Vacant space is an issue for most, if not all, downtowns. Empty storefronts create gaps in the streetscape that subconsciously discourage pedestrians, reduce sales for active businesses (due to reduced sidewalk traffic), and when left unchecked vacancy can spread killing entire blocks. Continuous storefronts and busy streetscapes are like a positive feedback loop that support each other’s existence: bustling sidewalks attract people who then casually shop in the stores – thus making the sidewalk more active and lively. Vacant spaces dampen this positive feedback.
In a recent interview, Jan Gehl the famous Copenhagen architect and urbanist noted that the urban landscape needs to be designed with our biology in mind: “Why is it that shops are four or five meters apart on all the good shopping streets all over the world? Because if you’re walking past, there is a new experience every four or five seconds, which is ideal from a stimulus point of view”. So, filling vacant spaces and creating a continuous street network is ideal for people and is also good for business.
However, any retail venture is a bit of a gamble and storefront space in not cheap. Chain stores want to make sure that setting up a new location will be profitable and not impact sales at their other locations, specialty stores don’t know if there is enough of a market for their product year-round, and small local or home businesses often don’t make enough to sustain long-term tenancy in prime retail territory. So – how do we patch in the storefront gaps while also supporting local business? One possible option is pop-up shops – shops that by definition only exist for a few months (or weeks).
This isn’t a new concept. Specialty Christmas shops/calendar stores in malls come and go with the season – but these ventures don’t have to be tied to holidays in order to be successful. Dressed to Kilt and Marmite have both promoted their products with pop-ups, and chains like GAP have hosted small pop-ups in some of their stores. While the pop-up model is not exclusively for small or local businesses, I think it is likely the most interesting and productive use for them. This Christmas, Downtown Portland is promoting five pop-up shops featuring local products and designers.
Regina’s downtown is gaining momentum daily, but there are still a lot of spaces that could be put to good use. By encouraging these shorter term lease agreements between property owners and local businesses, we could effectively fill in some of these gaps that still exist. Imagine spaces that rotate every few months: local entrepreneurs gain a greater audience for their work (possibly leading to longer-term retail possibilities), the public gets exposed to local products that they may not have encountered, and the streetscape maintains a continuous and lively nature, attracting more people into the downtown. The positive feedback for the community as a whole could be remarkable.
What vacant space downtown would you like to see filled?
** photo of Marmite Pop-up shop by fairlybuoyant