by Ken Lambert – for CSI NER
This article is primarily geared towards AEC professionals that are located in New England and/or the Northeast, and as such many readers have at some point been to the noteworthy district and street known as “Newbury Street” in downtown Boston.
As a Massachusetts resident for much of my life, I have always known and appreciated Newbury Street as a “cool” place. Many thousands of tourists come to Boston and walk and shop (and dine) along Newbury Street every year. In fact, Newbury Street has apparently been voted as one of the “33 Coolest Streets in the World”. In the USA, it ranks as #6!
Yes, it is cool. But what makes it cool? What makes it a destination point for people to meet, go to a café, grab dinner or lunch, go shopping for a myriad of items, visit a professional services provider or a yoga instructor, etc? Retail tenants along Newbury Street pay a very considerable amount of money each month for that foot traffic, and that of course is what developers and real estate professionals are desperately seeking all across the country. Is this formula being copied elsewhere?
For one, Newbury Street is very much a mixed-use community. Typically, the ground/terrace level and the first floors are retail, restaurant, or office space- while the upper 3 stories are residential apartments or condos. Thus, even when it is not a weekend or when the weather is bad, there is still ample activity and foot traffic and some “energy” just via the fairly dense population that is living within these row houses. These kinds of 4-5 story mixed-use buildings have sprung up in many locations across the region and the country; developers certainly believe that it is a viable and profitable building and neighborhood type.
But it usually goes deeper than that, and that is where architecture (including adaptive reuse) comes into play. People generally want to go to a place (a street, a building) that they find attractive and/or unique. There are hundreds and hundreds of places to shop (or dine) within 10 miles of most readers. The competition is fierce, and only moreso with the increase of Amazon Prime over the past 4-5 years. Why do so many people drive or take the subway to Newbury Street?
Yesterday I walked along most of Newbury Street, and 95% of the building elevations look exactly as they had looked 100 years ago. The street is lined with brownstone and brick (and other masonry) buildings with unique roof lines and ornamental details and doorways. (Most of these structures were built between 1860-1890.) Most people, be it long-time Bay Staters or national or international tourists, would consider them aesthetically appealing. They look and feel very different from the typical Dollar General store, or Target. Of course, Newbury Street has a different business model with different product types than some other kinds of retail.
Architects and others talk frequently about the societal need for more adaptive reuse of existing building stock, throughout the country. This is the “greener” solution. Neighborhoods and streets like Newbury Street are exactly that. These buildings, with their peculiarities and their lack of expansive glass storefront, still can work for retail and for its needed “window shopping”.
That said, there may be occasions where an owner or tenant can in-fact add a small 1-level storefront/ bump-out type structure to the older façade, as shown in this photo:
Retail developers are constantly trying to create successful shopping centers in urban and suburban areas, and the process is complicated. Nothing is assured of being a vibrant center 5 or 10 years from now. Developers are often stating that there has to be a reason for a person/customer to actively go to a retail spot or outlet. That reason is aside from one particular store having the best stock or offering the best sales.
Newbury Street in Boston is just one example, and one type, of a successful retail formula. And it also is one that respects our stated green building initiatives. This writer believes that retail does not have to look just like much of what has been built in the sector over the past 15-20 years. A niche and boutique style and architecture can be part of a winning strategy.