September 9, 2021

Bye Downtown Department Store, Hello Post-Covid Downtown Public Space

What to do with the new economic reality of many downtown “anchor” flagship stores unable to survive changing shopping trends?

Journalist Alexandra Lange in CityLab has reviewed ‘dead’ department stores reborn as libraries, offices and other institutions. The trend for repurposing coupled with the pandemic means that cities should be crafting creative policies to ensure these emptying buildings do not decline, but nimbly morph into different post-pandemic uses. Rapidly.

Jan Gehl discussed the need to address downtown and commercial area storefronts, anticipating a major shift in store vacancy and in consumer shop use as businesses struggle to survive. Mr Gehl ruefully describes the enduring trend of people behind their computer screens continuing to support home deliveries of goods with, as he describes it, “those bloody vans”. (He means Amazon.)

Mr. Gehl  expresses concern that  storefronts need to be immediately animated and occupied, and a fulsome discussion needs to occur about who will pay to ensure that storefronts remain operating in some type of business, community or arts use. Financing and policies need to come from supportive governments.

It is not just economics and environmental reasons swaying the immediate reuse of vacant retail space, but the now very self evident link between health and planning. People need to be outside, to meet each other, to walk safely, conveniently and comfortably.

Commercial streets must be active, animated, and provide places to go to, complete with accessible public washrooms, seating, convenient transit and walking/biking links, and shelters. And they need public spaces and plazas for people just to be people, watching each other, eating, and lingering.

As described in this article about the importance of the department store to women’s independence, the linkage of downtown areas as places where all citizens can travel to and spend time in needs to reframe for this century. It’s no longer a case of a vehicle based trip, in and out of one store that provides every conceivable good or need. It’s about small shops, supporting a local business economy, and feeling safe and comfortable using sidewalks and the street with adequate physical distancing and comfort.

In the United States forty percent of department stores have closed since 2016. Most of these are located in downtown areas, have architectural detail and styling, and can be easily reached by transit, bike or walking by many residents. While trends in the past decades were about claiming  of industrial land in cities for residential (take a look at Vancouver’s River District on an old sawmill site), now it is about filling in the centrepiece fabric gaps in the downtown.

In New York City Amazon  bought a former department store built in 1914 to convert into a 630,000 square foot office housing two thousand employees. In Vancouver, Amazon has  repurposed the old downtown Vancouver post office to house 2,000 employees, with a total of 8,000 jobs anticipated by 2023 . The total redeveloped post office square footage is estimated to be 1.1 million square feet.

In Vancouver  the Hudson’s Bay downtown flagship store was thinking about flexing its top floor space.  WeWork, which offers flexible  office work space,  planned to locate on the top two floors of the building.

In early 2020 Wework still indicated that it intends to operate offices in the building,but that will be dependent on how the post pandemic return to work happens. While there have been estimates that as many as thirty percent of people will remain working from home, going “to the office” still will serve a vital function in sharing information, informal conversations, meetings and mutual learnings.

What will be vital is ensuring that downtown streets and business windows are occupied for  returning office workers and shoppers. People must also feel they have appropriate physical distancing on sidewalks and in public spaces to address health safety protocols. Street design and public space is going to be just as important as the access to shops and services.

That is something that Chinatown volunteers and business owners are already involved in, sweeping and cleaning streets and supporting businesses that have pivoted the type of goods being offered: a store that specialized in furniture is now selling a vast array of house plants as people spend more time in their own personal spaces.

This YouTube video by Tufts University begins the conversation about the importance of public space during a pandemic, and also talks about the changes to housing and attitudes to parks in the 19th and and early 20th century reaction to pandemics. It is light on the side on how to  create more public space and safety in downtown areas, where safe space is going to be just as important as the shops.

Images: Woodwords1945pinterest

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