Main Street. In the short two- to three-year period since the term has become the buzzword in the retail industry, it is already overused and yet under-defined. With several projects now complete that tout a Main Street emphasis, the time has come to assess what Main Street means… really. And as is the case with every street, there are two sides.

What makes a place Main Street?

A real Main Street doesn't look like it just appeared overnight. Although influenced by large cities and urban areas, Small Town America is the biggest influence on how we define Main Street scale and character today. Real small-town urban centers, the downtowns of places such as Enid, Okla., Independence, Kan., Crested Butte, Colo., Athens, Ga., Tampa, Fla., and many others, were the archetypal Main Streets.

These authentic downtowns were the stages for human interaction of their communities. They were the settings for annual parades. They were sometimes the seat of local government, with businesses gathered around a courthouse square.

They weren't contrived — they were truly competitive environments established through serendipity, with entrepreneurs and individual business owners striving to gain advantage over their competitors next door and down the street.

They were characterized by a sort of one-upsmanship of businesses trying to outdo each other with the biggest sign, the most welcoming awnings and the best-displayed merchandise. Café's were scattered among streetfront retailers and other businesses — the clothier, the abstracter, the attorney and the real estate agent. Offices existed above the stores. Hotels and residences, too. These small-town downtowns were the original “live-work-play” environments.

So what explains the current interest in Main Street as a design resource, a concept around which an entire retail development might be based? One reason is at the very core of our industry, the proliferation of the regional mall.

Time was when a regional mall simply touted “acres of free parking” and “air-conditioned throughout” to attract shoppers. Today, the homogeneity of regional malls — the sameness, the orderliness, the false elegance of brass and marble — have become so blasé and expected that shoppers are actually turned on by grit…by reality…by quirkiness. Hence the sudden attraction to shopping environments that celebrate an unexpectedness, a sense of reality, a “messy vitality.”

Boomers who grew up in suburbs never experienced a “downtown.” Malls and strip centers were their poor substitution for it. Their parents may have deemed the nearest urban area unsafe because it was in decline, so kids hung out at the mall. Thus the re-emergence of urban street environments as a source of fascination for young Americans. And a return to the roots of American shopping — to retail's first trend.

It's more than just retail. Again.

Real Main Streets were really mixed-use developments. Offices above stores. Living above the shop. The interest and attraction of live-work-play environments today results from the novelty of these places when compared to sterile mall environments. There is also an added security perception.

What many consumers are re-discovering is that environments that mix uses actually become “self-policing,” due to the overlapping flow of people movement for different reasons at different times. When people congregate because they live there, they shop there, or they work there, the happy result is that there are more “eyes on the street.” This creates a sort of self-monitored environment that actually feels safer, especially when compared to the remotest parking field of a regional mall.

The details say “downtown”

Main Street is all about happenstance, and the impression that buildings were built over time. That the streetscape is evolving as buildings are gentrified or replaced, mixing old and new structures.

The most important thing about expressing a realistic streetscape is to express a continuous line of buildings with consistent scale. The cornices are different on each building, the awnings are different colors and shapes, the signs unique to one another.

Today's Main Street projects are being developed all at one time as a single development. The trick is to create, either through varied approaches by the developer to each building or by individual expression of tenants, an environment that feels like a real downtown that grew over time.

Simon Property Group's foray into Main Street is Bowie Town Center in Bowie, Md. Originally planned as an enclosed regional mall, Simon worked with RTKL to re-conceive the center as an open-air street.

Anchored at either end by department stores, the diagram is still a hybrid of a regional mall because of its ring road and peripheral fields of parking. The Main Street aspect is captured by lining retail buildings along a vehicular street, with sidewalks and head-in parking.

Bowie has successfully created a new prototype that captures a new street ambiance while adhering to many of the absolutes of regional mall design.

What are the myths?

  • Main Streets must be nostalgic

    Nostalgia is reassuring for some. Disney re-created a 1930s Main Street at its movie-themed park in Orlando, complete with vintage cars parked on the street. But Main Street isn't really about re-creating another time. The keys are the right scale, proportion and image of a comfortable street, and most importantly variety between tenants/buildings.

    The myth is that these environments must be set in another time to be authentic. Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, Calif., achieves a variety that makes it authentic instead of contrived — old buildings as stores and restaurants, some buildings with modern additions, and totally new modern storefronts that are starkly contrasting to the old. That kind of “messy vitality” is what makes a street feel like a street, giving the sense individual owners “did their own thing” and made their own statements.

  • Cars are bad

    Nearly all great shopping streets have cars interacting with pedestrians. They have to be managed, balancing the street image with real market conditions. In an effective mix of pedestrian sidewalks and controlled vehicles, pedestrians have to be given the upper hand. One example of this strange love affair between pedestrians and cars is State Street in Chicago. It was converted to a pedestrian street in the 1970s, then converted back to a vehicular street in the late 1990s.

The pedestrian conversion was pandering to the “mall” phenomenon. But by the 1990s the city realized that something was lost without the vehicular traffic on State Street, something essential to how a real street works and expresses its essential vibrancy.

The Future of Main Street

Some are wondering how long until the Main Street trend runs its course and the industry moves on to something else. However, there is a certain timelessness about projects that capture an authentic Main Street sensibility.

One could assume that as long as places like Michigan Avenue in Chicago or Newberry Street in Boston stay popular and successful, Main Street will continue to be an inspiration for retail and retail-driven mixed-use places.

Jeffrey Gunning is a vice president at RTKL, a global design firm with a long history of retail and mixed-use design innovation. He was raised in a family of Main Street merchants in Enid, Okla.