My friend and fellow urbanist Mike Lydon was walking around Bordeaux the other day and sent me the photo he snapped (below) of the restaurant that happens to have my last name. Piuma is not a word/name you come across very often, at least not in the US, but it means feather in Italian.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking a lot these last two years about the future of retail, storefronts, commercial corridors and downtowns, exploring how the revitalization of historic corner stores and new models of micro-retail could potentially breathe new life into these vital parts of our city and culture. More about some of the details and examples I've witnessed and learned of micro-retail in a future post.

Photo of a storefront in Bordeaux courtesy of Mike Lydon

The photo Mike sent me encapsulates a vision I’ve had for downtown, where we work with property owners and entrepreneurs to create a series of micro business spaces in underutilized street-level building facades. These spaces would activate the streets but their shallow depth doesn't require a lot of square-footage, keeping overhead costs down and potentially allowing a more diverse cohort of people to participate and test their concepts. Beyond creating a platform for entrepreneurs and innovation, these prototyped storefronts could begin to establish the uniquely vibrant urban environment our region needs to attract locals to not only come back downtown, but choose to live downtown.

If retrofitting the street level facades of our existing buildings proves too costly or time-consuming from the jump, we have so many surface lots destroying our urban fabric that we could find creative, low-cost ways to rebuild street-walls along the edges of these spaces. Though from previous experiences I’m not the biggest fan of shipping containers as buildings, one of the great things about them is their ability to almost immediately create enclosed outdoor spaces by framing once amorphous surface lots and vacant properties such as the Pop Brixton project I visited in 2016 (pictured in this stories main photo).

There are some great examples of alternatives to the shipping container buildings, but one of my favorites is the Pub at The Porch at 30th Street Station, implemented by another good friend and fellow urbanist Nate Hommel at the University City District in Philadelphia. The intention of the design was to come up with a moveable structure that can fit on a flatbed like a shipping container, but is completely built from scratch with traditional building methods and customized for its use for almost the same cost as retrofitting a container. There are many ways to create a micro-retail building envelope, whether it is within an existing building or a stand alone structure, but the key is in quality design and implementation, particularly beyond the prototyping/temporary phase.

Micro-retail structure at The Porch at 30th Street Station in Philadelphia
Nate Hommel, in orange, giving us a little tour of The Porch in 2018

This approach to the surface lots, whether with containers or other semi-temporary structural solutions, would essentially hide the soul-sucking vehicle storage lots while repairing the urban streetscape. The initiative would provide affordable spaces for entrepreneurs and be an incentive to land owners by creating new income streams. Even if there are future plans to redevelop some of the surface lots, like the example below along East Main Street across from Slugger Field, there could be interesting temporary "pre-vitalization" strategies (to use a term coined by my late, great and sorely missed friend Tommy Pacello) that could have an immediate impact on the street and engage high-traffic venues.

Example of an area on East Main Street across from Slugger Field in Louisville that could benefit from lining the edge of the parking lot with micro-retail

I modeled out a quick idea for the East Main Street block across from Slugger Field back in 2016 when we were looking at the potential of innovation districts in the area, but the idea still could be possible, or at least serve as an illustration of a simple but effective and replicable way to utilize the micro-retail concept without even displacing existing park.

Quick sketch renderings utilizing a series of 20 foot shipping containers to create a row of micro-retail shops

I know I’m oversimplifying the hurdles involved here, such as the willingness of parking lot owners – particularly ones with no vested interest in Louisville – to do anything more than store cars. But you have to clearly visualize the goal to get past the hurdles and avoid being permanently tripped up. If there ever was a time to think about bold and sometimes crazy ideas to reinvent downtown, now is that time.

If we can find a couple strategic locations to prototype these kinds of micro-retail spaces, we can test the idea. We need to look at the streets as the user-interface of the city. People need to love the design of the interface and its functionality if we want them to interact and stick around. People creating enjoyable user interfaces (UI) and thinking about the user experience (UX) drives our addiction to smartphone apps and so many other interactions in our lives. We need to integrate this approach and thinking into how we design our cities and that starts with our most abundant public spaces, the street.

Rob Adams, the amazing City Architect of Melbourne posted a slide the other day during A Walk in the Park with Gil webcast that sums up this idea which said, “ If you design good streets, you will design a GOOD City.” By the way, Gil Peñalosa's bi-weekly webcast series with people shaping our cities is definitely worth checking out! The next one is on September 21st.

Screen capture during Rob Adams' webinar presentation "A Walk in the Park with Gil: From Grey to Green"

I strongly believe that downtown must become its own self-sufficient neighborhood, and I’m sure I’m not alone. ‘The days of downtowns primarily being places to park office jobs doesn’t look like it is coming back,’ to paraphrase a statement I believe urban designer Lucinda Hartley once made. Cities that have focused on dramatically increasing downtown housing are much more resilient in the face of remote-work and the awakened reality (for those fortunate enough to have the option) that we can regain precious time in our lives by cutting out the commute and working closer to, or in, our homes. So as the real estate messaging often seen near residential developments trying to market themselves goes, "if you lived downtown, you'd be home by now." This needs to be the mantra in the center of our city. 

Downtown Louisville has the opportunity to offer a unique urban experience that could not exist anywhere else in the metro area. I definitely don’t think it is there yet, but I have always been optimistic about our city’s potential. We need to experiment, and we must have bold visions for what downtown can, and in many ways needs to be for the success of our entire region.

As I’ve stated many times, including during a PechaKucha talk on the need for density that I presented at Metro Hall back in 2013, “if you want to live in almost any type of setting – be it rural, suburban, historic, you can find it here – but what we sorely need is a truly dense, vibrant, urban neighborhood.”

Title slide of Piuma's 2013 PechaKucha Louisville presentation

There are so many facets that make up a great city experience that we need to explore. Micro-retail and the streetscape activation it could bring are not silver bullets to revitalizing the central business district, but I believe they could be a corner, or certainly an edge piece to the puzzle that will help frame a path forward to a downtown Louisville people are excited to use and leaves them wanting more.