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‘Dead zones’ disrupt the retail continuity

Published: Friday, Nov. 2, 2012 5:30 a.m. CDT

GENEVA – When shoppers are walking around Geneva’s downtown shopping district, a string of empty storefronts, parking lots or banks can send them straight into a dead zone.

That is not the kind of dead zone made famous by horror writer Stephen King. It is so dubbed by city planners because when it looks like the retail district ends, shoppers leave.

In a presentation to aldermen this week, Geneva City Planner David DeGroot said staff supports a total ban of first-floor offices, banks and other nonretail uses for properties in the B-2 zoning district that front on State and Third streets.

Aldermen directed staff to focus on smaller geographic areas and do research.

“We’d like to keep the momentum now that we have had a policy discussion to do additional research,” DeGroot said. “We will do research during the holiday months and hope to come back with a more detailed analysis next year.”

Mayor Kevin Burns said the issue of additional regulation has been “percolating” for years.

“Heretofore, the only way to prevent nonretail use on the first floor was through moral persuasion, ‘We prefer retail, not a bank,’ Burns said. “Now the discussion has become more certain because the sentiment is, if we do not do something more regulatory, we may lose our leverage.”

DeGroot’s presentation included restating an ongoing objective in the city’s 2017 strategic plan, which is to encourage retail and restaurant uses in street-level building spaces along West State Street between First and Fourth streets.

“Nothing makes a block more successful than continuous retail storefronts,” DeGroot said. “Nothing hurts a retail block more than nonretail dead zones – offices, banks, parking lots, vacancies, blank walls. Every foot of retail block contributes to its success or failure.”

DeGroot said the average customer will walk a quarter of a mile in a retail environment if there is a continuity of storefronts.

When dead zones create gaps in retail continuity, it dilutes the success of the central business district, he said.

“The proposal is to perhaps prohibit or limit nonretail uses,” DeGroot said. “We have parking lots that front State Street that break up connectivity. When you have vacant storefronts – two or three in a row – shoppers see it as the end of retail district.”

DeGroot said service uses contribute to the retail environment, such as hair and nail salons, barber shops and government offices.

Burns said the dead zone also is tied to human behavior.

“They do not want to cross the street or head down the hill or whatever,” Burns said. “We are very much attuned to customer behavior. We are not in a position to cast aspersions on any one particular industry. We want the downtown to be a thriving mix … that caters to the retail population.”

Geneva Chamber of Commerce President Jean Gaines said the chamber would not want to see all offices on the first floor in the shopping district.

“We do not want to see empty storefronts, either,” Gaines said. “It’s a balancing act, helping the owner of buildings fill the space and maintain the retail district.”

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