When the word retail comes to mind, what do you see? A suburban plaza lined with storefronts? A shopping mall? What about a major metropolitan downtown area? In recent years, many retailers, including numerous national brands, have gravitated towards urban streetscape settings for new opportunities outside the traditional suburban mall.

The urban landscape is attractive to retailers thanks to its unique advantages such as high-volume foot traffic and increased visibility within city centers. In today’s shifting retail world, new opportunities for growth are exciting across the board.

But, the increase in retail spaces in urban communities isn’t just good for the stores themselves. From providing additional economic gains to refreshing a new sense of excitement for residents and visitors, there are also significant benefits to the urban communities receiving this influx of new retail stores.

So, what’s different about designing retail spaces for an urban landscape?

With retailers’ interest in urban locations, an “out of the box” approach needs to be considered throughout the design process, project coordination, and construction.

Code and “Old Building” Challenges


Several code compliance challenges exist with streetscape retail, which must be taken into consideration at the beginning of a project. In most cases, facility upgrades are necessary to meet code compliance.

Accessibility is one code challenge that can affect older buildings. Often, existing structures may have several changes in level at the entrance and throughout the space. This poses a space planning challenge on how best to incorporate ramps or lifts into a sales area layout without losing valuable square footage for product display.

Another complication that can arise when fitting retail into non-traditional spaces is that of neighboring tenants. Outside of a mall-type environment, tenants below, above, behind, and adjacent to your project’s work area are likely not all retail tenants.

A common layout for multi-story urban buildings is to have retail centers on the first floors and residential spaces above. This presents the need for fire-rated assemblies and can limit options for lighting and ceiling design. There may also be instances where existing utilities are shared throughout the building, making it costly to provide separate utility services for a retail store.

Older buildings are likely to have had several different owners and little to no existing documentation of any previous improvements to the building. If making structural modifications, a site visit or two may be required to understand what is and isn’t feasible.

When renovating an older building, existing structural damage could also be a concern. With unknown variables in the existing conditions, exploratory demolition may be required.

Clients and building owners alike must understand the scope of improvements necessary for a successful alteration for a retail store. Creative solutions during the design phase and problem-solving throughout construction is a must. Ongoing communication between the client and owner is vital for a successful project.

Navigating Historic Building Limitations

Many urban locations, particularly central to cities or towns, are within designated historic districts. Working on a project located in a historic district brings an entirely new set of challenges. More specific design guidelines must be followed, and extra time should also be padded into the schedule for the process of a historic board review.

Deviation from a retail brand’s prototypical store design may be necessary to adhere to local historic board requirements. Retailers may either stand by their brand’s store design and push for variances or develop creative solutions to stray away from their prototypical standard. Sometimes this forced deviation can be a blessing in disguise as stores in historic buildings can come out with a one of a kind charm and character that makes them uniquely appealing.

Historic standards also regulate storefront signage, often resulting in restrictions on size and material. Occasionally, certain districts do not permit illuminated signage. Façade and awning colors may also be limited to pre-approved colors by the historic board or must be original to the building itself. This may be an issue for a retail tenant when colors and signage are essential to their brand identity.

Even with these challenges, there is a high return on each project. Storefronts in unique retail settings often end up being some of the most successful store designs with the highest rates of passerby foot traffic. With well-coordinated teamwork and creative design, an urban neighborhood is a perfect place for the modern-day retail business.

Stephanie Nepali
Client Manager