As the readers of this blog probably know, I have spent a lot of time and effort on identifying the components of our Central Social Districts and analyzing what makes them succeed or fail. I’ve dug deeply into public spaces, movie theaters, housing, and various other components in cities large and small.
Recently, I was asked for one article that put it all together. I realized that I did not have one, so I consequently set out to write it. That article was recently published in The American Downtown Revitalization Review – The ADRR at https://theadrr.com/
Doing the topic justice meant that it would be long, about 30 pages, and more like a monograph than an article. Readers wanting a quicker take can just focus on the first six pages. However, if you are looking for more guidance about what to do and not do, you will need to dig deeper into the article.
Some of the important things I tried to do are to establish that some components are much easier and cheaper to establish than others, and which work better in different types of downtowns. I also tried to strip away a lot of the advocacy hype about some components that too often hides the challenges involved and obscures how progress needs to be evaluated, e.g., the arts venues, while spotlighting venues whose importance still goes widely unrecognized, e.g., libraries.
Here’s the article’s tease and link:
Strong Central Social Districts: The Keys to Vibrant Downtowns
By N. David Milder
CSDs and Some of Their Frequent Components. Since antiquity, successful communities have had vibrant central meeting places that bring residents together and facilitate their interactions, such as the Greek agoras and the Roman forums. Our downtowns long have had venues that performed these central meeting place functions, e.g., restaurants, bars, churches, parks and public spaces, museums, theaters, arenas, stadiums, multi-unit housing, etc. The public’s reaction to the social distancing sparked by the Covid19 pandemic, and the closure of so many CSD venues, was a natural experiment that demonstrated how much the public needs and wants these venues. They are the types of venues and functions that make our downtowns vibrant, popular and successful. To read more click here : https://theadrr.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/Strong-Central-Socia-LDistricts-__-the-Keys-to-Vibrant-Downtowns__-Part-1-FINAL.pdf
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.
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.
Contact: N. David Milder, Editor The ADRR — The American Downtown Revitalization Review 718-805-9507 [email protected]
THE CREATION OF THE AMERICAN DOWNTOWN REVITALIZATION REVIEW (THE ADRR)
There currently is no real professional journal for the downtown revitalization field. For many years, that has been strongly lamented by many of the field’s best thinkers. To remedy that situation, a band of accomplished downtown revitalization professionals are creating The ADRR. It will be a free online publication, appearing four times each year. The target date for the debut issue is now set for the June 1-15, 2020 timeframe, with the second issue aimed for the Sept 7-14, 2020 timeframe.
This ADRR is intended to be a lean and mean operation, based totally on the availability of free online resources and the time, energy and elan contributed by its authors, advisory and editorial board members, and its editor.
How to Subscribe to The ADRR
Those interested can now visit The ADRR’s website, www.theadrr.com , where, on the home page, they can sign up to become subscribers. This enrollment places the subscriber on a MailChimp mailing list so that they can receive New Issue Alerts (see below).
How Issues of The ADRR Will Be Distributed.
New Issue Alerts, containing the Tables of Contents of issues and links to their downloadable pdfs of articles are sent to subscribers via a MailChimp email blast and posted to the ADRR’s website. Each issue’s pdf files initially will be stored in a folder in ND Milder’s Dropbox account from which they can be downloaded. Subscribers can download only those articles they want to read and whenever they want to read them. The ADRR also can be found via Google searches.
The Content We Are Aiming For. Only manuscripts about major downtown needs, issues and trends will be considered for publication. They will be thought pieces and not just reports about a downtown’s programs and policies that its leaders want to brag about. Articles must have broad salience and their recommendations broad applicability within the field. The “voice” of The ADRR will be anti-puff, and very factual, evidence driven, though not dully academic. Discussions of problems and failures will be considered as relevant as success stories if, as so often is the case, something substantial can be learned from them. The ADRR will not avoid controversial issues.
Also, the focus of The ADRR will not be overwhelmingly on our largest most urban downtowns, but also provide a lot of content and relevant assistance to those in our small and medium sized communities, be they in suburban or rural areas.
Who Will Write the Articles?
Hopefully, they will be from people in a broad range of occupations – downtown managers and leaders, municipal officials, academics, developers, landlords, businesspeople, consultants, etc. — who have significant downtown related knowledge and experience.
Curated Articles and Wildflowers. Initially, the ADRR will solicit articles to prime the content pump. Once The ADRR is up and running some articles will continue to be solicited on topics deemed a high priority by the editorial board members. Each board member can select a topic to curate an article on and seek the author(s) to write them. However, there still will be a continual traditional general call for submissions (wildflowers) focused on subjects selected by their authors. All submissions, curated or wildflower, must demonstrate sufficient merit to warrant publication in The ADRR. All submitted articles will be reviewed by board members. We hope to see many submissions!
Article Length and Author Responsibilities.
There will be short reads and long reads. Articles of 1,500 to 5,000 words will be considered. Multi-part articles of exceptional merit and salience will also be considered. What counts is their quality, not their length. Authors must have their articles thoroughly proofread prior to submission. Poorly proofed manuscripts will be rejected. Guidelines for submissions may be found on The ADRR website.
Published four times per year, with a minimum of 5 articles in each issue. Given that this is an online publication, from a production perspective, the number and length of the articles is not a particular problem. However, from an editorial and content management perspective, the number of articles and their lengths can quickly become burdensome.
How It Will Be Organized.
The ADRR will be published by an informal group for its first year, with no person or group having ownership.
Editor. During the ADRR’s first year, N. David Milder has volunteered to serve as its editor.
The Advisory/Editorial Board :
Jerome Barth, Fifth Avenue Association
Michael J Berne, MJB Consulting
Laurel Brown, UpIncoming Ventures
Katherine Correll, Downtown Colorado, Inc.
