Fixing a Blank Wall Streetscape With Storefront Retrofits

Every city has places where the buildings present a blank face to the sidewalk. A dark, recessed arcade deadening the pedestrian environment or a soulless concrete wall fronting a windswept plaza.

Consultant Brent Toderian, formerly the planning director for the city of Vancouver, pointed out a cheap and easy solution to this problem. He calls them “blank wall retrofits,” storefronts that can be inserted over blank walls to add sidewalk-facing retail. He tweeted this great example in Calgary, Alberta: 

Via Brent Toderian
Via Brent Toderian

This retrofit fits between the lobby and plaza of the brutalist Westin Calgary and the sidewalk.

“It’s a great technique for dealing with fundamentally flawed architecture that presents blank walls to streets and public places,” Toderian says. “Unlike ‘make-up on a pig’ — e.g. murals — this fundamentally changes the street edge condition. The pig is no longer a pig. It potentially changes un-urban to urban.”

We reached out to our readers to find more success stories. Here’s what they sent us.

Arlington, Virginia

On Crystal Drive in Arlington, Virginia, a blank wall has been transformed into a walkable streetscape. Photo: Google Maps
On Crystal Drive in Arlington, Virginia, a blank wall was transformed into a more inviting streetscape that engages with the sidewalk. Photo: Google Maps

This one in Arlington, Virginia, comes from Dan Malouff at BeyondDC. The retrofit was completed in the early aughts. Below you can see another corner of the “2200 Building” that has not been retrofitted.

In this case, the 2200 Building contains an indoor mall. Many of these types of retrofits reach inside the building and make better use of the lobby or other first floor space.

Photo: Google Maps
Photo: Google Maps

Minneapolis

Sam Newberg sent us this example from Minnesota, which sought to make a traditional department store design more welcoming and people-friendly. At the Nicollet Mall in downtown Minneapolis, “the city simply worked with retailers to build two retail storefronts stuck on the building’s exterior,” Newberg writes on Streets.mn.

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Image: Streets.mn

Toronto

This retrofit enlivens the area along the brutalist Manulife Centre building in Toronto’s Yorkville neighborhood. It was sent to us by Gil Meslin.

Photo:Gil Meslin via Twitter
Photo: Gil Meslin via Twitter

Here’s a shot of the building from a different angle, before the add-on — not very inviting.

Photo: BlogTO
Photo: BlogTO

Chicago

Here’s an especially good example from the Windy City. This retail space was added where a garage used to sit. As you can see, bicyclists are taking good advantage of the more inviting place that was created.

Photo: Google Maps
Photo: Google Maps

We don’t have a “before” photo of this building, but here’s a look at the other half, which is still a garage, for a sense of what it used to be like.

Photo: Google Maps
Photo: Google Maps
  • Gezellig
  • Patrick Bowers

    Recently finished project which includes mixed income apartments and retail. They still have some funky parking for cars which cuts out space. But it is a big improvement.
    https://www.google.com/maps/@39.7738714,-86.1486519,3a,75y,324.13h,93.14t/data=!3m4!1e1!3m2!1sDjwUsnzzhZ364N9W3lw-XQ!2e0!6m1!1e1?hl=en

  • Hi

    Angie, are you insane or just a hateful elitist snob? Stop this nonsense immediately! You complain that walls are ¨soulless¨? Walls are inanimate objects; they will never have souls no matter how much money you spend on them.

    People have souls, and you are devoting yourself to devilish manipulations of much-needed urban space in order to prevent needy people from using blank walls by public sidewalks to sit, hold up a sign, or just rest.

    Every one of your proposals makes urban spaces more soulless, not less. Shame on you!

  • Wewilliewinkleman

    I cant say any of these are much of an improvement and all of them will become dated and stale at some point. Certainly the one with the Starbucks could have been an inviting public plaza. Now it appears that it hogs the sidewalk pedestrian spaces. But if you think this is quality in fill development, oh well.

  • Mike B

    A small public plaza on private property isn’t all too useful for the things that make a public plaza great in an urban environment (random gatherings, protests, music, fairs, markets, etc). 6pm rolls around, time to kick people out.

    Looking at the Arlington example, the before image is just pitiful. Who on earth would want to be in that space? It’s open, uninviting, cold, and lacks the appropriate cover that makes people feel safe. People obviously weren’t attracted to the space. Otherwise, they would have left it as-is. The after at least has some activity and puts the space to use.

  • In Berlin they seemed to have figured this out long ago — the elevated S-Bahn trains often have shops and restaurants underneath.

  • Wewilliewinkleman

    Wrong. At some point in the past the city wanted set backs and greening. So when the building was built that’s what it got. The developer figured by bumping out the building and adding ground floor tenants, the could make more money. Plain and simple.

  • Mike B

    She’s making a lot of sense. You might be the insane one, suggesting we keep our space open for people to lie around rather than use them or make them more attractive to everyone in the community.

