Over the last 20 years, retail space has been built 5x faster than sales can support. The US has over a billion square feet of empty retail space, much of it in suburban strip malls. Building low-density, single-use retail space along heavily traveled corridors and arterials, surrounded by massive parking lots may have made sense in the past, but now, suburban strips are lackluster and underused. Tools such as zoning overlays and form-based code can jump-start and guide corridor transformation.

It is time for the suburban markets to reinvent. As demographics continue to change, the way we live and shop also fluctuates. 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 of  Arlington, Virginia. The 5.5-mile corridor began developing in the 1970s because it provided easy auto access to the Pentagon and Washington, D.C. But a 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.

The redevelopment process brought 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,’ to the formerly ignored area. Future focus will be on additional urban infill and replacement, housing diversity, walkability, high-capacity modern transportation, and placemaking.

A similar effort is underway in Detroit. Under the Detroit Works project, planners are focusing on the Livernois Corridor, once a regional shopping destination with popular stores like B. Siegel and Woolworths that also has a rich jazz music legacy. While it has not declined as much as other commercial districts the corridor has suffered from vacancy, deterioration, and an inadequate retail mix.

In 2010 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 a $1.7 million streetscape improvement project, continued funding façade improvements, and ongoing support for creativity.

Carmel, Indiana, is focusing on Range Line Road, a 2.5-mile corridor that is evolving into a destination in its own right. 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.

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