Dave Feehan, Civitas Consulting
Bob Goldsmith, Downtown NJ, and Greenbaum Rowe
Stephen Goldsmith, Center for the Living City
Nicholas Kalogeresis, The Lakota Group
Kris Larson, Hollywood Property Owners Alliance.
Paul R. Levy, Center City District, Philadelphia
Beth Anne Macdonald, Commercial District Services
Andrew M. Manshel, author
N. David Milder, DANTH, Inc
John Shapiro, Pratt Institute
Norman Walzer, Northern Illinois University
Articles in our first issue that will be published in June 2020
Michael Berne, MJB Consulting, Working Title, ” Bringing Downtown Retail Back After COVID-19”
Roberta Brandes Gratz, “Malls of Culture.”
Andrew M. Manshel, “Is ED Really a Problem?”
N. David Milder, DANTH, Inc., “Developing a New Approach to Downtown Market Research Projects – Part 1.”
Aaron M. Renn, Heartland Intelligence, “Bus vs. Light Rail.”
Michael Stumpf, Place Dynamics, “Using Cellphone Data to Identify Downtown User Sheds”.
The Spotlight: “Keeping Our Small Merchants Open Through the COVID-19 Crisis”
Katherine Correll, Downtown Colorado, Inc.
David Feehan, Civitas Consulting
Isaac Kremer, Metuchen Downtown Alliance
Errin Welty, Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation.
As my years spent in the downtown revitalization field increased, I gradually realized that I unconsciously had been working with the view that bigger and better defined a successful downtown. With time, I also realized –perhaps in an embarrassingly late fashion — that making a downtown better was much more important than making it bigger. Indeed, for many communities, a bigger downtown would essentially change the whole character of the town.
As I came to realize that better was more important than bigger, I also began to think more critically about tourism. Downtowns large and small are often lured into economic growth strategies with large tourist attraction components. NYC’s mayors and economic development agencies, for example, for decades have targeted tourist growth and lauded how many millions are attracted annually, how much money they spend, and how many jobs they generate. Smaller communities, especially those in rural areas, often see tourism as a major way to overcome the small populations and low consumer spending power in their market areas. It is often seen as a way to strengthen a Main Street’s retail shops. Well regarded organizations that work to support Main Street and downtown revitalization often suggest increasing tourism as a viable component of an economic growth strategy – as do many economic development consultants. Unfortunately, tourism can be a two edged strategic sword, a boon or a bane – or even a boon and a bane. In my experience, too may downtown andMain Street leaders leap at a tourist growth strategy without properly thinking through its possible drawbacks as well as its advantages
Some Boons and Banes
The Character of the Community. Over the past year, several articles have appeared that indicate that I am far from the only one who is concerned about what is, for me, the worst possible drawback about tourism: that too many tourists can change the character of a downtown and/or the community in which it is located. For example, the November 18, 2018 edition of the Washington Post had an article headlined:
“DETOURING. Top world destinations
are overrun. Take our suggestions for roads not taken.”
Earlier in the year, the German newspaper Der Spiegel noted that European tourism officials were reporting frequent problems of “overtourism,”where too many tourists and/or unacceptable tourist behavior threaten to severely diminish the very attractions that lure the tourists. In response, local officials:
“…want to redirect the streams of
tourists, as officials in Rome are trying to do, or even to limit them, as
Dubrovnik is doing. Barcelona is no longer approving new hotels, Paris has
strictly regulated Airbnb and other apartment?rental platforms….(1)
Nicole Gelinas, in a very thoughtful article in the City
Journal, has argued that:
“While much of this change ( increased global travel) is positive in economic terms, the ongoing invasion of global cities by people who stay for a few days or a few weeks can fundamentally transform the character of places whose unique charms are what attracted tourists in the first place.” (2)
Gelinas goes on to argue that in the West’s central cities,
tourist pedestrian behavior has changed their character:
“Central city sidewalks designed decades or centuries ago can’t handle today’s foot traffic, particularly when people don’t walk like the local commuters and residents of decades ago did.Today’s pedestrians walk slowly, several abreast, stop frequently to take photos or look at maps on their ever available phones, and wheel bulky luggage behind them, ensuring that fast walkers can’t pass. Tourists to a large extent have become the central cities.” (3)
Unhappily, Yogi Berra’s quip that “nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded” is increasingly applicable to many of our most attractive city centers, public spaces and arts venues. Can you really appreciate the Mona Lisa at the Louvre if you are standing 50 feet away in a dense crowd (while few are looking at the marvelous Raphael’s and Titians nearby?) Or appreciate an exhibition at NYC’s MoMA in rooms packed like a sardine can, but with people and no olive oil? Most visitors to both museums are tourists – 75% at MoMA, 70% at the Louvre.
Many NYC residents stay away from Times Square because it is too crowded, filled overwhelmingly with tourists and passé attractions – we no longer feel it is one of “our” places. It is this ability of overtourism to make local residents feel dispossessed that is most troubling.
Sadly, too, problems being caused by tourism are not confined to large central cities. In smaller towns, it is tourism’s insidious ability to make local residents feel dispossessed that is perhaps even more troubling, because a strong sense of community is what so many residents cherish about living in them. I have run into small town residents who feel that way in a number of communities such as Montauk, NY, Chatham, MA, and Lambertville, NJ. Montauk used to be known as the Hampton’s blue collar community, a great, affordable place that middle income folks could go for terrific fishing, attractive beaches, and some good, if funky, eateries. Today, it is the pricey summer recreational town for affluent hipsters. The whole tone of the town has changed.
In a very useful article, Tomoko Tsundoda and Samuel
Mendlinger looked at the economic and social impacts of tourism on the small and
very attractive town of Peterborough, NH( 4). They showed that there long has
been an awareness of a number of wide ranging impacts, both good and bad,
that tourism can have. On the positive side are:
More business opportunities
More interesting shops and entertainments
Heightened demand for local housing and commercial properties
More tax revenues
On the negative side are:
Loss of the community’s character
Higher retail and restaurant prices
Higher housing prices
Businesses favoring tourist patrons over local resident patrons
Low-paying or unsustainable new jobs
Increased traffic and poorer air quality
More quality of life crimes
One of their most concerning findings was that wealthy families and working families may view the benefits of tourism quite differently.
