It may come as a surprise, but few things in walkable places are stronger predictors of the vitality of a town or neighborhood center than the quality of its storefronts. Centers in the US normally gather around a Main Street or square. European centers often gather around a plaza, place, piazza, High Street or (again) a square. But whatever it’s called and however it is shaped, the life of the center is fueled more by the quality of its storefronts than by any other factor. Auto-dominated commercial strips, by contrast, are fueled most by two things: their tall pylon signs, and tall architectural elements such as towers at the corners of mid-box buildings which are designed to attract attention quickly from motorists speeding by. Big-box buildings, of course, are their own massive billboards. But back to walkable places...
Go into any neighborhood and walk down a primarily residential street, and you’ll likely find relatively few people walking, even if it’s after work. But good neighborhood centers are often thronged with neighbors after work. A few of the people on the residential streets are walking to a neighbor’s house, but most of them are walking to the neighborhood center. The primary job of the residential street is to collect them and to entertain them enough along the way that they don’t get bored before arriving at the neighborhood center.
Think of the primarily residential streets as the opening act to the main event that is the town or neighborhood center. Streets leading to the center should have enough Walk Appeal to be interesting so that people keep walking; the center itself should be positively entertaining in order to entice enough people that it becomes a vibrant place.
Entertainment begins at the storefront, and the reason why is primarily geometry. As you walk along the sidewalk, the views that change most quickly are those into the storefronts beside you. Every five to eight seconds, you can walk past another shop, with its unique selection of wares on display. Entertainment is the opposite of monotony, and changing the view frequently is essential to avoiding monotony. All of the places shown in this post are in metropolitan areas that have districts built of larger buildings, but fewer people walk there except at starting time and quitting time of the offices because large office buildings are much less interesting because it can take a minute or more to walk by some of them.
People don’t come to the center solely for an entertaining walk, of course; they usually have a reason to visit one or more of the shops. So uses do matter, and the the more frequently-visited businesses like a grocery or a third place (coffee shop, bistro, cafe, pub, or restaurant where you can bring your laptop or tablet and hang out for awhile) draw people more frequently than a shoe store, for example. The difference is that if the walk is boring or the storefronts in the center are boring, they’re more likely to drive to the shop from which they need something, pick up the item, and drive back home whereas with great Walk Appeal fueled by great storefronts, they’re more likely to walk and then stay awhile once they get there, benefitting more businesses.
We’ve already talked about frontages in general; now let’s look in detail at the storefronts that line those frontages. And fortunately, there are a few simple steps for making them enticing. Storefronts are made up of up to five parts. Three are essential and two are optional. The building face is essential, and includes the windows, doors, doorways and other architectural elements. The interior display is essential as well, as a storefront where you can’t see what is being sold is pointless. Signage is also essential. Many storefronts have some sort of shelter, such as an awning, gallery, colonnade, or arcade. Some storefronts include exterior seating for food or drink service establishments. We’ll look at the essential elements of a storefront that occur on the sidewalk level in this post. The following are rules of thumb for each:
Windows & Transoms
Storefront windows should be single-lite clear glass to best display the wares inside. Divided lites may be used only when the items for sale are substantially smaller than the panes, so you can get an unobstructed view of things in the window. Storefront windows may run the entire height of the glazing, or may be capped with transoms. Transoms may have divided lites because the muntins diffuse light coming into the shop, bathing things within the shop in a softer light.
The best storefronts are 65% to 75% glass at eye level. Less glass is boring, because you can see less of the interior. More glass is also boring, but for a different reason: the closer you get to the 100% glass of a butt-glazed curtain wall, the less interesting the wall becomes because more and more architectural elements like piers, pilasters, casings, and sashes must be removed. And when walking down the sidewalk beside the curtain wall, you’ll notice that glass becomes more reflective when viewed from a steeper angle. The glass that’s 30 feet ahead of you essentially becomes a mirror, so you can’t see inside.
