How Housing and Retail Can Mix

February 25, 2016

Mixed-use developments require more than just cobbling together living space with retail. But there isn’t necessarily a list of rules developers can work from. Nonprofits and municipal government in the city of New York are looking to fix that ambiguity.

Late last month, The Design Trust for Public Space and the NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development released Laying the Groundwork: Design Guidelines for Retail & Other Ground-Floor Uses in Affordable Housing Developments as the first comprehensive design guidelines for retail and other ground-floor uses in affordable housing developments in the city. Though the report was created to promote efficient, flexible ground-floor space for retail in New York, officials say the ramifications could reach beyond the five boroughs.

“Successful retail can have a powerful effect in improving the quality and diversity of amenities for local residents, activating streetscapes, and supporting the local economy. The Laying the Groundwork guidelines will be a useful resource in helping to ensure that new developments have the potential to accommodate a broad range of retailers,” says Larisa Ortiz, co-chair of the International Council of Shopping Centers Eastern Division P3 Retail.

The report underlines several potential benefits to incorporating these design initiatives into commercial development, including higher demand, lower vacancies, and a reduced need to make significant changes to accommodate different types of retailers down the road. Here are some of the elements New York will be focusing on for new multi-use affordable housing in the coming years.

Wide, transparent storefronts. The report suggests that when potential customers can easily see inside a retail establishment, they can more immediately understand the types of products and services that are being offered, which is a benefit to retailers. This setup also discourages crime, reduces energy consumption (because it lets in natural light), and enhances the curb appeal of the property as well as the rest of the neighborhood. The report recommends maintaining 15 feet between residential and retail entrances, and locating service entries (for retail spaces over 6,000 square feet) as far as possible from both residential and retail customer entries (ideally near garbage collection areas).

Signage. The report notes that a combination of flat signs on the front of retail facades and “blade” signage that protrudes out from the side of the building contributes to an attractive street front and helpful wayfinding for potential retail customers. However, they do warn developers to coordinate signage lighting carefully, to prevent light pollution that could be uncomfortable for residents living above the retail.

Reconsidered security. The report’s authors caution against using security gates that close off retail environments from the front, because they can interfere with “an inviting visual connection to the street.” Instead, they favor roll-down gates on the interior side of the storefront, combined with security systems, video, sensors, and alarms as possible alternatives. They also encourage flexible openings if you’re looking to attract certain retail establishments, noting for example that the option of an operable facade can help bring a restaurant tenant on board.

Useful exteriors. The authors favor wide sidewalks and suggest providing freeze-proof, tamper-proof water spigots on the exterior for cleaning the walkway and watering trees and plants in front of entrances. In some areas, the report suggests that retailers might prefer to have bike corrals located where a car parking space might have been before, as this can bring in more people and won’t eat up valuable sidewalk space. They also encourage exterior electrical outlets as beneficial to the building staff for maintenance, as well as the local community (for events, for example).  But make sure these outlets lock and are secured properly to protect the public and minimize liability.

Source: “Design Trust for Public Space and NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development Issue the First Comprehensive Design Guidelines for Retail and Other Ground-Floor Uses in Affordable Housing Developments,” Design Trust for Public Space (Jan. 26, 2015)