Much can be said about each of the above impacts, but that would take a far longer article than this one. My key point here is that downtown leaders who are thinking about avidly pursing a tourist growth strategy should carefully assess these potential impacts on their communities.
Tourism as a Strategy to Improve a Downtown’s
I do want to do a bit of a deep dive here because in recent years I have so often heard this argument offered by downtown leaders to explain why a tourist growth strategy should be developed.
I would say that, in my experience, almost invariably when clients and client prospects have suggested pursing tourist growth, their primary reason for doing so is to improve the downtown’s retail. To put the potential benefits in some perspective, it is useful to look at how much of tourist spending goes to retail, see the table above. It shows that, for example, tourists in NY spent about $64 billion in 2016, but only about 9.9% of this hefty amount went for retail. Expenditures for recreation and entertainment were slightly larger 10.0%,while expenditures for food and beverages was much higher, 23.7%. All of these expenditures can help the types of merchants that downtown can attract – if there are those types of shops already present or if the tourist spending potential is large enough to spark their development. In many instances, these types of operations do not exist, and the tourist spending potential is not sufficient to stimulate their creation. Retail in MS accounts for a seemingly impressive 26% of tourist expenditures, but this is partially due mathematically to the extremely low expenditures for recreation and entertainment. In NC, on the other hand, tourist spending for retail rivals, in absolute dollars, those expenditures in NY, and surpasses it on a percentage basis, 20.2% to 9.9%. In NC, the percentages of tourist spending that go for both recreation-entertainment and food and beverages are relatively low, but the level of absolute dollars spent does suggest that retail merchants in that state are rather good at capturing tourist dollars.
The above table shows the percentages of tourist spending that went for food services, retail and recreation in 11 multi-county regions in PA in 2016.Retail accounted for a lower percentage of tourist spending than food services or recreation. The highest percentage for retail expenditures among the 11 regions was 18% and the lowest was 12%.
My observations over many years suggests that towns with strong tourist sales all have strong retail offerings: outlet centers (e.g., Manchester, VT), major urban retail streets like Fifth Ave, Rodeo Drive, Michigan Ave, or ritzy tourist havens where lots of rich people have 2nd, 3rd or 4th homes (e.g.,East Hampton, Bal Harbor, Palm Beach).
Unique offerings in the other towns can indeed sell, but I hear more about how they can sell than I see merchants actually doing it.
In the towns most downtown leaders would want to emulate, quality merchandise is offered to tourists in attractive and often charming shops. Unfortunately, there are also towns that are tourist nightmares. I shall refrain from mentioning any of them, but they are usually busy, gaudy, and filled with a lot of shlock merchandise. As with obscenities, you know them when you see them.
Suggested Take Aways
above leads me to make the following observations:
Most downtowns should not expect tourism to be the savior of their retailing. Retail expenditures will probably typically account for only 10% to 20% of local tourist spending. Tourism can provide local retailers with the equivalent of the whipped cream and cherry on top of a sundae, but not the two scoops of its ice cream.
Attractive local hotels and restaurants are likely to capture most local tourist expenditure dollars. Is a tourism growth effort worth it if those types of enterprises are by far the primary beneficiaries?
Crappy retail shops selling crappy merchandise will usually not capture many tourist dollars.But the real danger is that, if there is a lot of such shops, they just will attract a lot of crappy tourists. This can create town – tourist problems.
The major retail needs in many smaller communities are grocery stores, pharmacies, a hardware store, etc., the types of neighborhood retail that tourist expenditures are unlikely to support. If tourist focused retail is dominant, and these needs are not met, then some hairy town –retailer/tourist problems can emerge.
To attract lots of tourists, your town needs to be well-located and accessible. If you do not have significant levels of auto traffic now, or strong nearby scenic magnets, assume that you probably cannot quickly build a base of local tourist attractions that will significantly increase the flow of tourist customers.
To succeed you probably need enough local attractions to keep tourists in your downtown for four times the length of time it took them to travel there. Your downtown needs some real there, there.
If there are significant tourist flows nearby and your downtown is not capturing significant traffic from them, correcting that should be the first order of business of any tourism development program.
Tourism that endangers the community’s character is never worth it. Why kill the goose that’s laying golden eggs?
Yet, tourism certainly can be beneficial for a downtown. Programs to attract more tourists should be thoughtfully designed, with an eye on possible emerging problems, not just a look at potential financial gains for local businesses and residents.
Nicole Gelinas. “Planet Travel. Globalization has created a tourist boom in
world cities—but masses of tourists create new challenges.” City Journal. August 31, 2018. https://www.city-journal.org/html/global-tourism-16143.html
Tsundoda and Samuel Mendlinger, “Economic and Social Impact of Tourism on a
Small Town: Peterborough New Hampshire.”
J. Service Science & Management, 2009, 2: 61-70 Published Online June 2009 in SciRes (www.SciRP.org/journal/jssm)
Part 2of the A Closer Look at Some Strategic Challenges Generated by the New Normal for Our Downtowns Series of Articles
By N. David Milder
There are a number of issues that involve questions about who will visit, live, work and play in our downtowns and how all stakeholders – be they those who live, work and play there or those who own properties and businesses – can share in their successes. The term “equity” seems to fit all of these issues. Their emergence has been relatively recent, and their full dimensions are probably yet to be grasped. As a result, most are not on the radar screens of many downtown leaders, save in those cities where the problems have already become very acute and/or nationally visible, e.g., affordable housing in San Francisco and the entire Bay region.
The core equity issues are essentially about what our values and preferences are and how they will be applied to many of the component parts of these successful downtowns. Decades ago, at their nadir, downtowns had a different set of users and, often, different stakeholders. Strong concerns about equity were not really salient since there were so few goodies to distribute and so few people who wanted either a psychological or legal stake in these districts. These days, that has all changed. The equity issues are generated by downtown and community successes, sometimes huge ones, not their failures!
