Opportunities exist in outdated commercial centers
Jan 15, 2016
The following is reposted from the Charleston Regional Business Journal (Jan. 11 – 24, 2016; Volume 22, No. 1):
As we continue our series on exploring innovative strategies for economic development, commercial affordability remains a significant hurdle for small and local businesses as real estate prices continue to climb in the Charleston metro area. The majority of net new jobs are created by small and local businesses – not large corporations – yet entrepreneurs are often unable to launch a new business because their desired location is prohibitively expensive, as noted in a previous column (“Time to Reimagine our Economic Development Model,” October 5, 2015, Charleston Regional Business Journal) with the case of a local entrepreneur with a proven track record of operating a successful business in the Charleston area not being able to afford space in her desired business location downtown.
With the steep commercial rents on King Street and other primary shopping areas in downtown Charleston, local businesses are looking to opportunities to enter the market outside of Charleston’s Central Business District. Commercial centers like South Windermere and Avondale in West Ashley, Coleman Boulevard in Mt. Pleasant, and Park Circle’s East Montague Avenue in North Charleston provide examples of thriving business areas for small and local businesses amid more suburban settings. However, aside from these standout examples, many commercial centers in suburban areas of our metro region are failing and struggle with high-vacancy rates.
The auto-centric model of strip commercial centers, marked by huge surface parking lots, is undesirable to many local businesses in addition to being an inefficient form of land use as compared to denser, mixed-use development. That said, these strip commercial centers are often more accessible to small and local businesses because of lower rent prices.
So, how can we reimagine these “dead” suburban commercial centers to become destinations, and therefore increasing opportunities for small and local businesses, while maintaining accessible price points for those businesses? Retrofitting outdated suburban development is one of the great challenges of our time as we embrace infill development over ‘greenfield’ development, which generates much lower financial returns than downtown mixed-use development.
“Asheville realizes an astounding +800 percent greater return on downtown mixed-use development projects on a per acre basis compared to when ground is broken near the city limits for a large single-use development like a Super Walmart,” found Urban Planner Joe Minicozzi of Asheville, North Carolina-based Urban3. “A typical acre of mixed-use downtown Asheville yields $360,000 more in tax revenue to city government than an acre of strip malls or big box stores.”
The Charleston area can learn from abundant models of retrofitting suburban commercial centers in cities across the United States:
1. Reuse the Box: abandoned department stores in mall complexes transformed into active uses for commercial or social impact – Denver, CO
Big box stores are designed to become functionally obsolete if the big box decides to leave (a phenomenon known as “dark stores”), yet communities are saying no to these dead spaces and are getting creative. Denver, CO provides two examples of mall department stores that were retained after the mall was demolished. One turned into an office building with retail on the ground floor (Belmar in Lakewood), and the other was reborn as a City Hall as part of a 55-acre public/private mixed-used redevelopment project (CityCenter Englewood).
2. Desolate strip transformed into pedestrian-friendly shopping experience through streetscape improvements – South Miami, FL
Utilizing tried-and-true streetscaping principles, a shopping strip in South Miami was turned into a vibrant destination for pedestrians through street trees, wider sidewalks, landscaping, and traffic calming. If you want people, institute improvements that privilege pedestrians and bikes over automobiles, and the people will come.
3. Derelict motel to become collection of local restaurants with shared amenities – St. Petersburg, FL
Building on the “food hall” concept popping up in cities across the country, (including a planned Upper Peninsula site on Mt. Pleasant Street), a New York City-based investor plans to transform a long-vacant motel into a collection of local restaurants with communal seating and amenities, according to the Tampa Bay Times.
We’re encouraged by the City of Charleston’s focus on revitalizing West Ashley commercial districts (information available at Charleston-sc.gov), and potential positive impacts for the local business community and regional economic growth. Charleston can learn from the innovative retrofits happening around the country to become a model ourselves, and create more opportunities for local businesses to thrive, benefitting the entire community.
To read more about Lowcountry Local First’s initiatives to reimagine economic development in the Lowcountry, visit the blog at lowcountrylocalfirst.org/news.
Community Development Director
Lowcountry Local First
 Williamson, June. “11 Urban Design Tactics for Suburban Retrofitting.” Accessed October 22, 2015 via buildabetterburb.org
 Benfield, Kaid. “How a smarter streetscape is reviving a faded suburban district.” Accessed October 22, 2015 via switchboard.nrdc.org/blogs