By N. David Milder
Going Out on a Limb
Over recent months I’ve been getting a sense that some suburban downtowns may well make relatively strong recoveries from our current virus induced economic crisis, and relatively speaking, stronger even than those of our superstar downtowns. This also prompted me to think that the current and potential strengths of some of these suburban downtowns are too often underestimated and overlooked. I’m venturing to presume that others may also find these thoughts of interest and they are presented below. Please, let me know what you think about them.
Suburban Downtowns Are Different and Often Surprisingly Strong
Last year Bill Ryan and I did some research on dataset covering all of the 259 downtowns in cities in the 25,000 to 75,000 population range in seven Midwestern states. Our findings will appear in an article in the Winter 2020 issue of the Economic Development Journal, titled Living and Working Downtown: Is It a Population Growth Engine for Small Cities? Included in the dataset were 167 suburbs that usually are parts of relatively large metropolitan areas in which much larger cities are the cores, and 92 independent cities that are themselves the cores of a smaller metropolitan or micropolitan area. We were struck by how different these two types of downtowns are in many important respects. For instance:
- Though less multi-functional, the suburban downtowns averaged about the same number of residents 3,089, as the independent downtowns, 3,294.
- However, suburban downtowns had a higher population growth rate, 5% to 0.23%, and a lot fewer had declining populations, 31% versus 46%
- Moreover, the suburban downtowns scored much lower on our two measures of live-workers in their downtowns, between 3.1% and 8.7%, than the independents, 12% to 29%. Additionally, such low levels even were present in the suburbs that had attracted relatively large numbers of office workers to other parts of their city, such as Dublin, OH, with 42,200+ in 2017
One factor that helps explain the greater strength of the suburban downtowns is that they are very probably located in metro areas with significantly stronger economies than the smaller metros the independent cities are anchoring.
A trend that helps to explain the low live-work numbers in suburban downtowns is that most suburban residents are not drawn to the type of dense housing units their downtowns tend to offer. National surveys for many years now have continued to show that about half of the adult population prefers living in the suburbs and that the vast majority of people who live in the suburbs want to be there. (See the table above.) That strongly implies that they prefer the urban lifestyle that includes single family homes, lower population densities, a slower pace of life, significant car use, and an environment that is predominantly “green” rather than concrete and asphalt.
Moreover, when these suburbs do attract offices they tend to be located in office park-like developments, within about a 5-minute drive of, but not in their downtowns.
The Importance of CSD Functions in Suburban Downtowns
Our findings also had some strong potential implications for a far broader range of downtowns:
- Suburban downtown residential populations are not driven by the presence of downtown jobs, as some experts believe is the case with our large and superstar downtowns.
- Consequently, they must be driven by other factors. Since the downtown populations of the suburbs and independents are so close, these other factors are probably as strong or stronger than downtown employment is in non-suburban downtowns. These other factors certainly are not weak, and they also could be present in non-suburban downtowns, too.
- A very probable strong factor are the suburban downtowns’ Central Social District (CSD) assets: its housing, restaurants, bars, parks, athletic fields, public spaces, cinemas and theaters, libraries, art galleries, maker spaces, farmers markets, community centers, houses of worship, childcare and senior centers. Indeed, it can be reasonably argued that the suburban downtowns that have been successful in terms of popularity, use and investment have done so largely because of the strength of their CSD functions.
- Housing is a very important CSD function. Two advantages suburban downtown housing may have are the likely greater comparative affordability of its costs and the convenience of it locations. In struggling downtowns units may be affordable because they are in poor condition and can only command cheap rents. In more successful downtowns, it may be that apartment rents/costs are cheaper than renting/owning an apartment in the region’s core city, or living in a suburban single family house (e.g., empty nesters), and/or because the apartment is occupied by several people who share the rent payments (young adults).
- Units close to mass transit will probably be convenient for those who commute by rail or bus to large employment centers elsewhere in the region. Indeed, in these suburban districts, the commuters who live in TOD residential developments may be the equivalents, in terms of economic impacts, of the live-workers found in and near the cores of our largest downtowns. However, according to one report, NJ Transit has found that only 12.5% to 25% of the residents in the TOD projects developed around its stations are NJT commuters.1
- These downtown residents can bring in substantial purchasing power. For example, it was estimated that, around 2010, the roughly 1,500 new occupied residential units in downtown Morristown, NJ, would bring in about $72 million in potential retail spending power. 2
- Undeniably, when the CSD assets of a suburban downtown are strong, the district is highly urban in character, and more analogous to a strong big city neighborhood commercial district, such as Williamsburg in Brooklyn, or Forest Hills in Queens, than to a sizeable rural town. We might characterize these districts as “urbanized suburban downtowns.”
