Is Danbury the next emerald city, or is it just the color of money?

Brokers and real estate analysts have known this for years: our country has way too much space for retail. More than any other country by a wide margin.   Now, as the predicament escalates to the point that the even the average citizen can spot the oversupply—it’s empirically obvious—mainstream journalists have branded it “the retail apocalypse”.  And there’s little evidence that it’s going to get any better. After all, even in the best of times, the occupancy levels of retail space in the U.S. has lingered at much lower levels than anywhere else; you’re far more likely to encounter a “FOR LEASE” sign here than a “TO LET” sign in the U.K., or even the equivalent in Canada/Australia, which are the next two most over-retailed countries in the world.

Since we now routinely read about retail’s struggles against online shopping—so dominated by Amazon.com that few other bricks-and-mortar retailers have gained much of a foothold—it’s obvious that it’s not just about historically successful suppliers and their failure to compete. We’re encountering a broader cultural shift in consumption patterns that is unlikely to abate. Digitization of communication has irrevocably influenced commerce. More people shop online, more people work their jobs remotely (often at home), and more people use crowdsourcing embedded in social media to learn how other people have rated key goods and services providers before they patronize them. Retail has to be really good, or it will fail.

The result is a commercial real estate landscape more desperate than ever to find tenants—and, therefore, one that is willing to go to far greater lengths to transform its leasable space into something appealing. Among the various retail typologies, the historic losers have been old, pedestrian-scaled, mixed-use commercial corridors, light on cheap and easy parking, whether a neighborhood artery in a larger city or the main streets of our smaller cities and towns. These old buildings fronting sidewalks, generally offering limited off-street parking in the vicinity, consistently languished until about twenty years ago. These days, however, we’re just as likely to encounter its suburban, auto-oriented counterpart in dire straits: the vacant, blighted strip mall, complete with a cracked, rutted parking lot out front. We just have too many buildings to support shopping and not enough shops.

But what about when the two typologies blend—when we encounter a suburban shopping center in an otherwise urban setting? The situation is far more common than one might initially think. Most medium sized cities have at least one or two corner strip malls, occupying a strategic location where a cluster of 19th century structures once stood. In the 1970s and 80s, when American downtowns seemed beyond the brink of recovery, municipal planning commissions approved the development of strip malls in the heart of the city, partially because auto-oriented shopping strips were the “thing”, and largely out of desperation to lure some degree of investment, no matter how unaesthetic.

Danbury, the seventh most populous city in Connecticut, offers an archetype.IMG_0173A run-of-the-mill, L-shaped strip mall, so it seems, but it’s barely two blocks from this…IMG_0161…Danbury’s Main Street. I’d wager, without knowing for certain the full history of this little edifice, that it first graced Danbury’s downtown blocks at some point around 1980, give or take a half-decade. Predicated on the mentality that downtown can be saved if only it has clearly visible places to park a car, the powers that be—city council, the planning department—may have even approved the demolition of a century-old structure that was languishing at that same spot. Who knows—the developer of this strip mall might even have received subsidies. Regardless, it’s obvious it’s not a historic structure because buildings like this didn’t exist when central Danbury thrived as a commercial node.

But the urban setting isn’t the only feature that distinguishes this strip mall. Let’s take a closer look:IMG_0172The emerald paint job, the lettering for the name “33 crosby”, the mounted lights shining upon these signs—does that really look like something from 1980? Of course not; the strip mall received a considerable facelift in the last few years. Here’s the same façade in May 2009, according to Google Street View. Quite the eyesore. It’s worth calling attention to some of the key details. Based on the old image prior to the renovation, it clear that the current property owner sought to emphasize the arcade-like canopy that stretches across the portion of the building that fronts the parking lot.IMG_0177In warmer weather, the canopy provides a shelter that could allow for considerable seating to encourage outdoor eating. While this is hardly a novel concept, it’s not something we typically witness in old strip malls. While the view of a parking lot might not make it the most attractive to sit and linger, it’s still an amenity that can help attract tenants who might otherwise seek a spot in an older building with more charm—particularly restaurant tenants, which aren’t feeling the same pinch as most other retailers.

