What is the first thing you notice when you visit a commercial district? Storefronts and buildings probably make that list. Great storefronts are critical to a vibrant street environment. They engage passersby and contribute to active street life. Not surprisingly, façade improvement programs have become a common and effective tool in many commercial district revitalization efforts.

Yet many facade programs go wrong quite quickly. Without design guidance, the “after” might not look much better than the “before”, and resources spent will have less impact than you might like. Unfortunately, overcoming this issue can be a challenge. Many BIDS, BIAs or CDCs working to revitalize low-income or distressed corridors do not have the budget to engage a retail designer to help prepare and review façade improvement applications. Even when they do, this person is often not a retail design expert.

With that in mind, we thought it would be helpful to share some of our own insights as they relate to the key takeaways from a wonderful new publication entitled, Laying the Groundwork:Design Guidelines for Retail and Other Ground-Floor Uses in Mixed-UseAffordable Housing Developments, prepared by the Design Trust for Public Space in partnership with the NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development. The publication is the result of extensive research and collaboration from a broad range of design and retail experts – including our own Principal, Larisa Ortiz – who served on the advisory panel. It is available for purchase on the Design Trust website.

While the report outlines best practices and provides practical guidance for those building new retail space in mixed-use buildings, we think it also provides excellent insight for those looking to develop facade improvement programs. A good facade improvement program not only impacts the overall look and feel of the district, but if done with certain principles in mind, can help businesses achieve higher sales. Incorporating these concepts into your facade program design will help ensure that the program meets the objectives of your district stakeholders as well as the businesses themselves.

So keep in mind the following key principles as you design your facade improvement program….

1. Maintain Transparency

There is growing recognition of the importance and value of transparency in driving retail sales. A transparent storefront invites customers inside with products and services on display. It also discourages crime by providing what urban theorist Jane Jacobs called “eyes on the street”. Making the facade as transparent as possible allows for a full visual exchange between indoors and outdoors. Customers and shopkeepers inside the store see what is happening on the street and pedestrians outside see the activity and offerings in the store. This interdependent relationship benefits both customers and retailers.
In order to maximize transparency, the design guidelines recommend having 70% of the façade surface completely transparent between 2’ and 10’above sidewalk-level, with measures in place for attractive privacy solutions when needed.

In many urban districts, retailers (even after a façade improvement program) cover their windows with sales posters and signs. Store-owners want to attract customers with these signs but in doing so they block visual connection between inside and outside and often create an uninviting storefront. A customer who can’t see inside a business is highly unlikely to walk inside.

One way to keep the façade transparent and place signs  at the lower (or upper) section of the storefront, immediate below (or above) eye-level.

Another common occurrence is having non-retail stores (salons, professional offices, etc.) with minimal transparency. These businesses should also be regarded with the same design standards as other retail businesses as they are also key components of the streetscape and as responsible for creating vibrancy in the corridor as retail stores are. In fact, the design guidelines presented in Laying the Groundwork  target not only retailers but also banks, laundromats, and even community uses like cultural space, healthcare and childcare facilities.

In order to guarantee full transparency, facade improvement programs should add a clause requiring windows to be kept free (or with minimal) signage and that product display should not block vision to the store’s interior. In fact, the  minimum of 70% transparency recommendation does not refer only to the substantial presence of store windows, but that these windows be kept fully transparent.

Exterior illumination provides light on the sidewalk and highlights the facade at night. Exterior lighting can also be used to accent trees and planting. An active, well-illuminated street frontage improves safety for retailers, residents, and the district. It also reduces the need for security gates by creating a safer street front.

One important consideration is the relationship between lighting and store signage. Both should be coordinated and the new façade design should minimize lighting presence above the sign, especially if the units above are residential.

2. Maintain  Connections between the Storefront and the Street by Minimizing Barriers

An active, well-illuminated street frontage improves safety for retailers, residents, and the district. It also reduces the need for security gates by creating a safer street front. Ideally, security gates should not be allowed in retail spaces under lease agreements. There are many other ways to provide security, including security systems with video, sensors, alarms, etc.

Unfortunately, in many urban communities, transparency is often trumped by safety concerns. For example, many retailers elect to put up solid security gates as a anti-theft measure. However these gates only serve to accentuate concerns about safety. Your facade program should discourage, or require, less obtrusive forms of security. If roll down gates are required, share alternatives to exterior rolls down gates. (See our previous post “Are there viable alternatives to roll down gates?”)
Air conditioning units can also be barriers and jeopardize a facade design’s  potential to creating vibrant streets. Avoid whenever possible the installation of air-conditioning units over doorways or having them protrude through the façade. Instead, plan the placement of louvers to enhance the facade and the quality of the retail storefront. Provide a clear zone for louvers on the exterior storefront. Finish louvers to match the color of the surrounding storefront elements so that they are an integral part of the facade design.
A store’s visibility has significant impact on retail sales – this is why businesses pay more for corner locations (“end caps” in retail parlance) where the store is visible to customers from a variety of angles. Effective signage can also play a role in improving visibility. In pedestrian environments, signage that projects from the building (i.e. blade signs) offer pedestrians strong visual cues that there are businesses in the vicinity. In one community where we worked, the installation of blade signs increased pedestrian traffic down a previously quiet street by 30%. (See our post “Pittsburgh Neighborhood Unveils Strategies Aimed at Drawing Tourists”)

3. Keep the Street Wall Continuous and Avoid Gaps

The conditions of street-level retail are intimately connected to the quality of the customers’ experience in your district. The benefits of well-designed storefronts extend far beyond district attractiveness. From fostering community pride to serving as catalyst for further economic investment, they create positive changes to the social, economic and environmental health of the commercial district and surrounding communities. Although this recommendation is not technically about facade improvements, it does suggest that by clustering facade improvements and/or creating a continuous street-wall of improved storefronts, the program can have greater impact. Consider using the the facade program in a targeted way along a single block front for a limited amount of time. Or design the program as an incentive to fill vacancies – perhaps by increasing the allowable grant contributions when used for a vacant space.

4. Maintain Flexibility for a Variety of Potential Tenants

Effective retail spaces are flexible. In many districts, the needs of tenants vary widely. Offering flexibility means greater potential to fit the needs of a larger set of prospective tenants. One suggestion is to design the façade program so that it has the potential to accommodate multiple entries. Another is to require improvements that result in on-grade pedestrian entries to ensure ease of access. Consider a retailer whose customers are young families with children – a set of steps will cause immediate concern. How might a parent with a stroller make it up the steps? Or a senior citizen – or anyone with mobility challenges?

5. Remain Distinctive so that Shoppers Can Easily Find the Retailer

Retail entrances that are clearly marked and distinct from other street-level uses (residential or office entrances) facilitate wayfinding and help catch a shoppers eye. While the guide suggests a minimum of 15 feet between any retail entrance and other uses, we think that clear visual delineations are more important than actual physical distance. Awning and other design elements, like signs, can be deployed in a way that ensures a retailer has a clearly defined entrance.