How do most cities respond when their main retail-intensive street starts to slip?
Some are denialists, insisting all will be perfectly fine soon. But that sounds like a Kamala Harris campaign staffer swearing she’s still a viable candidate. Other cities jump to action and spruce up the street with the hope of luring in replacement retail. But what exactly are they going to put in their long-empty American Apparel store? Forever 21?
Thousand Oaks had a different plan. Sensing the secular decline in retail, that city decided several years ago to encourage its main drag to transition into more of a walkable zone with small shops and cafes and more apartments and condos. It did this mainly through a package of zoning changes that allowed small restaurants to have half the parking spaces formerly required and more mixed-use developments with a greater density of apartments above retail or offices.
Oh, and the city would encourage nightlife, at least a dash of it. The logic: T.O.’s citizens are traveling elsewhere since there are few places close to home to hoist a toast. Or three.
This notion to create a kind of suburban downtown made sense and the plan, on paper, seemed sound. However, as the years clicked by, little change was evident, at least to my casual eye. The target area – roughly from The Lakes shopping center west along Thousand Oaks Boulevard for four or five blocks to Erbes Road – still seemed the same. It’s hard to be alive after five when you have a string of dead-after-dark strip centers, I figured. I sort of mentally placed the downtown plan into the “nice try, didn’t work,” file.
But one recent Saturday night I suddenly saw the potential.
The evening started with a casual dinner at The Lakes followed by a pleasant stroll on the on the grounds, where kids played, diners ate al fresco and a couple dozen skaters circled on the seasonal ice rink. After that, we walked next door to the Civic Arts Plaza, where we attended a concert by the New West Symphony. (A fine orchestra in a truly nice venue, by the way.) Finally, we drove to a new spot: Tarantula Hill Brewing Co., where about 500 young people appeared to be holding 100 small parties.
This was a satisfying evening. We had diverse experiences that were interesting and fun or sophisticated. And what was striking was the age variations in the different places. There were mostly families at The Lakes, older folks at the symphony and twenty- and thirty-somethings at the brew pub. The area is attracting all ages.
To be honest, Tarantula Hill is more than a mile west of the nascent downtown zone, so it’s not really included in the walkable area. But it’s only a three-minute drive, so it seemed like part of it. And if nothing else, it demonstrates the pent-up demand for nightlife in the area. (The developer, Shawn Moradian, told me that he knew nothing about brew pubs when he started. He only knew T.O. needed one, and he clearly was right.)
T.O.’s downtown concept seems to be taking form, at least to me. Oh, sure. There are still too few housing units, too many retail shops that close early and not enough night spots. But you can see how it may work in the future.
So the downtown plan is going into the “give it time” category.
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Speaking of the challenges faced by retail, I was struck by a news item that lamented U.S. shopping malls are braced for slow traffic this holiday season.
I can tell you why I am reluctant to go to most malls around here: They are dreary.
The best malls have miles of festive lights, Santas with real beards, horse-drawn carriages, immense Christmas trees and carolers. But honestly, can you show me a mall in the Valley area that’s such a spectacle it is a must-see destination? Caruso’s Americana at Brand in Glendale does a nice job, but most others are dependable duds.
The formula isn’t a secret. Lots of malls or shopping districts in other cities manage to make themselves so appealing you have to visit them. Houston’s Galleria mall and Kansas City, Mo.’s Country Club Plaza, for example, are regional destinations.
So, mall operators, if you put up a few obligatory strings of lights, a perfunctory line of tired wreaths and a lame cardboard Santa, please don’t whine if your mall traffic is slow.
Charles Crumpley is publisher of the Business Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.