 

I also spot two other smart details at 33 crosby. Check out the lettering above the window:IMG_0178This property manager has achieved a uniform aesthetic among tenant signage: lower-case letters and a consistent font, while conferring upon the tenants another opportunity to promote their brand, or even their slogan.IMG_0176And no doubt they want that opportunity: after all, those wooden signs above the canopy clearly force the tenants toward a certain look that doesn’t sync with their customary logo.

33 crosby Danbury downtown

This approach helps instill the building with a singularity of purpose not typical of strip malls. Lastly, the building’s owner elected for a paint color that matches his façade with the four-story apartment building behind it.IMG_0171

Here’s another view, which features the strip mall’s sign—the only place where national chains Papa John’s and Bruegger’s Bagels get to promote their brand with their actual logo.IMG_0181The owner of the 33 crosby strip mall shrewdly found some low-cost ways to spruce up the property, and it’s clearly working enough to attract two widely known restaurant chains. {I’ll concede that Bruegger’s has since departed this location, but the building appears to have found a replacement in another restaurant.) This owner employed a modest solution for the site that helps it remain competitive, not just against the more attractive urban streetscapes of downtown Danbury, but against other strip malls. Yes, just a stone’s throw from 33 crosby are a few other ugly, aging suburban shopping plazas.IMG_0182IMG_0183

And maybe the parking lot at 33 crosby, though hardly a beauty, still serves as a selling point—a convenient feature to a downtown that hasn’t yet fully found its footing as a revitalized commercial center.IMG_0175

To be fair, downtown Danbury also still boasts plenty of fine old structures.IMG_0169IMG_0160But it also hasn’t “come around” enough in its revitalization to stimulate outright redevelopment. So these strip malls like 33 crosby remain, a relic from an era when classic urban forms seemed truly obsolete. In a matter of time, I suspect we’ll see plenty of other city center strip malls that get a complete rebranding with a hip new veneer—at least until the market forces impel a higher and better use at the site. By that point, the strip malls might face demolition in favor of a multi-story building. If Danbury does eventually achieve that level of revitalization, I suspect 33 crosby will linger a bit more than the average strip mall. After all, the owner understands the forces at work, and he or she will command a higher price for the property, after adding value that helps it align with contemporary tastes. Who knows? Maybe 33 crosby will host Danbury’s first—or second—distillery.

 

7 thoughts on “Is Danbury the next emerald city, or is it just the color of money?

  1. Chris B

    Doing a “drive around” on Street View, it looks as if the third exposed side of 33 Crosby actually features a second story. I wonder if this was a much older mixed-use or small commercial/industrial building with office or apartment upstairs that was re-fitted in the 50s or 60s with the “modern” retail storefront openings and canopy….and possibly the acquisition and tear down of neighboring structures for parking? Baist/Sanborn maps might tell more, but online availability of those is spotty at best.

    Reply
    1. Chris B

      …and the Fairfield County Assessor’s records show it was originally built in 1921, with 1700 square feet of living space on the second floor at the west end.

      The current owners have the same name as reflected in an estate transfer in 1963; a little Google help shows that it was most likely the home of a family-owned flooring company. I’d guess the family lived upstairs once upon a time. 🙂

      Reply
      1. AmericanDirt Post author

        Interesting…thanks for the added research, Chris. Clearly it was an eyesore eight years ago. The fact that it’s a property owned by the same entity over time suggests that they have effectively “run with the land”, adapting it over the years based on shifting tastes and fortunes of downtown. They probably stripmalled it four decades ago, and now they’re glazing over it with a paint job. I wonder how long before they sell it altogether for more ambitious development interests.

        Reply
        1. Chris B

          Probably depends on whether the current owners grew up in the upstairs living space. When a family has a strong sentimental attachment, it’s hard to let go. The first generation to grow up in the ‘burbs is more likely to look strictly at the real estate value.

          But then there’s the “retirement gold mine” phenomenon. If a property is in an up and coming area, and carries no mortgage, owners have been known to hold on for “the million-dollar offer”. (You have undoubtedly seen this in your work in many different places.)

          Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Thanks Steve! One of my early commenters noticed that this odd building had a residential unit built above–something I never caught even though I visited it in person. And the original structure is nearly 100 years old.

      Reply

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