- Typically, suburban downtowns have a Greater Downtown area that includes the downtown and nearby areas from which people can conveniently get to and from the downtown core , some on foot, but most by car. Sorry, folks, but we are talking about the suburbs here. That may be changing in the near future as AV vans and greater use of e-scooters and bikes come more into play.
- The non-district portion of the Greater Downtown area can have relatively significant population and workforce densities and be the source of a lot of the customer traffic of downtown merchants. These users also can strongly influence the image of the downtown.
- Unfortunately, there is no study of urbanized suburban downtowns. Some districts that I would include in that category are in Wellesley, MA; Englewood, NJ; Morristown, NJ; Cranford, NJ; Westfield, NJ; and Cranford, NJ.
- Some have had strong GAFO retail, though that has weakened substantially with the upheavals in the retail industry over the past decade and the Covid crisis. Some have a lot of office workers located nearby in their town who are important lunchtime customers. Some have PACs, theaters and/or cinemas. All are walkable and have lots of eateries, coffee shops, and drinking places. All are surrounded by residential populations with high percentages of creatives – some also have large numbers of creatives working within or very near the town.
- This suggests that non-suburban downtowns can also flourish by strengthening their CSD assets.
For many creatives, these urbanized suburban downtowns may be extremely attractive, especially if they either: 1) prefer the suburban lifestyle when it comes to single family housing and green spaces, yet still enjoy urban type entertainment venues such as good restaurants and cultural events, or 2) they are nesting and need affordable and relatively spacious residential units, while also appreciating many aspects of urban entertainment and leisure time activities. The fact that these suburbs often have excellent public school systems also makes them attractive to core city nesting creatives who are looking for a more affordable place to live. In NYC, for example, the private elementary school average cost per student is $13,000 per year and for private high schools the average is $25,267 per year. With taxes, parents will probably need double that amount of their income to cover those costs.
My prior research on 14 counties in Northern NJ that are suburbs of NYC or Philadelphia – see the above table — certainly suggests that in 2010 very substantial numbers of creatives lived, worked or even possibly live-worked in these communities. Interestingly, the median of the percentage of their workforces that were creatives was 31%, but the median of the residential adult population in the labor force who were creatives was 40.3%. See above table. In Somerset and Hunterdon Counties over 50% of the residents in the labor force were creatives. So these suburban counties of superstar cities/downtowns probably have been recruiting lots of creative residents for decades. The size and economic power of these suburban creatives often seems to be overlooked because so much attention is focused on the young creatives being attracted to hip urban neighborhoods of the superstar cities.
Some downtowns in these high creatives counties have tried to attract more creatives to spark economic growth, while what they probably needed to do was to better leverage the numerous creatives they already had! Far too little attention has been paid to these suburban creatives.
The downtowns in these counties did not have anywhere near the number of apartments or condo units needed to house all of these creatives, so it seems reasonable to deduce that most were living in the single family type homes the suburbs are famous for. It also seems reasonable to deduce that the vast majority of these creatives probably were living there because they liked the lifestyles these suburbs support. In turn, this seems to counter the blindered visions of where creatives want to live that only focus on hip urban neighborhoods. Furthermore, it also counters visions that just focus on the young creatives who may indeed have a significant tendency to live in the hip urban neighborhoods, by showing lots of probably older creatives, who have probably nested, prefer suburban or rural residential areas.
Some Downtowns Will Be Better Positioned to Recover Economically Than Others
There already is plenty of evidence that points to the imputation that suburban downtowns, especially those that are urbanized, will be much better positioned to have a successful economic recovery than others. There are also a number of steps their leaders can take that will further solidify their strong recovery positions.
Tourists. Most suburban downtowns, especially those that have been urbanized, are unlikely to be heavily dependent on tourist customer traffic/expenditures as are the downtowns in our large cities such NYC, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, etc., or in rural towns where tourism is the main economic engine. In those areas the collapse of their tourist markets have had large negative impacts.
Moreover, the resurgence of tourism will be hampered by other factors besides the pandemic’s impacts. International politics is one. For example, It probably will be very hard for our major downtowns to regain the strong flows of big spending Chinese tourists they once had. Even under an optimistic scenario, it very probably will take a few years for tourism to return to prior levels in these downtowns.
