TRANSITIONING STREET ECONOMIES: A PLACE-BASED STRATEGY FOR BROADWAY AVENUE
KEEGAN APLIN-THANE | PLANNER, PALMERSTON NORTH CITY COUNCIL
Placemaking in Palmerston North, New Zealand, is trialling intensive place analyses at the street level to better target capital investment and partnerships with business groups. Focusing on Broadway Avenue, the changing retail high street of the city’s CBD, the City Council has collected information about the retail mix, transport patterns, public and private asset conditions and more to test the assumptions of politicians and the public around the purpose and performance of the precinct and how it relates to other areas of the central city. The economic climate in provincial New Zealand means we can no longer take a ‘one size fits all’ approach to our city streets, and sense of place is an increasingly important tool for driving a competitive retail market and a thriving city centre.
Since 2010, Palmerston North City Council’s Placemaking Initiative has been breaking down the barriers for communities and businesses wanting to connect with each other through public space. Through a process of continual learning and testing, placemaking has reinforced the role of the street as a reflection of the community and its occupants. The Council’s approach to one of its main retail precincts is a good example of the vital role place-data plays in delivering a successful placemaking strategy.
Broadway Avenue was Palmerston North’s main retail street in the central city prior to 2010, made up of medium-sized comparative retailers who leveraged the large department store, modest mall and cinema, and historic theatre. Shortly after the global financial crisis, the city’s primary mall located just two blocks down expanded significantly, attracting Broadway’s anchor retailer to move in. Although this upgrade increased retail spending in the central city by 7% in just ten months, Broadway’s retail spending dropped 8% at the same time. Broadway had been further hit over the years by a synthetic high crisis, beggars, and growing competition from online retailing. For lease signs went up, new businesses struggled to establish, and private investment in building development and maintenance dried up. The decline in Broadway from its former bustling self was highlighted in 2012, when the public and politicians called for the Council to take action to reverse, or at least soften, the downturn of the city’s crown jewel.
Successive attempts to address some of the issues and find the root cause of Broadway’s downturn were made. A placemaking demonstration area, nicknamed the Broadway Backyard, transformed the modest central plaza into a space for people to linger, slow down, and enjoy Broadway - and all for a minimal cost. The introduction of outdoor games, artificial turf, and moveable seating attracted families and entertained theatre-goers prior to shows.
Despite this increase in activity and the visible vibrancy that resulted, businesses were not convinced of any tangible benefit to the street economy. Sick of complaints from customers about bird droppings on their cars, retailers lobbied Council to remove the 40-year old street trees in the hope customers would no longer be hesitant to park down Broadway. Although business confidence improved, there was no evidence of an increase in pedestrian numbers or car parking occupancy rates, begging the question: how do we know what interventions will have a measureable impact on the street? Council’s answer: we need to better understand the current make-up of the street before we can determine what it should look like in the future.
Guided by the learnings of Peter Smith from Place Governance Partners, Council decided to put the spotlight on Broadway before jumping to conclusions. Place planning for Broadway has been one tool in Council’s kit for developing a cohesive framework for a vibrant city centre. While members of the public had preconceived ideas of what Broadway is and should be, there was no hard evidence to guide decision-making. To remedy this, a snapshot of Broadway was created. Input was sought from managers of the theatre and mall, a long-standing large-format business owner, and a property manager with almost all of Broadway’s properties under their portfolio. A critical part of the data collection involved taking a high-level look at the retail mix of the street. Broadway had a core precinct of entertainment venues which split predominant retail and restaurant activity either side, and the boundaries of these precincts were used to establish areas of comparison. Store typologies were also key for testing the public’s perception of Broadway as the next ‘Eat Street’. Many of Broadway’s businesses were kept informed throughout the process and given the opportunity to comment on findings as they were presented, as one of the challenges for Council was working around their busy work schedule.
Clear data counting the number of stores per storetype, and the amount of building frontage per storetype (to measure the street presence of each storetype), showed that retail had been pulling out of the western end of Broadway in the absence of a daytime retail anchor. In its place a night economy of Asian eateries had made themselves at home, as the cinema and theatre were now acting as anchor tenants for the night economy, fostering a ‘dinner and show’ identity along half of Broadway. Retail spending data proved this observation, showing that Broadway’s hospitality sector had almost tripled since 2009. Although vacancies had continued to increase, the data revealed that 40% were frictional – they were either being leased or being fitted out but not yet operating as a business.
While the data all pointed to a booming hospitality sector, the liquor licensing information, surveys of outdoor dining, and the level of enclosure provided by buildings showed that the built environment was not attractive enough to facilitate the transition from a traditional retail economy to a food-based night economy. Using literature on customer preferences for parking distances, a mapped parking catchment (90m radius from the street during metered hours, 200m during non-metered hours) also showed just how important Broadway’s laneways and midblock linkages were for maintaining adequate parking capacity for the street.
Once the data was collected, Council was able to determine that targeted investment in the attractiveness and comfort of Broadway and its two predominant laneways during the night-time would support the emerging hospitality sector and reinforce Broadway as the main destination for casual dining, small bars, and showtime. Council is currently deregulating liquor licensing, developing a comprehensive lighting scheme and laneway programme, and has developed a long-term plan for upgrading the street.
Further analysis will be taken once these initiatives have been put in place to measure the impact on the street economy.
KEEGAN APLIN-THANE has worked in the placemaking field for Palmerston North City Council in New Zealand for two years, with a planning background from Massey University. Keegan has worked on street-art, event facilitation and central city asset programmes to reinforce a barrier-free Council relationship with retailers, artists, event organisers, and key development partners.
issue 2. summer 2016