• The United States has about a billion square feet of vacant retail space, much of it in outdated suburban strip malls
  • ULI is seeking solutions for repositioning suburban corridors
  • Tools such as zoning overlays and form-based code can jump-start and guide corridor transformation.

It seemed like a good idea at the time: building low-density, single-use retail space along heavily traveled corridors and arterials, surrounded by massive parking lots. Now, however, “suburban strips are ugly and congested,” said Edward T. McMahon, ULI’s Charles E. Fraser Chair for Sustainable Development, who moderated a Fall Meeting session on repositioning suburban corridors.

“Over the last 20 years, we have built retail space five times faster than sales,” McMahon continued, noting that the US has over a billion square feet of empty retail space, much of it in suburban strip malls. “The suburbs have to re-invent; demographics are changing where we live and shop. In 1960, 200,000 square feet of retail space would have been located in a downtown department store; by the 1980’s, that space became a Wal-Mart reachable only by car.”

One example of a repositioned suburban corridor is the Columbia Pike area in Arlington, Virginia. This 5.5-mile corridor began developing in the 1970s because it provided easy auto access to the Pentagon and Washington, D.C. However, lack of Metro access led to a period of disinvestment.

In 1986, Arlington County launched the Columbia Pike Revitalization Organization (CPRO). In 2003, CPRO adopted a form-based code for four revitalization districts; in 2013, the code was adopted throughout the corridor. Use of the code jump-started over $80 million in redevelopment starting in the 2000, said CPRO’s Executive Director Takis Karantonis.

“This past summer brought a lot of firsts: attractive outdoor seating, street traffic in the evening and night, bike sharing stations, new transit stations for super-buses, LED street lighting, and a retail promotion called ‘Hike the Pike,’” he said. Future focus, he added, will be on additional urban infill and replacement, housing diversity, walkability, high-capacity modern transportation, and place making.

A similar effort is underway in Detroit, said Marja Winters, the city’s deputy director for planning and development. Under the Detroit Works program, planners are focusing on the Livernois Corridor, once a regional shopping destination with popular stores like B. Siegel and Woolworths, as well as a rich jazz music legacy. While it has not declined as much as other commercial districts, Winters pointed out, the corridor has suffered from vacancy, deterioration, and an inadequate retail mix.

In 2010, with help from ULI’s Rose Center, the city convened a working group with a broad cross-section of stakeholders. This group has established a collective vision and has begun to take steps to transform the corridor. With a $200,000 grant from ArtSpace America, the city activated ten vacant storefronts with 31 projects over a four-month period. The city also has implemented $1.7 million streetscape improvement project, continued funding façade improvements, and continues to support creativity.

Carmel, Indiana, is focusing on Range Line Road, a 2.5-mile corridor that is evolving “from afterthought to destination,” said Mike Hollibaugh, the city’s director of community services. In 2004, the city adopted an overlay zone featuring more uniform architecture, zero-foot frontage, reduced parking, and requirements for 70 percent of frontage space to be occupied.

The overlay designates distinct districts along the corridor. In the Arts and Design District, older two- to four-story buildings are being redeveloped with galleries, boutiques, and restaurants. Further down the road is Carmel City Center, a mixed-use development centered around a world-class concert hall and city government buildings. South Central, at the southern end of the corridor, has drawn private investment to upgrade the single-use 1970s-era retail space in a way that is more modern and walkable.

“What we learned from this effort is that details matter – door locations, sidewalks, landscaping, clear windows,” said Hollibaugh. “We also learned that parking is key; you need to plan for location of parking and obtain city investment to make it work.”