Office Workers. Merchants in our big city downtowns have also been clobbered by the disappearance of their office workers. In many of them only abut 20% to 30% are now showing up. Moreover the growing adoption of remote work probably means that the number of office workers employed in our largest downtowns probably will decrease by 16% to 22% after the crisis. 3 In contrast, in the suburbs – e.g., Morristown, NJ, Dublin OH, Garden City, NY – that have attracted large numbers of jobs, office worker presence has remained substantially higher through the crisis than in central cities, and they are also more likely to fully recover more quickly. The suburban office workers do not have to use public transportation to commute to work. Consequently, these suburban towns are unlikely to be hurt as much by remote working or to experience their office jobs being decanted to less populated, and less public transit dependent areas as may happen in our large cities. To the contrary, some suburbs may be substantial recipients of such workforce decanting and the growth in remote working. Their downtowns will benefit from this.
Foot Traffic. It should not be surprising then to find that while in many large downtowns foot traffic has fallen by roughly 60% – 70% since 2019, it has been substantially less in their suburbs. See chart nearby.4 Foot traffic is critical to the health of any downtown. The suburbs may not need to recover as much as the center cities on this key variable.
Downtown Small Merchants. Truth be told, small merchants have been a disappearing breed in big city downtowns well before Covid19 appeared. At best they have retreated from the major commercial corridors to sidestreets. A number of factors were involved such as: unaffordable rents; associated real estate bubbles and consequent landlord needs for high paying tenants; new landlords who knew nothing about managing retail properties, and redevelopment that forced closures and relocations. In contrast, small merchants remain the primary occupants of the storefronts in most suburban downtowns, though vacancy rates have continued to creep up for many years now, and non-retail uses continue to increase.
While there has not been any rigorous systematic study, a review of many reports on the internet suggests that merchants who are more dependent on residential markets and less on tourists and office workers were doing significantly better than those who were focused on tourists. Many of our largest downtowns have relatively few residential units within their boundaries, but a whole lot within a Greater Downtown area that includes nearby neighborhoods from which residents can easily and quickly get to the downtown core. That would suggest that merchants in suburban downtowns, especially those with substantial new market rate housing, will not be among those hardest hit. Of course, that does not mean that they are not being hurt or stressed, but it may indicate that it will be relatively easier for them to survive and recover.
Downtown Retail Chains.
Superstar Downtowns, In these districts retailers have long paid extremely high rents for premier retail locations. However, in recent years, real estate bubbles and high rents have resulted in high “availability rates, ” with 20% or more not being unusual. The above table details such a situation in Manhattan in Q2 of 2019. Most of those locations have been very dependent on tapping office worker and tourist shoppers and their ability to again earn meaningful profits probably awaits the return of those shoppers at some still unknown time in the future. The prior high availability rate suggests problems that the Covid19 crisis can only have exacerbated.
Many of these retailers are in the luxury market and BCG recently estimated strong declines in luxury retail sales for 2020 and 2021, with a recovery appearing in 2022, BCG also found that many more shoppers are now trading down than trading up.5 Moreover, online sales of luxury merchandise has been growing significantly.
Many observers expect a new equilibrium between retailer and landlord needs will be reached in the coming years. However, until then retail in these big downtowns may be somewhat unstable. While the landlords of the luxury retailers may continue to claim that all is well, 20% availability rates and the disappearance of key market segments are strong visible evidence that those assertions are not true.
Retail Chains Resurging Post Crisis in Suburban Downtowns. The claim has been made that the closure of many malls and chains will set free so much market share that retail chains and small independent retailers located in suburban downtowns will grow and prosper as the current crisis ebbs. There is probably some merit to this claim – but not much.
Most suburban downtowns have not attracted large numbers of GAFO retail chains, though they often do quite well with those selling necessities such as groceries, convenience goods, and medicines. That is not likely to change in the future because these districts lacked and will continue to lack the required locational assets. Few have the auto traffic that passed near the malls. If retail chains do return to the suburbs, standalone locations abutting high traffic roads on the periphery of these towns may very likely be preferred to those in their downtowns. However, some in wealthier market areas – e.g., Westfield and Englewood in NJ, Wellesley in MA — have in the past attracted lots of GAFO chains, and they often were like open air lifestyle mall downtowns. Even then, though, while the number of retail chains present in these districts was often impressive, according to information confidentially provided by one well known national brokerage firm, their profits per store usually ranked relatively low within their chains. They were thus among the most prone to be closed if their chain got into financial trouble. So unsurprisingly their strength and numbers were eroded by the Great Recession, new competitors appearing both online and from strengthened malls, the retail chains’ corporate weaknesses being magnified by the process of creative destruction occurring in the retail industry, and the negative economic impacts of Covid19. For example since 2009, one of these retail chain rich suburban downtowns has lost the following chains: Esprit, Coach, Chico’s, Ann Taylor, Lucky Brand, White House-Black Market, Janis & Jack, Papyrus, Aerosoles, Victoria’s Secret, Eileen Fisher, Coldwater Creek, Kiels, Omaha Steaks, and Game Stop.
