More times than I can count, I’ve explored the country’s mismatch between the supply of retail-oriented real estate and the broader public’s demand. We just have too many shopping centers. And it’s always been that way. Even in the best of times—the peak of the suburban mall during the 1970s and 80s—our historic downtown storefronts were in such dire straits that the owners of numerous century-old structures demolished the underutilized buildings to favor parking lots. And, even with a glut of parking spaces, the surviving buildings often struggled to find good tenants, thereby only amplifying the disinvestment of America’s tens of thousands of urban cores, at least until the earliest stages of a reawakening emerged in the late 80s and 90s, finally prompting business leaders to reinvest in these long-neglected centers, often in the form of downtown shopping malls which competed with their suburban counterparts. Amidst a gradual downtown renaissance, the construction of suburban housing and complementary retail nodes continued unabated. The older shopping centers began to face the same issues of high vacancies and neglect that the downtowns had suffered a generation earlier, pitting old and new commercial real estate against one another, where “old” didn’t necessary refer to those 19th century brick buildings downtown—after all, those were enjoying massive rehabilitation and repurposing as downtowns enjoyed a new life as employment, entertainment, and even housing nodes. “Old” constituted any strip mall that hadn’t received a face lift in at least thirty years. Commercial properties have always depreciated quickly, not because they were are necessarily poorly built (though many certainly are) but because the oversupply has never relented.
And that brings us to the great American retail predicament: the oversupply, disproportionate in the US compared to other developed nations, is finally catching up with the suppliers. I say “finally” but, truth be told, it’s been this way for ages—basically since the dawn of the suburban shopping mall. But, in the last ten years or so, commercial developers have finally caught wind of this excess, recognizing at last that enclosed shopping malls aren’t the silver bullet that they used to be. The last enclosed, middlebrow, suburban-oriented shopping mall constructed in the US was the Mall at Turtle Creek in Jonesboro, Arkansas—completed in 2006. Only a handful of what one would call malls have broken ground since then, all luxury and all in a much more high density or urban typology. The continued expansion of online shopping has further strained the resources of traditional bricks-and-mortar retail, ushering in what prognosticators labeled the “retail apocalypse” as long ago as 2013, when it became clear that many formerly ironclad establishments like Sears and Kmart weren’t coming back to any real degree. The retail apocalypse escalated as the decade continued to reach what one might call a pause in 2020…but it was the wrong kind of pause. The lockdown measures prompted by coronavirus completely destroyed any long-term economic forecasts that major retailers could make, instead forcing most of them to shift all operations to online service or go completely out of business. Many brand names had no choice but to do the latter: Pier One Imports, Stein Mart, Modell’s Sporting Goods, and Lord and Taylor are just the first four that come to mind that closed completely during the dire conditions of 2020. All four continue to function as online-only retailers. But their absence continues to push the vacancy rates in retail districts ever higher.
And those are just the big names. What about the mom-and-pops? For the better part of twenty years, many urban districts experienced a renaissance paired largely with the growth of middle- and upper-middle class multifamily housing in their central business districts. The state of the American downtown in 2010 was better than it had been in almost a half century, in terms of occupancy rates in old buildings and the investment dollars, often through renovations and infill construction. In time, however, downtowns also felt the strain of the retail apocalypse. Formerly thriving malls built in downtowns during the 80s and 90s began failing. While some niche mom-and-pop retailers have prevailed against all odds, especially those selling products not replicated by the big-name brands, plenty of others have gone the same direction as national entities with a smaller footprint: Papyrus, New York and Company, and Charlotte Russe could occupy an urban storefront just as easily as inline space in a suburban mall. They’re essentially gone from both settings, now primarily (or exclusively) online ventures. And their mom-and-pop counterparts are facing similar hardship. Up until 2019, the most resilient industry seemed to be restaurants—not the chains (many of them were struggling too)—but locally owned eateries had emerged as the height of fashion for people seeking a place for leisure congregation, with breweries, distilleries, coffeeshops, and wine/liquor stores coming right behind. COVID-19 lockdowns ran roughshod over these industries as well. Lockdowns forced people to find other pursuits for entertainment.
