Commercial space from Mt. Baker Lofts. Notice it could be three small, deep shops with narrow storefronts.

A recent article from the other Washington touched on a conflict in the urban retail world: shoppers want small independent stores, and creditors want to fund big chains.  This is apparent when you look at almost any urban retail space built in the past few decades.  You’ll see shallow stores with wide storefronts designed to make sure you don’t miss the store’s presence.  But walk through any old section of town and you’ll see skinny storefronts and deep stores designed to fit the maximum number of shops on one street.

What does this do to the pedestrian experience?  Walking past 10′ to 20′ storefronts means you pass a new store every few seconds, and constantly have something to look at.  Because stores are smaller rents can be much lower, allowing more independent stores.  The sheer number of storefronts you pass on a typical trip means you have much more variety in shopping options.

In short, the old style is a hands-down win for pedestrians.  Everyone knows this – that’s one reason old retail areas in cities and towns across America have far more character than the new ones.  But they just don’t build them like they used to.

So how do we return to the skinny storefront days?  We could simply legislate it (new buildings shall have storefronts with a maximum width of…), or encourage it (height bonuses?).  I’m not sure just refusing to tear down old buildings is the best solution, but that’s an option too.  Any other ideas?

70 Replies to “How Do We Build Skinny Storefronts?”

  1. Skinny storefronts may seem like a good idea but when you try to fit an ADA-compliant business inside, there are many problems. In long and narrow spaces you will find that a larger percentage of the floor space is devoted to unproductive aisles and hallways, which actually drives up the cost of doing business, rather than lowering the cost of doing business. Squarer retail spaces are generally more flexible and efficient than tiny storefronts built with long, narrow ADA compliant hallways. Try designing a small coffeeshop with ADA bathrooms on a 15×50′ footprint and then design a coffeshop on a 20×35′ footprint and you’ll see how much more floorspace can be devoted to productive activities in the squarer space.

    1. Can’t part of this problem be solved by sharing things like bathrooms between a few stores? I see this all the time in buildings.

      1. There are varying degrees of skinny; you can be wide enough for wheelchair access without being “massive width”. 20′ is still fairly narrow. 50′ storefronts aren’t.

      2. This is commonly done in new Portland retail infill construction, actually. We are still getting a lot of smaller storefronts built out in the city & neighborhoods.

    2. This reply is a good start. Add the cost of individual meters for electrical, as well as possibly individual water, gas, sewer and garbage systems (although all but electric can sometimes be equitably shared) and we begin to get a sense of the costs of building individual small storefronts versus one or two large ones. Add management fees for multiple businesses and you will see that the coat per square foot is likely to be significantly higher for a small space than for a larger one.

      For better or worse, larger storefronts are more economically viable.

      1. Obviously on a cost per SF basis the smaller spaces are going to be more, but that still is what allows more diversity. $1 per SF doesn’t help a person start a small shop if they have to rent 10,000 SF to get it. But $2 per SF may be totally possible if they are only renting 500 SF.

    3. This is an entirely un-PC question, then, but has the ADA Act then ruined our ability to really densify urban retail spaces? Anyone who’s ever been to one of Europe’s big cities (along with a few but notable exceptions here, mainly New York) knows that getting a wheelchair in and out of many retail places is simply out of the question.

      It’s an interesting angle – has our stated desire for inclusion caused us to build spaces that beget exclusion?

      1. No. Wheelchair access calls for *slightly* wider storefronts than the ancient ones in Europe, but it doesn’t require the big-and-wides which are so common here.

        In NY the threshold is usually the only real obstacle to wheelchair access even at narrow “holes in the wall”. NY’s storefronts are usually a bit wider than Europe’s ancient storefronts, and that’s all it requires.

      2. It certainly involves a lot of tradeoffs. Buses had to be redesigned with expensive lifts and fewer seats, which has been a factor in reduced bus service in recent decades. Crosswalks with beepers (not ADA required but similar) are too loud to live next to. Stores with front stoop steps are pretty much not allowed…if there’s a grade difference you need to be wide enough for a ramp. Having a loft area in the store isn’t compliant unless it has an elevator. And so on.

