As Many Storefronts Sit Empty, Three Opportunities to Rethink the Ground Floor of Buildings

May 20, 2021

Design Partner, NBBJ

This post was co-authored by Jonathan Ward and Andrea Vanecko.

 

The pandemic shows us what cities without vibrant and engaging commercial streets look like – when some of our favorite spaces are shuttered and instead of spending a day popping into shops, we are met with stores displaying ‘For Lease’ signs.

The decline of in-person retail and the question of what to do with ground level retail space has been on the minds of developers, architects, and urban planners for years. However, the pandemic accelerates this crisis, with retail vacancies expected to reach a seven year high this year.

The vitality of ground level commercial space is about much more than the future of retail. These spaces are where neighborhood identity is formed, it’s where we live our day-to-day lives, where we play and meet up with friends. And how these places are curated makes the difference between streetscapes that are livable and human, and those that lack a sense of coherence and place.
This moment – between the devastation of the pandemic and full reopening – presents an opportunity to be bold in reimagining what we want our cities to look like and in rethinking how ground level retail space is zoned, used and configured.

A New Opportunity
As a team of architects, designers and strategists obsessed with the future of cities, we believe the street level of buildings should intermingle retail with social and community services, bring craft and making to the forefront and create an environment that better reflects the tastes and lifestyle of millennials and Gen Z. Here are a few examples:

  • One of the most compelling opportunities is to create more porous environments. Typically, retail spaces are small, hermetically sealed boxes solely reserved to the first floor of buildings that lack a sense of continuity and circulation in and between environments. If we look at some of the most successful and iconic spaces in cities – the Ferry Building in San Francisco, Pike Place Market in Seattle and Grand Central Market in Downtown LA – they all buck this trend. They feel organic, mixing indoors and outdoors, and are imbued with a sense of texture, discovery and exploration. These are all qualities we can translate into the street if we’re willing to think both creatively and strategically, designing for an interesting and engaging tenant mix and for different kinds of programming that move away from siloed retail.
  • What if in the same street you lived, you could also find pop-up galleries, community spaces, work zones and outdoor fitness classes? What if after work, all you had to do was go downstairs and a block away to walk into a cooking, pottery or foreign language class? By designing our commercial retail environments in a way that seamlessly integrates indoors and outdoors, we can connect tenants with an ongoing slate of physical and experiential programming and activations, from satellite art spaces connected to larger institutions to educational sessions to outdoor libraries and play spaces for children.
  • We can also challenge the idea of the ground floor as the only space available to us and explore what more vertical uses and programming could look like. We’ve seen this with green roofs and rooftop bars and restaurants, but could it also be that the 2nd, 3rd, 4th or 10th level gets programmed? Traveling beyond the first floor, we could see tenants higher up in the building that offer extended hours so there’s a vertical adventure like we see more commonly in cities like Tokyo and Hong Kong.

Roadblocks to Change
If we want to move toward this new vision for the commercial programming of cities, we must work closely with developers, city planners and city officials to overcome persistent roadblocks. Because without reform, these ideas will remain concepts instead of reality. We, both as a firm and as an industry, have an opportunity to advocate for new ways of doing work across:

  • City zoning unintentionally discourages ingenuity in this area, often operating within limited criteria for what traditional retail tenants can be. Zoning generally likes to organize cities in tidy boxes, but if we want to encourage the revitalization of these neighborhoods after the pandemic, allowing for a mix of uses at different times of day and night is one of the most effective strategies to get there. This approach will also create new opportunities for the slate of businesses across sectors that have been forced to exit their leases due to the pandemic and will be looking for a home after. Zoning can be a catalyst or a roadblock as we explore new configurations for both ground floors and vertical programming. If we want to adopt zoning modifications that allow us to create districts that better reflect the way we work, learn and play today, we should promote policy that allows for a greater diversity of uses in existing retail space and to reimagine vertical zoning within other kinds of commercial buildings. One of the biggest challenges in moving toward zoning reform is the limited way many cities interpret what retail and what vibrancy are. If we can widen that definition beyond point of sale for physical products and goods to include experiences and events, we can allow for a greater variety of tenants.
  • Especially in retail-intensive districts, there is an understandable tendency to capture immediate financial incentives by having spaces filled as quickly as possible by the highest paying tenants. But there’s also a growing movement with forward-thinking developers and property owners to reconceptualize the role of first floor space can play, away from immediate financial benefits and revenue generation as the determining factor toward spaces that will also establish the social identity of the area and bring in more people – an attribute that tenants crave. This approach is an investment in the medium and long-term longevity of these developments by prioritizing the quality of the place and experience offered therein. There’s already really promising movement in the commercial real estate sector to explore the benefits of this approach – a ULI survey finds that 60% of CRE professionals are moving towards nonfinancial measures like social value and community impact to assess the value of projects.
  • Many retail lease structures favor large, established tenants with long-term real estate needs. This approach has the important benefit of stability, but it can sometimes stifle innovation in how these spaces are occupied and programmed. For example, meanwhile uses and pop-up programming can bring in new audiences, drive foot traffic and reframe how people view a given street or district. More fluid lease lines that look beyond a major anchor tenant toward a series of smaller leases can open these districts to more engaging and innovative uses, and by having a constant churn of activity, create opportunities for people to come back again and again.

