Retail Planning in Innovation Neighborhoods

By Jacob Cooper

Innovation districts are sweeping across the U.S. These urban hubs seamlessly combine cultural uses with office space, residential buildings, transportation hubs, restaurants, retail stores, and entertainment uses in one centralized neighborhood. This physical overlap and cohabitation illustrates a movement toward a futuristic urban planning model of use cross-pollination and redeveloping urban cores. With easy access to public transportation, thriving public parks and walkways, and progressive building designs, these projects are garnering press nationwide for their ability to transform major metropolitan areas.  

Nationally, innovation districts like Kendall Square in Cambridge, MA and the Cortex District in St. Louis are neighborhoods anchored by major educational institutions and public services.  Districts like Boston’s Seaport and Seattle’s South Lake Union feature revitalized downtown waterfront areas, which could be inspirational examples for Philadelphia’s Delaware Riverfront.  

The most notable innovation district in Philadelphia in development is Schuylkill Yards, planned for 14 acres just across from 30th Street Station in University City, Amtrak’s 3rd busiest train station in the country. The renderings thus far released for the project feature incredible urban infill in the existing surface parking lots across from the station as well as over the existing train tracks just north of the station. The district’s location gives it an incredible advantage over most every other location in the Philadelphia metropolitan area.

When promoting innovation districts like the Schuylkill Yards, developers and stakeholders love to share their visions of the project’s vertical development potential (i.e. gleaming glass towers). When planning these districts, we here at MSC Retail want to remind those planners of the importance of the pedestrian environment, streetscape and retail merchandising strategy. This strategy can easily be overlooked and glossed over until the project is already built, indeed too late for true impactful leasing.  Activating environments during all day parts is the critical task for retail.  Without this careful initial planning, these innovation districts can easily retreat to bland office environments that become deactivated during evenings and weekends.   Philadelphia’s foundation of “eds and meds” provides a natural ecosystem for dynamic innovation districts.  We can’t wait to see the future of these projects and their impact on our region.