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Detroit’s neighborhoods now have an opportunity to holistically redefine themselves as unique commercial districts serving their surrounding residents. To do this, retail should be concentrated and clustered so that businesses benefit from shared foot traffic and catalyze additional investments along neighborhood main streets.

Vibrant commercial corridors are:

Concentrated: Retail environments work better when storefronts make up a continuous row, uninterrupted by blank walls, driveways, and other gaps in the fabric. Additionally, retail thrives in areas that are bookended by gateways to distinguish the commercial district from the surrounding neighborhood.

Double-sided: When both sides of a street include occupied retail, retailers have the greatest exposure to pedestrian and vehicular traffic by taking advantage of activity on both sides of the street.

Customer Adjacent: Retail establishments benefit from being as close to their customers as possible and prefer to be adjacent to sidewalks full of pedestrians, not placed behind parking lots or across a large open space. Minimizing distance between travel routes (sidewalks, streets) and storefronts maximizes a store or restaurant’s visibility.

Accessible: Retailers thrive in locations that have the lowest number of obstacles between a potential customer and the front door. Impediments to customer accessibility include grade changes, ramps, parking spaces, curb cuts, and others.

Highly Visible: Not every street is a main street and not every location is a retail location. Highly visible corner lots on streets that have high traffic counts – and therefore high visibility – are a starting point for determining which places are suitable for retail concentrations.

Traffic Leveraging: Traffic can be a benefit to retail environments, as long as it is “behaving” – moving slowly, balanced with other modes, and reflective of pedestrian and bicycle activity. “Fixing” a traffic problem by allowing traffic to move too quickly through a retail environment can make vibrancy difficult. Retailers want to know their store is on a busy street, but not a congested thoroughfare.

Parking Provided: Tenants need opportunities to attract customers arriving by every available transportation mode – car, bus, on foot, bicycle – and having enough parking nearby is vital. On-street parking immediately in front of shops, centralized parking that allows for a “park once” experience, and excellent way-finding for mid- block parking are all techniques that can accommodate customers’ needs, although there is not a “one size fits all” solution.

Uncluttered: Retail environments can suffer if that streetscape is overpopulated with fixtures and furnishings. A sidewalk’s furniture, plantings or patterns can create difficulties in travel and direct access to shops. Benches should face towards shops to encourage patronage. Trees should not obscure or block signage. Outdoor seating should be placed curbside, ensuring pedestrian traffic is alongside the storefront.

Flexible: Tenant space that is designed to be flexible will have the best chance of long-term sustainability and will be able to meet the needs of diverse users. Ideally, a space can be used by national, regional, independent or local tenants for restaurant, retail, service or retail-equivalent uses.

Appropriate: A storefront width module of 25 to 30 feet at a depth of 60 to 70 feet with clear height of ceilings at a minimum of 14′ appeal to a wide number of tenants and retail types. This is important as turnover in the retail market occurs – a space built for one tenant can easily be reconfigured to accommodate a different tenant later.


Non-retail uses, located on the ground floor, also contribute to corridor’s vibrancy. These uses include gyms, banks, residential units, office spaces, daycares, automobile dealerships and service centers, and funeral homes to name a few.

These uses may be less active than retail, but sidewalks present the opportunity to draw some of the internal activity of the building into the street, rather than maintaining a strict boundary between the private building and the public street. Seating at the street level, attractive landscaping, and well-lit sidewalks all support ground floor uses within the building to accomplish this goal.

Outside of these retail districts, commercial buildings should be occupied by non-retail uses (such as offices, residential buildings, and hotels) to achieve “retail-like” street activation and vibrancy through strategic design that is characterized by the following:

Transparent: Clear glass that promotes visibility for a minimum of 10 feet into the interior of all commercial areas and residential amenity areas allows for visual connections in and out of the semi-private space. Vertical or horizontal blinds, trade posters, advertisements, or other elements are discouraged, with the exception of private residence.

Furnished: A well maintained, well-lit sidewalk with amenities can increase vibrant pedestrian activity in front of non-retail uses. Furniture can be oriented towards other furniture or buildings and away from or perpendicular to the street to maximize social interaction. Planter boxes can be designed as alternative benches.

Illuminated: The ground floor tenant should be illuminated and feature retail-like signage and graphics that reflect the identity of the corridor. Internal illumination should occur between dusk and the time when surrounding retail businesses close.

Residential Uses: Residential uses generally experience minimal activation. To engage with the street, common areas (such as building lobbies), stoops, unfenced small front yards, and limited setbacks are encouraged. Encouraging public use or visual connections to the amenities of the residential buildings (e.g. club rooms, fitness centers, or bike maintenance rooms) will also activate the building. Dog walking areas around the building should be incorporated into the adjacent streetscape.

Office Uses: Office spaces located along the corridor should engage the street much like retail uses. Receptionist desks, building lobbies, kitchens, co-working spaces, and meeting rooms home to office activity should be placed adjacent to the street, with visual connections through the use of large windows to emphasize movement. Cafe tables outside will provide an alternate space for employees during lunch, meetings, or breaks, which simultaneously activating the street. Ensure seating does not impede pedestrian activity and is available for public use.

Other Uses: Detroit is home to many other non-retail uses, primarily including civic uses (schools, parks, churches), gyms, banks, and automobile shops and dealerships. When planning for these uses, it is important to locate the most active spaces street side, limiting the adjacency of parking and car lots from the flow of pedestrian traffic. Fences and other barriers which physically and psychologically disconnect the sidewalk environment from these uses are discouraged. If barriers are needed, use as an opportunity for public art installations.


Are you thinking about opening a retail business? Learn what each retail type costs to build out once a property has been white boxed.