Monday, May 30, 2011

Big Box Retail In an Urban NY: Can A City Have Both?

This post may irritate many old school New Yorkers and traditional urbanists who decry the growing chain store and large scale retail trends in NYC. These images may dispel the myth that a city can't really have a normal, urban, walkable street grid and attract large scale retail chains.

Not every major chain operates in Manhattan--Costco, Ikea, Target and Walmart are at this time only in the outer boroughs or New Jersey. However, there is at least one major K Mart at Astor place, and chains like Staples, Barnes and Noble, Best Buy, Marshalls, TJ Max, H&M and Whole Foods are very common in the city. There is even a large Home Depot in a beautiful historic building in the heart of Chelsea. Add to this many locally famous stores with large scale formats like B&H Photo, Pearl Paint, Zabars, Fairway, Utrecht, The Strand Bookstore and ABC Carpet and Home.

A great strength of New York has been to make people and retailers adopt to it's urban nature-love it or leave it. Pittsburgh, currently seems a bit too ecstatic to see any major retail at all in the heart of some it's most critical areas--like East Liberty and downtown. The issue as we see it --is retail or housing or offices. Why not create the kind of dense mixed use buildings which combine many uses like we see in these pictures? Perhaps, then we would need fewer cars to get from one place to another.

P.S. There are no parking garages in the back, under or across the street from these buildings.


Paula Martinac said...


Easily explained: Many New Yorkers (I lived there for 20 years) do not own cars, unlike Pittsburghers. New Yorkers are very accustomed to going on foot or via their excellent public transportation system (which Pgh. also does not have).

John Morris said...

Yes, but this is very much a circular problem.

New Yorkers don't need cars because the street grid is rational and seldomly broken up for large buildings or highways and because, traditional high density urban form is normal.

This is also--why there are enough riders to practically support the subway system. In Hong Kong transit runs at a profit!

A fairly high % of residents in places like Shadyside, East Liberty and /Friendship either don't have or don't want cars--but we are creating a development pattern that makes them need them.

John Morris said...

Basically, Pittsburgh either assumes that you must drive and want to drive everywhere--and theat the only people who don't are somehow--not valuable.

Take the South Side Works--which for Pittsburgh is a fairly rational project allowing retail, offices and residential development. It's been a big success, but the city seems to have signed a deal--barring any new major residential building near it and a huge amount of space and expense was spent on parking.

ali said...

This very well may be our greatest stumbling block in the city (setting aside political issues) - the lack of investment in the kind of public transit that we do indeed have the population to support, and the cyclical and related issue of development that is not meant for the urbanites that live near it. how we get there is a question i cannot seem to begin to answer...

John Morris said...

It is a connected problem--not properly extracting value from the transit system one does have by building in a more dense urban way--ensures that the existing system will not have enough riders and will operate at a loss. It also means one is not getting all the potential tax revenue per dollar of infrastructure spending. A typical Manhattan block is generating a mix of residential-office and retail sales tax revenue.

In the case of East Liberty, one has one of the areas of the city supported by many bus lines--and near areas like Shadyside with a solid street grid. If dense development can't happen there--the hope for the city is very limited. We only have 48 square miles to play with--most of which is severly limited by geography.