Way back when, it may have been from one of Jane Jacobs’s books, I learned two axioms about downtowns that have stayed with me ever since:
A downtown needs its community’s residents to take psychological ownership of it. It must become “my downtown” in their guts. When that happens, they will not only use it, but also politically defend it, and support efforts to improve it. Psychologically, they become stakeholders.
A downtown should be everyone’s place. It should have attractions suitable for large swathes of the community. It also should be the community’s central gathering place. Anyone acting in an orderly manner should be welcome.
During the decades when downtowns were in decline, it seemed as if few people within their communities wanted to take psychological possession of them. Today’s successful downtowns show a marked ability to attract many more people, many of whom are affluent and well-educated, to live, work and play in them. In some, where the median price of a residential unit exceeds $1m and where the price of a ticket to a show or ballgame can exceed $1,000 in secondary markets, many local residents may wonder what’s there in the downtown for them?
Who Can Afford to Live Downtown?
Downtown experts agree that more residents in the downtown and in neighborhoods within reasonable walking distances of it have been the strongest engine for downtown revitalization. Yet, more housing in those places is proving to be a double-edged sword and concerns about middle income and “workforce housing” are popping up across the nation. The situation in San Francisco has attracted a lot of national attention and demonstrates many aspects of this problem. Nearby Silicon Valley has had a famed economic success and many of its relatively well-paid workers seek housing in San Francisco. For example, Google-owned buses haul hordes of them to and fro daily. The result has been a very expensive housing market in the entire Bay area. It’s become very difficult for these relatively affluent workers to find affordable housing and those pressures are also impacting other types of workers. One response is to accept smaller and/or unusual types of dwellings. Here’s a recent headline in the New York Times: “Dorm Living for Professionals Comes to San Francisco” (1). The article goes on to detail that: “In search of reasonable rent, the middle-class backbone of San Francisco — maître d’s, teachers, bookstore managers, lounge musicians, copywriters and merchandise planners — are engaging in an unusual experiment in communal living: They are moving into dorms.”
Dorms and other “co-living” arrangements are just one solution path San Franciscans have followed to cope with their region’s skyrocketing housing costs. For example, Business Insider even headlined that: “A 23-year-old Google employee lives in a truck in the company’s parking lot and saves 90% of his income” (2).
A Cargo Container Converted into a Small House in San Franciso.
The Tiny House movement has even penetrated the San Francisco area as evidenced by the photo above taken from an article in Business Insider (3). In this instance, a cargo shipping container was converted into the wee home. Some more affluent San Franciscans have spent $1m+ to purchase and renovate “earthquake shacks,” or are living on boats in the bay. Still others are squeezing together with a large number of roommates into an apartment or house (4).
High housing costs are not confined to San Francisco. As can be seen in the above table, in all 10 of these highly successful major cities, the ratio of median home prices to median household incomes exceed the 5.1 level deemed to indicate serious unaffordability.
An important question: are the housing costs in smaller communities than our major cities also skyrocketing and having adverse impacts? Probably yes, if they are located in a region, such as the San Francisco Bay Area, where the whole area is thriving economically. For example, the communities where the Jobs, Zuckerbergs, Pages, and Ellisons live are small and hyper expensive. In less economically robust regions, one might expect a more complicated picture. My hypothesis is that higher housing prices are an inevitable result of a downtown and its community becoming successful, desirable places to live, work and play. So, where that has happened, the prices will very likely be higher. For instance, in districts that have recently experienced a significant revitalization that was propelled by mix-use, residential anchored projects. This has happened in a number of suburban communities around our major cities, especially those served by commuter rail. Otherwise, in smaller towns and cities, housing prices probably have not skyrocketed. For some smaller towns, their lower housing costs when combined with strong quality-of-life assets, and decent broadband and transportation access, might give them a meaningful competitive edge in attracting new residents and businesses.
“Micro-living,” i.e. living in units of 300 to 400 SF or less is a growing phenomenon in cities across the globe where their economic success has pushed housing prices well beyond what middle-income and even upper-middle-income persons/households can afford. In the U.S. they can be found in many of our largest cities — e.g., Boston, Chicago, and NYC – but especially in cities such as Atlanta, Cincinnati, Denver, Pittsburgh, Seattle, St. Louis and Washington D.C., where the share of single person households exceeds 40%. The mini apartments also are not unusual in Tokyo and many European cities (5).
To provide some perspective on these 300 SF to 400 SF units, consider that in the recent past many of their occupants would have rented studio apartments. Their average size in NYC, San Francisco, and Oakland are 550, SF 514 SF and 531 SF respectively. The micro-living units are 20%+ to 40%+ smaller than the studios. Also, consider that in the 20 most populous metro areas there is a distinct trend toward smaller units – though all still average above 854 SF (see the above table). The decreases in size have been smallest is in the metro area that have very high costs and low costs and highest in the high cost and moderate cost markets.
The small units, such as those in dorm or co-living buildings, often have desirable social/communal advantages that attract their inhabitants. Whether a true equity issue exists for these residents under these conditions depends on whether the inhabitants really want to live in such units or are occupying them because they are the best of the bad options available to them.
This discussion would also be more informed if there was some research establishing that humans need abodes that have XYZ square feet of living space. My memory says that HUD somewhere at some time established that dwellings were overcrowded if a unit’s occupants have less than 188 SF each. I have not found any research that supports a number like that. Moreover, it is highly probable that the personal space needs vary culturally. For example, NYC subways certainly get crowded, but I doubt that their riders would accpt either the level of crowdedness found in the Tokyo subways or their use of car packers to assure that the subway cars are maximally stuffed with riders. Moreover, there are many people in neighborhoods in the Borough of Queens in NYC, such Kew Gardens, Forest Hills, Bayside, who use the l far more expensive Long Island Rail Road rather than experiencing the crowded subways.