For many years the trophy retailers downtown leaders wanted to attract were largely in the apparel sector, e.g., The Gap, Chico’s, Talbert’s, Ann Taylor, Victoria’s Secret. Today, that sector is in disarray – even some off-pricers, like Stein Mart, that had been seen as well positioned, have fallen.
The argument for the supposed market share being yielded by closing malls and retail chains being captured by retailers in suburban downtowns has a number of problems analytically:
- The demand for some kinds of merchandise has been in long decline, e.g., for apparel. This has been influenced by the trend toward informal workplace attire that has been strongly reinforced by the current crisis, and the growth in remote working. It also has been impacted by consumers wanting to spend more for interesting and rewarding experiences than for things.
- More than ever, retail chains are looking for low risk locations. These locations tend to be in areas where there are significant numbers of fairly affluent shoppers or very large numbers of easily accessible shoppers with more modest incomes. About 20% of our malls were doing well prior to the crisis, and they tend to capture these affluent shoppers. Walmart, Target, Costco, Best Buy, et al are prospering even during the crisis from their growing proficiency with omnichannel marketing strategies. They are attracting the mid-market shoppers. These malls and big boxes are formidable competitors and probably are sopping up lots of any market share the folded malls and retail chains yielded.
- E-retail was growing impressively before the Covid19 economic crisis, but its growth has accelerated substantially during the crisis, and strong evidence suggests these high e-sales levels will not diminish all that much as the economy improves. E-commerce definitely has and will capture substantial portions of any market share that folding malls and chains might yield.
- There seems to be fundamental weaknesses with the business model used by retail chains, especially when they are taken over by hedge funds and the like. Bean counters seldom are good merchants, much less great ones!
- Internet born retailers may look for spaces in suburban downtowns, but their behavior to date indicates they will look for locations in higher income market areas with strong customer flows. For example, Warby Parker now is located in downtown Hoboken and downtown Westfield in NJ. They are unlikely to flood our suburban downtowns.
- The failed malls and chains probably will yield a relatively small amount of market share that downtown retailers might capture. Small downtown merchants are much more likely to benefit from that yielded market share simply because they need much lower sales revenues to survive. That said, these small merchants still better have other market segments to tap.
There is little reason to believe that our recovery from this crisis will somehow coincide with the resurging strength of our specialty retail chains. Because of their high rents, landlords in our large downtowns will probability continue to seek retail chain tenants, or shift to other users who can pay those rents. Consequently, the large downtowns will continue to feel the impacts of the process of creative destruction that the retail industry still is in. On the other hand, relatively few suburban downtowns had many GAFO retail chains, and their numbers were substantially reduced even before the Covid19 crisis. Consequently, they neither benefit a lot from the presence of these retail chains, nor are they very vulnerable to the substantial vicissitudes that these chains may continue to face.
The Costs and Availability of Space. The ability of small merchants to recover and for startups to succeed will be significantly influenced by the availability and costs of their storefront spaces. While deflated rents and increased availability can be expected in both suburban and center city districts, the suburban rents long have been significantly lower and probably will remain so in a relative fashion well into the future. This fact, combined with the greater stability of their potential consumer market segments, probably will give the suburban merchants a greater chance of achieving a sound recovery, or a startup succeeding, than their center city peers might have.
Rent costs are particularly important for restaurant operations.
The suburbs are also likely to benefit significantly from the shift to remote working:
- Their numerous creative residents are likely to be in occupations prone to remote working.
- Remote workers are likely to favor downtowns with strong CSD assets as they seek relief from the social isolation of their home offices, and they often also require business services and supplies.
- Suburban communities are likely to have more relatively affordable housing, with more space per rental dollar than their regions’ center cities. This may attract many remote workers who are residents of the regions core cities. However, the affordability advantage might be blunted by rent deflation in the core city. For example, reports indicate that rents in Manhattan below 96th Street have already fallen by 20% to 30%.
- Also recent research has shown that significant economic growth based on quality of life assets and the attraction of remote workers can lead to rising housing costs even in rural areas.
- What will not be blunted, however, are the large numbers of people who prefer living in the suburbs, and they often include commensurately significant numbers of creatives, the group most prone to becoming remote workers.
- It is fairly probable jobs will be decanted by a significant number of corporations from their prime big city locations to less expensive, auto accessible suburban satellite locations. Such office facilities will have cheaper rents than those in the core city downtowns, and provide corporate tenants places where their remote workers can come to get the social interactions they need to help their productivity, creativity and career advancement.
Recovering CSD Functions.
Many CSD venues have been hit very hard by the pandemic’s economic adversities. Almost all performance and exhibition venues have been closed or their public access severely limited. Many pamper niche operations closed permanently or shifted to operating online. Yet many of these operations, when allowed by local governments, have reopened on a limited basis, and the characteristics of some suggest that they will recover along with the local economy.
