Is anyone else competing with Dubai? There are some proposals for taller structures in other countries, but these are for more industrial buildings. The Dubai towers are for residential, office, hotel and (presumably) retail uses. Elsewhere, they are transmission structures (often with no office space), or giant solar panels. So it may be that Dubai is in a league of it’s own? Or will business and development leaders in some other cities soon propose their own competitive structures?

And does oil money have anything to do with feasibility of these projects?

Urban Wi-fi

Last year many city governments actively pursued partnerships or other means to provide wireless internet access (wi-fi) in certain districts like downtown or throughout the city.  

Today, ubiquitous urban wireless access is looking less likely in many US cities (whether paid or free).   As the Associated Press reports, major ISP Earthlink is banking off its crusade to help blanket American cities with wi-fi.  They have concluded that the risk to their company is too high, they fear that in most cities they will never be able to gain the subscribers to recover costs and turn a profit on this venture.   This is despite some subsidies and guaranteed contracts to cover all city workers in many municipalities.

Looking to the future, it nevertheless seems inevitable that most major cities and urban regions will offer widespread wireless internet access.  This will be important for business as well as urban life.  The question is who will pay for it. 

Is wireless internet access a new piece of urban infrastructure, like roads, that cities will need to provide residents and visitors alike?

Or, will the ability to connect to the wireless internet work more like cel phone access – user pay and competing providers?

I’m inclined to believe the latter will be the basis for future urban wi-fi.   People who want to access the internet from anywhere will need an account with a service provider.   I expect it will work like cel phone services — one account and you can tap into the internet (like a cel network) from home, the street, the office or on the road in another city.  Indeed, I expect that cel phone providers may become the main wireless internet suppliers as they already have much of the required infrastructure and offer internet access on a more limited basis to users of the Blackberry and similar devices.

Google is offering another potential model reminiscent of the early days of land telephone lines (when phone companies subsidized home phones in order to profit from long distance service).  Google’s goal is to maximize internet use, which in turn increases the likelihood that people will see Google advertisements — and Google has already built a free wireless network in their hometown of Mountain View California with talk of extending it around the Bay area.  Users must view ads to use the internet, but otherwise it is free.

Cities will need the private sector to build this infrastructure.  Municipal governments simply cannot afford to become internet service providers.  They already struggle to maintain roads, sewers, parks, police, transit, etc.

However, city councils interested in economic development will also likely want or need to ensure that wireless internet service comes to their cities — and early.  It will be another competitive edge it the battle to attract talented people and national and global businesses, all of whom pay taxes.  

The question is just what model will prevail. 

Lifestyle Centers vs Historic Street Fronts

Cities are filled with paradoxes, especially when it comes to consumer behaviour.

What’s intruiging me from recent research I’ve done is that simultaneous with the massive roll out of superstores or hypermarkets in Canada (Wal-Mart Supercentres and Real Canadian Super Stores) — that offer everything from groceries to shoes to ipods under one banner — has been an equal interest from consumers and retail developers alike in a return to multi-vendor, street front retail.

Street front retail’s popularity is coming in two forms, which we might call the original, organic variety and the manufactured version. The first type is the revitalization of historic retail streetscapes. These pedestrian oriented promenades offer a variety of shops from food to fashion to furniture boutiques and artist studios, depending upon the neighbourhood. In Vancouver, a variety of coffee bars is always required on any busy retail street. Prime retail shopping streets around North America are fetching stratospheric rental rates.

The manufactured variety are being touted by developers as Lifestyle Centres. These new suburban developments try to re-create the pedestrian oriented streetscape in a mall surrounded by parking lots and often containing a couple of big box pads as well. These also offer a variety of shops from separate vendors, and typically including coffee houses too.

The renewed consumer interest in streetfronts, whether manufactured or organic in many ways seems like the anti-superstore approach. However, I suspect that many shoppers of street fronts also visit the superstores.

So, there is the paradox. Consumers are embracing the new discount superstore carrying everything simultaneous with the often more pricey but service oriented and unique experience of the streetfront.

Perhaps the two mutually re-inforce each other?

Global retailers: Blending in or Branded Look?

CEOs for Cities recently posted a story about how Coffee globalizer Starbucks is making an effort to blend in to the communities in which it sits.

This seems to be part of a growing trend. Instead of trying to apply a “one size fits all” approach to their store’s look, which often generates community opposition to their arrival (as much as whatever they are selling). several major retailers are looking for ways to connect with the community.

Starbucks is allowing regional representatives to change the decore to match a neighbourhood, such as putting up historic photos of the area.

Wal-Mart — the monolith everyone loves to hate — is starting to listen to community opposition, and seeking to answer it with new looks, and even environmentally sensitive building designs.

Visiting different world cities, I’ve seen MacDonald’s blending into an historic streetscape in Krakow or Brasov. MacDonalds is also known for adapting their menu to meet local tastes — whether lobster burgers in Atlantic Canada or Tandoori in India.

My prediction: increasingly, people around the world look for a unique experience when they shop, eat, or buy a latte. This will require global chains to offer something special in each community — which connects to that community. Look for local managers to have increasing authority to change the look and offerings in their locales.

Alleys: Paths to Urban Revitalization

The back alleys of North American cities are often thought of as places for garbage or crime, if people think about them at all. But that is changing.

Cities around North America, particularly in the downtown and urban core neighbourhoods are seeing alleys become the source for new, revitalizing urban development.

Streets and alleys fill 30% of city space. It makes sense to start thinking about alleys and not just streets as places to “develop.” In neighbourhoods with single family houses on narrow, long lots, the alley provides a great secondary street front for in fill housing. In commercial areas (or mixed commercial and residential) the alley provides for more business space, allowing more stores to benefit from existing consumer traffic. Alleys, being narrow, also have the potential to become pedestrian-only spaces if warranted. For example, restaurants, cafes and galleries could all benefit from a block-long pedestrian only strip.

The San Francisco Chronicle recently ran an article that’s well worth a read for anyone interested in how to revitalize urban space. In San Francisco’s case it has been happening organically. One business opens in an alley and brings traffic — to a custom, hand-made furniture workshop and showroom for example. Soon, a coffee bar opens next door taking advantage of the pedestrian-oriented foot traffic. Neighbours gather at the coffee bar, enjoying their own private yet public space to chat. The alleys of San Francisco are taking off from there. Although the article did not mention city planner policy on this issue, presumably they have been favouring alley development or at least allowing it to happen in some places, perhaps as an experiment.

Planning departments around North America are starting to look at alley-based infill as a way to create more urban housing, without resorting to high rises — not appropriate in every neighbourhood.

Toronto also has a tradition of commercial alley ways with their own businesses and residences. A recent study suggested that the city consider encouraging more of this type of development.

The new head planner for the City of Vancouver, Brent Toderian, in a recent speech mentioned that the idea should be studied and considered for many Vancouver neighbourhoods.

Look out — an alley near you may go from being an avoided garbage dump into a vibrant urban space.

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