Monday Morning Thoughts: The City Needs to Revitalize the Downtown

By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

Davis, CA – Walk around the downtown when the students are gone and you get a better sense of what the community is up against.  Restaurants, coffee shops, bars, boutique shops, but an overall dearth of retail and energy.

For those who like the downtown as it is – I’m not sure they are really seeing what I see.  Under utilized space.  Vacant storefronts.  Declining retail.  Underutilization of space.

I know that downtown is the pride of this community, but I wonder how much of that is nostalgia and how much of it is based on everyday experiences.

I think the city recognizes this fact.  In creating the downtown plan, they have looked toward public spaces, mixed-use housing to put more people into the downtown and the form-based code.

In other pieces I have questioned whether the city can really add mixed-use housing under the current economics.

The downtown clearly needs a facelift.  Walk in the downtown you see sparse, single and double story buildings, much of it aging and not in a good way.  But in the absence of redevelopment, not sure where the money and investment is going to come from to finance it.

Creating vibrant public spaces.  Creating denser mixed use buildings makes a lot of sense.  Actually building it is more questionable.

More than that, we need to reinvigorate the retail sector of downtown.  That’s tricky.  Local retail is expensive.  People these days can shop quicker and cheaper online.

But retail is not dead.

As Forbes pointed out in an article from 2018, pre-pandemic, “It may make for intriguing headlines, but physical retail is clearly not dead. Far from it, in fact. But, to be sure, boring, undifferentiated, irrelevant and unremarkable stores are most definitely dead, dying or moving perilously close to the edge of the precipice.”

Instead Forbes argues: “While retail is going through vast disruption causing many stores to close — and quite a few malls to undergo radical transformation or bulldozing — the reality is that, at least in the U.S., shopping in physical stores continues to grow, albeit at a far slower pace than online. An inconvenient truth to those pushing the “retail apocalypse” narrative, physical store openings actually grew by more than 50% year over year. Much of this is driven by the hypergrowth of dollar stores and the off-price channel, but there is also significant growth on the part of decidedly more upscale specialty stores and the move of digitally-native brands like Warby Parker and Bonobos into brick and mortar.”

Following the pandemic, that pattern has become even more enhanced.  IN 2020, 12,200 stores in the US closed.

As one article in Medium noted, “analysts believe the repercussions of the pandemic could linger long after it subsides, estimating that roughly one in every 11 stores will close in the next five years.”

The key is a  change in shopping culture and rethinking the retail space.

Interaction over transaction.

As the article noted, “many have gotten lazy over the years, allowing their in-store experience to fall behind the times or the needs of its consumer base. Beige stores filled with endless rails of last season’s clothing, terrible music, and long queues won’t cut it anymore.”

Instead, “To remain relevant, retail stores need to focus on interaction over transaction.”

The biggest draw for experience over transaction are the same people who come to our downtown everyday anyway – the students.

The idea is rather than attempting to win -instore customers, use the physical space to generate brand awareness.

What many have found is that, “interaction with their target market was more important than the end transaction, which would likely occur online.”

This was fascinating to read.  An article that noted, “10 destination stores that chart new retail territory.”

As I read some of the bungalows and cottages along Third Street.

The article notes, “Online shopping may offer the choice and convenience that physical stores can only dream of, but nothing beats the experience of a great bricks and mortar shop. Around the world, a clutch of concept stores are redefining the retail experience by turning their homes into genuine cultural destinations where people can linger for hours – if not days – at a time.

“In some of the best concept stores, ‘shopping’ is merely incidental. Browsing an exhibition, sitting down for a coffee and putting on a record might seem like a distraction from the task at hand, but they’re part of what keeps us hooked. A true brand immersion will also fuel our digital loyalty too, encouraging us to part with our cash (if the store has an online counterpart).”

All of this got me thinking about way to reinvigorate the retail downtown.  Local business is never going to compete with the online national brands for everyday shopping.  So instead, we need to reconceptualize the downtown experience.

I keep hearing that Davis wants its Downtown to be a destination – but increasingly its not.  While the downtown plan fuses together important concepts, we need to re-think how to draw actual shoppers into the downtown and fortunately there are lots of models out there and Davis is well positioned for some of these kinds of experiences.  We just need to re-think how we approach this.

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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    1. Richard_McCann

      One writer’s opinion. I can’t speak to Danville much (only going by quickly) but Walnut Creek has a much more vibrant main street than Davis does. The other towns are way above Davis–it’s hard to believe that Davis has been put into the same company. Sebastapol is better to. Makes me wonder if VisitYolo did a good job of promotion! (And kudos to them if they did!)

      1. Ron Oertel

        Sebastapol is better to.

        You might want to check your spelling, as well as the use of the word “to”.

        But that’s not the primary point.  Davis is much larger than Sebastopol, and has a much more-substantial downtown. Sebastopol’s downtown does not compare, though it is a better area overall.

        Sebastopol is one of the original locales of “slow-growth” – much more so than Davis is. That’s one reason why it’s “better”, but not the only reason.

        I am quite familiar with that area – more than enough to spell it correctly in the first place.

  1. Richard_McCann

    We just went to Santa Monica’s 3rd Street Promenade where one can see that shopper experience on display. No off brand discount stores there. And the place was packed (albeit after Thanksgiving). There is no where in the Central Valley that has a similar experience.

    Redwood City has been considered a successful model for Davis to follow:

    1. Richard_McCann

      Ron O

      And your point is? You completely overlooked one of the points in David’s article–that a sustainable local retail sector likely will require a more vibrant shopping experience. If you don’t think that is achievable in the Central Valley, then downtown Davis will become the ghost town that you’ve been wishing for and we’ll turn into another dying Sacramento Valley community. You’re libertarian dreams will be achieved.

      1. Ron Oertel

        Instead of Santa Monica, I’d suggest that Davis copy Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills (but without the “smash and grabs” going on there, lately).  🙂

        Maybe put in some parking limited to Range Rovers (which never venture off-road). And ban any vehicle over 20 years old.

        Not sure how or why you’re attributing “libertarianism” to me, but maybe they could put one of their headquarters downtown, as well. Not sure how wealthy they are on average, but (if they are) maybe put in some fancy restaurants to cater to them.

      2. Richard_McCann

        Ron O

        3rd Street Promenade is quiet different from Rodeo Drive. Maybe you’ve missed the wide diversity that visits and shops at the Promenade. This is a great example of how a city took a rather moribund business district and turned into a regional powerhouse.

  2. Todd Edelman

    I don’t know why David likes his photo of 2nd Street so much. Is it because we imagined that downtown isn’t filled with cars, or that we want to imagine that it won’t be in the future…

    Downtown Davis is relatively lively by small, sorta suburban town standards, but why even waste time with comparisons to other towns in California? Is that how anyone at UC Davis improves upon cancer treatment or agricultural best practice, by only looking at local examples?

    1. Ron Oertel

      Wow – sorry and surprised to hear this.  I too, was wondering what happened to him – though I figured he just got sick of commenting on here for obvious reasons – as a couple of other commenters have.

      I usually viewed his comments as a total misinterpretation of what others said (sometimes including David’s comments and articles – even if I disagreed with David), but still sad to hear of this. He did sometimes provide useful information as a result of his background/association with Davis.

      I suspect that (outside of his arguments on a political blog), he was probably just like anyone else. I do know his former immediate neighbor – who of course, knew him (and had no complaints as a neighbor).

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