Making sense of the Storefront Index

City Observatory recently released a new tool called the Storefront Index that maps clusters of street-facing businesses in 51 metropolitan areas. Wherever there’s a retail or restaurant business within 100 meters of another retail or restaurant business they get a rid dot. Isolated businesses, insurance agents, real estate firms, law firms, banks, gas stations and so on don’t count.

While the executive summary, by Joe Cortwright and Dillon Mahmoudi, talks extensively about how storefronts can be used as an indicator of walkability and densification, the index doesn’t actually show that. For example, in examining the map of Boston , one would conclude that both Jamaica Plain and West Roxbury are dense, walkable districts based on the similarities between them and the arguments of the report — but that would be incorrect. Jamaica Plain is indeed walkable, but West Roxbury is probably the most car-centric neighborhood in Boston.

Similarly, the maps don’t differentiate businesses either by type or by hours. The first would be useful for looking at clustering within industries — the “restaurant row” phenomenon — and the second would better demonstrate activity. For example, only a few neighborhoods in the metropolitan area are vibrant throughout the day. Downtown Boston, with its huge concentration of streetfacing businesses, is more or less dead by 8:00 pm most nights and many neighborhoods have very little activity durintg the day because the people in the area are working somewhere else.

In fact, of the Boston area neighborhoods that are active throughout the day, most of them are home to high concentrations of students. Davis Square, Harvard Square, Allston Village and Mission Hill are all home to lots of college students who have varying schedules and so they use their neighborhood businesses throughout the day. Most people work nine to five jobs, so unless those manage to become more distributed, the opportunity for activity is lessened.

However, while the context is lacking, there are two important observations that can be made. Firstly, Boston business districts do not normally use side-streets. Outside of a handful of areas, which don’t really correlate to anything, the streetfacing businesses stick to one road and don’t branch off. This is most likely an artifact of zoning, though cerrtainly sites along trafficked streets are going to draw commercial users more than residential. Weirdly, even in Back Bay where Newbury Street and Boylston Street are separated by a block, the streets connecting them have few businesses.

More use of side-streets is in evidence in New York, Philadelphia and San Francisco.

The other interesting thing that’s evident is that businesses outside of Downtown tend to cluster more around trolley and bus (mostly former trolley) routes instead of around the rapid transit routes. Even the old Orange Line elevated corridor along Washington Street has far fewer businesses than the Dorchester Avenue or Route 66.

It’s puzzling and is definitely something to look into.


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