Podcast: Kathleen Norris, Urban Retail and What You Don’t Know Will Probably Hurt You

This podcast features one of the speakers that I have most enjoyed lately — Kathleen Norris of the Cincinnati-based, world-oriented retail real estate consulting and brokerage firm Urban Fast Forward.  I have had the pleasure of working with Kathleen on Cincinnati’s Plan Build Live initiative, and her ability to open people’s eyes to the potential and value of down-at-the-heels urban business districts has been a delight to watch.

Kathleen brings an impressive range of understanding to these districts — from a person who lived all over the world during her theater management career, I suppose you should expect  little less.  But she’s not just interesting, she’s proven.  Kathleen’s been a central player in most of the retail and restaurant development in downtown Cincinnati and Over the Rhine in the last five years — including a corner that clocked the highest rate of crime in the city in the mid-2000s, and now houses the highest concentration of drool-worthy restaurants in the city.

What I find fascinating about Kathleen’s presentation: she sees and articulates several principles of urban retail districts that actually, effectively, marry conventional (modern — as in shopping mall) retail conventions with the characteristics that make urban business districts unique.  For example:

  • The link between density of customers and retail success: you either get your density of customers from rooftops, or you get it from cars.  You have to have one or the other, and retailers cannot live without it.
  • Retail districts need store density, too.  Kathleen advises us to focus revitalization and re-tenanting efforts on one corner.  With a lazer.  Scattering those new businesses up and down a commercial corridor probably dooms them all, because they cannot reinforce each other.
  • Even existing businesses need density.  Older businesses often struggle because the location that made sense 10, 20, 50 years ago no longer puts them in reach of a strong customer base.  As we learned in Main Street many years ago, even a 100 – foot distance from one store to the next can cut off pedestrians.  Kathleen’s solution?  Move ’em to a location that will help them thrive.  Easy?  Of course not.  But it can be done.

As Ed Starkie pointed out in the last podcast, most urban neighborhoods have lost so much population density in the last 50 years that they have to re-densify their residences(or attract a whole lot of cars) to be able to support the amount of retail space that they developed back in the day.  So if we are serious about revitalizing urban business districts, perhaps the most effective strategy(and most sustainable, however you slice that) is to build the number of residents in the surrounding neighborhoods.  Easy?  Of course not.  But it can be done.

Perhaps most importantly, Kathleen points out that urban district revitalization takes, frankly, a long time.  And you have to keep moving.  Because if you don’t keep moving, you….

You’ll have to listen to find out.  Enjoy!


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