The Death and Life of Downtown Shopping Districts

After years of neglect, decline, and abandonment, downtowns across the United States are poised to come back—and not just as redoubts for hipsters, artisanal food, indie music, and trendy boutiques, but as major shopping destinations.

The past decade has seen a shift to downtown living. For the first time in 20 years, the annual rate of growth in American cities and their immediate surroundings has surpassed that of exurbs, according to projections from the U.S. Census released in July 2011. This is not just the case in cities of talent and advantages, like New York, San Francisco, and Boston, but in older industrial cities like  Cleveland and Detroit.

Downtowns have become veritable “entertainment machines,” in University of Chicago sociologist Terry Clark’s words, with an influx of restaurants, bars, cafes, clubs, and other venues catering to urban dwellers and suburbanites seeking something new and different.

An example of a downtown entertainment district. This corridor in Washington, D.C. includes the Verizon Center (far right) and Gallery Place mall. Image courtesy Flickr user Mr. T in DC.

But when it comes to shopping, most of the big department stores and luxury stores have remained in the malls. That is until now.

Broad Street at the corner of Raymond Boulevard in Newark, New Jersey in 1945. Image courtesy National Archives via Flickr user army.arch

It’s amazing really how fast the shift from downtown shopping districts to suburban malls happened. Though people had been moving out to the suburbs since the 1950s and earlier, high-end shopping was something that required a trip back into the city until the early 1970s. I vividly remember the shopping expeditions our family made to Newark’s department stores – Bambergers, Hahne’s and Kresge’s  – as a young boy in the 1960s. Then, as abruptly as if someone had pulled a switch, shoppers were driving out to places like Paramus and Menlo Park, where the malls were, and the downtown stores were all being shuttered.

Burdine’s department store at the 163rd St. Shopping Center in Miami, Florida. Photo taken in 1957. Via Library of Congress

But the signs of a great reversal are beginning to be seen today, as high-end shopping starts to shift back downtown. This goes far beyond the long-established retail corridors of great American cities like New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Boston—the Madison and Michigan Avenues, the Union and Boylston Streets, and the Rodeo Drives that never went away. It is happening in up and coming places and could potentially spill over into the abandoned urban retail cores of America’s hardest-hit industrial cities, boarded up storefronts, litter-strewn lots and all.

Miami’s Design District. Image courtesy Flickr user Bob B. Brown

Consider Miami’s Design District. A decade or so ago the idea of creating a high-end retail destination in the Buena Vista neighborhood would have seemed laughable. Just a mile or so north of the city’s financial and economic core, the 18 square blocks between North 36th Street and North 43rd Street, West First Avenue and Biscayne Boulevard was a somnolent district that almost no one but professional designers ever went to. Some of the surrounding neighborhoods were high-crime studies in blight, places to be driven through quickly with the doors locked.

Downtown Miami building two miles south of Miami’s Design District. Photo taken in 1991. Via Library of Congress

But starting in the late 1990s, Craig Robins, a founder of Design Miami and the lead developer at DACRA, began acquiring properties. Within a few years, the neighborhood had regained its status as a leading center for architectural and interior design, with more than 100 galleries and showrooms. Gradually, Robins was able to attract upscale design shops as well, such as Luminaire, Kartell, Capellini, Ligne Rosset, Vitra, and Jonathan Adler among others, and high-end fashion brands such as Marni, Christian Louboutin, and Tomas Maier.

Atlas Plaza, where Michaels Genuine Food and Drink is located. Image courtesy Flickr user Bob B. Brown

Drawn by its great spaces and reasonable rents, a host of destination restaurants opened in the district—first Michaels Genuine Food and Drink in 2007, then Michelle Bernstein’s Sra Martinez, Harry’s Pizzeria, and Fratelli Lyon Driade, to name just a few.

A storefront at Bal Harbour Mall. Image courtesy Flickr user achimh

Last year, Robins and his partners turned the corner when they were able to convince the Bernard Arnault’s LVMH group, whose luxury brands include Louis Vuitton, Hermes, Cartier, and Christian Dior, to leave the Miami area’s most established high-end suburban mall, the Shops at Bal Harbour, and relocate to the Design District as well.

Arnault and LVMH are trying out a new model for retail—embedding their brand destinations in the core of a rapidly reviving city. The first stores plan to open this summer.

Miami, of course, is much more of an international watering hole than most cities of its size; it has more than its share of the LVMH demographic. But retailers had served them out in the exclusive suburbs where they lived, or near their vacation condos and houses in and around South Beach. They hadn’t tried to entice them back into the old city.

Just a mile or two from Miami’s economic and financial hub and a couple of miles from South Beach, the Design District is actually much more centrally located than the Shops at Bal Harbour or the suburban malls in Coral Gables and Aventura. It’s easier to get to and there’s much more to do once you arrive.

