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.

BwohhM0IgAAl84Y
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

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG

Anthony Foxx Wants to Repair the Damage Done By Urban Highways

|
Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx is offering a surprisingly honest appraisal of America’s history of road construction this week, with a high-profile speaking tour that focuses on the damage that highways caused in black urban neighborhoods. Growing up in Charlotte, Foxx’s own street was walled in by highways, he recalled in a speech today at the Center for American Progress. Building big, grade-separated roads through […]

The Crossroads of the World Goes Car-Free

|
I’ve lived in New York City for just about twenty years now but yesterday was my first trip to Times Square. Sure, I’ve been to Times Square before. Plenty of times. But until yesterday Times Square had never ever been a destination for me. Rather, it had always been a place to avoid or, if […]

Jan Gehl: New York Could Have World’s Best Streets

|
When DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, together with consultant and Danish urban planner Jan Gehl,  introduced the new "World Class Streets" doc [PDF] to a crowd of over 300 last Thursday evening at the Center for Architecture, the event seemed equal parts town hall meeting and celebrity book launch. Building upon PlaNYC and DOT’s Sustainable Streets, […]

MassDOT Mistake: How Not to Rebuild Main Street

|
This op-ed was written for the Berkshire Record, where it is being published in two parts, last week and this week. John Massengale is co-author of Street Design, The Art & Practice of Making Complete Streets (Wiley & Sons, 2013) and New York 1900, Metropolitan Architecture and Urbanism, 1890-1915 (Rizzoli, 1983). He is an architect and urbanist in New […]