Window Sill Height
Storefront window sills should never be higher than 29 inches, which is table-top height in a restaurant. Higher sills restrict your view into the store. But glass should never run all the way to the sidewalk, either, because the lowest few inches of the wall take a lot of abuse. A sill constructed of something tougher than glass should be a minimum of 6 inches tall. Sill heights should vary from store to store because that is more interesting than holding all of the sills at the same height.
Window Head Height
Window heads should be no lower than 8 feet above the floor, although they can be much taller, running all the way to the bottom of the storefront beam if desired.
Doors in commercial buildings are usually required to open outward by fire codes, but if the door is located at the edge of the sidewalk, someone walking quickly by on the sidewalk can be seriously injured by a door unexpectedly opening. This happened to a friend of mine; the end of the door caught him square in the forehead, splitting it open. I had to take him to the emergency room to get stitched up. So always set storefront doors back at least three feet deep into a doorway. The doorway sides can be either square or splayed display windows. A doorway isn’t just a safety device, however; it’s the best display space in the shop because it’s where people are slowing down to go inside, so they see the wares better. It’s also a good place to stand temporarily in the event of a rain shower.
A storefront door should be mostly glass, and may be either a single lite or have divided lites of any pattern, because it does not have to provide a clear view to merchandise just behind it, as that floor space is used for walking, not for display. Storefront doors may be single or double, and should be distinguished from the windows in some way in order to be immediately visible to people walking by. Paint color is a common method.
The storefront beam holds up the wall above, and the span between visible supports is fairly long: at least 10 feet; often 16 to 24 feet or even more, so the beam needs to be deep enough that it’s obviously strong enough to carry the load. The storefront beam may be a visible steel beam, or better yet a steel beam built up with plates, angles, and rivets, which is more interesting. Or it may be clad with stone, terra-cotta, or other finishes.
The end piers occur at the ends of the shops (and occasionally in between) and visually support the storefront beam. End piers may either be shared between two neighboring shops, or each shop may have its own end pier that abuts its neighbor’s end pier such as these storefronts (which also have intermediate piers as well). The decision of whether to use shared piers or individual piers is usually made on a block-by-block basis and is based on whether the developer is building several shops at once (where shared piers work) or whether each lot is individually built out (so that individual piers are required).
This element should be obvious, but in today’s retail climate, it needs some explanation. Retailers should turn their wares toward the windows where everyone in the neighborhood will see them, instead of inward where only those who are already inside their shop might see them. This should be Marketing 101. But retailers complain that “my store is designed to put shelves on the outer walls, so that all the aisles are double-loaded.” This is easily fixed by simply flipping aisle and shelving. Rippled across the store, this creates the same efficiency, but with the outer aisles getting many times the exposure through the storefront windows.
What they choose to display on those outer aisles is important. In my neighborhood, there is a grocery store which did the right thing and put windows all along the side of their store. But then they chose to display stuff like diapers in those shelves. One aisle away is their wine department. Imagine how much better they would do if they turned more enticing products like that toward the sidewalk instead of diapers!
I’ve written a Sign Code for Walkable Places, the essence of which is this: Signs for places where people walk should be scaled to the person walking by close to the storefront, not the automobile speeding by a hundred feet or more from the storefront. This means that you’re permitted more types of signs: blade signs, band signs, window signs, etc., all on the same storefront. The problem with signs in auto-dominated places is that they must be very large to be seen and read before you zip by in your car. So it’s essential to limit the area of the signs in auto-dominated places, and also the number of them. Signs in walkable places can be much smaller, because you see them from short distances. As a result, they generally don’t need size limitations, or limits on sign types. And their variety makes a place more interesting.
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Preservation is a losing battle, and nowhere is this more obvious than in South Beach. Eventually, every building ever built will be lost, so preservation needs to be understood as the act of extending the lives of places and buildings we love the most, not the act of preserving them forever. Every thriving place has development pressure that seeks to replace old buildings with new ones that are substantially larger. Anyone who lives in Miami Beach and who wants to visualize development pressure can simply walk outside, look around, and count the cranes that dot the skyline. Preservationists have gotten relatively good at fighting back against development pressure, at least for the best historic buildings, but the pressure is there.