      3. It is really worth getting rid of those front stoop steps. They are a *severe* obstacle to access for *anyone* with mobility impairments — and they’re really unneccessary in most places. Buildings should be designed with at-grade entrances.

      4. No, draconian city zoning laws have, along with uncreative architects and stingy lenders who will only fund shopping malls.

  2. This post is terrific. I don’t mean to condescend but finally people are starting to ask the _detailed_ questions about how to activate the street. Thanks so much.

    Your post raises a host of interesting points — one is that “shoppers want small independent stores, and creditors want to fund big chains.”

    I think that’s a bit simplification. Shoppers also want large stores with a wide variety of items, even within any one retail sector. And as to creditors, they don’t want “chains” per se, they simply want “credit tenants” (as they say in the real state business.)

    And would you want creditors to ask otherwise? I have developed retail real estate and it only makes sense to look for the most creditworthy tenants possible — real estate is risky even with credit tenants. One large (let’s say 5,000 SF space) is a whole lot easier to lease, build-out and manage than five 1,000 SF spaces. And humans being human, people seek simplicity and ease.

    That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t “do something” to deal with the issue you raise. All I’m suggesting is that the problem is not easy.

    Probably the easiest solution is to allow developers to build large projects so that the ground floor retail space is a small part of the total project so the ground floor is less important! Then again, with a large building — whether residential or office — the developer wants only very professional retailers for street appeal etc etc.

    Anyway, I could babble on — your post raises a host of fascinating questions and another one to merely mention is that even very shallow — let’s say 20 feet deep — street-level spaces can be very practical and of course make even more micro-retail possible.

    Keep posting!!

    1. Great place where shallow street level retail should occur is the south side of First Avenue in the base of the parking garage on the block south of the Colman Building.

      A good portion what is now devoted to parking isn’t even being used for parking spaces, and when the viaduct ramp comes down energizing that block will help connect the Pioneer Square to the northern part of First Avenue.

      That’s a 40-year old error begging to be corrected.

  3. The problem with height bonuses is that you can always reconfigure later. So you build a building with ten foot stores, sell it, those guys turn it into big box stores.

    One thing that’s worth noting is that your average suburban mall has ten or twenty foot store fronts. Why does it pencil out in Alderwood but not in new construction in parts of Capitol Hill ? or Southcentre but not new construction in Belltown?

    I see at least a few possible (I’m not sure any of them are correct):
    1) Some of these dense places with large store-fronts may actually lack larger store fronts today, so the market is asking for larger areas. In this case, I’m not sure you do anything.

    2) Some of these places do not have sufficient retail density. Small store fronts work on the Ave because there are just so many. But putting four store fronts in an new building on 4th and Vine won’t work because there’s just nothing else around there, so you sit with four empty store fronts, or four under-performing storefronts. If this were true (seems unlikely), then the solution would be to legislate it.

    3) Some of these places have too much retail, or it’s spread too thin (this is slightly different from 2). The ave works because it’s the English “High Street” model. Shopping Malls attempt to replicate this (think of the original meaning of the word “mall”). In this case, we should come up with designated high streets, demand small store fronts (or at least a mix of them) and then let less retail go in other places.

    I dunno if any of these are wholly convincing, though to me “3” seems the closest to being correct. MHays always had some good ideas when it came to this. There are likely other explanations.

    1. It may be more complex than any of these. Consider 1st Ave downtown. We have a high concentration of pedestrians, and thriving small storefronts. Then along comes the Four Seasons with their long shallow storefronts attached to shallow stores, and the pedestrian experience dies. I think in this case, the developer just isn’t interested in the pedestrian experience. They want big lobbys and access to cars, and the high-end retail is really only there to give the hotel a few more ammeneties.

      Maybe that’s not the end of the world – maybe the hotel has no responsibility to build up one of Seattle’s best retail areas. But we should decide if that helps us as a city or hurts us.

      1. What you described is much like 3; at very least they have the same solution. In this case, 1st would be a “high street” and we would require storefronts on it. Four Seasons should never have been allowed to build that anyway, but in this case it would be easy to force them to. On the flip side, you wouldn’t require retail on 2nd, 3rd, etc: it’s really not reasonable to expect developers to build small storefronts covering every side of every block in every dense neighborhood.

