Tuesday, June 7, 2016

What Works for Small Businesses? Strip Malls, Big Box, Corridors and Districts

Last week I wrote a post about starting a business in a suburban location. I received some feedback in person and from a commenter and I wanted to address some of that.

First, here is the comment from Mr. Milne:

I'm no expert, but maybe the willingness of suburbanites to drive to a particular place might have an impact on its viability? In my suburban hometown of St. Albert in Alberta, many of our businesses are concentrated along the main highway that runs through the city on its way into and out of Edmonton, or on roads that branch off it. While driving everywhere to shop isn't always ideal, sometimes it's necessary if you have something that's too big or unwieldy to carry on foot or on a bicycle. 
As for downtowns, Edmonton has its Whyte Avenue. However, I very rarely go down there because parking is such a pain in the ass, and traffic is so heavy. At the St. Albert strip malls, I find that I usually have more choice about which exit to use when I get back on the road. 
Just some thoughts from a suburbanite.

So, I followed up on his feedback. I've never been to St. Albert, Alberta, but with the power of Google Streetview I took a look.

This is Highway 2 in St. Albert. If I am not mistaken it is the road Mr. Milne was referring to. From the highway interchange to the middle of St. Albert the highway is mostly lined with commercial businesses. While the form is the strip mall that I talked about in the initial piece the city planners have clearly designated Highway 2 as a commercial corridor. A commercial corridor is a street that is overwhelming dedicated to retail, entertainment and other services. This has a certain beneficial effect. In essence a long, thin district is created that residents know can serve their needs. It is not dissimilar to the main drag of a downtown where the most prominent businesses are placed. A certain economy of scale kicks in because people looking to do shopping will be drawn to Highway 2. This concentrates customers and gives the businesses a larger pool of clients to work with.

However, many of my criticisms of strip mall development stand. I presume the speed limit on Highway 2 to be around 60 km/h. Even using Google Streetview I find it difficult to identify the businesses tucked beyond the parking lot, especially because other buildings at times obscure them. I also note that while there are a few independent businesses that the vast majority in this strip mall are chains/franchises.

My hometown of Brampton has a couple of commercial corridors, but they are not consistent and tend to be interrupted by residential areas or parks so that their corridor nature is impeded. The two strongest examples though are Queen Street and Kennedy Road. Below is Kennedy Road:

Kennedy Road between Steeles Avenue and Queen Street is dotted with commercial development. What makes it interesting to me though is that the vast majority of businesses are independent, small businesses. Follow the Streetview map north from where it began. You'll notice very few chains. You may also notice that the vast majority are owned or cater to the South Asian or West Indian communities. The parking lots are narrower on Kennedy Road so the businesses are closer to the street to it is easier to see what's inside. The units seem quite small and densely packed, particularly if you look at a complex at Kennedy and Clarencewhich is 2-3 stories.  Ironically what makes Kennedy Road work for small businesses is that it is undesirable. Kennedy is beside an industrial area, you may have noticed the warehouses, and is considered a less affluent part of the city overall.

As opposed to corridors there are shopping complexes. They are islands of commercial activity, usually along a highway. Here is one on Bovaird in Brampton near Mount Pleasant.

Not exactly easy to see what's inside without entering, is it? There is a slightly better building slightly to the east that's closer to the street and contains a number of independent businesses. However, these big box developments cater to large, well-established chains that work best when you know what a McDonald's or a Fortino's already is.  

I think when people read my criticisms about suburban life they think I mean we should all live in Toronto, that I am just one more millennial that wants to live in the big city and resents my dull suburban upbringing. That is not at all the cases. Sometimes I think the best urban environments I have been in are in small and mid-sized cities. In cities like this it is achievable to enjoy an urban environment with much reduced traffic and issues parking if you need to drive. Let's look at a city I know very well, St. Catharines.

This is St. Paul Street in St. Catharines, the main street of its downtown. The majority of businesses in the area are independent. Given that St. Catharines is a college town a good number of them are bars and restaurants, but that is not unusual for a downtown. If you look elsewhere you will find on King Street more service-oriented businesses, such as law firms and banks. Businesses are clearly visible from the street, the area is well served by public transit and pedestrians and cyclists have an easy time moving around. While it is a quiet time of day and year, you see many more people walking around Downtown St. Catharines than in either of the corridors or the complex above.

I am sure a planner or business expert could better explain the process but it seems to me that commercial districts (like a downtown) and to a lesser extent commercial corridors offer small businesses opportunity that isolated strip malls outside of corridors or large complexes do not. Buildings in a downtown tend to be flexible and can serve multiple purposes. They can have rental housing in them to help keep costs down and build up the local consumer market. Districts can cater to niche interests because they are gathering together a large group of people and not asking people to come to them. Close proximity to the street gives them free advertising that is missed if cars are whipping by at 60-80 km/h. If the drive is your primary concern it should be noted that wide avenues draw traffic and one has to drive from store to store, while in a denser setting it is reasonable to park centrally and walk between stops. When was the last time you walked store to store at a big box complex? Not to mention trying to make a left turn out of a strip mall onto a busy avenue is a personal nightmare for me. Putting aside any ideology or preferences just look at the numbers. Where are there more independent businesses? What message is that sending us, and then one should consider why it is occurring.


Jared Milne said...

Ha, thanks for the response.

I should have considered the chain/franchise stores along Highway 2, which is indeed the road I was talking about. I was thinking more about my recent experiences at the frame shop that framed up some of my maps, or the barber shop I regularly go to, as well as the businesses I see

If you lived in St. Albert, then Perron Street would be a place you'd probably want to consider. Mostly small businesses, with a few professional spots (e.g., psychology, art galleries), almost a dead ringer for your display of St. Paul's Street. You can get everything from handcrafted furniture (until recently, as that one closed down this year) to driving lessons to bicycle repairs to tattoos there, although the turnover is pretty high. And even in the strip malls along St. Albert Trail (a local name for Highway 2) there's everything from the previously mentioned frame shop to things like lawnmower repair.

In regards to what people think about your criticisms of suburbia, I can say I've never gotten that from your writings. I have gotten that vibe from some people, particularly those who decry the suburbs as bland, boring and soulless, but not you. I wouldn't keep coming back to read your blogs week after week if I did. ;)

SJL said...

Jared, I would have asked your permission first, but I had no convenient way to get in contact.

Perron Street does seem more like the type of area friendlier to independent businesses. Turnover is okay, small businesses struggle and they are a risk. As long as the places don't stay empty for long it indicates that the neighbourhood is healthy.

Thanks very much for the feedback!