Two characteristics will determine those that will recover quicker and stronger and those that will not: if they are for profit operations and if they are large.
Small Arts Organizations. About 40% of the arts nonprofits are usually in the red financially, and mortally threatened by strong economic recessions and economic crises such as the present one. 6 Their business model is so dependent on contributions from numerous sources that their financial recoveries are seldom easy. So downtowns of all sizes are likely to have to wait quite a while for these smaller arts organizations to recover and contribute to their vitality.
Pamper Niches. In contrast, many of the pamper niche operations are for profits and relatively small – hair and nail salons, Pilates and yoga studios, dance schools, martial arts, studios, spas and gyms. They have relatively very low start up and operating costs, and little need to keep large inventories of goods on hand. While many were quick to close during an economic crisis, they are also relatively easy to restart or start anew as the economy improves. They are also the types of operations that often occupy large numbers of downtown storefronts, especially in the suburbs. Indeed, in many of our suburban downtowns there have long been complaints that these pamper niche operations were crowding out retail tenants because they could pay the higher rents landlords were looking for that small retailers found unaffordable.
Restaurants. Some of the most important CSD venues for all downtowns are their restaurants and bars. From early on in the crisis, there have been dire predictions of calamitous levels of restaurant failures – one foresaw the prospect of 85% of our eateries failing.7 These claims seemed to be supported by prior research showing that the average small restaurant only had enough cash on hand to cover their expenses for so few day, 16, that they were unlikely to stay open if they faced a major economic crisis – see table below. Months later, well into the current crisis, the Census Bureau’s Pulse surveys of small businesses have had consistently similar findings.8 One might have thought that by then their numbers would have declined as many went out of business. National survey data seems to indicate that about 20% of our restaurants may have closed do far.
The Center City district in Philadelphia recently published very interesting and well researched counter findings about restaurant closures.9 Well into the crisis, their survey found that only about 5% of their 1,078 restaurants had closed permanently, with another 19% closed temporarily. Just 19% were deemed fully opened and have indoor dining. Perhaps most interesting are the 600 restaurants (about 55%) that are classified as partially opened because they have outdoor dining, or only do take outs and deliveries.
My observations in the solidly middle income neighborhoods close to my home here in Queens, NY, also found a surprisingly low number of permanent restaurant closures. My communications with some suburban downtown managers yielded similar observations. The only reports of numerous closures I’ve found were about the eateries in the Midtown Manhattan CBD that are so dependent on tourist and office worker customers. The City’s Comptroller just issued a report that “found that more than 2,800 small businesses had permanently closed between March 1 and July 10, including at least 1,289 restaurants.” That would mean that about 5% of NYC’s restaurants closed, on par with the Center City findings.10
The fascinating question is: How are so many restaurants surviving so long when they never seem to have enough cash on hand to do so? CARES or other government program dollars? Owners not taking any salary? Dipping into their 401ks? Tapping extended family resources? Landlord forbearance? Public donations via gift cards, crowdfunding, etc.? The Center City research findings suggest a possible viable explanation: many are in some stage of operational hibernation – e.g., the 19% that are temporally closed and the 55% who are partially opened. Their reduced operational metabolism rates translate into a reduced need for cash. In turn, that means that the cash they have on hand can cover more days of operation. It also may mean that financial tools that are well within the restaurant owners control – such as dipping into 401ks, using credit cards, tapping family resources, etc. – can get many through the survival phase of this crisis if they hibernate. That also would mean that they are making substantial personal and family sacrifices in the hope that they again will earn meaningful annual incomes as they emerge from hibernation during the economy recovery.
If recovery means that these restauranteurs have to come out of hibernation and compete to again win adequate annual incomes, then it may prove to be a time period as, or even more, arduous than was the survival phase of the crisis. More restaurants may close because they will need to earn a lot more money to thrive than they did to survive, while they may have depleted the financial resources that helped them to survive thus far. Local market conditions will probably play a very important role in determining those eateries that will survive and those that will fail.
Households in the top income quintile (above $109,743 in 2017) accounted for about 38% of all the consumer spending for food away from home; those in the top two quintiles (above $66,898 in 2017) accounted about 61% of those expenditures. See table above. Moreover, so far into the crisis, employment in households with incomes above $60,000 has been far more secure than for those with lower incomes. Downtown restaurants able to easily tap affluent residential customers are more likely to survive the recovery than those that are not. The urbanized suburban downtowns tend to be in rather affluent market areas: in 2016, I estimated the annual household income at $188,000 for downtown Wellesley, MA; $131,000 for downtown Englewood, NJ; $152,000 for downtown Westfield, NJ, and $165,000 for downtown, Morristown, NJ. That will help their restaurants recover relatively quickly and substantially.
