Re: piece by Mark Hinshaw, FAIA, it seems to me that the problem is in large measure the rending of the fabric of the city, especially during the 1960s redevelopment era when major downtown retail venues were finally supplanted by shopping centers on the periphery, ultimately leaving mainly restaurants, bars, and boutique businesses to occupy portions of a degraded downtown follolwing a long downhill slide.
I agree that high-density (high-quality) residential neighborhoods should be integrated with retail and other commercial activities in a way that preserves the basic qualities of residential life, i.e., identity, security, privacy, access, convenience, and respite -including access to commercial streets and the necessities of daily life. The vacancies cited may, however, have as much to do with the lack of retail convenience businesses useful to local residents as to specific zoning. I may enjoy a local bookshop, or frequent a favorite restaurant or coffee house on the retail streets as described, but can I find a local shoe repair, shoe store, bootblack, barbershop, clothing store, hardware, appliance sales, appliance repair, radio and electronics store, jewelery, grocery, sporting goods store, pharmacy, movie house, auto dealership, auto repair shop, luggage shop, butcher, haberdashery, soda fountain, bakery, or any number of other enterprises, including doctors, dentists, and attorneys that used to be found downtown?
Not likely, especially as regards small mom and pop entrepreneurial efforts expected to yield only a decent income. Most of these have become the province of high-volume chain stores located in regional shopping or strip centers on thoroughfares leading to outer suburbia. Downtown has been left to its own devices, and even higher ratios of residences to retail space and higher local populations will not materially increase the viability of tourist-oriented or boutique shops. One only needs so many lattes or exotic, hand dipped candles or hand-crafted wind chimes.
Even convenience entities come and go with time and shifts in the technological and economic winds. Hence, street-oriented "high-street" retail should perhaps be thought of first as flex-space, designed to accommodate a variety of alternate uses.
In my view, unless cities can somehow underwrite the profitability of useful downtown retail services and commodities businesses, making such venues walkably convenient to downtown residential streets and building, the issue of vacancies is moot. Eliminating prescriptive and geographic zoning in favor of design criteria/community standards might be the more appropriate first step - but it's a big one, counter to the economic trend. If the economics cannot be reversed, neither will be the trend.
As it stands, downtown residents must drive or take public transit to the suburban malls to buy most essentials. The old model has been stood on its head. The planners and city hall cater to the big developers contributing to the retail tax base, and few of them want to be downtown; not enough land, not enough parking, too hard to get there from the suburban population centers, etc., etc.
When I was a small boy, my mother and grandmother would take me shopping with them. We hopped on a streetcar to go to downtown Toledo, OH - a fairly short distance from the old residential suburb we lived in, and where most of the retail action could be found. The women did not have a car available; my father and grandfather had taken their repective family cars to work. Once downtown, now a feeble ghost of its former self, we walked to whatever stores were on the agenda that day. The trip might include a movie and some ice cream, whereafter we returned by streetcar to our neighborhood to walk the couple of blocks back home. The main downtown street was the mall equivalent. The trip brought us the necessities we could carry on that day, not boutique niceties, most of which we could not have afforded, would have been considered frivolities, and were in generally short supply, especially during WWII.
Maybe one simply has to be old enough to have perspective on this.
Gary Collins AIA
Gary R. Collins, AIA