Architects, urban and town planners, designers, and the real estate sector have a unique opportunity to steward a new way of thinking about what our cities look like. And we have a significant role to play in designing spaces that supports a tenant mix that better reflects how we live today. The vision is here. It’s up to us to work together to dismantle the roadblocks to making it happen.

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Nature as the City

Why It’s Time for a New Greenspace Framework to Guide Future Development

March 4, 2021

Design Partner, NBBJ

This post was co-authored by Jonathan Ward and Margaret Montgomery.

 

As a firm tasked with designing the buildings and cities that shape our future, we are challenging ourselves to imagine a new way of developing places. One where nature is the city, and the city is treated as a natural system.

For much of the past 100 years, designers and planners have worked around automobiles as the main organizing mechanism for cities. And in order to accommodate cars – both how they move and how they’re parked  – 20th century planners had to develop an elaborate system of roadways that became largely divorced from greenspace.

Whether it happens in the next decade or beyond,  the North Star of nature as the city now guides our practice. And this approach helps to move toward the world we want to see – where our cities are greener and more habitable, for all people who live and work in them.

The reasons to use nature as the guiding principle are myriad. At an individual level, we know that access to greenspace makes us healthier, less depressed and anxious, more connected and more creative (and we also know that for too many in our cities, there is little to no greenspace access). In her book The Nature Fix, writer Florence Williams outlines the ‘nature pyramid,’ a concept that says we need ‘differing frequency, duration and intensity of immersion’ in nature in order to be well. While big, awe-inducing experiences in nature – like those found at national parks – are something to visit on occasion, it’s our daily experiences in cities that make up the bulk of our exposure.

At a systems level, green infrastructure – in the form of public parks, wetlands and grasslands, urban forests, green roofs and siding, and rainwater gardens – is our most affordable and most effective technology in protecting cities from the impacts of climate change. This green infrastructure makes our cities more beautiful and more livable and serves a critical function in stormwater management, reducing pollution, and decreasing the urban heat island effect.

By treating the city as a natural environment, we have the opportunity to soften its hardness, both literally and figuratively. Here are five ideas we’re both inspired by and actively integrating into our projects to ensure more healthy, natural cities:

1. City and district-wide ‘Sponge City’ solutions.

Across Asia, most notably in Hong Kong and Southern China, cities are now five years into an experiment in investing in landscape and green infrastructure to counteract the region’s hyper-urbanization. The ‘Sponge City’ model looks to simultaneously address issues of flooding, water shortages and water pollution, turning entire districts and cities into landscape sponges to capture and retain stormwater and preserve it for future use. For Tencent’s 22-million square foot Net City masterplan in Shenzhen, a series of green pathways and corridors, open public greenspace, mangrove plantings along the district’s waterfront, and wetlands are integrated throughout the multi-acre project.

2. The growth of landscape infrastructure in North America.

In the US, ambitious rails to trails projects like the Nickel Plate Trail outside Indianapolis, Rail Park in Philadelphia and infrastructure endeavors like the LA River initiative are a ubiquitous approach to multipurpose infrastructure creating adapted greenspace, restoring habit, climate control measures and introducing new opportunities for transport and recreation.

3. Street level greenscape interventions.

Innovative approaches to leveraging the power of natural interventions can also be found at the individual street level.

In Seattle, the city is implementing a series of bioswale streets, using native plantings to create natural drainage systems while also turning sidewalks and roadway medians from places you’d never notice into beautiful settings. For example, a cascading rain garden under a major bridge in the city’s Fremont neighborhood now gathers and filters 200,000 gallons of stormwater annually.

