A typical “high street” in England…

In England, “High Streets” are the equivalent of “Main Streets”, and their problems are not so different from our own. Many are marred by significant vacancies, and the recent global economic downturn, coupled with fundamental changes in how people shop, has not helped. In a recent article in the U.K’s Independent, Phil Wrigley, a prominent fashion retail executive called for the “reinvention” of high streets. He goes on to say that “retailing will never be the same again, but there is much to be gained from facing up to this fundamental, and irreversible, truth. In doing so, we might just create the space in which we can re-cast and revitalise our town centre communities.”

Wrigley advocates for shrinking the commercial and retail square footage along high street, and turning these spaces into residential units. There is something to be said for this argument. In many urban areas, commercial zoning has not been updated in decades, and still operates under the assumption that downtown is the regional shopping hub of yesteryear. New commercial square footage, much of it in the form of enclosed malls and shopping centers, has replaced the need for all the commecial square footage that used to be necessary downtown. Yet many downtowns have failed to shrink their commercial districts in a thoughtful way. Instead, the dwindling number of stores are seperated by vacant storefronts – hurting the downtown’s overall image and making it more difficult to attract new businesses. This is the “death spiral” that Phil Wrigley speaks. He suggests that a vacancy rate of 20-30% is the tipping point for vacancies that make it difficult for any community to recover from.

Wrigley’s recommendations are an excellent strategy to prevent further demise of these districts. With more residentail housing comes more demand for retail and services…so perhaps the “death spiral” should instead be called the “opportunity for reinvention” spiral….