In the age of online shopping, the major question across cities and within the minds of emptying strip mall store owners and traditional mall developers today is: “Is this the death of retail?”. On December 13th, Mr. Nick Ferracone of the San Diego APA organized at Civic San Diego a panel of specialists involved in the various facets of retail planning to answer this question and present solutions through their own perspectives. Ferracone opened the discussion by tying this burgeoning issue of vacant storefronts to the question of the fate of design considerations planners had envisioned for their zoning ordinances and land use plans for the next 15 to 20 years.

Dr. Mirle Rabinowitz Bussell, UC San Diego Urban Studies and Planning Program Academic Director, remarked that this issue is complex and would be a multifaceted endeavor in solving. In the face of a major demographic shift into the Silver Tsunami, the Millennials and Generation Z, Bussell commented that a factor in finding a solution for today’s cities include the analysis of preferences that these groups seek in finding their ideal communities to live and play in. She reported that in an unbiased survey of her introductory urban planning class at UCSD, a major trend that was surfacing was the desire for the communities the students would prefer to live in be in feature walkability and bikeability to such places as entertainment and employment centers.

Mr. Nathan Moeder, of London-Moeder Advisors and UC San Diego Real Estate and Development Professor, explained that with these preferences, it can be said that retail is not dead, per say, but in the midst of its reinvention from its old philosophy of being support for the suburbs that sprawled out along with the interstate freeways. In today’s world, he explained, retail must use its physical infrastructure and programming to compel the consumer to venture out into the experience “mousetrap”. He advised planners and developers to plan with intention; is retail really necessary here? How can we design our infrastructure and zoning to serve the community with intention? Moeder reported on the findings of a study of shopping malls across the country that his firm recently completed. The results included factors developers and planning professionals should take into consideration for retail rehabilitation success. These included such details as the income growth of the immediate neighborhood, of population and employment within the market, the presence of marginally performing anchors, and the presence of excess parking that could be transformed into development with intention. Moeder closed with the idea that retail simply needs to downsize and spaces it use to inhabit must be reinvented to create experiences to entice the consumer.

Allison Campbell of the Retail Insite presented various trends that retail developments have been using to redevelop their experience and branding which has resulted in the success of their storefronts. Such popular developments in retail include:

  1. Pop-Up and Shipping Containers
  2. Experimental Retail/Wonderspaces
  3. Co-Working
  4. Elevated Food and Chef-Driven Concepts
  5. Microfitness

With changes in traditional retail layouts, Campbell commented that retailers now had the ability to attract their consumers through aesthetic appeal, improved visibility from the street, activation of what could have been underutilized space, access that could now include such amenities as open space, and the technology and flexibility in planning requirements to solve such design issues as noise or parking.

            Civic San Diego’s own Brad Richter then used downtown San Diego to illustrate how the City of San Diego has already begun the process of altering its land use planning and zoning to account for this necessary shift in how retail use to operate. He explained the city’s sensitivity in what consumers want to see in their retail experience– a synergy of retail feeding off one another through unique, small retail tenants with personalized store fronts to bring an activeness onto the sidewalk to create a lively downtown. Within downtown San Diego, such initiatives being implemented include the use of conditional permits to allow alternative interim uses of ground-floor units as new developments seek to gain a foothold in a consumer base while their surrounding land is developing. Such permits have been used to redevelop what was required retail spaces on main streets into temporary lofts that would be reevaluated in ten years to address if conversion back into retail would improve the activeness of the streetscape. The idea, Richter explains, is to attract unique stores over the homogeneity of retailers that have steadily been gaining a foothold in the downtown center over the years through activating the relationship between main streets and sidestreets by allowing adaptivity of zoning and development requirements to shift with the trends of the consumers. With this mindset, the City of San Diego is leading efforts in reinventing retail within its downtown center, and could in the coming years, avoid the death of retail.