Many San Franciscans and residents of other high price communities have responded to the housing equity issue with their feet. A recent report notes that: “San Francisco lost more residents than any other city in the US in the last quarter of 2017…. San Francisco lost net 15,489 residents; about 24% more than the next-highest loser on the list, New York City” (6). This behavior pattern probably results in area firms losing a lot of talented employees. Of course, very high housing prices probably will also dissuade a significant number of talented people from taking jobs located in a community.
Tourists and Tight Housing Markets. City leaders, their economic development officials and local business operators often brag about how many tourists and second homeowners they have and all the revenues and jobs that means for their local economies. However, the residents of many of these communities may tell a different story. They may note that the retail developed for tourist shoppers really does not provide the types of merchandise and services they need or want and often creates seasonal traffic nightmares on local streets. In many communities, large and small, tourists also have impacted negatively on the housing market from the perspective of the needs of local residents.
Moses Gates, in a study by Regional Plan Association (RPA), noted that: “54,764 apartments in New York City … are vacant, according to the 2014 Housing and Vacancy Survey – but not really. These are apartments used for ‘seasonal, occasional, or recreational use’ – i.e., pieds-à-terre or second homes” (7). He went on to state that:
“We also need to better leverage our housing inventory, especially in places where land is scarce and building new homes is difficult. One way to do that is through policies like a tax surcharge on second homes in the New York City (or a pied-à-terre tax) designed to get mostly unused apartments back on the housing market.”
It should also be noted that strong suspicions have been raised about many of these pieds-à-terre in some of our biggest and most tourist-popular cities (e.g., NYC, Miami, etc.) being money-laundering operations for their wealthy and unknown foreign owners.
Many of these units are vacant for most of the year. They thus do not contribute the pedestrian traffic to the sidewalks below nor the expenditures in the city’s shops, restaurants and entertainment venues that one might reasonably expect – nor the sales taxes on those expenditures.
Are these second homeowners to be treated differently from a downtown’s normal stakeholders? Laws probably protect them in many ways, but I am certain that many local residents would say there is something unjust stirring here that must be fixed.
Airbnb has seemed to be looking for trouble in a host of cities, quickly getting into conflict with city governments because of its alleged flaunting of local laws and putative negative impacts on the availability of affordable housing. As a recent study published in the APA Journal noted, Airbnb had been criticized for enabling:
“…tourism accommodations to penetrate residential neighborhoods, which creates conflicts between visitors and residents, displacing permanent accommodations in high-demand cities and exacerbating affordability pressures for low-income groups (8).
Governments, at all levels, have for decades often mounted programs to cope with the affordable housing issue, though they almost always targeted low-income and impoverished households. Also, the units produced by those programs usually were placed in poor neighborhoods or in those very out of the way, e.g. Far Rockaway here in NYC. The downtown housing equity issue differs in that the targeted population is middle or even upper-middle-income households and that the units produced for them should be at least within a very reasonable travel time of the downtown. It would also probably be a good idea to have representatives of these residents and their employers extensively involved in the development of the needed housing units.
Downtown Success Encourages Landlords to Ask Independent Retailers for Unaffordable Rents
This problem is made more complicated by the fact that to properly understand it one must break it down analytically into three constituent parts: fairness to the merchants, impacts on vacancies, and the impacts of the loss of popular, able merchants. In many discussions of the affordable retail rent problem, things get murky as attention quickly shifts from one of these sub-issues to another. My objective here is not to provide definitive solutions, but to help illuminate the problem and to suggest some solution paths that may be worth exploring.
The Problem Is Not New. Unaffordable retail rents are an issue that long predates the Great Recession. For example, back in the late 1970s, when I surveyed street-level merchants in Charlotte’s CBD about how they were impacted by an off-street, internal shopping network that was created by overstreet bridges connecting a number of new buildings, they replied that it took traffic from the sidewalks and led to hard to afford rent increases. In the two districts I managed, I never met a small merchant who did not have something negative to say about their rent increases.
Generally, when downtowns or neighborhoods become observably successful, they not only attract retail chains, but also tend to attract many other types of businesses, such as personal, professional and financial service operations. A very high percentage of these operations can afford higher retail rents than the average independent retailer. Some, such as the banks, are willing and able to spend a lot more on rents than even the well-heeled retail chains. As one observer noted: “Banks frequently overpay by 15% to 20% or more on average for real estate compared to other retailers for comparable space. Over 10 or 20 years we’re talking a lot of money!” (9).
I put together the above table for an article I wrote back in 2010. It shows how much space a merchant could afford to lease if 15% of his or her annual sales were devoted to paying rent (10). The 15% figure makes the analysis somewhat conservative, as a more accurate number would the 8% to 12% range for downtown merchants and about 10% for restaurants. Small merchants just cannot afford a whole lot of space in any successful district unless they have very significant annual sales.
Small retailers have not been the only group impacted on. Jeremiah Moss, in his book Vanishing New York, describes how bohemian artistic live-work areas, such as the East Village, were erased by major retail chains coming in.
Why Do Landlords Ask for Unreasonable Rents? Landlords are not necessarily being venal or thoughtless if they sign these higher paying tenants when they appear on their doorsteps. They are simply responding rationally to proven market demand. Of course, even then, they must decide, perhaps just implicitly, that these non-retail uses will ultimately generate more value than if a current small retail tenant was retained. However, one might ask if they considered how that tenant might affect nearby businesses and buildings or if they just considered their own bottom lines. Obviously, another important question is if considering the impacts of a potential tenant on the district should be obligatory in some way, shape or form? This problem would ease if a landlord or an accomplished EDO owned a lot of downtown properties with retail tenants and managed them like a mall, but that is an unlikely outcome.