Let’s compare the prospects during the recovery phase of this crisis for restaurants in our superstar downtowns with those in our urbanized suburban downtowns:
- Markets: The superstars must wait for the return of two very large market segments, office workers and tourists. Their residential markets may not be all that strong. Financially, that means many may have to wait quite a bit of time for their revenues and profits to return to the levels their owners were sacrificing to stay in business for. Their potential residential customers live mostly in nearby neighborhoods that are likely to have their own restaurants that are much closer to them. In contrast, the suburban downtown eateries rely mainly on the residential market segment that has never gone away and that savvy operators have been serving with takeouts, deliveries, and curbside deliveries during the crisis. These suburban eateries may also have office workers who are still present in the town in significant numbers, and others returning at a rapid rate as the virus’s impacts subside because of their reliance on autos to commute. New remote workers and newly decanted office installations may add significantly to their numbers. The suburbs’ consumer markets will start strong and may get even stronger. The superstars’ markets will start off very uncertain and require an unclear length of time to reach an iffy level of recovery. For example, though their office workerforces eventually may return, they’re very likely to be, at best, about 16% smaller in number.
- Most arts tourists (tourists who attend arts events) visiting our large cities are not big spenders. A study of 21 study regions with populations over one million by Americans for the Arts that included the cities of San Jose, Dallas, San Diego, San Antonio, Phoenix, Philadelphia, Miami—Dade and Chicago found that, in 2016, the average arts tourist spent about $51.41 a day. See the table above. About 31% of that went for meals and drinks, averaging $16.05. Another $6.57 went for refreshments and snacks. While there certainly are significant numbers of wealthy arts tourists and they are likely to be among those who resume visiting our superstar downtowns fairly early, they will tend to go to the higher priced eateries. The less expensive eateries in these downtowns are less likely to see their tourist patrons return as quickly or as robustly. Their recovery is likely to be weaker and slower
- Rents. During normal times, the lower commercial rents in suburban downtowns may have been equivalent to those in the superstar districts when the number of potential diners and their spending power are considered. Today, with the superstars’ disappeared market segments, increased risk, and uncertain rent deflation, suburban commercial rents look like a much better buy for all businesses, especially restaurants that are so rent sensitive.
Performing Arts Venues, Museums and Galleries. One might assume that the superstars are far richer in major arts, cultural and entertainment venues than the suburban downtowns, and that will help them to be better at attracting people back to their districts. In turn, that would enable them to better support local merchants. A closer look, however, reveals that their advantages may not be as strong as many might assume.
For example, superstar CBDs often have surprisingly few of these venues. In Midtown Manhattan, there are only two important museums, MoMA and the Morgan Library & Museum. The Metropolitan Museum, Whitney, Frick, Guggenheim, Neue Galerie, New Museum, Folk Art Museum, and many others are not. The major area for art galleries was in Soho, but is now in Chelsea and other parts of Manhattan. In Cleveland, the prestigious Cleveland Museum and Severance Hall, home to the Cleveland Symphony, are located about five miles from the heart of the downtown. It’s theater district, Playhouse Square, is about one mile away. Similarly, in Philadelphia, the Museum of Art, the Barnes and the Rodin Museum are outside the downtown district. MOCA and The Broad are In downtown LA, but LACMA. Hammer, Norton Simon, Annenberg, Huntington Library and Getty Center are not. Still, many of these superstar downtown museums are themselves superstars and that means that they are very dependent on tourists for visitation. For example, about 75% of MoMA’s visitors are tourists. See table above. Their full recovery and ability to activate the downtown will probably await the return of the tourists.
Strong art museums are seldom found in suburban downtowns, so how strongly these districts are activated is not dependent upon them, or their recoveries, or the return of lots of tourists.
Theater clusters are certainly to be found In some of these large downtowns such as Manhattan and Houston, as are performing arts venues such as Carnegie Hall and Madison Square Garden in Manhattan, the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts in Center City Philadelphia, and the Music Center in downtown LA. However, in Manhattan, the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts is located close to, but beyond the Midtown CBD. These venues are often considered world class, and that usually means that they, too, are heavily dependent on tourist ticket buyers. About 66% of the attendance of Broadway’s theaters are tourists, as is about 46% of Lincoln Center’s. Some observers claim that tourists will return once these venues open. However, getting Broadway shows ready to open will take time as will the scheduling and staging of other performing arts events. The Broadway League, for example, is now talking about reopenings starting around June 2021, but how long it will take to achieve a full recovery is still unknown.
