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Commentaryby Gerald Neily8:39 amApr 16, 20120

Downtown Baltimore’s best buy: Thinking outside the big box

How do urban retailers thrive? With a great environment that’s been road-tested by residents, businesses and institutions.

Above: Big-box retailing in Baltimore just got smaller with the announced closing of the Best Buy store in the Inner Harbor.

Downtown Partnership President J. Kirby Fowler probably didn’t realize it, but he was quoting me when he said “retailers come and go” in a weekend news article about the end of the Inner Harbor Best Buy store.

I said the same thing about the retailers right across Pratt Street in a Brew story of two years ago: “Harborplace tenants will come and go. . .”

The same was true of Filene’s, which occupied the now-empty space right underneath Best Buy. And the Brokerage Mall around the corner on Market Place.

Then there was the Convention Center Mall up Pratt Street, originally anchored by Hutzler’s. And Morton’s Department Store, which occupied the space built for another Hutzler’s at Howard and Lexington, which had previously been Hochschild Kohn, across the street from the defunct Stewart’s and Hecht’s, and so on.

But Fowler was being awfully sanguine about not being worried about losing downtown’s preeminent big-box store after only six years, considering that the city has been trying unsuccessfully over twice that long to lure big-box stores to the so-called “Superblock” at Howard and Lexington.

After all that effort, how would he feel if a Superblock anchor only lasted six years?

The bottom line is that retail is the most difficult nut to crack in the development business, and suburbs have a huge built-in advantage in that it’s very easy for developers to slavishly copy what has already been shown to work, be it malls, mini-malls, strip centers, big boxes, towne centres, power centers, pseudo-main streets, pad sites, etc. – all surrounded by vast seas of free-and-easy parking.

That is why 15 of the 16 Best Buy stores that will be retained regionally are in the suburbs, and the one exception, at Hunt Valley, is just a short drive up York Road from the Timonium store.

Cities are Different

Cities are organisms that grow as unique environments – and die the same way. There is no simple template to be mindlessly replicated.

The Downtown Partnership and Baltimore Development Corp. (BDC) thought they had the answer four years ago when they announced a new Pratt Street plan with a gigantic 650,000 square feet of retail and commercial space, using Best Buy/Filene’s as the template.

And that’s in addition to the Superblock retail project just a few blocks away.

Baltimore’s most successful retail developer, David Cordish, who turned the defunct Brokerage into Power Plant Live, scoffed at the time. He called the Partnership-BDC’s plan “absurd.”

Two years later, Walmart quietly decided it would rather be several miles north of Pratt Street at 25th Street Station, another big-box plan that’s been approved by the city, but is still not off the drawing board.

Urban Retail is Organic

Fowler and the BDC need to learn a fundamental lesson. It makes no sense for the city to bet its future on retail – then try to impose its creation from high above.

By itself, retail space does not create a great environment. Ground-level retail has become a cliché. It is particularly pathetic every time Baltimore builds an awful parking garage, and then deludes itself that carving out some ground-level retail space will mitigate the awfulness. Even the proposed monster convention arena is being touted as environmentally sensitive on the basis of adding more ground-level retail space.

The city instead needs to focus on creating a great urban environment, not on wheeling and dealing in retail space.

Pratt Street is not a great environment. Harborplace and the waterfront turn their back on it, and traffic keeps getting worse. Earth berms and overhead walkways don’t help, but they’re not to blame either.

Little bits of the Pratt Street plan are being implemented as opportunities avail themselves, and this makes some sense.

The Pratt Street bikeway being built is not great, since it will still have serious conflicts with service access, but it’s just as good as what was originally in the grandiose plan. Moreover, an annual Grand Prix probably makes the huge proposed makeover at Pratt and Light quite difficult.

Many people want to live, work and be downtown. Many more will want to if and when they discover how attractive it could be.

Thus we get back to the lesson on how to create sustainable retail: Focus first on creating an environment that has been nurtured and road-tested by residents, businesses and institutions. Only then will retailers thrive serving it.

The demise of the Best Buy puts all that in perspective. If downtown tries to live by the big box, it can also die by the big box.

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