        Belltown is the perfect example of this. If you have to build retail on every block from Western to Sixth and Stewart to Broad, you are going to be too spread out to ever create the Ave or even 1st avenue.

      2. You’ve basically nailed it, both in #3 and in this reply.

        But one needs to be vigilant about keeping the “high streets” activated. If one Bauhaus Block falls to a shallow-fronted 500-foot strip of uselessness, and another developer uses that as precedent, that is the end of the street as a destination pedestrian strip.

      3. High streets are EXACTLY the right idea. Let a few streets be “the ave”, preferably with narrower/deeper stores, and don’t force every street to have retail.

        Right now, code requires a percentage of the frontage to be retail on many streets particularly anywhere near Downtown. We build too much retail, so rents are low and it’s generally money-losing space outside of the core streets and sometimes even then. We get shallow stores in part because developers want to limit their losses.

        Also, the stuff upstairs, whether it’s office, housing, whatever, has elements like lobbies, gyms, parking entrances, etc., that need or want to be on the main floor too. Minimizing retail lets them have their space. With high streets, retail would either pay its way (on a high-traffic street) or not be included. Or ideally not be included except scattered quick-e-marts and coffee shops.

  4. I’ve been screaming about this for two decades. I’m glad to see that people are starting to wake up to this idea.

    If I was a mathematician I think I could come up with a formula that pretty accurately describes what I want: narrow shops (for higher rate of shopfront per thousand feet), but also more frequent cross streets (to open up side-street possibilities and drastically shorten walking routes).

    It’s interesting how easy it was to create these places in “the old days” without even trying, or having a clue about urbanist ideas, and how impossible it is to create them today with our sheaves of planning expertise. Every good city I’ve ever been to has these kinds of streets, though — Melbourne, Australia has miles and miles of them.

    The real answer, of course, is that they have to be shallow and wide because the parking is on the ground floor right behind the shop wall. It’s a little ironic that the best pedestrian streets in much of Seattle are older 20s-style rows, often with just single stories — no apartments above means no parking required.

  5. After thinking through my main street idea, I want to question the basic premise here:

    1) Do we want narrow store fronts because the are intrinsically better?


    2) Do we want narrow store fronts because that means we can have more shops per street?

    The post says ‘2’. So we should figure out how to get ‘2’. I am not sure I believe one street with two narrow store fronts is better than one street with two long store fronts. So I think if we want to make interesting streets, the we should designate a few streets to be interesting, and regulate them to ensure they are interesting. That seems extremely straightforward to me. forget about narrow store fronts. You can have multiple shops per storefront (pike place market, that thing on melrose across from Bauhaus, etc.). You don’t need narrow storefronts.

    1. I’ll buy that. Though I’d be a little worried about a boring street face with all of the stores inside (see: the Columbia Tower’s terrible street face, and its food court).

      1. Yes, that’s an excellent point. Uwajimaya is the same way. Hm, that one is tougher.

      2. Maybe a combination of the two. It seems to me that we’re trying to get at two features: an interesting pedestrian experience, and access to small stores that are inexpensive to run. Requiring a certain number of storefronts per block on “high streets” might get at both.

    1. I don’t, but how about the individual isles at Costco, each long and narrow, specializing in one or two products (shoe isle, candy isle, etc).
      Then in the true spirit of cooperation, all the isle stores have a common checkout.

      1. Do they provide boats to navigate between the isles in the Cosco? Oh yeah, those must be those big hand trucks. :)

      2. Yeesh+1. I’m not sure why but if we could just reverse the font and appearance of the ‘Post Comment’ box and with the final output text, then most of these silly errors could be solved.
        About the time it hit send, and it appears online, I notice the errors, sometimes, then feel kinda stupid!
        Oh well, nobody cares what I say anyway. No Biggie!
        Is Yeesh really a word?

      3. Do Costco’s skinny storefronts compete with each other? Or maybe all the other skinny storefronts are owned by one entity?

