Redeveloping Commercial Corridors

A Strategic Approach to Revitalization

America’s car-centric culture, the driving factor in urban and suburban development in the 1950s and 1960s, left some locations with a less-than-ideal layout for 21st century living. We’ve all seen them: retail corridors lined with fading shops and pedestrian-unfriendly communities.

“Strip retail-oriented corridors offered a spine for sprawl to occur in the post-war era, but now they can be a spine for redevelopment,” said Dennis Madsen, manager of urban and long-range planning for the city of Huntsville, AL.

Corridors can offer an opportunity for “strip recovery” without trying to tackle an entire neighborhood or city at once, Madsen said.

“Corridor redevelopment provides a targeted approach to a planning problem throughout the United States,” said Houston-based Luis Nunez, director of economics and advisory at AECOM, a multinational infrastructure construction firm, and author of “Commercial Corridor Redevelopment Strategies.” “These areas are typically zoned for retail, with single-parcel retail sites with a parking lot and sometimes a drive-through component.”

While some redevelopment efforts concentrate narrowly on a specific eyesore property or broadly on an entire jurisdiction, the corridor approach looks holistically at a section of a city. Infrastructure and zoning requirements are reviewed to see if changes can encourage development while preserving a neighborhood’s character and considering the needs of existing residents and business owners.

“The only way to affect change is to look at the macro point of view,” said Sharon Madison, CRE, a Detroit-based urban planner, CEO and chairman of Madison Madison International. “You have to look at the neighborhood and its infrastructure and work with other property owners. You can look at the systems that impact that corridor and then drill down to the micro level when you determine who the stakeholders are and what’s required to make improvements.”

Corridor Approach to Revitalization

Successful corridor revitalization projects typically include a few common components. “Just as with any planning project, you need to look at what is in place and who’s there,” said Madison. “You need to take inventory of the stakeholders, who usually include residents, business owners, the school system, nonprofit associations, and local jurisdictions. Then you look at who could be there and what characteristics are needed to make the neighborhood better for everyone.”

Involving all potential stakeholders is key to a successful corridor project, which frequently requires government intervention for infrastructure changes. For example, College Park, a neighborhood near downtown Orlando, benefited from a transformation of its main street, Edgewater Drive, from a four-lane road known for speeding cars and traffic accidents. A 1.5-mile stretch of the street was reconfigured by the city of Orlando to provide more space for pedestrians and bicyclists and an improved streetscape. Since the implementation of this plan in 2002, accident rates declined dramatically, and pedestrian activity increased. Since 2008, 77 new businesses opened in the corridor and nearby property values rose 70 to 80 percent, according to a study by the Urban Land Institute. Community members collaborated with the city government on the project.

“The most important thing is to take a market-based approach to understand how the market is changing,” said Nunez. “You don’t want to just create pretty renderings for a new look. You need to know the business case for redevelopment and new uses.”

The traditional approach to corridor improvements was to make upgrades for higher density, reconstruct roads, add signs, and then hope this would motivate developers to transform an area, said Nunez. “The modern approach is for communities to take control and look into their own real estate to determine who owns what parcels and what can be done with them. It’s not a unilateral approach but a collaborative one between the city, developers, residents and small business owners, with an emphasis on diversity, inclusion and equity.”

Corridor projects need a catalyst, according to Nunez. “A catalyst can be something like a hidden industrial property adjacent to a corridor that offers potential for economic development,” said Nunez. “Typically, it’s something obsolete and with a property value inexpensive enough to be purchased either by a municipality or a private developer.”

Besides a catalyst, an effective corridor redevelopment project needs a champion, said Madison. “It boils down to people,” she said. “There will always be lots of interests and ideas, but you need a champion who will push it through and make things happen.”

Transforming Neighborhoods Initiative

Real estate agents are important stakeholders in corridor redevelopment.

Real estate agents, both residential and commercial, are important stakeholders in many corridor redevelopment projects, said Nunez.

“Real estate agents have unique insight into communities and access to dealmakers and financing sources,” said Nunez. “Local agents have information on rent structures that might make a project more interesting to prospective developers.”

Nunez recommends engaging REALTORS® “early and often” because they can help expedite the process and get tangible results.