Here on South Beach, we have another threat to the character of our architecture, and it’s not yet clear if this threat can be opposed, at least for some of our buildings. That threat is sea level rise. When Wanda and I first moved here almost 14 years ago, “tidal flooding,” and “sunny-day flooding” were terms we didn’t hear for several years. Tidal flooding wasn’t a thing until 2009 or so. But by 2013, we were having nights like this on an accelerating basis, when the sea level was simply higher than the streets, with seawater spilling into the streets. Inland people debate sea level rise, but not South Beach residents because we have seen it with our own eyes.
Even before the October 2013 flood occurred, the city had undertaken a massive infrastructure project consisting of improved storm drainage, huge underground storage tanks, and massive pumps to pump the water back out into the ocean before it gets to street level, putting us in the same boat as New Orleans: cities with streets that are at least sometimes below sea level. And those pumps work almost all the time, but when they failed after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans flooded and thousands of buildings were lost. So far, the South Beach pumps have not failed, and we have had no further street flooding. But we inevitably will at some point.
And so the city is now raising the streets. Land is highest on the Atlantic side, sloping down to the lowest point on the bay side. Streets are being raised about 3.5 feet on the bay side, which is the existing grade near the middle of the island.
Unfortunately, the city is not raising the buildings. I predicted last year that this approach would cause rain-driven flooding problems, and this has already happened. Here’s why: when the streets are raised but the buildings are not, those buildings may be 3 feet or more below the sidewalk. In a rainstorm, if debris like cardboard clogs the newly-installed storm drains in front of a building, or if mulch washes out of a planting bed to clog the drains, the lower area at the front of the building effectively becomes a swimming pool, and in many cases the only place for the water to run is into the building. The pumps might fail only once ever few decades; this flooding could happen repeatedly; whenever there’s a big storm. The city worked with the insurance companies on the first floods in Sunset Harbor, but the insurance companies will quickly tire of the same story each time floods occur. At some point, the buildings must be raised because they will otherwise become uninsurable. These are discussions we need to be having now. The longer we wait to start talking about how to raise the buildings, the more painful and urgent the process will be. The new administration should make this a high priority, as we cannot avoid this problem indefinitely.
We’ve done this before, and with masonry buildings, not just wood-framed houses. And we should be doing this now on South Beach, as our ancestors did in these two examples: Bay Village in Boston was raised in the 19th century after the Back Bay was filled in. Some areas were raised up to 18 feet, although some of the building main levels became basements. After the Galveston hurricane of 1900 (the deadliest natural disaster in US history) the entire city was raised up to 17 feet, which is the current seawall elevation. So there’s no doubt that we can raise 1- and 2-story buildings.
There’s also no doubt that we cannot raise skyscrapers. For tall buildings, the best solution will probably be to demolish the second level and move the first level upward, leaving upper levels unchanged. The problem is the “Sour Spot” between the 1-2 story buildings (or maybe 3) and the high-rises. Sour Spot buildings that are too tall to raise but too short to modify are likely to be lost. It’s simply an economic reality. With sea level rise happening across the country and around the world, it’s unreasonable to expect anyone to bail us out because this is not a localized disaster like a hurricane. We’re on our own on this.
Walk down Ocean Drive, and you’ll see that some of the most memorable examples of South Beach architecture are in the Sour Spot and likely to be lost because they’re too tall to raise but too short to move the first floor upward. Ocean Drive Sour Spot buildings won’t be the first ones lost, as they’re sitting on higher ground; that’ll happen further back in the Art Deco District at the beginning. But no reasonable models today project a future where seas don’t continue to rise to and beyond Ocean Drive at some point.
When this happens… and there is little doubt but that it will… what will replace these long-loved buildings that form the core of the character of South Beach? If we do nothing to direct the character of the architecture, those replacements will almost certainly be a random collection of “styles du jour” that occur at the times at which they will be built. In short, we’ll morph over time into urbanism no different from any other urban beach city in the US, without the strong character Miami Beach has today that leaves little doubt in any visitor’s mind precisely where on earth they are.