    2. An antique mall with lots of skinny storefronts. Hmm, looks a bit like Westlake Center without the escalators. It also provides a weather-protected pedestrian passage between two avenues.

  6. I think a walk through Pioneer Square of yesteryear is a good example. When Elliot Bay Bookstore was there, it was nice to walk past that block because they had fascinating window displays. Then, in the next block, it was fun to walk past because of the various small storefronts. The Grand Central Bakery building is always fun to walk pasts because of all the different shops, but they were of various widths. The Paper Cat store on the corner had a bigger storefront than Fireworks, but I loved to see both of them.

    Walking past the Fairmont Olympic is much nicer than walking past the Four Seasons. I think it comes down to what the building does on the side facing the sidewalk. Does it keep our interest or is it a dead, blank wall of glass?

  7. The rise of finance-driven development is a significant factor. When these narrow storefronts were built in the 20s, the owners paid cash or got a local loan. They intended to keep the building for a hundred years and pass it down to their children. There were no “creditors” or “credit tenants” in the modern sense, so that wasn’t the issue. Narrow storefronts were also the prevailing style, so any bank would think that’s how it should be built.

    Now development is a commodity, by investors who have never seen the target city, and who will sell their share if its quarterly report is a few cents off target. They think in terms of common development patterns: which of the 20 current categories does this building fit into? The developer builds the building, pays off the bonds, and moves on to the next building, with no long-term tie to it. Investors have more of an automobile mentality than transit activists do, although that’s evolving.

    So we need to either get investors to believe that narrow storefronts are good for the bottom line, or we have to cultivate a new set of investors with better values. But only millionaires can finance a building on their own, and there aren’t a lot of millionaires among transit activists. I don’t know how to cultivate a set of transit-advocate investors, but that would be the capitalist way to go.

    1. Many of the great old buildings built in any city before 1930 were financed with bonds or stocks that were worthless after the stock market crash of 1929. The building owners then went into bankruptcy and the building was taken over by the creditors or bond holders. And today, many of the properties built over the last decade are going through the same process.

      We all love the Anhalt buildings on Capitol Hill, but the Depression sent Anhalt into bankruptcy and he lost all ownership of his properties.

  8. Maybe if the urbanists weren’t so eager to destroy what we have so their friends, the developers, can build ugly and generic crap in its place, we’d have more of these store fronts.

    Don’t it always seem to go
    That you don’t know what you’ve got
    ‘Til it’s gone

    1. I find that I feel better when I generally assume the people around me are acting in good faith. That means not ascribing malicious motives to others without actual evidence of bad intentions.

      I’m curious about these “urbanists” you speak of. What have they done to you? Most of the urbanists I’ve met don’t seem to be particularly mean or manipulative people. While the visions of some urbanists align with the general interest of real estate developers, I’ve seen no unambiguous evidence of a conspiracy.

      By the way, the “ugly and generic crap” you mentioned is what’s already legal under the current Land Use Code. I recommend being a bit more careful to differentiate between what people are actually advocating for and what is currently being built, so that at the very least, people don’t mistake your opinions for trolling.

      1. I find that I feel better when I generally assume the people around me are acting in good faith. That means not ascribing malicious motives to others without actual evidence of bad intentions.

        Having read Roger Valdez’s articles, and attended the city council’s planning meetings, I think I have all the evidence of maliciousness and corruption that I need.

        I recommend being a bit more careful to differentiate between what people are actually advocating for and what is currently being built, so that at the very least, people don’t mistake your opinions for trolling.

        I find the “trolling” accusation to be one of the last refuges of desperation on the Internet, the other being harping on typographical errors. I think it’s perfectly fair to judge the urbanists here by the projects made possible by their efforts. Capitol Hill is becoming radically worse; so is Ballard; South Lake Union is an unfolding disaster; Fremont-Wallingford is next.

        Run away from the fruits of your advocacy if you want. Hell, if that was my legacy I’d be calling my critics “trolls” too.

      2. Your last comment reeks of paranoia and insanity, Not Fan.

        Thanks for not launching an ad hominem attack of the sort supposedly prohibited here. Kumbaya to you too!