Here are some other patterns that I have found in the ways landlords establish their rent increases
Some increases are based on a reasonably accurate assessment of local rising property values and dominant asking rents. Both of these may already reflect the district’s growing success. These landlords tend to avoid asking for the highest rents. Among them, are a number of experienced professionals who see the landlord function as having strong stewardship aspects and consider what is good not only for their properties but also for those that are near them. I fear that they are a dying breed. How instead can we develop more of them?
Some small landlords I’ve spoken to simply could not explain the reasons for their very high rent increases, save to say they were products of their best judgments. Among those that I have met, many were new to the U.S. and new to local property and retail markets. A number of them would stubbornly maintain unreasonable asking rents for a year or more. These landlords do not typically care who their tenant is as long as they pay the asked for rent. Here the high rents and vacancies are being sustained by landlord ignorance and management ineptitude. Newness to the area is another factor.
Other increases are based on hopes, often wishful, that a national chain or other higher paying tenants can be attracted that will pay much higher rents and have a better credit rating than those of the current independent retail tenant. An analysis of the local retail market is either perfunctorily done or simply missing. An example of this is Wong Kee, located in Manhattan’s Chinatown. It recently “succumbed to a new landlord and rising rents.” It was in Chinatown for nearly 30 years. Its lease was not renewed. by the landlord. The landlord wants to build a pharmacy in its place, though there are already several pharmacies nearby (11). This type of landlord needs to learn what is really feasible from a business recruitment perspective.
A few other landlords – usually those unfamiliar with the downtown, retailing or even property ownership – will ask for very large increases because they paid way too much for their newly purchased building. Their huge rent increases are what they need to financially stay whole. This may be because their bank loan agreement probably stipulated a formula for determining what the rents should be. There was little room for them to consider local market factors, even if they wanted to — and too many didn’t care anyway. According to Jerimiah Moss, banks will devalue a property if it has a small business tenant but increase it for a retail chain tenant. “There’s benefit to waiting for chain stores. If you are a hedge fund manager running a portfolio you leave it empty and take a write-off” (12). In other words, such landlords have tax incentives that encourage them to demand very high rents and tolerate long-term vacancies. They also seem absolutely oblivious about how a vibrant district will increase their local property values and bottom lines.
The Fairness Issue. Local residents and civic leaders may feel that some of the merchants facing unaffordable rent increases are being unfairly treated. This issue is implicitly present in most usages of the phrase “unaffordable rents” where unaffordable is really seen as a synonym for unfair. Should such an equivalence be accepted? Moreover, why should any government entity or nonprofit help those facing unaffordable rents? Market forces are freely at work and, to quote Barzini in the Godfather, “After all, we are not a bunch of communists.” I would argue that it is not the unfairness of the unaffordable rents that justifies remedial action, but their most important impacts: long-term and multiple vacancies and the loss of many popular, high-quality merchants.
Vacancies. First, let’s establish that a certain level of vacancies is necessary for a downtown to work correctly and prevent ossification. Downtowns need some churn to recruit new, attractive merchants and to get rid of the dregs. I think it’s generally accepted that a vacancy rate below 5% suppresses the desired level of churn while one above around 10% can have bad effects on the district. Many consultants, downtown leaders and, perhaps more frequently, elected officials, believe that vacancies can be an unattractive creeping plague. However, the real problem about vacancies may not be the emptiness of the storefront, but the absence of an accomplish operator to occupy it. Let me anticipate those who will claim that a cluster of empty storefronts is visually an eyesore for the district, diminishes its walkability and a puts a blemish on its reputation, by asking: Is the district really any better when the vacancies are filled by unpopular, inept operations? Bad operators can repel customers and downtown visitors even more than empty storefronts.
It is also important to realize that any valid explanation of today’s retail vacancies must take a multi-causal approach that includes far more cautious consumer behavior, the rise of Millennials who prefer experiences over things, significantly reduced demand by retail chains in terms of both the number and size of their new locations, and affordable rents. The reduced retail demand is especially relevant because many of the landlords that were pushing out independents were doing so in hopes of recruiting the very chains that were hardest hit by reduced consumer favor and demand, such as the apparel specialty retailers.
It is also important to consider that reducing landlord asking rents is not the only way of reducing vacancies. As Andy Manshel reminded me, good results can be achieved by “animating vacant storefronts with temporary art or high-quality other pop up uses.” He also suggested that vacancies could be taxed, motivating landlords to sign leases.
Generally, it can be reasonably argued that concern about vacancies is a misunderstanding of the essential core problem.
The Loss of Popular, High-Quality Merchants. That core problem is not the emptiness of the vacancies, but that ill-informed landlord rent increases can result in the closings of independent merchants who are well-loved in the community. They are real losses for their customers, nearby business owners, and their district. Additionally, it usually is very hard to replace them.
However, it must be understood, that by definition, about half of a downtown’s merchants will be below average in their performance, including their ability to satisfy local customers. Are the potential closings of poorly performing, unpopular merchants the type of losses that are worthy of preventive actions by an EDO or municipal interventions? Some, who are ideologically committed to small businesses, may say yes, believing every small firm by definition is worth retaining or saving. Yet, many savvy downtown managers and civic leaders see a prime result of their revitalization efforts being the replacement of their poor-quality merchants, not necessarily with bigger operators or chains, but with higher quality operations.
Who Should Receive Help? One might cogently argue that the harm done to the public and/or district that would result from the closing of a popular and able merchant might justify an EDO or municipal intervention, but how much sway should the “fairness” of the rent increase have? For example, should an unpopular or incompetent merchant who gets an unaffordable rent increase be helped? That would imply that the fairness issue carries the day. Or will assistance only go to merchants who are able and/or popular? Is the fairness issue unrelated to the issue of the merchant’s value to the community or district? I would suggest that the fairness issue only becomes relevant when the merchant’s community value criterion is satisfied.
