Lessons from Seattle part 3: Retail Development
January 9, 2012 1 Comment
Because my time in Seattle was brief, I undoubtedly missed the vast majority that the city had to offer in terms of retail. I’m going to focus on a specific development, Pacific Place, with a few side notes as well.
I first noticed Pacific Place when I was eating dinner across the street one night. I was sitting on the patio and looked across the street, astounded that there was retail above the first floor on nearly every building. It was amazing because I am so used to retail being a ground floor aspect of buildings, with housing or offices above. What I didn’t know was that the “many” buildings I was looking at we’re actually one and that it was Pacific Place.
The shopping mall was designed to look like a number of buildings that had been built over time, and the major shops on the outer edge all had street facing entrances (as well as interior entrances). They acted almost like independent buildings from the street side, each with their own style as well.
This was great because it activated the sidewalks on all edges of the mall, not just along a main entrance. It wasn’t until after I returned to LA that I realized the Grove was built in a similar way. The main difference is that the Grove’s stores (which also look like a collection of various small buildings, but aren’t) all face an interior, model street rather than a true exterior urban street.
A major retail development in Downtown Los Angeles could have a transformative effect if it combines the style and substance of Pacific Place and The Grove and incorporates street facing architecture and entrances. I think the back side of Macy’s Plaza (facing 8th Street) or the block between 7th/8th/Figueroa/Flower would be a great location for this. The building that Pacific Place replaced even slightly resembles the hard, uninviting brick fortress that is Macy’s Plaza.
Of course, such a renovation (or complete redevelopment) wouldn’t be cheap, but I’m being a creative and idealist.
Pacific Place was built with a large underground garage that was subsequently bought by the city and offers cheap parking for the entire retail core of Downtown Seattle. I know many urbanists lament the proliferation of parking, especially cheap parking, but it is important to also note it’s importance. I believe we need to have the extensive, fast, and appealing public transit system in place (busses don’t necessarily cut it, though in cases they can) before we can expect a majority of people to get out of their cars. Until then, we need to provide parking if we want them to come Downtown. And we do, surely, want them to come Downtown.
I would love to see parking available and underground (or even in structures with retail-activated ground floors) in Los Angeles in a way that would effectively put surface lot operators out of business, allowing them to make more money by developing the land rather than charging motorists $5 to take up space that be contributing to the urban fabric and built environment.
Interestingly, by reopening a street to traffic that was once for pedestrians only, more people felt welcome in this area of Downtown Seattle. For a great article on this and all of the other development details regarding Pacific Place, check out this from the Urban Land Institute.
For more on Seattle’s parking, see my previous post on Local Transit.
Not part of the Pacific Place development, but one that came about in a joint effort and next door is the Downtown Nordstrom store. One great thing about this store was a portal to the unground light rail directly from the store. I’m sure this could be possible as well at the current Macy’s Plaza, and some renderings I’ve seen have a potential portal for the Westside Subway Extension inside one of the LACMA Buildings. In some ways, you could say this discourages pedestrians from using the streets, but more so, I think it encourages shoppers to take transit.
Moving on from Pacific Place, the most famous retail icon in Seattle is Pike Place Market. A very cool wholesale/retail market that is home to everything from crafts to fresh fish to the first Starbucks. It’s a great place and really not unlike Grand Central Market here in Los Angeles. Grand Central Market, right near the Pershing Square subway station, Angels Flight, and the soon-to-be Downtown Streetcar does not get nearly enough credit or publicity. It’s a great place for wholesale and retail grains, spices, breads, fruit, liquor, etc. and for grabbing any number of different cultural meals for lunch.
For a true picture of how retail development in Seattle has changed the pedestrian experience in Seattle for the better, one only has to walk around. Notice the sidewalks and the eye-level aspects of the buildings. The sidewalks are clean, flat, and wide and the buildings are adorned with plaques announcing information about the buildings, the area, or recognizing important people or events.
In Los Angeles, we see similar plaques on very old buildings, when pedestrianism was much more common. With the rise of car culture, however, such plaques went away as the pedestrians instead sped by in an automobile. The sidewalks also got narrower while the streets got wider. Oftentimes we can’t even easily find a plaque near a work of public art that designates an artist, title, or year (like the piece on the corner of Figueroa and 9th) [Update: Later, I actually was able to find a plaque here , photo 1, photo 2]. This shows that these really weren’t meant to be appreciated, but were installed to simply to comply with regulations or merit special concessions from the city.
One place that still has a dedication plaque on nearly every building (even new ones) with the date, architect’s name, and other important information is USC. The college campus, largely closed off to vehicles, is mostly pedestrian and people can actually see the plaques, learn the history and recognize the achievements as they walk in, out, or by the buildings.
Though many don’t consider it the pinnacle of urban design, you must also recognize something similar at L.A. LIVE. Across the entire campus, on both the exterior and interior sidewalks are plaques recognizing the major GRAMMY Award winners from each year. This area was designed specifically for people to walk around, stop, learn, and admire (and patronize, bringing their money with them), not simply drive by.
We will know that Downtown Los Angeles has begun to embrace a more pedestrian-centric mind when we see more plaques and better sidewalks. With increased retail business and development, I believe both will come.