  • Mike B

    So, how is that bad? Building owner gets money, more tax revenue into city coffers, we remove some greening that was clearly unattractive (and replaced with some lovely streetscaping), and now it’s an active storefront that could support people outside 9-5 hours. Sounds all good to me.

    You have an interesting reality yet didn’t address any of the points I made. How is building setbacks and a (presumably) a greedy building owner so “plain and simple”? Seems a stretch considering such plazas are often an architects signature on a design and building setbacks are often quite complex and up for negotiation on large building projects.

    So, lets be real here and cut the BS, if you lived or worked there, would you rather have the before or after?

  • Wewilliewinkleman

    If I lived or worked there… what would I rather have? Not my place to judge. I can’t say one is better that the other. I do know that what you consider an improvement may for this time seem wonderful, just like what was orginally built was good for its time. But things change.

    I dont believe the building owners are greedy. What they are doing makes perfect economic sense. But I also don’t believe the fantasy that these building owners are doing what they are doing because they are trailblazing with the “urbanists” to creat street walls and vibrancy. Its dollars and cents. The boring facade of a Chevy Chase bank lobby hardly creates an exciting urban environment for me.

    Most of the junk being plastered in front of these buildings may seem great to you, but to me they are a homginized blend of blah. Putting junky facades on buildings may breathe new life into some areas. But 30 years down the line people may again wonder why we didnt keep some public space open when we had the chance.

  • Jacob Lynn

    An honest question: would you prefer to be in any of the places in the “before” pictures vs the “after” pictures?

  • Gezellig

    It’s not necessarily either/or.

    Besides, what good is a capacious public space that’s so uninviting no one uses it? All the open public space of Brasilia comes to mind:

    http://news.bbcimg.co.uk/media/images/63083000/jpg/_63083743_brasilia_road.jpg

    Or Schouwburgplein in Rotterdam, another public-space fail:

    http://motelmozaique.nl/wp-content/uploads/2010/03/schouwbergplein_rotterdam_01_xlarge.jpg

    Btw, loss of sidewalk space in some of the examples cited can be compensated for by later road diets or even closing roads to cars. The full car width of a lot of roads is not set in stone.

  • Wewilliewinkleman

    I just want to know how those very large palm trees survive the harsh Minnesota winters? Are you sure this is the former Daytons, now Macys in Minneapolis? Any hey I love the Starsky and Hutch vehicles in the Toronto photo. Classic 80s.

  • what_eva

    The Chicago one isn’t “where a garage used to sit”. The entire building is a parking garage across the street from the Sears Tower. It is very common in Chicago to have first floor retail (sometimes 2 or 3 floors), then floors of parking, then something else above. This building (and another 2 blocks south) are just parking above the retail. These are not recent retrofits, I’m not 100% sure, but it’s likely they were deliberately built this way.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    One of the neatest places in Zurich is the Viadukt where lots of shops and bars and restaurants are built into the archways under the railroad.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    Which is apparently new enough that google street view doesn’t depict it. But it’s been there since 2010 at least.

  • Joe

    Photo is Paseo de Colorado in Pasadena, CA. Macy’s closed about a year ago.

  • Wewilliewinkleman

    Thanks. That clears that up. I read the linked article. Regarding the mall, I think Mary Tyler Moore threw her hat there. In the 70s Minneapolis was very proud of its tunnels and bridges connecting its downtown buildings. My comments stand. What is great one decade isn’t always what works 20 years or more on. Some of the so called urbanist ideas may be stale or failures years hence. There is no way we can predict the future. Many folks say ban autos from Michigan Avenue in Chicago. Turn it into a mall with transit. It could work. But after a few years it could be a misrable failure like State Street was.

  • Wanderer

    In San Francisco and the Bay Area a lot of older buildings have what I call “commercial extensions.” They were built as residential, but as the street became commercial, property owners wanted to take advantage of that and built forward to the sidewalk line. They’re usually not aesthetically beautiful, but they do help create continuous retail frontage along the sidewalk. The Calgary Starbucks is very much in that tradition, though it’s extending a much bigger building.

  • Gezellig

    It’s true some design practices come and go, but certain core principles of successful urbanism are pretty constant the world over and across the centuries.

    Sidewalk-level walkable retail is a variation on a theme that’s been successful the world over across the centuries–from Middle Eastern bazaars to Asian street markets to the twisting medieval streets of Barcelona and the bustling retail corridors of SoHo in Manhattan. People flock to other people, and the great majority of humanity has and still enjoys doing it on foot at least part of the time. Even if they’re not currently actively trying to buy something. It’s people-watching.

    Though the design implementations may vary in how they do it (a shopping street in Copenhagen is a bit different in details from one in Seoul from one in Casablanca), the core principles are the same and don’t tend to change much over time.

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