These performing arts venues have another characteristic that poses serious problems for the downtowns and neighborhoods in which they are located. For very substantial parts of many days they are dead and inert, only coming alive outside for relatively brief moments before and after performances that occur usually during the evenings and a few afternoons. When inert, they diminish from, instead of contributing to, the sense of activation and pedestrian friendliness of the sidewalks they abut.
A number of these urbanized suburban downtowns do have sizeable performing arts venues, though most do not. In NJ, for example, The Count Basie Theater in Red Bank was the attendance leader among the state’s theaters in 2016 and 2017 selling 235,000 tickets. It has a budget of around $17,000,000.11 The Mayo Performing Arts Center in Morristown, NJ, has an annual attendance of about 200,000 and an annual budget of about $8, 000,000. It is a major component of the downtown’s strong and broadly defined entertainment niche that also includes a six-screen movie theater and eateries and bars that have annual sales above $100 million. The Bergen County PAC also has attendance in excess of 200,000 and an annual budget of about $10,000,000. These performing arts organizations have significant budget, and their audiences are not heavily dependent on tourists. Similar performing arts venues located in less affluent suburban markets have budgets well under $2,000,000 and lower attendance. The larger the budget, the more likely these performing arts organizations will survive through this crisis and recover. Once social distancing precautions are lifted, their primarily regional audiences, often from affluent households with members in creative occupations, can be expected to quickly return as their productions are presented. However, many of the weaker suburban performing arts organizations may struggle to recover or fall to the wayside—as will be the case pretty much everywhere.
Some Challenges and Opportunities Suburban Downtowns Will Likely Face
Downtown Cinemas Are Again In Danger. DANTH, Inc has been following the plight of downtown movie theaters for about 15 years. During that time streaming via cable or online was a persistent and slow growing threat to our traditional brick and mortar movie theaters. By releasing movies electronically either before or simultaneously with the theater releases the potential audiences of the theaters are substantially diminished. The Covid19 crisis has shut down movie theaters either completely or substantially. Streaming has grown enormously in utility, attraction and supporters among producers, and there is general agreement in the trades that it will be much more important in the future, and there is no going back. It’s a very cheap and efficient distribution channel that is unconstrained by the need for social isolation. Warner Bros. just announced that it will release all of its 2021 films on HBO Max at the same time that they open in theaters. Other studios are expected to soon follow.12
This Problem Is Especially Dire for Many Suburban Downtowns. How many movie theaters and theater chains will survive the crisis is a question of considerable interest to all types of downtowns, but much more important for those in the suburbs. For many, their movie theaters are their strongest arts/entertainment draw, especially after dark. Moreover, they invariably occupy strategically important locations in buildings that often are difficult to convert to other uses. Also, movie houses are among the most reasonably priced of all entertainment venues, and they have rather few user frictions compared to going to a sports event, concert or stage play.
Streaming may mean that it will be much more difficult for operators to make sufficient profits to recover from the crisis and stay in business long term. However, during the digital projection conversion crisis of a few years ago, many towns used community owned businesses to step in and save their cinemas. Suburban downtown leaders soon may find that tool can be used to save theirs’s, too. Moreover, a whole toolbox of tools to capture community value is emerging that also can be used. The leaders of these suburban downtowns should prepare for such a contingency since quick action is often needed to save these cinemas.
Unrealized Potential to Develop Strong and Well – Activated Public Spaces. By and large suburban downtowns lack popular, well-used downtown public spaces. Within their communities, the parks are generally located elsewhere. Additionally, even when they do have a physical public space downtown they are usually badly under-utilized, mainly purposed as adornments, ceremonial venues, and weakly scheduled event spaces. Where the missing vibrant public spaces are most surprising is in the urbanized suburban downtowns that have so many potential eager users and operations such as loads of strong eateries that mesh well with them.
In the past, this was just a missed opportunity, but with the need of these downtowns to have strong attractions that can again draw lots of people downtown, they well may be a savvy strategic move, or even a necessity. This need will also be reinforced if the local cinema weakens or closes.
The crisis induced closed streets and parklets can also provide these suburban downtowns a way of creating quickly and cheaply some needed spaces. Given that the sidewalks in many of these districts are fairly narrow, such projects can have a variety of immediate benefits. Still, the formula behind strong public spaces such Bryant Park can be distilled to scale to the smaller sizes and different characteristics of the urbanized suburban downtowns. A good place to start doing this is Andy Manshel’s new book Learning From Bryant Park.13 Here are a few things that interested downtown leaders might consider:
- Location really matters. A public space on the periphery will have far fewer users and far weaker positive impacts on its surrounding properties and their uses.
