Fixing downtown Astoria’s “parking problem” may be detrimental to business.

About 70 business owners, property owners and community members gathered at the Banker’s Ballroom on May 16 to learn and talk about what downtowns, and Astoria in particular, can do to boost sales per square foot. The event was organized by the Astoria Downtown Historic District Association and sponsored 10 organizations and businesses, including CRBJ. The main speaker was Michele Reeves, an “urban strategist” from Portland who consults for cities in Washington and Oregon.

“Pedestrians are key,” Reeves told the crowd. “Top-performing downtowns and districts are great for people. They’re not great for cars.”

She said that “blank” spaces like empty parking lots, walls without windows and fast streets make pedestrians uncomfortable, which means they’re less likely to keep walking past these spaces, even if there is something enticing up ahead.

“They want to follow a trail of entertaining crumbs,” Reeves said. “It should be everyone’s mission downtown to eliminate blanks.”

Park and walk

There is an ongoing discussion among downtown Astoria business owners about a perceived parking problem, and some downtown merchants have expressed dismay at the city’s plans to eliminate two parking lots that currently sit at the site of the future Heritage Square.

Earlier this spring, 106 respondents to a recent ADHDA survey of business owners ranked parking as their number one challenge with doing business in Astoria. However, it isn’t clear from the survey whether the reported parking problem is an issue of parking for customers or parking for business owners and their employees.

Survey respondents identified convenience, visibility and foot traffic their biggest strength, which would suggest that complaints about parking could be more of a convenience issue for business owners and merchants.

“Successful foot traffic areas rival auto-centered development, but they need to have a critical mass of walkers,” Reeves said.

Dense, pedestrian-friendly retail districts like Portland’s Nob Hill; Pearl Street in Boulder, Colo., South Congress Avenue in Austin, Texas; and downtown Burlington, Vt., thrive even though visitors may have to park on the outskirts of these districts.

Reeves said one sign of success is when people begin to go to an area not for a specific business, but for an activity like shopping or eating.

Over the past 20 years many new retail developments, like Bridgeport Village in Tigard, were designed as “lifestyle centers,” which mimic the open-air, sidewalk café feel of successful downtowns.

“The fact that this is so successful in the suburbs means that people are starved for this kind of experience,” Reeves said. They want to “participate in the human experience.”

Building on Astoria’s strengths

Reeves said downtown Astoria’s strengths are having “amazing bones,” proximity to waterfront, history, being a county seat and having organizations in place that are ready and able to work on the issues.

Her tips for leveraging Astoria’s strengths included:

  1. Tell a story of vibrancy with your buildings. To do that, she suggested implementing a 3-color paint scheme for all building, avoiding beige and other shades that would cause the building to blend in with the sky and pavement.
  2. Create life with your buildings. She said update interiors, light up the buildings at night, and bring tables and displays out onto the sidewalk.
  3. Be creative and collaborate on downtown vacancies. She suggested dividing large spaces into smaller ones to appeal to more tenants, bring more residential downtown, and bring in industrial businesses that need a small showroom.
  4. Define what Astoria wants to be and communicate that with the downtown area.

After Reeves spoke, a panel of business owners and property owners fielded questions. The panelists were Matt Stanley of the Astoria Food Co-op, Pete Gimre of Gimre’s Shoes, Chris Nemlowill of Fort George Brewery, and property owners Warren Williams and Mitch Mitchum.

When asked to name some advantages of doing business in Astoria, Gimre said he felt the retail lease rates are competitive and that Astoria has been getting a lot of national attention in recent years.

“I don’t know of any other town the size of Astoria getting the accolades we’re getting,” he said.

Williams said, “Astoria is begriming a destination.” He said having the river traffic so close to town is a big draw for travelers.

Nemlowill and Stanley said that local support is key to the success of their businesses.

“The tourism thing is great, but having that base to get you through the winter is important,” Stanley said. “We do face the inevitable path of other small towns,” in terms of big box development. He encouraged small business owners to avoid shopping in big box stores and keep their business local.

Mitchum said that he didn’t know of many other towns of 10,000 people that still have a living downtown.

Gimre agreed, “What other town of 10,000 people looks this good at the end of a recession? … Overall, there are a lot of businesses downtown that are sustaining and healthy.”

Open for business

Panelists noted some of the large vacancies downtown, like the old JoAnn Fabrics and Steven’s Men’s Store, as problem areas.

Mitchum said, “The Flavel properties on Commercial Street are a distinct disadvantage.”

City staff responded to questions from the audience about what was being done regarding the “Flavel issue.”

“There has been a highly concerted effort,” said community development director Brett Estes. “We’ve come to a roadblock. We cannot locate Mary Louise Flavel,” owner of the properties.

“I can assure you we’ve tried everything to track her down,” said city building official Jack Applegate, including sleuthing on social media and contacting her last attorney, who reportedly doesn’t know where she is either.

Another common concern among business owners is business hours. Many would like to see a concerted effort among downtown businesses to be open more hours in the day and more days of the week, especially Sunday.

“We open at 9 o’clock for a reason, because that’s when business starts,” Girmre said. However, he said extended hours could be problematic for family businesses that have to deal with “the burnout factor.”

City councilor Russ Warr, who used to run the Sears store, said, “If I’m the only store downtown to have extended hours, it doesn’t work very well.”

Reeves said she’s seen communities start testing the effect of extended hours by agreeing to stay open later one day a week. “Eighty percent of shopping happens after 5 p.m.,” she said. “If you’re not open after 5 or on weekends, you’re making it really hard.”

Gimre said that Sunday is his store’s most profitable day of the week, year-round.

Angela Waddell, owner of 4 Seasons Clothing, said tourists often asks why there aren’t more businesses open on Sunday. “It might not be such a productive day, but it’s a memorable day,” she said.

“All of these things start small,” Reeves said. “You want to be focused, pick a few things to start trying …

“A big part of the process is to build connections and start discussions.”

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