It is rare for a city to have strong architectural character, and it helps create far greater value than exists in more ordinary places. And that strong character draws millions of people to travel from around the world to visit Miami Beach every year. Will that continue once that character is eroded beyond recognition? Sure, the Post Office will be preserved, along with a few other Art Deco monuments, but what city that was thriving from 1920-1945 doesn’t have a few Art Deco monuments? Once the Sour Spot buildings are replaced by random architecture, we will clearly lose great real estate value and great annual revenues to local businesses.
Coding for Character
Architect Trigger Warning: I’m about to trigger some foul emotions in the architectural community. There is a solution, and that is to code for character. This means that leaders in the city must make the choice to build future buildings that become part of a new living tradition of Art Deco architecture. If Art Deco is what people love, why not build more of it? Most architects will fight this furiously, kicking and screaming all the way. Their battle cry is “architecture must be of its time!” The fact of the matter is that there is a strong track record of cities coding for a particular character, and it usually creates great value.
In some cases, coding for character takes the form of an "extreme makeover” such as when Santa Fe chose about 1910 to transform from a town of Victorian cottages to the adobe city it is today. Santa Barbara chose a makeover to Spanish Colonial Revival about ten years later. South Beach, as we all know, adopted Art Deco shortly thereafter. In other cases, places like the French Quarter in New Orleans and Charleston have chosen to code for character in order to preserve their existing character. In every case, strong character has created strong value.
Who should lead this initiative to ensure preservation of the character of Miami Beach into the future? It’s not set in stone. Here, the Art Deco character was established by a community of architects such as Lawrence Murray Dixon. Architects also led the Santa Barbara transformation. Architect-driven initiatives do not have to be large at the beginning. Just a few like-minded designers can band together to get it started. The Sarasota School of the 1950s is another model where there was not a code per se, but rather a collection of architects agreeing to pursue similar architecture. The code, however, is stronger.
The initiative to preserve character can also be led by civic leaders. Mayor Joe Riley in Charleston is a great example of the “strong mayor” model. Leadership can also come from someone on the Commission that adopts the initiative as their own. The Chamber of Commerce can lead as well, as they did in Santa Fe. The bottom line is that there are many people who can step up to the plate and get the initiative rolling to preserve the character of Miami Beach. Who will it be?
Modernism’s core hypocrisy can take down some really good guys. Richard Campanella is apparently one of them. By all accounts, including from my close friend Ann Daigle, he is well-loved and highly respected in Louisiana and beyond. I’ve read a number of his pieces, and they’re very professional, well-researched, and even-handed, except when it comes to one core point: the continuation of a much-loved character of architecture at a later time, once it has fallen out of favor. The problem isn’t whether it’s OK to revive an old style, but for which characters of architecture it is permitted and for which it is forbidden, and why there should be a difference. To be frank, Greek Revival and Colonial Revival are reprehensible to most architects today, while CorbMiesian Revival and Brutalist Revival are the hottest things going. I’ve illustrated this post with CorbMiesian Revival examples from South of 5th on South Beach (my adopted hometown), and 1111 Lincoln Road, which may be the best example built to date of Brutalist Revival.
In short, if it’s Modernist, you’re a hero for bringing it back. If it’s not Modernist, you should be banned from the company of thoughtful architects. Hypocrisy incarnate. Let’s look at how Richard unfortunately falls prey in his post New Orleans' historical revival architecture: A look to the past for inspiration? Or solace?
But this late-20th century brand of historical revival was different. It was more emphatically neotraditionalist -- that is, purely pastiche, lacking an underlying philosophy and seemingly motivated mostly by nostalgia.
Campanella acknowledged prior revivals of Greek and Roman architecture in New Orleans, but he’s clearly put off by recent traditional architecture. I can’t read his mind, but this seems perilously close to disrespecting it because it’s a present-day threat to Modernism. In his meticulously-researched piece on post-Katrina architecture, he shows how New Orleans residents have chosen traditional characters of architecture <even if poorly executed> over Modernist characters of architecture <even if superbly executed by nationally-known masters> by a margin of 14 to 1. <These are my insertions not found in his piece.> Why would people choose mediocre traditional buildings over masterworks of Modernism? More on this later. And if you haven’t noticed already, “pastiche” and “nostalgia” are insults thrown around regularly by Modernists at those who have not joined their clique. To be clear, I consider Campanella to be an unfortunate bystander who took up these terms from his architect friends, because according to his CV he didn’t go through architecture school.