      3. “Having read Roger Valdez’s articles, and attended the city council’s planning meetings, I think I have all the evidence of maliciousness and corruption that I need.”

        Reeks of paranoia and insanity. Now, if you’d provided actual details…. that would be different.

    2. So you’re saying a city should be like a fly in amber and never allow a single building to be demolished? New buildings should only ever go into greenfield developments where forests or fields are getting paved over.

      1. No, Chris, I am not saying that “a city should be like a fly in amber, blah blah blah.” Instead of constructing strawmen, try engaging the ideas on their own obvious terms.

  9. I have an anecdote about narrow storefronts in the vicinity of my office.

    For over a decade a well-regarded sandwich shop was in a tiny wooden building, the width of a single-wide trailer. It was cozy, but it worked and did good business. Then a new 6-story apartment building went in across the street. Sandwich shop moved into one of the new 30′ wide retail spaces. Finally, the shop was spacious! Room for lots of people to sit down, spread out. But they never expanded their product line or services, so I doubt their business increased. But their rent went way up. Two years later, out of business.

    I worried that the old wooden building would sit empty. The most I expected was a walk-up coffee shop. Instead, a Korean family saw potential and turned it into a very cozy and lively sushi/teriyaki resturaunt with table service.

    Soon after another sushi/teriyaki business opened in the marquee corner space of the new building across the street. Very nice decor, huge space.

    Guess which sushi resturaunt is still in business? The narrow one in wooden building. Both resturaunt spots in the new apartment building are now sitting empty.

    Morale of the story: Businesses can survive better/longer in narrow crowded spaces, where they have lower rent payments becuase the square footage is less.

    Developers like to make maximum profit by renting large spaces to “credit-worthy” chains. However, once the “credit-worthy” chains goes into bankruptcy, and the large spaces sit empty for long periods, building managers should (eventually) realize they can maximum $/ft2 and minimize vacancy by dividing their spaces into bite-size chunks.

    1. “Morale of the story: Businesses can survive better/longer in narrow crowded spaces, where they have lower rent payments becuase the square footage is less.”

      Is that the reason, or is it that the rent is lower because it’s not a brand new building that needs high $/sf to make economic sense?

      It seems to me that the narrow/deep spaces may be good for some businesses, while the wide/shallow spaces may be better for other types of business. Unless the price/sf is comparable, the viability of the businesses can’t be compared. I think the customer experience in the store is important, but the store still needs to pay the bills.

  10. I am still hoping for a WalMart with a store front the width of a postage stamp, and the depth of a dime.

    1. Speaking of Wal-Mart, one of the things the urbanist-dominated city council has done is raise the exemption from state environmental review from 30,000 square feet to 70,000 square feet. As luck would have it, Wal-Mart’s new city grocery stores are 60,000 square feet.

      So, when Wal-Mart announces its expansion from Belleve to Seattle in a couple of years, be sure to thank the Seattle Transit Blog, the Sightline Institute, the City Council, Mike McGinn, and Roger Valdez for paving their way. Pay less, live better, or whatever it is they say.

      1. Wow, you sure spend a lot of time defending walmart. If I was a conspiracy theorist like you are….

      2. matt, if you think I was “defending” Wal-Mart, you need to brush up on your reading skills. As for any “conspiracy theories,” the dozens of anti-Wal Mart activists who opposed the urbanist “regulatory reform” packager must be “conspiracy theorists” too.

  11. Isn’t the problem of mixing giant chains with smaller independent stores or local chains one that has been solved by every suburban mall?

    Not only that but Southcenter, for example, is far more walkable because there are no cars, or veldrome style cyclists, or crosswalks.

  12. What sort of stores are we talking about here, exactly?

    There was a time when there were a storefront block or two of small and mid-sized neighborhood businesses might include things like book stores, record stores, travel agencies, indie computer shops, gift shops, jewelers, hardware stores, photography studios, delis, restaurants, barbershops, nail salons, copy shops, stationery supply stores, dance schools, tax preparers, art galleries, video rental shops, and various small apparel stores. Times have changed. Out-of-the-neighborhood big boxes have almopst taken over some of these categories, and some whole industries have nearly vanished copmpletely.

