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April 2, 2008 at 6:22 am 1 comment

Spring Cleaning—storefront makeover

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This bit of spring cleaning is more of a catharsis. See if you agree.

New York today. It’s all about first impressions—how it looks. You know that from every job interview or date you’ve been on. You know it pretty fast when you visit a different part of town: LIC is industrial chic, Williamsburg is for hipster screenwriters with rich parents, and so forth. You know it when sizing up potential friends in the neighborhood, especially those with children. If their kids are out of control, you quickly conclude that it’s the parents who have allowed it. And so the judgments roll through our minds, regardless of veracity, because they are what get us through the day.

So if we all know and appreciate this truism, why don’t most of the stores in Forest Hills know it too? Why do so many of them look like they’re in a competition to display the most garish, uninspired, or retro-crap signage possible? What’s the perceived payoff on that one? Increased traffic by people who live in neighborhoods with fewer choices? How can these stores not know that the actual residents of Forest Hills go into most of these stores in spite of how fugly they look on the outside?

I did a quick scan of the Austin/Ascan matrix the other day, and to my eye, some of the best looking storefronts at this time are: Stoa, Bonfire Grill (remember, I’m just talking about how it looks), Body & Soul, the Network Cafe, and a few others that have no or less awning and that use interesting fonts. And it’s not about which stores are new. For every attractive looking store that opens—even Martha’s is above average and certainly Tierra Sana’s visage is terrific looking—there are another three (e.g., Gem Story, Ice, and that new kitchen store diagonal from the Windsor’s garage) that scream low-end mall. Personally I’m sick of it and it dampens my willingness to even enter the offending stores.

Forest Hills is a great neighborhood to walk around, even along most of its commercial strips. Still, we can dream about improving things. For me, a variant of one of the Gipper’s most famous sound bites comes to mind: Tear down those friggin’ awnings. I know that sounds draconian, but with Bonfire, we’ve seen the aesthetic power of capitalizing on a building’s original brick face. Not every building on Austin is brick, but enough are such that good taste could potentially be the dominant theme. Don’t get me wrong—awnings can work if done right (the Natural’s isn’t too bad), but most of what we have simply isn’t done right, so better nothing than a retail sartorial don’t.

I’ve got an idea for a reality TV show, or at least a community-sponsored initiative, whereby Forest Hills (chamber of commerce?) brings in a consultant with impeccable taste (stereotypical Bravo Queer Eye-types encouraged to apply) who whips a few of our blocks into fashionable shape. I’d watch that. I’d get behind that.

Images http://www.jsmmanagement.com


Entry filed under: Forest Hills.

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Anne  |  April 2, 2008 at 9:15 am

    The streetscape, including the retail facades is the first impression of a commercial district. Clearly, the Austin/Continental “T” has deteriorated aesthetically over the years (in addition to substantively, but that’s for another post/comment).

    This is not rocket science, nor about money, but rather vision and good taste, and having the sense to get some advice when you are lacking in either or both of the first two. Years ago, there used to be design guidelines for the area storefronts, and the merchants understood the value of making the place look nice. I believe the now gone, but much beloved Homestead was the last to honor those guidelines with its retractable black and white striped awning and tasteful lettering.

    The Forest Hills Chamber of Commerce has been woefully neglectful in persuading retailers to keep up appearances, and have rejected volunteer efforts of people like myself to help. I have worked for several of the City’s Business Improvement Districts, so I have some experience in the workings of the urban landscape. BIDs often employ Retail Design Consultants to remedy just the situations/solution described in this post. The Chamber and their Landlords Committee could just as easily do this. If they were smart, they would see what other programs and initiatives work well for other Chambers and BIDS and copy it, tailoring it to the specific needs of Forest Hills. Regrettably, such suggestions have fallen on deaf ears at the Chamber, which is a shame, because the end result is that the merchants would end up making more money if the area looked/felt more like a neighborhood where there is a sense of ownership of the community, that people care.

    The village, as it used to be called no longer has charm, despite what the Chamber website insists. What we have are pigeon friendly awnings intended to overshadow the store next to it, tattered banners and neon signs giving the place a honky-tonk look and feel, particularly at night. The look and feel becomes the reality, as per George Kelling’s broken window theory and it is all downhill from there. This does not help residential real estate values, and equally important how we value this part of our community.

    If you feel similarly, let the stores know, let the Chamber’s Board of Directors know. All of the names and affiliations are on their site. It is time to clean up our act and maybe clean house a bit, too.


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