Retail Strips Need Serious Makeovers

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

EAST PROVIDENCE, R.I. — If congested shopping centers and dysfunctional strip malls stress you to the point of road rage, help is on the way — albeit slowly.

It may take several decades, but a movement is gaining momentum here in Rhode Island and across the country to make commercial districts more attractive, sustainable and even more profitable.

On Nov. 3 at the Agawam Hunt Club, an authority in this movement, Narragansett resident Randall Arendt, spoke to a group of construction executives, commercial real-estate professionals and municipal planners to drive home the message that collaborative planning will make retail strips more hospitable and environmentally better.

An expert on creative real estate development and conservation, Arendt travels the United States and Canada with a slide show depicting examples of ugly shopping centers and crowded roads he calls "retail chaos."

It's taken some 50 years to build these commercial zones, filled with Walmarts, drug stores and fast-food chains. And there's the random gas stations and oddly designed mom-and-pop stores that also add to the acres of unsightly parking lots.

Like it or not, these areas end up defining a community. "No one would have planned it," Arendt said as he stood before a screenshot of a clogged retail strip in Indiana, a sight that could be anywhere in North America. "It's not planning. It's mindless zoning."

The silver lining, he said while flipping through pictures of burger joints and warehouse stores, is that many of these buildings are poorly constructed. "The good news is it will be replaced," Arendt said.

The solutions for replacing these retail nightmares are "nothing new under the sun," he said. Put parking lots behind buildings, build stores next to the street, and add sidewalks and trees for a town-like environment.

Instead of big-box stores, build multi-story and multi-use structures. This concept, sometimes referred to as "smart growth or "new urbanism," cuts down on driving, reduces parking spaces and gives a community a feeling of self-worth. "People like towns," Arendt said.

These concepts work in rural, suburban and urban areas, often simply by clustering businesses and residential areas on top of parking lots. Trees and landscaping and better signs are more appealing to businesses and shoppers.

"We should be celebrating the buildings more than the parking lots," Arendt said.

The process has worked in places such as Sudbury and Falmouth, Mass. New Jersey and North Carolina are aggressively adopting these building policies. The planning starts with adopting new zoning rules, which Arendt called "the DNA of a community." These building design standards should at the very least address front setbacks and building height and size standards. He stressed that building owners volunteer for designs once they realize the benefits. He cited South County Commons in South Kingstown, with its mix of retail, apartments and entertainment, as one of the most successfully designed shopping areas in the state.

Middletown, Bristol, Warwick and North Kingstown also are looking at ways to improve their commercial thoroughfares. "You've got a lot of towns wrestling with this and seeing what they can do," said Sheila Brush of Grow Smart Rhode Island, a nonprofit that advocates for sustainable economic development.

Developers also are seeing partnerships with planners as an area of growth. "If people want to get things done, they need to start talking with one another, not at one another," said Lawrence J. Platt, a real-estate broker and member of the Rhode Island Alliance Program, which organized the event. "There's a need here and it's unrecognized."