Activating the Urban Ground Plane

Whether attracting potential residents, visiting customers, or even internet fame, developers generally strive for their new developments to somehow stand out amongst other similar projects. Through the design process, neighboring analogues are studied to understand their own uniqueness, with hopes of recreating successes and attempting to avoid failures. The benefits of high foot traffic, while not easily distinguished monetarily, directly relate to the overall popularity of the project and may draw new demographics of both residents and visitors. As both developers and city planners seek this type of success, often the automatically proposed solution relies on flourishing retail components, filling in the ground floor of urban or suburban blocks and initiating a level of activity associated with successful residential developments. But one problem remains: not every site is well-suited to benefit from traditional ground-level retail solutions.

Decreased Need for Retail Space

Retail vacancies and bankruptcies were already rising before COVID-19 led to the temporary closure of retail businesses across the United States, but in 2020, retailers vacated a record 159 million square feet of leasable space (Forbes). Further announcements of bankruptcy filings by a range of large retailers indicates the continuation of this trend. Many of these retailers, particularly those focused on experiential services, are still likely to enjoy successful futures, however the retail spaces in higher demand moving forward are shifting to favor smaller spaces with strong connections to other services and gathering spaces. Larger, big-box retail spaces have a more challenging future ahead, as they don’t support the current trends of many up-and-coming retailers. With the recent and ongoing changes in traditional brick-and-mortar retail leasing, many mixed-use landlords concede their high aspirations and settle for secondary retail tenants: mattress stores, cell phone stores, and other retailers that likewise provide low probability for frequent and prolonged shopping experiences. Others find themselves with boarded up storefronts, doomed by long-term retail vacancies. Residential communities are a vital ingredient for every city, but without a proper mix of conveniences, entertainment, and services, the urban ground plane can feel dreary and lifeless.

The Value of Strong Community

Meanwhile, community development advocates look for opportunities to bolster local small businesses, support community needs, and foster equitable neighborhoods. Non-profit community organizations, though perhaps less directly lucrative than some retail tenants, can provide widespread and lasting benefits to neighborhoods while also instigating a similar level of activity as traditional retail tenants. Drawing in community members for educational opportunities, community performances, social activities, and support functions, the resulting foot traffic further promotes integrated small-business retail and creates the active and symbiotic relationship between street level functions and the residential units above. In addition to creating a strong sense of community, providing these types of supportive functions in proximity to residential spaces makes them easily accessible to those who need them.

As traditional retail continues to struggle and brick-and-mortar shops lean heavily on their e-commerce presence, the number of available retail spaces far outpaces the potential retailers that would successfully create the desired street activation. In attempt to achieve the ever-important, active ground plane, design and planning discussions often lead to a typical retail solution. This can create the desired effect, when supported by other successful retail and drawing from preexisting pedestrian pathways, however, without proper site location and some existing neighborhood walkability, often these ground-floor retail spaces are not leased as anticipated, leading to further inactivity at the ground plane. An alternative solution for activating the urban ground plane, the Alt-Way concept proposes integrating community programming elements along a meandering pathway, weaving in and out of the ground-floor space and tying the urban sidewalk into the ground floor of the mixed-use building. By connecting programmed spaces designed to support community growth and development to the adjacent sidewalk, this concept proposal addresses both the issue of activating the ground plane while also creating a mutually beneficial relationship between the residential units above and the surrounding community.