For families in the market to build a new house, pattern books increasingly featured historical designs, making their selection convenient, and builders streamlined their construction, which lowered their costs. Historical revival became de rigueur in both old neighborhoods and new subdivisions, and features like faux Creole hipped roofs and Victorian turrets started popping up region-wide.
When have pattern books ever not featured traditonal designs? Traditional designs are those which have been proven to work. Most people like proven things. Only a few (including me) are willing to take risks to explore new stuff. Calling them “historical” rather than “traditional” is an attempt to relegate them to the past. If people living today choose them fourteen to one, what’s historical about that? That’s a contemporary and present-day fact.
Also, what is a “faux Creole hipped roof?” Richard, you’re a great researcher, so you surely should know what a Creole roof accomplishes. A hipped roof is one where each plane of the roof supports their neighboring planes, which is inherently stronger in a hurricane. Creole roofs often have a slope in the 8:12 to 9:12 range, which hurricane experts today tell us are in the sweet spot of being too low to easily fail in overturning and too high to easily fail in uplift during a hurricane. One exception is the Creole cottage, which may be up to 12:12 because there is living space within the roof, and those upstairs walls reinforce the roof. Meanwhile, the trademark flat roofs of both Le Corbusier and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, grandfathers of today’s CorbMiesian Revival, have the absolute worst failure rates in uplift stress.
The “bell-cast eave” that often occurs at the permiter of the building in many Creole hipped roofs? It unlocked the mystery of living traditions because of its utilitarian purpose: torrential rains coming off a steep roof would dig a trench in the yard, whereas rains broken by a shallower eave come off in more of a spray than a sheet of water. Simply put, there’s nothing faux about a Creole hipped roof. It’s a roof shape proven over centuries to perform very well in the region. One of the great Modernist conceits is that “nothing that came before us is worthy of us.” I think that’s a Wright quote but can’t find it at the moment. In any case, the pell-mell rush to discard anything old also turns out to discard anything proven. Is that what we really want?
Contemporary designs, meanwhile, usually entailed commissioning an architect, which might slow the process and raise the price, while possibly limiting the home's future curb appeal to only those who liked modern architecture.
Agreed on all points. And because your own research shows that those who like Modernist architecture are roughly 1 in 15 (1 to 14), who in their right mind that didn’t like Modernist architecture would choose to build something so hamstrung in the market?
Neotraditionism won further ground when the New Urbanism movement, which sought to recapture the intimacy and walkability of pre-automobile neighborhoods, extended the retro aesthetic to entire developments and fortified it with a social policy argument.
Let’s be clear. The New Urbanism has always researched the things that people love most from the beginning, and began doing so at a time that nobody cared to even ask the question “what do the people love?” New Urbanists then had the audacity to actually build lovable homes and businesses. The Modernists will never forgive them for that, because it lays bare the greatest failing of Modernism: their core precept (the necessity of uniqueness) necessitates unlovable architecture almost all the time because they’re required to dispose of every characteristic of buildings that has ever been proven lovable in human history. Yes, there is the one-in-a-million Eiffel Tower which becomes deeply loved by a people and even by the world. But for each of those, there are countless tons of dreck put up that people get rid of as soon as possible. If it can’t be loved, it won’t last.
And this gets back to one of the foundations of this Modernist hypocrisy: the assumption that the architects know and the people don’t. This “retro” slur that Campanella unfortunately uses is common as well… another way to consign anything non-Modernist to the past, and banned from ever being built again. But the people know how to value what they love most, and have no problem at all signing earnest money checks for more-loved characters of architecture (even if poorly executed) over fabulously-executed examples of unlovable architecture. The proper contrast isn’t retro vs. Modernist, but lovable vs. unlovable.