Design District’s Oak Plaza. Photo courtesy DACRA/Corey Weiner

DACRA recently announced plans to extend one of the Design District’s most architecturally appealing streets, Plumer’s Alley, all the way through the district, creating a pedestrian mall, anchored by department stores at either end. Instead of a food court, shoppers will be able to eat at some of Miami’s best restaurants. Instead of generic and manufactured charm, they can experience some of the most interesting architecture in the world, old and new, classic and cutting edge. It is a case study of how to create or recreate a real urban shopping experience.

Some might say that Miami’s success in luring high end shopping back into the inner city portends little if anything for harder-hit small and medium-sized cities that don’t have Miami’s global influx of wealthy part-time residents and tourists. But they haven’t considered just how bold LVMH’s experiment is. They are moving their shops out of one of the most affluent, if not the most affluent malls in the country, into an urban center which is essentially untested.

If cities like Cleveland, Detroit, and Newark don’t have Miami’s glitz and glamour to bank on, they too are surrounded by wealthy suburbs, which are similarly well-supplied with high-end malls. Suburban Detroit has its Somerset Collection; Newark has the Mall at Short Hills in nearby Millburn. And, like Miami, those city’s downtowns have the infrastructure and the character to support the kind of development that DACRA brought to the Design District.

They are already attracting urban pioneers like the ones that moved to Miami’s Design District, its Wynwood Arts District, and adjacent neighborhoods when their revival was just beginning. This place-making and city-building phase of the process of urban regeneration engenders the increased safety and amenities that draw more and more people over time. Gilbert in Detroit and Mayor Cory Booker in Newark aren’t looking to glitz up their cities so much as they are to make them viable places where people can work, live, and play.

That’s much harder work and a much harder process than bringing high-end shopping back to urban centers that were set up for it – and that have the infrastructure and building stock in place to support it. The most critical difference is that downtown shoppers need not live in the core. Suburbanites already come to these downtowns to attend sporting events at the new Tigers stadium in downtown Detroit and the classic Jacobs Field in Cleveland. They dine in those cities’ destination eateries, like Slow’s BBQ in Detroit’s Corktown.

It might be hard to imagine soccer moms and patio men giving up their lawns and houses in Montclair and Summit to return to Newark, or Birmingham and Grosse Pointe to live in downtown Detroit, but one can easily imagine them driving into the city for the day to go shopping if there were places like the Design District for them to visit. Detroit, in fact, is already experimenting. Last year pop-up kiosks featuring top brands from the Somerset Collection, such as Neiman Marcus and Henri Bendel, opened temporarily in a downtown loft. It will happen again this summer, on an even larger scale. Detroit’s Eastern Market, a local food district with more than 250 independent vendors, has been in business since 1891 and regularly attracts tens of thousands of shoppers downtown every Saturday

It doesn’t have to be as high end as it is in Miami—maybe, in fact, it shouldn’t be. Like New York’s Soho, the Design District might be in danger of pricing out some of the very artists and galleries that gave it its initial cachet. As Beached Miami’s Jordan Melnick puts it:

just this past weekend, after a bite at Harry’s, I was walking along 40th Street and wishing there was a book store or bakery in one of those charming low-rise buildings that I could spend some time in. Now, I understand that that was never Craig Robin’s vision for the Design District (which some people cynically call the Designed District) and that drawing retailers of LVMH’s prestige was what he had in mind all along. In fact, in a zoomed-out picture, the Design District would seem to work as hipstery Wynwood’s sophisticated cousin. But I still lament that a place whose scale and architecture I find so alluring offers me little to do other than occasionally splurge on a meal at Michael’s or Sra. Martinez.

Even more to the point, he observes that Miami’s real downtown, including Flagler Street, its original shopping district, “is still a ghost town with, as far as I can tell, few signs that it will develop into a bustling destination anytime soon.”

These new shopping districts, like Miami’s Design District or New York’s Soho for that matter, are not part of their city’s traditional downtown shopping districts, but newly remade urban spaces that typically have grown out of warehouse and industrial districts.  Miami’s historic Flagler Street downtown corridor has seen decline common to many urban downtowns, turning into something of a ghost town at night, though it does have a Macy’s (the former Burdine’s), and it seems to be in the early phases of its own transformation with several new restaurants opening.

From where I sit, what’s happening in Miami is something of a bellwether, an unmistakable sign that the economic and commercial center of gravity is shifting away from the suburbs and back to the urban core. We are at a similar inflection point today to the one we experienced in the 1970s, when retail abruptly decamped to the suburbs. Only this time, the impetus is the other way around.

If Robins and Arnault’s experiment succeeds, and there’s every reason to believe it will, it has the potential to shift the whole paradigm of shopping. Other cities, and larger shopping center and retail developers—including those of a more populist bent than LVMH and DACRA—will surely take note. And when they do, the shift of shopping back to the urban core can happen quickly.

Another tipping point back toward urban downtowns may well be in the offing