The movement to shop downtown

Peter Chhum

While many of us go shopping for enjoyment, there is a hidden factor that keeps us coming back, and it’s not that half-priced, cream wool sweater.

On Thursday, Grand Valley State University welcomed esteemed urban planning consultant, Robert Gibbs, who spoke about the nuances in creating a sustainable urban retail environment.

The magnet that keeps attracting shoppers to their favorite malls and stores may not necessarily be the stores themselves, he said. Rather it is the location and the access people have to those stores.

Gibbs’ long-term solution to preventing urban sprawl is through shopping. More specifically, by getting people to shop downtown. This can prove to be a challenge, though.

Gibbs used Grand Rapids as an example and addressed how the city fares as an urban shopping location.

“Grand Rapids is one of the only cities in the country that does not have a downtown Starbucks,” he said. “There is a very conscious movement in Grand Rapids not to have national chains, which I think is an unsustainable approach.”

A sustainable shopping center is about having stores that give people what they need, which is not what the average downtown store does anymore, he said.

GVSU senior and Grand Rapids native Kyle Barnhart found Gibbs’ points on the city to be very insightful in regard to shopping downtown.

“I go downtown for the restaurants, but he did have a point when it comes to shopping,” Barnhart said. “My first thought is to go to the mall, not to go downtown.”

The subtle details that make up an attractive shopping center is what many overlook, but they are exactly what Gibbs specializes in and what he passed on to those in attendance. Gibbs explained the importance of specific aspects of shopping malls and town centers such as the number of trees outside a store, a dynamic window display to attract shoppers and on-street parking.

“Nine out of 10 of you turn right when heading into a store when shopping,” Gibbs said. “That means stores are set up for you to enter and go through it counterclockwise, and the product is placed that way.”

In addition, to be successful, it is crucial for a shopping center to be surrounded by anchors, which attract shoppers to the area, Gibbs said.

“It’s impossible to have a sustainable shopping district unless you have anchors,” he said. “This means a grocery store, post office and department stores.”

When the anchors disappear, in turn, so do the shopping centers, he said.

The Gibbs Planning Group will be hosting the “Economics of Urbanism Symposium,” which will cover economic and development techniques for urban projects and historic city center development on March 20 in Birmingham, Mich. Tickets for the event are $50 for students.