by James A. Bacon
One of the Bacon family’s favorite places to go in Richmond is Carytown, an eight-block retail strip embedded in Richmond’s Museum District. Some of our favorite restaurants are there — Can Can Brasserie if we’re in the mood for French, Amici’s if for Italian, Cappola’s if for subs. For soon-to-be empty nesters like us who parachute in from the ‘burbs, the food is the main draw. But not the only one. I look for any excuse to visit Carytown… just because.
As much as I cherish Carytown, I was astonished to see that Cushman & Wakefield profiled it as one of America’s top “cool streets,” giving it a tongue-in-cheek rating of “prime hipness” on its hip-o-meter. I’m so un-hip it hurts. I’m the opposite of hip — I’m pih. Moreover, other than the culinary scene, I’m not accustomed to anyone uttering the words “Richmond” and “hip” in the same breath.
But I do agree, there is something very special about Carytown. Moreover, there are lessons to be learned from its success. Along with Brooklyn’s Sunset Park, Chicago’s Logan Square and other cool streets profiled in the report, Carytown is an urban laboratory, a live demonstration showing how retail can thrive in the age of failing malls, shrinking chain stores, and ubiquitous e-commerce.
According to Cushman & Wakefield, Millennials are the generation that defines what’s what’s cool, fashionable, and chic. Almost by definition, cool streets are areas that draw large numbers of Millennials as patrons and entrepreneurs. Urban Millennials are looking for affordable housing and walkable neighborhoods. The cool streets in the Cushman & Wakefield survey meet those criteria. They tend to be older, affordable neighborhoods developed decades ago when grid streets were the norm, went to seed and now are coming back. Tony, long-established retail districts are too expensive to attract Millennials, either as patrons, entrepreneurs or residents living nearby.
Cool streets are dominated by small, independent businesses. They are eccentric and eclectic. They are never dull and predictable. As such, says the report, they are incubators for new retail concepts.
Carytown, notes the report, is home to about 300 boutiques, shops, restaurants and bars in about 950,000 square feet of retail inventory. Rents vary from $12 to $40 per square foot. Millennials account for 43.1% of the population, one of the highest percentages of the cool streets surveyed, and average household income exceeds $81,000. Vacancies are extremely low and rents are rising, but there are no major redevelopment projects underway.
A couple of observations about how Carytown came to be Carytown.
First, Carytown did not emerge from some master planner’s vision. It evolved organically. This stretch of West Cary Street was built in the 1930s as an extension of the Fan neighborhood, and the standard practice of that time was to lay out the city in grid streets, with buildings abutting and facing the street. Other than the magnificent old Byrd Theater and a converted church, none of the buildings are architecturally distinctive. But the cellular structure of the small, street-facing buildings is perfect for shops, boutiques and small restaurants.
Second, the City of Richmond has stayed out of the way. Other than building a two-story parking deck on a side street, the city has busied itself with projects in other parts of the city. It has not spurred “redevelopment.” It hasn’t blessed the district with big plans.
Third, the district combines automobile accessibility with walkability. Parking lots and the parking deck are either tucked away behind the buildings or concentrated in the shopping centers on the west end — they do not violate the integrity of the streetscape. The sidewalks lining Cary Street create a hospitable environment for pedestrians, with visually interesting shops on one side and parked cars creating a buffer from traffic on the other.
Fourth, only modest attention has been given to “place making.” Those features that exist have come largely at the initiative of the businesses themselves — on-street dining, statues and artwork on the sidewalks.
Carytown is a classic example of organic, from-the-bottom-up development that costs taxpayers almost nothing but adds immeasurably to the quality of life. It’s not the only model for urban revitalization, but it’s a darn good one.