This years annual conference of the International Downtown Association promises to be a good one. The energy is palpable – and it is always connect with old friends and make new ones. We will be sharing insights and tweeting throughout the conference, so be sure to follow us on twitter! @cdadvisor #IDASF

I was particularly excited to co-present a session sponsored by the International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC) with David Greensfelder, of Greensfelder Commercial Realty. His firm is the preferred developer for CVS in the SF region and he was chock full of great insight into what drives the decision making of commodities retailers like grocery stores and drug stores. I really enjoyed seeing what goes on “inside the box” of these retailers, most of whom use sophisticated, data driven retail site selection strategies. I did not know, for example, that CVS site maps the incidence of AIDS cases in neighborhoods to determine the strength of a particular SF site. From a business perspective, this makes sense because it is one strong indicator of market potential.

David made no apologies, telling the crowd “retail doesn’t want to go in space just because it’s there, it’s got to be a good location that makes sense.”  For public sector officials and urban planners this is an important message. One example he shared from a downtown mixed-use project he developed demonstrated the importance of flexibility in use restrictions. In the example David showed, his project allowed for flexibility in ground floor uses – including shared office space and housing that could be turned into retail at a later date. The project next to his did not – it had traditional retail spaces on the ground floor. While his project has no vacancy on the ground floor, the project next to his was continually vacant. In this weak market context, requiring ground floor retail in an effort to activate the street clearly backfired. As a City Planning Commissioner for the City of New York, I am increasingly aware of how zoning regulations play a role in either supporting or undermining truly successful retail environments, so I particularly appreciated this example.

Another major take away was the role that even minor inconveniences play in site selection. I have always known that coffee shops like to be on the “inbound” side of the street for instance. That is the side of the street that accommodates the traffic (automobile, pedestrian or otherwise) of people who are going to work. David mentioned again and again and again the importance of accessibility and convenience. He had us close our eyes and imagine sitting behind the wheel of a car that is low on gas. Do we make a left hand turn across two lanes of traffic on the way to work (and keep in mind we are already running late), or do we keep on driving on fumes to find a gas station on the right side of the street? Nearly everyone, myself included, indicated they would keep driving on fumes. The power of accessibility and convenience is a powerful message that those of us in the public sector – if we can create a district that is easy to get into and out of, easy to find through wayfinding and signage, easy and comfortable to get to not just by driving, but by biking and walking, we have helped create the conditions for successful retail, and made our districts a little more attractive to the retailers looking for good locations.

With that, I’m off to the IDA Board Meeting! I look forward to the rest of the conference and to sharing more of our insights from sessions!