Per usual, after opening an article with such bleakness, I like to change course; ever the optimist, I strive to find exceptions to the status quo and then explore how they got there. Across most of the country, the demand for retail space is decreasing—urban, suburban, and everything in between. But now and then we encounter a location that bucks the trend. In this instance, I see no evidence that it will die anytime soon.
Yes, the title of the article is a dead giveaway, as usual. Crested Butte, Colorado is a flourishing little town with a five-block main street that looked like it was doing just great last September, a point in time when most of the country was still reeling from a mid-summer surge in COVID cases. Like most of Colorado, Crested Butte still faced strict social distancing measures, but it didn’t seem to be causing much of a dent in the fender of the main street.
To those who are exhausted from the subject, this article is not about COVID-19. In fact, I promise not to reference it again after this paragraph. It simply isn’t relevant for the analysis, because the fact remains that Crested Butte enjoys an economic privilege for which a global pandemic has little bearing: both before and after the spring of 2020, this mountain town has belonged to the all-too-short list of communities where the demand for bricks-and-mortar retail actually exceeds the supply. With its incorporated area of less than a single square mile, only about 1,700 people call the place home. It’s a village. Yet it has a five-block main street. And I can confidently claim (without counting) that this main street boasts at least fifty locally owned businesses—possibly more—and no chains of national significance. Needless to say, this density of local retailers (some restaurants, some bars, some selling non-perishable goods) isn’t typical for a town of Crested Butte’s size.
Cue the inevitable cliché: Crested Butte isn’t your typical small town.
Founded on mining, as is the case most towns in the Colorado Rockies, Crested Butte could have easily devolved into ruins after the coal and silver dried up, a condition that befell many mountain communities with fifteen to twenty years after their mid 1800s founding. Crested Butte prevailed in part because it was a logistical hub to other spokes. It even inched past 1,000 inhabitants in the first few decades of the twentieth century. But after World War II, Crested Butte lost its economic viability when most of those spoke towns eventually faced extinction. From 1940 to 1960, it lost three-quarters of its population and could no longer even support a high school. Then, in the 1960s, the public’s growing appetite for outdoor recreation prompted a reversal of fortune: the Crested Butte Ski Resort opened, capitalizing on the eponymous mountain and trigging an surge in wintertime visitors to the picturesque community.
Within twenty years, Crested Butte recovered three-quarters of its historic peak population.
But even amidst a subarctic climate that often yields seven months of winter, not every old Colorado mining town can generate quite a surging main street retail scene. But Crested Butte still pulls in crowds in the last dregs of summer, as seen in all the early September photos so far. (Compare this to the more famous resort community of Vail—never a mining town, conceived exclusively to accommodate the ski industry—and the typical summer afternoon is about as lively as the Jersey Shore in February.) Crested Butte’s competitive advantage has been its ability to brand itself as a summer getaway as well, for the radically different sport of mountain biking—a pastime for which Crested Butte claims to be the birthplace. This bifurcated focus—one for snowy conditions, the other in the warm weather—helps this formerly endangered town sustain a tourist base throughout the year. And, though the tight boundaries indicate Crested Butte’s population hovers at around 2,000 people, the expansive array of hotels, townhomes, chalets, and various VRBO typologies scattered throughout the mountain town suggest a much larger community.
Much of the the outlying area surrounding Crested Butte is low density, consisting of affluent vacation homes and time-share units connected loosely by multi-user paths and windy mountain roads. The bulk of residences nonetheless form two nuclei: the historic town of Crested Butte, and the much newer incorporated community of Mount Crested Butte four miles to the north, incorporated in 1973 and primarily serving the vibrant Crested Butte Mountain Resort, of which it sits at the foot. Mount Crested Butte follows the Vail typology a bit more, conceived primarily as a high-density winter destination that largely thins out in the summer.
I failed to take many good pictures of Mount Crested Butte, but these Google snapshots offer a close enough sense of what it looks like. The shops and restaurants amidst these hotels and lodges operate with a skeleton crew during the summer. But it all still serves the overflow demand for hikers and bikers even when the weather is warm. And, of course, it helps sustain the demand for all the activity in historic Crested Butte’s main street.
