Improving Suburban Downtowns

IMG_0596The Village of Larchmont has two downtowns. One is focused around the commuter train station and the other along a six lane state road. Last week, working with my colleague, David Milder of DANTH (, I was asked to make a presentation about improving the downtowns to a group of local residents. The group was engaged and thoughtful. The talk was as much about improving the experience of living in this highly regarded commuter suburb (where the quality-of-life is already quite high). The catalyst for our being asked to present the talk was the number of empty storefronts along the main shopping streets. The link to our presentation is here: Larchmont Power Point

The commercial center at the transportation hub has excellent “bones.” It was interesting to think about and attempt to analyze why it has the number of empty stores that it does. What struck us in walking around was how many cars and how few people we saw on a Saturday. The downtown has a number of municipal lots and quite a bit of curbside parking. Both are unmetered and have a two-hour limit. While most of the spaces were full, there were enough empty ones to be able to say that anyone coming to the downtown could reasonably find a space. But where were the people?


Palmer Avenue Streetscape

Palmer Avenue, the main street near the train station, is a four lane (with two lanes of parking), low capacity street. Most of the retail is one story, with only a small number of national chains. The vernacular architecture is of high quality and the retail signs are for the most part actually understated. There are a few restaurants, but the activity in those eating and drinking establishments was blocked to the street by small windows and the treatments covering them. A thoughtful sidewalk improvement program had recently been implemented with quality surface treatments, benches and trees (which, being newly planted, were quite small).

The Boston Post Road is a main thoroughfare, with heavy, fast moving traffic, narrow sidewalks and a good many blank walls. Just beyond the downtown, on either approach, the Road is lined with strip malls, mid-box retailers and other pedestrian unfriendly uses. The civic center, with the library and village hall, are just off the Road. We were told that occupancy rates and rents were higher here than on Palmer – no doubt due to the traffic counts.


A “parklet” in San Francisco.

Our suggestions were centered on creating and activating public spaces. We urged that the area allocated between cars and people be rebalanced in favor of pedestrians. As Fred Kent says, if you design for cars and traffic you get cars and traffic: if you design for people and places, you get people and places. Our message was based on David’s concept of “The New Normal” in retail. That is, that consumer retail habits are in the process of radical change as a result of the internet and generally lower levels of consumer spending. Downtowns and retailers need to adapt to those changes by providing an enhanced social experience for consumers and by exploiting multiple distribution channels. We urged folks to think about generating more activity BETWEEN the stores, by putting out movable tables and chairs, creating parklets in the street bed, encouraging food and beverage purveyors to put tables and chairs out on the sidewalk for as much of the year as possible, and to think about creating a regular schedule of public events. We also talked about animating empty stores through temporary uses like art studios and galleries – or even moving the continuing education program that presented the talk into an empty space downtown (rather than in the high school library).

People aren’t now so much looking to simply window shop as a leisure activity – we believe that they are looking for positive social interaction with their neighbors; even in forms as simple as people watching! That’s what will get them away from their monitors and into the downtown.


A view down the Post Road in Larchmont

The downtown already had a highly successful seasonal greenmarket in a train station parking lot on the other side of the tracks from the Palmer Avenue. We suggested thinking about moving it to a more central location on the other side of the tracks – perhaps even in a closed street. We also recommended thinking about how to improve the pedestrian experience in crossing the tracks – which serves as a barrier between residential neighborhoods and the downtown. The wide and long bridge over the tracks is over-designed for the car traffic it carries, has no shade and feels deserted and exposed. We suggested thinking about revising downtown zoning to increase residential density. More people living downtown creates more pedestrian customers for retail. Larchmont’s rail station, with access to commercial centers in both Manhattan and Fairfield countries presents an attractive opportunity for mixed-use, mixed-income transit oriented develop. Village-owned flat parking lots present a valuable opportunity for development (with the developed lots being replaced with well-designed parking structures on other lots in order to maintain the number of available spaces).

One of the interesting facts that came out in the discussion after my talk is that commercial property ownership in Larchmont is both diverse and absentee. Community leaders talked about their frustrating experiences trying to reach the owners of buildings with empty retail space. They somewhat surprisingly found that some long-time owners, who were based outside of the region, didn’t seem to be much interested in aggressively marketing their spaces. Also problematic was the presence of an empty single screen movie theater in the downtown – something characteristic of first-ring/streetcar suburbs around the country. What to us is particularly challenging about an empty theater is finding a use that activates the theater on a daily basis. Movie theaters that have been taken over by communities for use as local arts centers have generally presented an insufficient level of activity for them to once again to become an asset to the downtown. The theater in Larchmont has an addition wrinkle in that it has changed hands, and the prior operator included a restrictive declaration in its transfer of title to the present owner, prohibiting its use for showing first run films.

Larchmont has the benefit of being the home to many high net worth families, and the capacity likely exists in the community for acquiring those underutilized assets and repositioning them – with progressive community leadership and the right structures in place. It has been my experience that the best way to deal with passive ownership that is creating negative external effects is either to bring to them a potential tenant that is so attractive that it is difficult/impossible to turn the opportunity down; or to buy the current owner out at a handsome price and reposition the property through adaptive reuse so as to enhance its value to an active investor. Both of these are certainly challenging to organize – but worth the effort for key properties.

Larchmont is already an attractive community and a very desirable place to live. The impact of making its downtowns more active as a result of making them more pedestrian friendly and creating an improved social experience would likely push its appeal off the charts!


Some data about demographics and retailers in communities similar to Larchmont complied by David is included below:



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