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The Hidden Power of 1-Story Retail

One story buildings are being coded out of the system right now when we need them most.


While it is true that the Wendy's, Kmarts, and Walgreens of the world earn their anti-urban distinction, we should hesitate to throw the one story baby out with the suburban bathwater. The role of one story buildings is being re-established amidst the unpredictable shift to e-commerce, the stubborn difficulty of building and financing affordable mixed-use buildings, and, due to the capital cost, the propensity of national chain retailers to be the only viable tenants in conventional mixed-use buildings, leading to the same placelessness we seek to avoid in the first place.

But the need for one story buildings is being ignored in our codes and conventional development models. This could be one reason why the pop-up movement has gained such traction in filling the void left by not supplying an adequate number of small-scaled, experimental, affordable buildings.

While the reasons might be specific to our era, the need is not. Our history is full of examples of when one story buildings made the most sense. They are ideal for times of great change, pioneering in new or forgotten areas where land is relatively plentiful, and when we are otherwise compelled into lighter, quicker, and cheaper means of building places.

Butler Street in Pittsburgh's Lawrenceville is a good example. This street that is often remembered as a three story street is actually twenty percent one story retail structures. When developing, a one story start makes a lot of sense. Large, 50,000 SF and up retail developments need market studies, parking studies, front-loaded infrastructure, and public subsidy. A few 16-foot tall, 800-2,000 square foot spaces do not. As a place gains steam, one-story buildings can be augmented into larger programs either by replacement or addition. If one or two small spaces fail, the entire place doesn't implode. It's best to learn to crawl before walking.

Rather than sitting on land waiting for the big mixed-use play to land, it’s time to think different and build great places starting at ground level.


Joe Nickol is a founding partner of YARD & Company, an urban growth and development strategy firm based in Cincinnati, Ohio. Joe has 15 years of experience in urban design, architecture, and development. He has directed projects for public and private clients in over 25 states and 7 countries, ranging from targeted popup initiatives to billion-dollar developments of city districts and neighborhoods.


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