The indoor dining restrictions might have actually endowed an added vibrance to Elk Avenue, the town’s prime main street. Though not completely closed to vehicles, the relinquishing of most on-street parking to picnic tables, clearance displays, and outdoor dining helped concentrate the energy along the street.
More importantly, it helped make Elk Avenue look huge—far bigger than one would ever expect a commercial artery in a town as small as Crested Butte. But that’s because, realistically, historic commercial architecture of Crested Butte is actually smaller than what the average visitor experiences. Of the blocks that comprise the commercial core, filled with restaurants, specialty shops, and recreational apparel/accessories, only about half—that’s 2.5 blocks—really fit a traditional commercial typology, with dedicate retail/merchandise/shop space on the main level, giving way to offices, office support, lodging on the upper floors.
But the other half of Elk Avenue deploys exactly the sort of buildings one would expect in a town of this size: single-family detached houses. Except in this case, many of them are no longer primarily residential.
Note, for example, the red structure on the opposite side of the street. For all intents and purposes, it’s a house. But the entire front half of the structure, closest to the street, is an eatery: Niki’s Mini Donuts.
Elsewhere on Elk Avenue, particularly the eastern end (closest to Colorado State Route 135 that provides access to this remote town), the owners of a number of private residences have converted part or all of their property to shops.
The photo below provides a perfect contrast between two similar homes: one retaining its residential character, the other a shoe store.
The easternmost reaches of Elk Avenue offer a reminder of what the street probably looked like forty years ago, when its commercial element was barely two blocks and the rest just homes.
Thanks to demand from tourists, seasonal vacationers, and skiers/bikers who need a place to unwind after a day on the slopes, Crested Butte claims a disproportionately high amount of real estate as commercial/retail uses.
Bellview Avenue, the old industrial quarter south of Elk Avenue, is less vibrant for pedestrians, but all the old structures feature functional businesses, many of them retail oriented: pizza, a brewery, organic herbs, a bike store, wellness, a tattoo parlor. Occupancy is high.
Even some of the side alleys feature tucked-away shops and restaurants. The more obscure the location, the more upscale they are.
The land use planning in Crested Butte has evolved to meet demand, resulting in a zoning map that clearly supports these home-to-shop conversions. Pale blue along Elk Avenue is “Business/Historic Residential”, an uncommon classification that clearly accommodates this approach, ultimately returning parts of Crested Butte to the 19th century convention of a shop on the first floor, with the proprietors living above (or in the back).
But for my money’s worth, the most unusual attempt at expanding the commercial character of Crested Butte is right at the eastern entrance to Elk Avenue’s picturesque main street setting.
It’s nothing more than a faded, unsightly 1970s-era tri-level home, converted into a wine shop. No effort to change the windows or do something more innovative with the garage space. It’s a home completely out of character with the less car-centric cottages that dominate the town. Perhaps it was impossible to convert such a banal home successfully, but it still demonstrates what, in 2021, is an increasing rarity: a community where the demand for retail space exceeds the supply. The next community of any size—Gunnison (population 6,000)—is 27 miles away. Therefore, it’s reasonable to assume that Crested Butte will continue to hold its own for as long as people strap skis and snowboards onto their feet, or enjoy jostling their way across rocky paths on two wheels.
Crested Butte is not a one-off. Many other tourist-oriented towns display a similar capacity to support high quantities of eateries and leisure shopping. Meanwhile, various successful urban districts have achieved similar feats. My home city of Indianapolis can claim one in the neighborhood of xBroad Ripple, which has long boasted a successful, entertainment oriented main street. However, the demand for shops and bars exceeded the old neighborhood’s architectural capacity to support it, so decades ago people began converted the adjacent bungalows into retail, turning a minor entertainment node into a major one. But Crested Butte and Broad Ripple (and Moab, Utah or Saugatuck, Michigan) have achieved an unlikely feat of affirming themselves as retail nodes, showing more staying power than some of the most well-managed suburban malls or power centers.
They are the few, the proud. But their scarcity raises the inevitable question: how can we extend this sort of appeal to the thousands of other towns or urban neighborhoods whose main streets aren’t so lucky? Hmm. Geocaching will only get us so far.