In Boston, we’re working with the neighborhoods of Allston and Brighton to preserve and expand the local tree canopy in the midst of a wave of new development. A key approach is to  strategically identify sidewalk greening opportunities pair them with a planting guide.

These seemingly simple interventions can be some of the most valuable and effective microscale solutions, yet also can be the most challenging to retrofit into neighborhoods that most need it.

4. The introduction of new habitat and wildlife corridors.

Cities including Portland and Oslo are exploring butterfly and bee highways and urban wildlife corridors to create safe habitat for birds, animals and other wildlife. These habitat interventions need to be connected across scale to be successful. This is why even smaller projects have an important role to play. For example, at the Gahanna branch location of Columbus Metropolitan Library in Columbus, OH, a butterfly garden at the perimeter of the building is being designed.

5. Commercial buildings, campuses and utilities greening our cities.

While a host of forward-thinking companies including Samsung and Vivo understood the benefits of indoor-outdoor work prior to the pandemic, the integration of green roofs, patios and balconies with plantings and multipurpose outdoor settings are now critical to the future of the office. In fact, companies increasingly view it as their responsibility to create these kind of environments, both for the health and well-being of their employees and for their communities. We’re also starting to see what it can look like to integrate greenspace with public utilities, as Seattle City Light does with the Denny Substation. The project  brings together greenspace and a dog park on the same site as the city’s newest electrical substation.

And at a campus level, bringing in new natural design elements can support citywide green infrastructure goals. For Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) in Cleveland, the transformation of Nash Walkway with the introduction of new plantings and an outdoor study garden creates a more nurturing environment for students and staff and supports local habitat restoration.

Moving toward a more coherent approach to Nature as the City

These individual efforts are remarkable – but if we want the city to become an interconnected, natural ecosystem, we need to find more overarching ways to stitch them together. And we need to continuously explore ways to look for lessons from the biomes themselves. The architecture of nature itself has a lot to teach us about energy production and water reuse and percolation.

We already see some cities take the lead on more comprehensive commitments to green master planning. London is making moves to become the world’s first ‘National Park City,’ with a vision led by Mayor Sadiq Khan to plan from the premise ‘what if our cities were all natural landscapes?’ And Philadelphia, Chicago, Milwaukee, Atlanta, New York City, Detroit and Vancouver are all implanting forms of green infrastructure plans. These plans explore new sources of investment and outline incentives to encourage the adoption of green initiatives towards increasing the tree canopy, ensuring residents have easier access to greenspace and increasing the acres of park per resident.

Conclusion

By operating from a framework of the city as nature, we have the opportunity to nurture a healthier and more equitable future for all – not just some — citizens of the city

It’s going to take a different way of thinking about and advocating for green space with architects, urban planners, urban designers, landscape architects and engineers all working in tandem. Moving toward this greener future will also require cross-disciplinary partnerships and alliances across city departments (bringing together public health, parks and recreation, utilities, sustainability and resilience), levels of local and federal government, in partnership with the nonprofit and philanthropic sector, and private development. And – most importantly – in getting community buy-in for both the vision and stewardship of these spaces.

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Tackling a Biden Challenge with Artificial (and Human) Intelligence

February 10, 2021

Managing Partner, NBBJ

Editor’s Note: This post initially appeared on Architect’s Newspaper. It was co-authored by NBBJ Managing Partner Steve McConnell, Yale University Professor Phil Bernstein, journalist Cliff Pearson and senior AI researcher Dr. Mark Greaves, Ph. D.

 

Tucked within President Biden’s year-one legislative agenda on climate change is a call to build “zero net energy buildings at zero net cost.” This is a bold challenge that resonates powerfully in both the architectural profession and America as a whole. Like many great challenges, it will require a transformation in the way a broad range of disciplines work to shape the built environment.

The benefits of meeting Biden’s challenge are huge. According to the nonprofit organization Architecture 2030, “The urban built environment is responsible for 75% of annual GHG [greenhouse gas] global emissions: buildings alone account for 39%. Eliminating these emissions is the key to addressing climate change and meeting the Paris Climate Agreement targets.” So, the ability to cost-effectively produce zero net energy buildings would over time make a massive positive impact on our climate problems.