My observations suggest that the merchant’s value to the community is very likely to be considered when one specific business favored by an important segment of the community announces that it will soon need to move or close – whatever the cause, e.g., poor sales, increased competition, workforce problems, high operating costs (including costs of space) etc. In contrast, because of the sheer number of businesses involved, municipal attempts to remediate unaffordable rents cannot logistically evaluate each of the benefiting firms and it would probably be a political nightmare to do so anyway. As a result, the fairness issue seems to prevail when municipal actions are taken. For example, here in NYC, the City Council has passed a bill that reduces the Commercial Rent Tax that businesses have to pay if they are located in Manhattan below 96th Street, pay $250,000+ annually in rent, and that have annual revenues under $5m (13).
In several large cities across the nation — NYC being one of them — proposals also have appeared for rent control laws that cover properties with retail uses.
What Kind of Programs Do We Need to Cope with the Unaffordable Rents Problem? Municipal actions tend to treat quality merchants and underachievers in the same way, probably out of necessity. Moreover, both the retail rent control and merchant tax abatements seem to be rather shotgun approaches aimed at helping broad classes of small merchants. The key actors, whose behaviors need to be altered, are the landlords, not the merchants. The retail rent control approach carries with it great potential dangers and certain resistance from the entire real estate community. Yes, the tax abatement helps some worthy merchants, but it also helps make the unaffordable rent increases more bearable. In that way, it implies the increases are justified.
Downtown EDOs may be in a far better position to mount more effective programs to influence landlord behavior. Many of the landlords are probably on their boards and many others have engaged in their programs. Anyone who wants to educate or convince landlords has to have won their esteem, trust, and confidence. The goal of such an educational effort cannot unrealistically be to convince large numbers of landlords. Instead, it should be, to convince a savvy few among them who can lead by example and thereby also exert some market pressures for others to follow.
Probably the best solution to the affordable retail rents problem is to help able merchants buy the spaces they need to do business. They might do this alone or as a group. Buying a single storefront space is unlikely unless it is from some kind of retail coop or condo. In many suburban towns and cities with populations under around 100,000, I’ve encountered retailers who own the entire buildings in which their stores are located. In big, high rent districts with stores located in big expensive buildings that is not likely
It might be possible for buildings that have multiple storefronts to lease, that a partnership of some kind might buy either the entire building if it is cheap enough or just the retail spaces in the larger more expensive buildings. These groups of retailer property buyers most likely will not emerge organically from the merchants themselves. Probably, they will need the catalytic interventions of teams lead by the downtown EDO that has strong active support from the municipal government and a civic-minded developer.
Local governments can do a lot to assist the development of the retailer-owned co-op or condo buildings:
Provide low-cost land or a low-cost building.
PILOTS just as developers are ordinarily given.
Other abatements such as on NYC Commercial Rent Taxes.
The EDO might also help the buyers connect to financial organizations that will provide them with loans that have reasonable terms.
If helping able retailers purchase their spaces is not viable, here are some other actions that might be tried to assist these merchants. Their effectiveness is far from assured. To influence landlords, local governments might consider:
Using zoning and tax incentives to reduce spaces so that they are smaller than what chain stores would want, perhaps around 1,500 SF to 2,000 SF. Landlord blowback can be expected. Also, quality independent merchants might find such spaces too small and a few chains now might still find them suitable.
Use zoning to limit where chain stores can go. This has been done for personal service operations and big boxes. Various legal and political problems can be expected. Landlord blowback can be expected.
Use their own legislative powers to change its tax code to erase any incentives for landlords to demand higher rents and tolerate long vacancies. Also, vacancies might be taxed as if they were occupied.
Use their external political influence to change the state’s tax code to erase any incentives for landlords to demand higher rents and tolerate long vacancies
If the retailer space purchasing option is not viable, to influence landlords, downtown EDOs might consider:
Creating either a formula that landlords can use to calculate an appropriate affordable rent for their retail spaces or to identify the steps in an analytical process that can help landlords make a well-reasoned decision about rent increases.
Educating landlords about the importance of taking into consideration district benefits and harms in their recruitment decisions.
Make a special effort that targets landlords new to the district, retailing or property ownership.
Jawbone banks about the value of small merchants to properties and downtown.
Issue a brief annual report that identifies the most “recruitable” types of businesses to the district and the types of spaces they will want.
Publicly praise and disseminate information about what landlords who are effectively dealing with the rent increase issue are doing.
To help high value, threatened merchants, downtown EDOs should assist them to:
Find new locations. Deft use of the Internet can help many independent retailers thrive in locations previously deemed less than optimum.
Find financing for the move.
Publicize their new location to let current and potential customers know where they now are.
Who Can Play Downtown?
As Central Social District (CSD) functions and venues have become of growing importance to the vibrancy and success of our downtowns, this basic question has become correspondingly important.
A few years ago, I put together the above table to demonstrate the user frictions that five specific CSD venues and two types of CSD venues have here in NYC. The specific venues were Bryant Park, Lincoln Center (LCPA), Madison Square Garden (MSG), The Museum of Modern Art, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The types of venues were movie theaters and Broadway theaters. The user frictions I looked at were:
When the venues were open.
Their admission fees.
Whether the user’s schedule could drive a visit or does the user have to conform to what is available on the venue’s schedule of performances.
Can the venue be used for visits that last 45 minutes or less? Lots of downtown visitors have holes in their schedules of that length and districts that have venues that can entertainingly plug those holes will be much stronger than those that cannot.
From the perspective of when the venues are open for people to use them, hands down Bryant Park has the most hours open, followed by the movie theaters. LCPA and MSG are basically closed during most days, while the two museums are closed 5 nights a week. If you work or go to school, these results mean that some venues are much harder to use than others.
Another key friction is how much it costs to be admitted to these venues and here is where many downtown users are simply priced out. Again, Bryant Park followed by movie theaters are the most affordable – and in many instances by gargantuan amounts of dollars:
Bryant Park is free to enter and the fees for using some of its attractions, such as riding the carousel or ice skating, are reasonable. It and other parks in the city cost the least to use.
