Has there ever been a better time to be a developer of retail real estate?

Valuations on retail properties keep rising, despite repeated claims that things couldn't possibly get any better. Retailer bankruptcies and store closings are at extremely low levels. And it seems just about everybody wants to expand — from old-guard retailers to fresh out-of-the-box concepts. A recent report by Nielsen Trade Dimensions surveying 5,400 active U.S. retailers found they expected to open 94,000 new locations over the next five years — enough to fill about 19 Mall of America-sized properties.

Even macroeconomic trends are working in the industry's favor. Consumer spending has stubbornly held up despite an ongoing war, a crashing housing market, rising energy prices and stagnating wages. While there are some fears that a recession may kick in, many economists expect GDP growth to continue at a healthy clip right on into 2008.

In the face of it all, developers have not been shy about starting new projects. Retail construction starts amounted to 74.7 million square feet last year, worth an aggregate $6.7 trillion, according to McGraw-Hill Construction Dodge, Research & Analytics.

So it would seem that developers have found every possible nook and cranny that could be retailed already, right? Not exactly. According to the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program, the U.S. had about 300 billion square feet of built space in 2000, but by 2030 it will need 427 billion square feet of space.

Between 2000 and 2030 that means there will need to be 131.4 billion square feet of brand new space. In addition, 82 billion square feet of existing stock will need to be replaced. In all, that amounts to 213.4 billion square feet of construction between now and 2030.

Though a healthy portion of the new space — about 100 billion square feet — will be residential, the majority of the construction will be commercial and industrial space. In other words, the work for developers has only just begun.

The question, then, is where to build. According to the Brookings study, by percentage, Nevada will be the top market. In 2030, 137.6 percent of the state's commercial and institutional space will have been built after 2000 amounting to 1.1 billion square feet of new and replaced space. In terms of raw numbers, Texas will gain the most, 8.1 billion square feet, followed by Florida, 6.6 billion square feet.

But clearly, looking at raw numbers isn't enough, especially since the study doesn't draw distinctions between property types.

But what about retail?

Using the Brookings study as a launching point, Retail Traffic embarked on a mission to identify eight exceptional opportunities for retail development. Rather than come up with a straight ranking, we developed a series of categories.

Las Vegas was an easy pick as the top overall market. Even with its more than healthy existing stock and seemingly dozens of megaprojects in progress, the city seems more than capable of adding yet more space.

Beyond that, the categories get more granular. There's Top Downtown, Top Youth Market and five others to pick from. For each we considered retail density as calculated using county-level statistics of existing shopping center space from CoStar Group Inc. cross-checked with population data gleaned from the Census Bureau.

But that wasn't the end-all, be-all. (Otherwise the Bronx, with its population of 1.4 million but only 8.4 square feet of retail per person would have been a clear winner.) Also considered were factors like median income, population and income growth statistics and other metrics for special situations. For example, we researched the fastest-growing universities and cities with the biggest student and recent graduate populations to identify our Top College Town.

Retail Traffic also consulted site selection aces, real estate brokerage firms and specialty nonprofits in helping identify our markets. In all, this was an experiment for Retail Traffic. We can't pretend that we're experts in the site selection business. But we think we've picked some compelling markets. Enjoy.

Top Overall Market: Las Vegas

Top Downtown: Jacksonville

Top Inner City: Brooklyn/Queens

Top Suburb: Collin County

Top Small City: Palm Coast

Top Youth Market: Washington, D.C.

Top Retirement Market: Asheville

Top College Town: Minneapolis