Communities and designers team up to revive storefronts across the US

Little Llamas toy and gift shop in Helper, Utah. Image courtesy of John Dunn.

By Kathleen M. O’Donnell

Despite the shift toward big box stores and online retail giants leading into the 21st century, small businesses remain the cornerstone of many neighborhood blocks and main streets, serving communities of all sizes.

To compete in the current retail market, small businesses require support from various groups, not just people who make purchases. Local governments have a key responsibility to drive economic prosperity and keep business within their jurisdictions, which they do through initiatives like tax incentives and employment programs. Filling in the gaps, development corporations and improvement districts infuse communities with additional funds and enhance the social value of companies. Non-profit organizations with varying missions also support local business growth by providing training, resources, and development assistance.

The work of such entities is often boosted by architects, who understand the important role design plays in a thriving, economically prosperous community.

What better signifies the small business like its storefront? Traditionally, storefronts were used purely for marketing. The façade was where a business could promote its main offerings; the window, a place to display the merchandise and services available inside. But storefronts have progressed to be creatively designed signifiers of something deeper—the core values of a company.

These two vastly different American cities are refocusing on their storefronts, using great design to connect Americans with the supplies and services they need to live happy, healthy lives.

Helper City, Utah

About 100 miles southeast of Salt Lake City lies Helper City, Utah, the “little town that can.”  With a population of about 2,000 today, it was once home to a thriving mining community that, like many others in the US, suffered economic decline in the later part of the 20th century. In 2017, the AIA’s Center for Communities by Design program brought a Sustainable Design Assessment Team (SDAT) to town to help residents evaluate how they could modernize their corridors and reaffirm Helper City as a place where regional heritage could be honored and celebrated.

Buildings on Helper City’s picturesque main street were structurally sound and largely in good shape, so SDAT recommendations included plans to reimagine their windows, façades, and the public sidewalk space. “Helper has some terrific storefronts and they provide great visual diversity,” the team’s report indicates. “It’s important to continue encouraging storefronts to be activated.”

Taking into consideration specific sites, the team also acknowledged that a different approach to each individual storefront was necessary. Large, standalone buildings would need much more work, according to the report. “The Strand Theater building or the New House building need special attention. Because both of these buildings are the terminal point of view from the train tracks they act like focal nodes for Main Street.” To understand the unique position and pay homage to the history of a structure would prove critical to giving it a new life in Helper City.

Helper residents and the visiting designers came up with a variety of solutions—both short term and long term—that owners could implement as they revamped their businesses. For small shops on the historic main street, short term fixes would yield large benefits. Rather than covering windows with brown paper, for example, they planned to colorfully display “coming soon” decorations. Small additions like patio seating, artwork, decorative lighting, or even just a new coat of paint would drastically improve interest in what was happening behind the front door. Capitalizing on an international trend, local business owners also set up successful pop-up shops that ultimately became fully operational brick and mortar shops.

With support from Mayor Lenise Peterman and other local officials and organizations, Helper City has embraced the SDAT recommendations full force, upgrading numerous storefronts around town from cafes and gift shops to an art gallery and adventure sports company. Such seemingly minor improvements have begun to enhance civic life, yielding a more connected and economically prosperous community.

Many storefronts in Helper benefited from collaboration amongst designers, residents, and civic leaders. Images courtesy of John Dunn.

Baltimore, Maryland

In 2015, social justice-oriented protests following the death of Freddie Gray resulted in many impaired Baltimore storefronts. Following the unrest, the governor’s office and the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development launched the Maryland Business Recovery Storefront Improvement Program to fund repairs, upgrades, and programs for local business revitalization. Answering the call to help, AIA Baltimore, Baltimore Heritage, and the Neighborhood Design Center, engaged local architects to work with area businesses on pro-bono and “low-bono” terms.

Located on a block of row houses in the Harlem Park neighborhood, Breathe4Sure Pharmacy underwent a massive facelift with help from Kathleen Lechleiter, AIA, of Twopoint Studio, who worked with Breathe4Sure’s owner Maisha McCoy to execute a vision for a more accessible, welcoming pharmacy with a ramp and newly branded façade.

Breathe4Sure Pharmacy before and after its storefront renovation. Image courtesy of Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development.

Just a mile away, Franklin Street’s Legal Services Associates, Inc. experienced an upgrade of its own. Once home to the Mutual Benefit Society, the first black-owned insurance company in Maryland, the building received brick and mortar repairs and a new paint job. Facilitated by ArchPlan Inc. Philipsen Architects, the project also fulfilled another one of the Storefront Improvement Program’s missions: workforce development. Through Living Classroom’s Project SERVE, disadvantaged and formerly incarcerated young adults completed the work, gaining skills required for permanent jobs in construction.

Legal Services Associates, Inc. before and after its façade improvement. Image courtesy of Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development.

Architects including AIA Baltimore executive director Kathleen Lane, AIA, and Laura Wheaton, AIA, a Neighborhood Design Center program manager and AIA Baltimore board member, helped coordinate the design services for multiple Storefront Improvement Program projects, including Breathe4Sure Pharmacy and Legal Services Associates, Inc. “I was consistently impressed by the architects’ creativity in using a limited palette of potential improvements to create very customized identities for these storefronts,” Wheaton says. “Even when they were using something as simple as a new coat of paint on a building, they were able to incorporate elements of branding or draw on the history of the building, supporting a sense of place.”

Whether your hometown is a small borough or sprawling metropolis, chances are community leaders, businesses, and designers have been working hard to give that sense of place and really make it look and feel like home.