    What are the new businesses that can fill all those small and mid-sized neighborhood spaces? Trendy restaurants, hair salons, delis, social service agencies and similar NGOs are nice, but I don’t know if they can create an exciting (and sustainable) neighborhood vibe on their own.

    1. Look at any of the old walkable streets in Seattle. Those businesses are functioning right now, and similar businesses would in new small spaces. For instance, in the ID it’s tiny restaurants, micro-grocery stores and herb shops (outside the ID these would be health stores), smoothie shops, tiny drug stores, tourist items, bakeries, and travel agencies. Any of these (and more) work well even in a world of big box stores, and can be opened by someone with just a bit of money and experience.

      1. Matt, it’s the “(and more)” part of your comment that I’m wondering about. I think that tiny restaurants and micro-grocery shops have always been around, especially in neighborhoods with strong ethnic/cultural identities. (I think that the ID definitely has the best pizza place in town right now btw, but that’s a Belltown transplant, sorta.)

        Other places like Ballard, however, might be running low (or out, even) on those sorts of places now, I think. These days I’m not sure where in Ballard I’d direct any visiting old-school nordy relatives who wanted to buy head cheese.

        There are definitely more cupcake places around Seattle neighborhoods now than there were 20 years ago (as a subset of the local bakery category). A few more specialty furniture stores. Pho restaurants – they’re new I think. And there are more indie pet stores at the neighborhood storefront level, too. But what else?

        For instance, are there any new “Green economy” stores around here yet, really? I’d like to think that small shops specializing in eco-friendly appliances and whatnot would be as poplular as pet stores. But most of the green category store seem to be variations of the granola/crafts/herb shops that have been around for a while. I’m trying to think of small stores/businesses that would confuse and surprize someone who walks around Seattle after actiually been asleep since 1990.

    2. Some building owners reserve spaces for independent, local shops. Others don’t. The ones that do, do so because it makes customers happier and more willing to patronage all their tenants (including the chains in the same building).

    3. If more urbanists would put their (our) money where their (our) mouths are and shop in the neighborhood, more stores would do well.

      A lot of people seem to buy their tea and muffins at a place they like, but still buy half their stuff at costco. I understand that for those who like a big-box city…

      1. I’m not an urbanist, therefore I feel entirely justified buying my muffins at Costco.

      2. Matt,

        It isn’t just Costco and urbanists, I’m afraid. Merchants and governments have always had to deal with clallenges that spring from simple human nature. Just look at any sales-tax city that’s a few miles away from the border to a non-sales-tax state.

        Personally, I think that if folks actually buy one-half of their stuff locally, it’s a step in the right direction.

      3. I’m not convinced. That sounds a lot like the current implementation of the green movement – if we all just recycle and turn off lights when we aren’t using them, everything will be fine. In practice, people drive more when gas is cheap and recycle less when it’s inconvenient to do so. I’d much prefer for us as a society to decide what we want, and create real incentives to move the market. I’m a big fan of the almost-free market, where we use it to our advantage rather than let it run wild.

      4. I’m not saying it would solve everything. But if more people shopped in accordance with their own stated ethics a lot of streets (especially corner grocery stores I suspect) would do better.

  13. I had wondered what the deal was with all the tanning salons and Subway stores! Thanks STB!

  14. Actually, these spaces are being created in Seattle right now – they’re called “Live-Work Units.”

    Walk down California Ave SW south of Alaska Junction all the way to Morgan Junction. You’ll see some of these units under construction (all of them pre-sold) and more of them farther south, completed and occupied. They contain small businesses on the ground floor, in narrow storefronts. It’s all small, independent businesses of the type you mention. It’s not Soho, by any stretch of the imagination, but it feels like some business owners are thriving.

    The unoccupied commercial space along this stretch is in larger buildings, and also in older buildings that never got much maintenance. The owners are probably holding out for too much money from investors who would tear down those buildings and put up more live-work town homes.

  15. This is great. But can we also do this with houses, too? I’d die for a terraced house–small width, long depth.

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