- How the space is programmed will have a far greater impact than how it is physically designed or how pretty it was meant to be. This is a major point that Andy strongly argues for.
- Simple things really matter: as Holly White pointed out, if you want people to stay, they will need places to sit. Shade also counts. Andy stresses in his book that you don’t have to spend big bucks to succeed.
- With programming, test things out and if they don’t work well, learn what went wrong, then either fix them, or do something better. Also, iterate, keep refreshing an improving the programming you have.
- Just don’t think about events. Think also about how people-watching can be facilitated and enhanced. Public spaces can proved opportunities for people to do things, to let them become the space’s performers such as chess tables, boules courts, ping pong tables, reading rooms, ice skating rinks, carousels, swings, climbing rocks, etc.
Urbanized suburban downtowns, with strong CSD functions, that are able to draw upon large numbers of creative class households, have growing numbers of remote workers, and maintain steady consumer market segments are well positioned to experience relatively strong economic recoveries from the Covid19 induced economic crisis. They can do even better if they take steps to protect their movie theaters and develop vibrant public spaces.
It’s about time that academics and economic development professionals realize that suburban downtowns do not grow or function in the same ways that our urban districts do. The suburban districts depend far, far less on being employment centers and more on being the central place for people to meet, enjoy themselves, help each other, buy necessities, and sometimes to buy non-necessities. Daytime workforces may be very important customers for district merchants, but their workplaces are far more often than not located beyond the district’s borders, and sometimes even in other towns. Their downtown housing is not driven strongly by live-workers, yet it can provide a very important in-close user/shopper base. Most of their shoppers also get to the downtown by car, and will continue to do so until AV shuttles and micro mobility vehicles provide viable alternatives.
1) Source: John Shapiro, formerly of Phillips Preiss Shapiro Associates, based on interviews with New Jersey Transit officials while working on multiple TOD projects in northern NJ, including for NJT.
2) DANTH, Inc. Morristown Retail Revitalization Strategy and Action Plan, September 2010 https://www.ndavidmilder.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/Morristown.pdf
3) N. David Milder. Remote work: An example of how to identify a downtown-related trend breeze that probably will outlast the COVID-19 crisis. Journal of Urban Regeneration and Renewal Vol. 14, 2, 1–20. Forthcoming.
4) The chart is from: Michael Sasso and Andre Tartar. U.S. Downtowns Yearn for Vaccines as Merchant Traffic Off 79%. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-12-03/u-s-downtowns-yearn-for-vaccine-as-merchant-traffic-falls-70?sref=mHw3n8zP
5) Christine Barton. BCG LUXURY PERSPECTIVE. Luxury First Look 2021| Where are we headed? September 2020. Presented at the Future of Luxury Conference, September 23-24, 2020, convened by Luxury Daily.
6) Roland Kushner and Randy Cohen. National Arts Index 2016, Americans for the Art, p.2. https://www.americansforthearts.org/sites/default/files/2016%20NAI%20%20Final%20Report%20%202-23-16.pdf
7) Irene Jiang. “85% of independent restaurants may go out of business by the end of 2020, according to the Independent Restaurant Coalition”. Jun 14, 2020, Business Insider. https://www.businessinsider.com/85-of-independent-restaurants-could-permanently-close-in-2020-report-2020-6). Matthew Haag. One-Third of New York’s Small Businesses May Be Gone Forever. New York Times. August 3, 2020 (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/03/nyregion/nyc-small-businesses-closing-coronavirus.html).
8) Source: Small Business Pulse Survey Updated Oct 15th, 2020 https://portal.census.gov/pulse/data/
9) Center City Reports. Monitoring Philadelphia’s Economic Recovery November 2020 https://centercityphila.org/uploads/attachments/ckh6j2igf5o52lxqdijdqeye6-monitoring-philadelphias-economic-recovery-nov-2020.pdf
10) Comptroller Stringer Proposes Plan to Support and Promote Small Businesses This Holiday Season Amid COVID-19 Resurgence. https://comptroller.nyc.gov/newsroom/comptroller-stringer-proposes-plan-to-support-and-promote-small-businesses-this-holiday-season-amid-covid-19-resurgence/?mc_cid=b3ea7a4601&mc_eid=5f0ebc4c65
11) Budget data are from theaters’ IRS1099 Forms’ attendance from annual reports, and interviews.
12) Sara Fischer. Warner Bros. to release all 2021 movies on HBO Max and in theaters at same time. Axios. December 3, 2020. https://www.axios.com/warner-bros-hbo-max-2021-c45cc542-b509-4d04-9041-9c463e49f512.html
13) Andrew M. Manshel. Learning from Bryant Park: Revitalizing Cities, Towns, and Public Spaces. Rutgers University Press, April 2020.