The Transforming Neighborhoods initiative, a collaboration between the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS® (NAR) and The Counselors of Real Estate® (CRE), an affiliate of NAR established in 1953, provides analysis and recommendations for neighborhoods challenged by housing gaps, commercial disinvestment and natural disaster redevelopment. Through this initiative, local REALTOR® associations can partner with the CRE Consulting Corps, a public service initiative started in 1997 to provide municipalities, local REALTOR® associations, educational institutions and nonprofit organizations with volunteer support and real estate insights.

“Both residential and commercial real estate agents participate in the Consulting Corps and offer a vision that can be ahead of the curve, especially in thinking about complementary uses for commercial and residential sites,” said Casey Kemper, president of Kemper Advisors, a real estate consulting firm based in Brewster, Mass. “REALTORS® are always interested in economic development because of the business opportunity, but also because of their sense of civic responsibility.”

Each Transforming Neighborhoods engagement includes active participation and support from a local REALTOR® association and the local government staff and elected officials. The CRE Consulting Corps team provides independent recommendations based on their expertise, observations in the community and meetings with stakeholders.

“A benefit of the Consulting Corps is that the team is from all over the country,” Kemper said. “None of us has any bias. We’re a blank page. That’s a good combination to work with local real estate agents who have the knowledge of the stakeholders and can facilitate the exchange of ideas.”

Redeveloping the Meridian Corridor in Huntsville

In Huntsville, Ala., the Huntsville Area Association of REALTORS® (HAAR) was beyond thankful for the opportunity to bring CRE pros to their city and apply their unique expertise to the Meridian Corridor, a historically underserved area in the community, according to Sean Magers, director of association outreach at HAAR.

Huntsville, a dynamic growing city, attracts numerous employers and new residents in part because of its NASA flight center and defense contractors, said Madison, who was part of the Consulting Corps team in the Transforming Neighborhoods project.

“HAAR approached the planning department about a grant opportunity to study the Meridian Corridor, which we were considering for redevelopment opportunities,” said Madsen. “Real estate agents are important to talk with when it comes to planning because they get a lot of feedback from buyers, sellers and developers. Having the CRE Consulting Corps here gave us a fresh perspective on what could be done with that area.”

The Meridian Corridor, an aging area that abuts downtown Huntsville, is divided from downtown by a freeway and railroad crossing, Madsen said. “Blight is a challenge there, but it’s got lots of opportunities including two post-secondary schools, an art and technology magnet high school that’s one of the top-ranked schools in Alabama, and some small businesses,” he said. “We’ve got land and properties available for redevelopment and willing partners.”

“At one end of the corridor is Alabama A&M University, a historically black college and university (HBCU) with a ton of land around it but no connectivity to downtown,” Madison said. “The need for residential development in that area is acute.”

The four-mile corridor has multiple schools and an obsolete shopping center. The corridor needs sidewalks, lighting, greenery and public transportation to connect students and residents to downtown.

The team met with different interest groups, including people from the educational community, faith-based groups who are active in the neighborhood, developers, members of Huntsville’s business community and residents. They all have a common interest to see this corridor revived even though they have different needs and concerns.

“NAR’s Transforming Neighborhoods program strengthened our relationship with local leaders and community members and further positioned our association as an organization decision-makers look to for help,” said Magers. “This is more than a one-time project where we check some boxes and pat ourselves on the back. Transforming Neighborhoods truly has the potential to improve lives and serve as a model that can be employed elsewhere in our community.”

Redeveloping in Peoria School Sites

In Southside Peoria, IL, the razing of two abandoned schools in the 61605 Zip code, one of the poorest in the country, served as the catalyst for the Peoria Area Association of REALTORS® (PAAR) to apply for a Transforming Neighborhoods grant.

Two women standing up inside a Jeep in front the Hello Peoria mural in Peoria, IL

Courtesy of the City of Peoria, IL

“We collaborated with the mayor of Peoria to take a corridor approach to that area because the conditions there are suitable for economic and neighborhood redevelopment,” said Jennifer Hamm, CEO of PAAR. “It’s a food desert and needs healthcare and educational improvements.”

The neighborhood serves as the gateway to Peoria when approaching from the Southwest, so placemaking and creating a sense of pride are important goals for the Transforming Neighborhoods project, according to Kristie Engerman, local governmental affairs director for the Illinois REALTORS® association.

