The phrase “Main Street” has become synonymous with downtowns in small- and medium-sized American cities, from its use in popular culture, including movies, novels, and Disney theme parks, to politics to the Main Street approach for downtown revitalization. A linear “Main Street” exemplifies the commercial street pattern – the arrangement of commercial uses, particularly retail uses, along downtown streets – found in many downtowns. This pattern is not limited to small and medium-size cities. America’s most famous shopping districts tend to be linear, including New York City’s Fifth Avenue, Chicago’s Magnificent Mile (Michigan Avenue), and Beverly Hills’ Rodeo Drive. These are small town Main Streets on a larger scale.
A number of downtowns have other types of commercial street patterns, including:
- A “crossroads”, where commercial uses are principally located on two or more intersecting streets. Often one of these streets is a highway. The heart of Downtown Pullman (WA) – my hometown as a teenager – is the intersection of two state highways, one north-south and the other east-west.
- A “couplet”, where commercial activity is located on two paired (often one-way) streets. An example is Dana Point (CA) Town Center, which is oriented along Pacific Coast Highway and Del Prado Avenue.
- A “town square”, where commercial activity is focused on the streets surrounding a town square, plaza, or park. This type of commercial street pattern is often found in Spanish colonial cities. Examples include San Francisco’s Union Square, Downtown Sonoma (CA), Downtown Santa Fe (NM), and Downtown Paso Robles (CA).
- A “network”, where commercial activity is spread out among downtown streets. While the network commercial street pattern is commonly associated with shopping areas in large cities such as New York City’s SoHo District and Seattle’s Retail Core, there are a number of smaller downtowns that have grid commercial street patterns, including Downtown Davis (CA) and Downtown Walnut Creek (CA).
The type of commercial street pattern has a number of implications for downtown planning, including:
- The preferred location of gateway entries. Gateway entries tend to be easier to locate in a downtown with a linear commercial street pattern because there is often one principal route into the downtown. The biggest question is to where to locate the entry along that route.
- The need for and location of wayfinding signs. Wayfinding signs assist residents and visitors in finding important places and parking within a downtown. These signs are critical for a downtown with a network commercial street pattern and need to be located throughout the downtown, but may not be as necessary for a downtown with a linear commercial street pattern.
- Distribution of traffic on downtown streets. Automobile, bicycle, and pedestrian traffic tends to be (1) concentrated on a single street in a downtown with a linear commercial street pattern and (2) distributed among different streets in downtowns with other types of commercial street patterns. The distribution of traffic affects the comfort level of pedestrians and bicyclists, the amount of casual interaction between pedestrians, the visibility for merchants, and the preferred location for automobile and bicycle parking.
- Variety in visual experience. The more commercial streets in a downtown, the more potential routes that a pedestrian can take to get from Point A to Point B. This leads to greater variety in the pedestrian’s visual experience (as discussed in Serial Vision: The Dynamic Downtown).
- Distribution of improvements. In a downtown with a linear commercial street pattern, streetscape and infrastructure improvements tend to benefit most merchants because they are located on or near the principal street. In downtowns with other types of commercial street patterns, improvements on one street will benefit one merchant, but not another. This difference can unify or divide merchants.
- Flexibility in streetscape design. State departments of transportation regulate many features of state highways, including sidewalk width and landscaping. When the state highway is the principal street in a downtown with a linear commercial street pattern, local governments can have limited control over the look and feel of their downtowns. The Maryland State Highway Administration document called When Main Street is a State Highway provides guidance for state and local officials in developing a collaborative approach to highway design.
- Flexibility in street closures. Street closures for special events can pose logistical challenges in a downtown with a linear street pattern since one street is the principal route for commercial activity.
- Minimizing gaps along the street frontage. A series of vacant storefronts and empty lots will probably cause pedestrians to turn around. They may either feel anxious due to safety concerns or simply believe that there are no more businesses to visit. Minimizing these gaps through new buildings, small parks, and new businesses will be more challenging when there is more than one principal commercial street.
This list demonstrates the tremendous influence that commercial street pattern can exert on the circulation, design, economic development, infrastructure, land uses, and politics of a downtown. Government officials, business associations, and downtown professionals should keep commercial street pattern in mind when finding downtowns to study and emulate since successful strategies and techniques in one downtown may not translate to another downtown with a different commercial street pattern.