It seems like a heretical question, doesn’t it? Everybody loves Gay Street, right? It’s the best we have to offer. It was just a couple of years ago that the American Planning Association named it one of their “Top Ten Great Streets in America.” It’s slowly gotten better since then, so what’s up with that crazy question?
Well, I’ve been thinking about downtown retail a good bit since the closure of Style of Civilization. We talked a bit about some hurdles involved with gaps in the street and so on. But as I broadened the focus of my thoughts to downtown retail in general, I considered the bigger picture.
We like to think of downtown as a great shopping location. What does that mean? Generally people want to shop where there is a cluster of different kinds of shops to drift through. Whether walking or driving, we prefer groupings. That’s why we have malls. That’s why we have Turkey Creek and strip malls. We like to browse from one place to the next. We even like having our fast food clustered. You know: Hardee’s next to McDonald’s, next to Burger King and Wendy’s. They all somehow do better in that configuration.
So what does this have to do with downtown and Gay Street? Take a look at Market Square and you see a good shopping area. Despite all the restaurants, you can shop in Bliss, Bliss Home, Bluetique, Coldstream Market, Earth to Old City, Earthbound Trading Company, Fizz, and the Peanut Shop. Pretty good. Union Avenue isn’t bad, either, with Rala, Urban Outfitters, CitiFid-o (soon), Nothing Too Fancy, The Tree and Vine, Union Avenue Books and Reruns Boutique.
But what about our premier street? Our great street? Our main drag? Let’s check it out starting on the Gay Street Bridge. We’ll say I’m walking into downtown via the Gay Street Bridge and I’m ready to do some shopping. What do I find?
I step off the bridge and onto the 900 block of South Gay. To my left (west) is the City/County Building and the old Courthouse, to my right (east) is the Andrew Johnson Building and an office tower. Not a good start, but it’s early. Let’s keep walking.
The 800 block offers the back end of the federal courthouse and the Bijou Theatre on the western side and another office tower to the east. I haven’t shopped, yet. The 700 block has a massive surface parking lot on the western side and quite a number of businesses on the eastern side. Ready to shop? Not so fast, my friend. The businesses include three restaurants, three different law offices, an accountant, a hair salon, an empty store front, the Flower Pot Florist and a small parking lot.
The 600 block has Sun Trust Bank and the East Tennessee History Center on the western side. The eastern side offers the KUB building, two more attorney offices, an insurance business, the Tennessee Theatre and a bar. It does offer the first likely place to browse in Rick Terry Jewelers.
So, we’ve hit one shopping spot in the first four blocks, but it’s bound to get better, right? Not yet. The 500 block features the Holston Building, Krutch Park and another office building to the west. The eastern side is packed with four restaurants, two architectural offices, a movie theater and another hair salon. No shopping. One shopping spot in the first five blocks.
The 400 block of S. Gay Street is probably the city’s most complete block. To the west is Region’s Bank, J’s Mega Mart, two bars and one liquor store, a street-fronted residence and two places to shop: Morelock’s and Pioneer House. Not exactly mainstream shopping, but if you are into western wear and prints or musical instruments, they are both fun. The eastern side has three (soon) restaurants, a coffee shop/cleaners and an empty building. It also has a couple of places to shop in Mast General Store and the Art Market. That’s four places to shop on one block! Now we’re cooking, right? That makes five stops in six blocks!
The 300 block features the TVA Credit Union, an architectural/development business, an empty storefront, a dentist, a residence, the Visitor’s Center and three parking lots. No shopping.
The 200 block doesn’t exist.
The 100 block is, perhaps, the most beautiful of the lot. The buildings have a pretty awesome mix of architectural styles that somehow seem to work together. Many of us felt after the work completed there a few years ago that this block would take off. It’s the block that recently lost Style of Civilization.
So what’s there? Well, lots of offices on the street. Advertising, mortgage, development, promotion, real estate, construction and web design. If people browsed offices, it would be great. Three very good restaurants line the western side. Each side features art galleries that are open limited hours. There’s an office furniture store, but most of us wouldn’t browse there. Street-level residences and a courtyard take up part of the block. Five empty storefronts await the right business.
Is there shopping? Yes, but not one full-time shop. I think of a full time business as open about twelve hours a day, say 9:00 AM to 9:00 PM with one day off each week. That would be seventy-two hours. Lululemon, offering exercise wear is open 22 hours a week. Both Patricia Nash and Nouveau Classics, selling purses and furniture do not depend on in-store sales and have had extremely limited hours which reflect that. Recently, they each seem to be making more of an effort to offer more hours. Patricia Nash is now open 38 hours a week and Nouveau Classics is open 28 hours a week, still pretty limited.
I’ll stop there, but there is no shopping through the rest of Gay Street all the way through to Broadway with the exception of one furniture store.
So from the Gay Street Bridge to the viaduct over the tracks, probably over half a mile, through nine city blocks, there are seven places to shop. I know you could quibble about the gifts available in the Flower Pot, French Market, East Tennessee History Center and the Visitor’s Center. Someone might wander into a gallery and buy some art. But seven places in nine blocks? There are eight on Market Square and seven in the three block stretch of Union Avenue.
I realize there are some very important businesses I’m not focusing on, such as having dentist on Gay Street, which I think is big. Also, some of those offices house some of my favorite businesses. But should they front Gay Street? Is that the best use of our real estate? Will that get people to drive downtown? Enhance a tourist experience? Provide needed items for residents and, so, attract more? I don’t think so.
I’m suggesting we not get too pleased with ourselves and the accolades Gay Street has received, for example, and really get busy trying to build significant clusters of retail. What if the city offered tax incentives to developers who bring in more retail? What if the city offered incentives to businesses to locate downtown? What if developers made the early stages of the new business operations more affordable by reducing rent? It will help them in the long run because with new residents and new businesses crowding downtown their property will only become more valuable.
We can start by targeting the empty spaces – five of them on the 100 block, alone. That, along with the two retail businesses there already would make a good retail cluster. It would be only one store less than all of Market Square.
There are other empty store-fronts along Gay Street. After filling those spaces, we need to seriously look at the offices located on our main thoroughfare. I know it’s nice for them, and I realize we may not have had retail businesses fighting for spaces before and that filled them and generated rent, but it’s time to up our game. I’ve heard potential business owners complain about the lack of small retail space downtown. We have it. We just call them “offices.” It’s time for that to change. If it doesn’t we may well continue to have retail islands that simply can’t sustain themselves.