“Demolition was already planned for two abandoned schools in the community, so we asked the CRE Consulting Corps to recommend the best use of that land and other improvements for the health of the neighborhood,” said Engerman.

Stakeholders consulted for this project include residents, business owners, county and city governments, the Peoria Housing Authority, police and fire departments, healthcare workers, the school district, the parks district, commercial developers, Black and Hispanic chambers of commerce, and individuals active in nonprofit organizations in the area, according to Engerman.

“Home values in the area have been on a downward spiral, so it was a great opportunity to get a professional consultants’ report for free to provide some direction for the city,” Hamm said. “We met with 60 stakeholders before the Consulting Corps came in to explain the process and then we let that team take over for an independent perspective.”

Recommendations for the neighborhood include creating a community development corporation to coordinate stakeholders and implement redevelopment, explore new transit options to connect Southside residents to jobs and services, expand homeownership opportunities, develop the schools into affordable and senior housing and lease/own single-family homes, and add public art and signs to emphasize the community identity.

“The Transforming Neighborhoods project strengthened the relationships that PAAR already has with stakeholders and developed new relationships around the shared goal of improving the neighborhood,” said Engerman. 

Addressing Gentrification Concerns

Corridor redevelopment initiatives often face a negative reaction because of the fear of gentrification.

“It’s important to involve stakeholders in the community from the beginning in conversations and focus groups,” said Nunez. “They’re often worried about displacement because of higher taxes and rents, plus traffic and noise pollution from higher density development.”

Housing shortages and the lack of affordability can be addressed with zoning changes and other initiatives. Madison recommends building these solutions into the process of corridor redevelopment.

“There need to be safeguards so people are not priced out of their neighborhoods, such as setting aside a certain number of homes for community development and working with nonprofit organizations that are already actively working to provide affordable housing,” she said. “Investing to keep rents at affordable levels needs to be part of the strategic focus, such as with tax incentive financing or the city maintaining a land bank for affordable projects.”

Nunez recommends addressing these concerns from the beginning with municipalities and developers. “As a consultant, I ask them what strategies they will employ to help small business owners scale up rather than to present them with a shiny new place with a higher rent,” he said. “You can address this with set asides to retain a certain percentage of businesses or residents.”

While affordable housing is an immense concern and frequently part of corridor redevelopment plans, Nunez said the topic nearly always becomes political and brings up NIMBYism.

“Missing middle housing or workforce housing are more popular terms now, and if you do a market analysis, it’s possible to preserve or create more market-rate, yet affordable housing which is more politically palatable,” Nunez said. “Planning public transportation alongside housing can relieve affordability and development concerns.”

In Huntsville, for example, the Meridian Corridor could potentially be a candidate for bus rapid transit service to link Alabama A&M with downtown, Madsen said. “We are thinking hard about equitable development and housing. We already have some market-driven affordable housing in the neighborhood, along with nonprofit groups providing affordable housing.”

The city government in Huntsville can use zoning power to support the vision for the Meridian Corridor, including offering a variety of commercial spaces to accommodate both small and large businesses.”

Financing Corridor Redevelopment

While private development is often part of a corridor redevelopment project, municipalities typically provide funds or infrastructure improvements that fill a financial gap in a community, Nunez said. “Municipalities can apply targeted incentives based on market realities rather than just handing out money.”

In Huntsville, the city government is investing in roads, utilities, sidewalks and pedestrian-friendly streetscapes to give the private sector the confidence to invest there, Madsen said.

Developing Community Identity

Many corridor redevelopment projects include branding and public art projects to reinforce a sense of identity for a community.

“Everything is visual,” said Madison. “My personal belief is that it’s important to create a sense of place with things like art and architecture to help identify a location and create a place where people want to be.”

In Huntsville, for example, the CRE team recommends adding murals and signs to the Meridian Corridor, particularly on the overhead freeway pillars that can become an entry into the community.

“Things like lighting and landscaping add to how we feel, and these are things the public sector can do to synthesize with private developers and owners in the community,” Madison said.

Bringing stakeholders together to integrate their ideas for a corridor can result in positive outcomes for everyone.


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