In two articles in today's Oregonian, one in the Business section and one from In Portland, Fred Leeson looks at downtown's retail challenge. "Facing competition on all fronts," the In Portland sub headline goes, "business leaders bank on the city center's biggest transformation since World War II to win back shoppers."
In the other article, Leeson summarizes things nicely:
"No fewer than 112 blocks will face a new transit mall set for completion in 2009. Condo towers are putting hundreds of customers steps from shops. Business leaders have a $15.3 million plan to help downtown stores compete with malls, including the new "lifestyle" centers that cater to the regions most affluent shoppers."
These lifestyle centers are just malls with pedestrian areas outdoors instead of indoors, which is supposed to be more like a city but feels a lot more synthetic. However, they've been on an upswing in popularity. With more of a true melting pot downtown (including some destitute, begging and/or hackey-sack playing people) as well as no free parking like most of their mall competitors, retailers downtown have (or at least perceive) more challenges in being reached by their customers.
However, I also think of examples like REI's Pearl District store. In one article I wrote recently, the manager there told me how business had been way up since they relocated from Jantzen Beach Center. Customers told them the store was so much easier to access than before, because they didn't get sucked into the Interstate 5 bottleneck at the nearby Columbia River bridge crossing.
Regardless, I think downtown will fare well in the long run. The biggest asset is housing. However pedestrian friendly lifestyle centers may be once you get there, they usually have to be accessed by car. That means dealing with terrible traffic in places like Tualatin, Tigard and Clackamas. It's probably worth it if you live in those areas already, but I think in the long run downtown Portland businesses needn't worry about Portlanders disappearing to Bridgeport Village.
Downtown may present more practical, logistical and social headaches, but it presents the chance to have shoppers living above you or within a few blocks' walk or just a quick streetcar ride away. In other words, housing is the key to Portland's retail fortunes, as well as the central city's larger health.
I also think that at least from a retail perspective one has to think of downtown and the Pearl District as one place. When I go shopping downtown, I inevitably continue on to the Brewery Blocks and beyond, usually with shops, food/drink and art galleries all part of the same trip. Or vice versa. The notion of two neighborhoods is an imaginary one. If there's both a downtown business association and Pearl District business association in this city, they ought to be having a lot of shared meetings and strategy sessions.
At the same time, I don't think retail concerns should be the biggest driver in urban development. Business and retail are important - we want them to be successful. But they're only part of a larger picture. The needs and desires of homeowners, students, non-profits and numerous other groups should be just as importantly considered in planning the city. Retail in downtown will benefit most from a healthy and balanced downtown, embracing its most distinct asset compared to suburban malls: that they are welcoming of and easily accessible to all--not a Lifestyle Center but a center of life.