The root of the challenge’s difficulty is that designing and building great buildings is already a classic “wicked problem.” Wicked problems are defined by imprecise goals, incomplete knowledge, deeply interconnected subproblems, and the need to continuously make “best guess” tradeoffs. Instead of right or wrong answers, wicked problems require us to think in terms of better or worse solutions. Biden’s challenge adds substantially to the difficulty of these tradeoffs in architectural design, and further requires that we do this at zero net added cost.

Good architecture emerges from successfully balancing the interests of all stakeholders in a building project, while simultaneously optimizing innumerable decisions about structure, mechanics, economics, and aesthetics. Adding a zero net energy requirement will likely result in either increasing the cost of design and construction, or cutting back on space or amenities.

We think it is critical that the zero net energy buildings envisioned by President Biden also make positive contributions as works of architecture and valuable parts of the urban fabric. Otherwise, we could end up with super-insulated, faceless boxes that reduce our carbon footprint and are cheap to design, but undermine the vibrant character of our neighborhoods and towns. The Biden challenge sits at the intersection of some very big issues, from energy efficiency and environmental justice to advanced building materials and lively urban communities. It’s inspiring, but daunting, to confront.

Fortunately, the design profession is evolving, as society demands more from the people in charge of our buildings, neighborhoods, and cities. Architects now work in cross-disciplinary teams and handle an expanding spectrum of tradeoffs involving environmental factors, complex client needs, elaborate regulatory requirements, and constantly changing prices and availability of building materials. Architects also routinely balance less quantifiable factors such as the health of impacted communities, societal goals for the built environment, and justice in labor practices across the supply chain. To achieve this, they rely on a combination of deep design knowledge, extensive experience in how different designs will ultimately function, and powerful computational tools that can illustrate the impact of various tradeoffs. Meeting Biden’s challenge in a cost-neutral manner, though, is beyond the capability of current tools and practices.

We believe that new developments in artificial intelligence (AI) are the key to conquering Biden’s zero net energy challenge. Just as AI has revolutionized fields as disparate as drug discovery and self-driving cars, new AI-driven architectural tools can provide the support needed to cost-effectively design inspiring zero net energy buildings. Modern machine-learning algorithms don’t blindly follow a set of preprogrammed rules, but instead develop their capabilities by analyzing large sets of examples. With more and more data and feedback, they perform better and better. The latest AI language models such as GPT-3 are trained on billions of sentences from the web and can generate astonishingly fluent essays from a simple prompt.  AI software can produce well-rounded stories from just a few pieces of information, competent poems and pictures from a few prompt words, and even satisfying music from a few snippets of melody.

Could an AI tool produce compelling zero net energy building designs at zero net cost all by itself? No. Architects wrestle every day with wicked problems that are essential to creating compelling building designs, and many of the important design tradeoffs they make cannot be defined tightly enough to train an AI algorithm. However, AI promises to free them to focus more on what they can uniquely do: bring that hard-to-explain flair and creative spark to solving difficult design problems.

AI will make it possible for architects to cost-effectively address the enormous complexity inherent in the Biden challenge, by analyzing huge amounts of data to rapidly present options for design teams to consider and refine. This is essentially what Spotify does when it recommends music we might like. In architecture, AI can accelerate the design process by identifying subtle patterns that are likely to satisfy a set of design requirements. It can rapidly generate plausible zero net energy configurations, accounting for a broad range of factors and constraints. Finally, AI can work with advanced simulation technology to help architects assess the effectiveness of various design solutions to satisfy the diverse constituencies for a building project.

AI promises to be a disruptive technology for architects, but it is not a total solution. In the end, design requires understanding and evaluating a series of tradeoffs and picking the best ones. Designing great buildings that inspire their stakeholders is a task that people do better than any algorithm. The art of architecture requires a creative spirit behind it, even as designers apply increasingly sophisticated digital tools to tackle the wicked, fantastically difficult problems of delivering compelling, zero net energy buildings at zero net added cost.

President Biden, we in the architecture and computation fields accept your challenge and look forward to working with your administration to transform buildings in America.

______________________________________________________________________________

Steve McConnell is an architect and managing partner at the global design firm NBBJ.

Phillip Bernstein is associate dean and professor adjunct at the Yale School of Architecture.

Mark Greaves is a senior AI researcher.

Clifford Pearson is a journalist who covers architecture and urbanism.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the positions of their employers.

Image by Silvestri Matteo / Unsplash

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