“Retail Follows Rooftops” is an age-old axiom in the development trade. It’s also common sense. Sellers need buyers and will tend to set up shop where they’re concentrated. That simple fact propelled the growth of cities in the first place. It also explains why subdivisions, naturally, tend to attract commercial development, no matter how hard the homeowners’ association screams “NIMBY.” What came first, after all, West Hills or West Town Mall?
Decay, likewise, follows a similar trajectory. People didn’t stop shopping downtown in the ’70s just because West Town opened. West Town opened because a sizeable chunk of people with money were already sitting across Kingston Pike, snug in their ’60s ranchers. Sure, the mall became a major destination. But its day-to-day existence depended upon all those shoppers living within a mile or two.
That’s one reason why I’m generally down on “destination retail,” and redevelopment plans that depend almost entirely upon it. It may work on the weekends. But who is going to put cash in the till come Tuesday? The nation is littered with dead destination developments: Nashville’s Fountain Square or the now-demolished Church Street Center, just to name a few. One was built in an office park and the other in a downtown that, at the time, was also primarily an office park, albeit more vertical.
Knoxville, after coming close to repeating those mistakes, learned a valuable lesson. Namely, the city figured out that the old “retail follows rooftops” adage applies equally to downtown. Residential, as a result, became the focus of the city’s redevelopment efforts—much of it occurring in buildings left empty as stores and offices departed downtown (offices also follow rooftops, often to shorten the CEO’s commute).
Now that many of downtown’s upper floors are filled with loft dwellers, its storefronts are following suit. Like the mall, many of downtown’s retail establishments and restaurants are a destination for folks who live elsewhere. But the residents upstairs—or in the gentrified neighborhoods nearby—play an important role, both generating receipts and increasing the comfort level of those who drive in to spend a day or an evening downtown.
Downtown proper, however, isn’t the only retail environment that people from Old North, Fourth and Gill, and other center-city neighborhoods are helping rejuvenate. The middle and upper middle class homeowners in those ’hoods have an appreciable amount of disposable income. Naturally, some enterprising retailers and restaurateurs are hoping to help them dispose of it. Unlike downtown, though, there are few storefronts along Luttrell, Scott, or Armstrong. Instead, the street-level retail lies a few blocks away, along Central and Broadway. For the neighborhoods north of downtown, what’s now being called “Downtown North” once filled many of the same niches as downtown’s lower floors did and do: a place to drop off dry-cleaning, get a haircut, grab a cup of coffee and sandwich, or maybe meet for a beer. But, as the neighborhoods decayed and disposable incomes dwindled, much of the commercial activity along Central and Broadway dried up—the legal sort, at least.
Luckily, that trend reversed itself over the last two decades. Old North and Fourth and Gill have reinvented themselves as increasingly upscale residential areas. And, much like downtown, the effects of the revitalization are changing the retail environment. Sure, there are still junk shops and thrift stores along Central, and the venerable Freeze-O—but you can also order a custom cake, take Tai Chi and Yoga classes, or chow down on a Buddha Bowl at The Glowing Body café. Happy Holler is filling up—see for yourself this Saturday, Oct. 11, at the 3rd Annual Happyhollerpalooza. The all-day event, with a rummage sale, food and craft vendors, a kids’ area, and live music on two stages proves that even funky retail follows rooftops.