The rebuilding after the Katrina deluge of 2005 formed an experiment of sorts in which the architectural tastes of thousands of New Orleans families might be further revealed. With such bad memories behind them, would families opt for a refreshing contemporary look?
Richard, look at your own work! All signs, as you noted, pointed toward a break from tradition, for something new! But your own research painstakingly shows that this was not the case, by a margin of 14 to 1! Why is that so? If all the signs point to one conclusion yet the evidence points overwhelmingly to a very different reality, does that not suggest that our foundation assumptions are very seriously wrong?
With various levels of flood risk at play, would they opt for sustainability?
What is sustainability? Is it Gizmo Green? Something you can buy from Home Depot? Or is it building things that can be sustained in a healthy way, long into an uncertain future? If the latter, then it’s essential to know the people, the things that they love, and why. If it can’t be loved, it won’t last. Architects really must develop enough humility to earnestly listen to regular people if they are to have any hope of actually accomplishing this.
We may conclude that, for better or worse, most folks wanted the new New Orleans to look like "olde" New Orleans -- despite that, from the 1720s to the 1970s, local society had a completely different sensibility, importing new ideas and experimenting with the latest design thinking, as if to say "we are confident about the future." Only when that confidence nose-dived in the late 20th century did the architectural eyes of the average New Orleanian turn backward.
Richard, you’re asking the wrong question here, and coming to the wrong conclusion. It’s not “olde” versus new, historic versus modern, or any similar chronological divides. Rather, when people’s lives are severely disrupted, it’s a known fact that they turn to things that are known to work. It’s absolutely no surprise that the people of New Orleans chose what has been proven in the region to work for centuries versus the hodgepodge collection of Modernist styles du jour. Why is this even in question?
PS: I’m speaking in New Orleans at the CityBuilding Exchange March 8-10. We’re arriving early. I’d be delighted to buy you a coffee or whatever else you’d like to drink and talk about these things if you’re interested. Ann speaks very highly of you.
Restaurants in places with good Walk Appeal are inherently less fattening than unwalkable ones because meals come with embedded exercise. I just walked to my favorite restaurant and back, and burned 113 calories. That might not seem like a lot, but 113 calories each day for a year is enough to lose almost 12 pounds, which is why people who live in places with good Walk Appeal are thinner.
We don’t eat out every day, of course, but we do walk to the grocery store pretty much every day. Whole Foods is 60 calories away; it’s where we shop most often. Publix is 93 calories away; we shop there as well. Walgreens is 56 calories away.
We rarely buy more than one day’s worth of food; often only one meal’s worth. There’s no doubt we eat fresher and therefore more nutritious food by doing this rather than by driving an SUV to the grocery and stocking up on a week’s worth of food. Some people from unwalkable places are shocked to find that we walk over a mile round trip to shop at Publix. “How can you lug all your groceries the half-mile home?” The fact is, when you’re buying only a meal or two at a time, there are never so many groceries that they don’t fit in my single reusable bag.
If you’d like some beer with your tacos, Walk Appeal might actually save your life someday. Almost everyone who visits this neighborhood pub walks there. If they have too much to drink, they stumble home, and the worst thing likely to happen to them is to stagger and fall, and bump their head. Contrast that with people who visit a bar in sprawl. Because it’s surrounded with bad-to-hideous Walk Appeal, everyone drives there. And if there’s no designated driver, those who’ve had too much to drink will far too often get behind the wheel anyway, endangering their own life and the lives of everyone else along their route.
I’m of the opinion that cities should strongly consider the Walk Appeal surrounding an establishment trying to get a liquor license. Granting a license to a bar on the highway guarantees that some people will be drinking and driving.
Eating and drinking establishments don’t just benefit from good Walk Appeal; they can actually contribute to it as well. I did an entire blog post on this earlier, but it bears repeating: nothing makes a stronger contribution to Walk Appeal than a sidewalk cafe. That’s because the most interesting thing to someone walking is seeing other people. And while you might see someone for a moment on a sidewalk, they are likely to be sitting at the cafe eating and drinking for an hour or more. Or if you’re in Paris, they might be there all day.
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