NORWALK, Conn. – The science of parking and designing retail centers – also known, in some cases, as malls – was shared with Norwalk movers and shakers Monday night by a consultant hired by the Norwalk Redevelopment Agency.
To hear Robert Gibbs tell it, a properly designed mall could regenerate SoNo.
“As a rule of thumb, having a strong regional anchor would bring a lot of people here,” Gibbs said to about 50 people gathered in a lobby at 50 Washington St. “Those people would fill your restaurants and your shops. You would probably have better shopping than you do now, if it’s designed well, and I would be really careful about the design. But the new ways they are designing malls are much better than when I was designing them back in the ’90’s.”
Gibbs has been hired by the RDA to evaluate an expected proposal to build a mall on the 95/7 site on West Avenue, RDA Senior Project Manager Susan Sue Sweitzer said. The talk, which was, in part, to promote his book, “Principles of Urban Retail Planning and Development,” didn’t quite go off without a hitch (a projector could not communicate with Gibbs’ laptop) but there was plenty for the assembled former and current zoning commissioners, developers and interested citizens to absorb in the 90-minute presentation.
Gibbs said it was odd that parking garages in SoNo are more expensive than on-street parking – it should be the other way around, he said.
As a rule of thumb, parking garages should be free, or have the first two hours free, he said. It’s a reward for parking further away, he said.
“When people park, it’s important to see the front of the store from the car,” he said, at one point.
“Time has become the new luxury,” he said. “If you can provide to your shopper a place to park in front of the store or a few stores away, they will pay to do that. As long as they have a free lot or very inexpensive lot to park away.”
Gibbs said he didn’t agree with news reports that proclaim that the concept of a mall is dying. About 25 percent of malls have closed, but, “That’s generally because they are in very poor market areas,” he said.
About 25 percent of malls are “doing extremely well,” he said. About 9 percent of sales are over the Internet, and don’t offer the instant gratification, he said.
“It’s a format that is going to be around for a very long time,” he said. Malls are being developed to be more walkable, he said, with openings to the exterior and a main street running along the side.
Zoning Commissioner Michael O’Reilly asked him about the prospects of a mall in Norwalk.
“You are an extremely strong market demographically,” he said, referring to Southwest Connecticut. “I have worked with other developers that wanted to get into these general markets but they couldn’t find a site. But you are considered one of the best markets on the East Coast… I have a gut feeling that you could probably support a very good mall here or some other format, whether it’s enclosed or open air.”
A well-designed mall would likely bring shoppers who don’t come here already, he said. In his experience, people shop for two hours and then look to explore nearby areas, if it’s a mall that is not built as a fortress, he said. They go to the local restaurants and specialty shops, he said.
“I don’t think there would be many local stores that would close and go into the mall,” he said. “They’re different categories of use. What I have seen in other locations is the malls are very good at leasing. They have people that are, you know, the world class of leasing and they will go out and really hype up Norwalk as being the greatest place to open up a store since you know, whenever, Fifth Avenue. They will go out and really promote this … We have found that a lot of the retailers we talk to get excited about that market and then go into the downtown and open a store. Then you see really great shops that wouldn’t come here on their own. I don’t see a big negative right now, although depending on the design and the way it is laid out there could be big negatives.”
But, if a mall wasn’t built here, was instead built five miles away, that would be a negative, he said.
“Then it would pull people away from the downtown and you wouldn’t get any of that spinoff,” he said.
Most developers now realize that what is good for the local business and the area residents is good for them, he said.
But malls need an anchor, a big store to draw people, he said. One third of the people walking around malls came to visit the anchor store, he said. Experiments in building malls without an anchor did not work, he said, as department store owners “wised up” and began offering better service, drawing people away from those malls.
Funny thing – people are moving back to the cities, he said.
Department stores are moving back into urban areas, he said. “A lot of the bigger chains are building urban models,” he said. Walmart and Target both have half-size city versions of their stores now. That’s because, before the recession, developers built big stores in farmland, expecting subdivisions to spring up around them. It didn’t happen.
“They never hit their sales projections. So a lot of retailers are saying now I want to locate in the middle of a city where I can actually count real people,” he said. “… There is a new way of looking at urban retail. It’s positive. I think you’ll see a lot of retail coming back to the cities.”