At the time I did the research, my check of cinemas in Manhattan showed the average price for a ticket was about $13. Nationally, at the time it was about $8. I would argue that movie house ticket prices should be the benchmark of affordability because so many people still go to the movies.
MoMA and the Metropolitan Museum of Art rank next in lowest general admission prices. The Met “asks” for a $25 donation; MoMA requires it. The Met request is based on the deal the city made when giving land for the museum that gives NYC residents free admission. Residents can pay what they want or nothing at all. A $25 fee/donation to these museums would be 1.9 times more than the average cost of a movie ticket in Manhattan.
The prices at Lincoln Center are pricey. An average ticket to the opera costs $156. That’s 12 times more than going to a movie and taking a four-member family could cost a real bundle. If you want to accept alpine, nose-bleed seats you can get a ticket to a NY Philharmonic concert for about $29. But prices go up to about $112/concert if you are a subscriber to a series. That’s 8.6 times more than a movie ticket. Tickets to the opera and philharmonic concerts can be even higher than those cited if they are purchased on the secondary market and there is strong demand for them. But, given that their audiences have weakened in recent years, the markups are not as large as for Broadway shows or Madison Square Garden events. Perhaps in recognition of its high admission prices as well as its mission to serve a broad public, the Philharmonic does give a lot of free concerts on the LCPA’s campus as well as in the boroughs outside Manhattan. It also has a significant educational program in NYC’s schools.
In 2013, the average price for a ticket to a Broadway show was $98.64. Back in 1955, for her birthday, I took my girlfriend to see Mr. Wonderful on Broadway. We had dinner before at a steakhouse, Gallagher’s and to get to and from I hired a limo. It was a very memorable evening. The whole thing cost under $70, with the fifth-row center seats costing about $8.50 each. Adjusting for inflation, the price of those tickets would be $73.91 in 2013 dollars, substantially less than the actual $98.64. The difference is probably substantially accounted for by higher costs, such as for labor, talent, marketing, and equipment, etc. The biggest problems with today’s Broadway theater ticket prices is that so many of the tickets are bought by dealers who then resell them at substantial markups and that some hot plays are asking for $500 a ticket. Paying $1,000+ per ticket for hot shows.in the secondary market is far from uncommon.
The average ticket to a Knicks game at Madison Square Garden, in 2013, cost $125, while a ticket to a Rangers was $78. A ticket to a Billy Joel concert at the Garden could range from from $64 to $124. However, here too, a significant percentage of the tickets are captured by dealers in the secondary market and prices for a very popular game or concert can go above $1,000. Joe Six-Pack fans are unlikely to have the financial resources to attend with any regularity the basketball and hockey games of their favorite teams. Their attendance is more likely confined to special occasions for which they either plan early and save or are gifted. For these fans, downtown sports bars may be one way to deliver the more affordable TV access to these games in an arena-like, fan-filled setting.
Parks, other public spaces, and movie theaters are entertainment venues that help make a downtown everyone’s neighborhood. They are the most easily accessible and the least expensive to visit. Consequently, they provide reasons for most of a community’s population to take psychological possession of their downtown. Where they are absent or weak, the downtown will be lacking very important support mechanisms. On the other hand, attendance at the events of many high culture performing arts venues, popular concerts, and professional sports events can only be afforded by those with above-average amounts of discretionary dollars to spend. These folks, too, are assets for their downtowns, assets that downtown leaders only dreamed of attracting in years past.
The Impact of Tourism. The table above was generated from data published online by the Broadway League. It shows just how much the attendance at Broadway shows is dominated by out-of-towners. Just 22% of the ticket holders are NYC residents. Another 18% come from the surrounding suburbs. Most, 61%, are tourists, with about 46% coming from other parts of the USA and about 15% from other countries.
Strong tourism can have important impacts on a local economy. For example, here in NYC, we have about 60 million tourist visitors annually and their direct spending in 2016 amounted to about $64.8 billion (14). About 6.45 billion went to firms in the recreation and entertainment industries. Without tourist expenditures for Broadway tickets, the relatively high ticket prices probably would not have been reached or maintained. One may wonder if a lower flow of tourists would have resulted in lower Broadway theater ticket prices that would have attracted more buyers from NYC residents and from folks in the surrounding suburbs.
As is happening in many entertainment niches (defined to include cultural/arts venues) across the nation, tourism now accounts for very high percentages of the attendance at many of NYC’s major entertainment venues. This is particularly true for our most prestigious museums, where tourists account for 75% or more of their attendance (see table above). These institutions aspire to be and are world-class venues. That means that though they are located in NYC, for New Yorkers, they are no longer just theirs. Some psychological adjustments may be needed. As I write this I remember many years ago, when my neighbors and shopkeepers in Paris warned me in the late spring, that soon “your Americans and the Germans would come” and Paris would not be the same until the fall. They were absolutely right. The buildings, the Seine, the Metro, the museums were all the same, but Paris in the summer was very different. My French friends explained that they felt during the summertime as if their beloved city is taken over by foreigners. It’s really not theirs during those months. Things may have changed in Paris since my student days there, but that sense of tourists taking over is one I’ve encountered in several other communities here in the USA
Tourism can be boon for many downtowns, but it also often is a two-edged sword, that brings a number of problems with it. Some of these problems are obvious, such as how tourism can impact housing and retail, while others may be quite subtle, such as residents psychologically feeling dispossessed in their own communities. Part of the New Normal, as more and more downtowns become adept at attracting tourists, will also be the emergence of these problems.
13. Sarah Maslin Nir. “Tax Break Could Help Small Shops Survive Manhattan’s Rising Rents.” New York Times. Nov. 28, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/28/nyregion/rent-tax-manhattan-local-shops.html
14. Tourism Economics. “The Economic Impact of Tourism in New York.” https://www.governor.ny.gov/sites/governor.ny.gov/files/atoms/files/NYS_Tourism_Impact_2016.pdf