Car-centric pandemic retail habits are here to stay. Retailers, commercial developers, and municipalities need to adapt quickly, together.
In her recent article for the Colorado Real Estate Journal, Rocky Mountain Regional Director Kay Stallworthy dives into how American consumers’ commitment to cars is reaffirmed, and how that affects both city planning and commercial real estate. The following is a repost of the original article.
When we look back on the early pandemic, we’ll remember a lot of sudden, seemingly dramatic but temporary changes in our behaviors as retail consumers. In the spring and summer of 2020, we were wiping down groceries, ordering everything we possibly could online and venturing cautiously out of our cars to snatch our purchases from hastily implemented curbside pick-up areas. We rolled down our windows at fast-food drive-thrus – often the only open restaurant options– for masked transactions.
How temporary were these changes? Less and less, it turns out, as the pandemic wore on. Consumers may have abandoned the grocery wipedown, but all those other new habits crystallized and became a new normal for shoppers and their expectations. Where drive-thrus had once been the domain of inferior dining experiences only, we now seek them out as a desirable, convenient and safe feature – not just for fast food, but for all kinds of restaurants, coffee shops, liquor stores, retailers and even services like doctor appointments. The pandemic has permanently changed the way shoppers view features like a drive-thru. Our cars are a “safe space,” and we now expect a drive-thru from all kinds of commercial spaces.
How retailers need to adapt
Retailers, of course, have had to adapt very quickly. No matter their size, location or footprint, they have accelerated into the hybrid shopping trend. To stay competitive, they need to offer a fusion of online purchasing and in-person pickup and return systems for their customers.
Those hastily implemented curbside pickup stations have become permanent fixtures of retail storefronts and they’re not going away. In the struggle to build these car-centric adaptations to their properties, retailers’ need for space has changed and increased. Several tenants we work with are asking for larger sites because they are looking to accommodate drive-thrus and their queues with extra space in the parking lot area.
Commercial properties turn to car-centric layouts
Because of the pandemic, American consumers’ commitment to cars is reaffirmed. Cars are our safety bubble to manage the in-person side of shopping. Even as we emerge carefully to enjoy restaurants and events again, there still are newly reinforced propensities to eat, shop, socialize and be entertained in our cars.
Commercial property developers see the importance of space for parking, curbside pickup and drive-thru queues to accommodate a car-centric lifestyle. Now, every single restaurant wants some form of drive-thru. And who can blame them? They want to be prepared in case of another dine-in shutdown. Chipotle’s “Chipotlane” is a great example of doubling down on drive- thru build-out.
It’s not just the food and beverage industry needing more car-centric properties. Health care has borrowed from the drive-thru model during the pandemic to keep workers and patients safe. Urgent care centers, pharmacies and lab testing sites opened drive-thrus in the past two years and show no signs of “walking back” those operational improvements.
Facing resistance from municipalities
Zoning for such car-centric spaces, however, has become a challenge. For decades, municipalities have limited parking spaces while calling for sit-down restaurants. Under the agenda of improved walkability, transportation oriented development and placemaking, they have put moratoriums on gas stations and drive-thrus on main materials.
While retailers and developers have been adapting as quickly as possible to new car-driven needs, municipalities remain slow and tone-deaf to the conversation. Our home city of Denver employed short-term measures during the pandemic such as closing neighborhood thoroughfares to vehicles to create space for outdoor dining. But half-measures and seasonal allowances don’t cut it. They don’t account for the engrained shift in consumer patterns we’re experiencing. They don’t accommodate the parking and drive-thru needs of commercial properties. They don’t help us truly adapt to our urban spaces.
Reconciling with today’s commercial property needs
How can commercial properties advocate for parking spaces and other car-centric allowances they need while a pre-pandemic municipal agenda of transportation-oriented development still reigns? It starts with a conversation about uniqueness of place. Not every space can be a “Main Street,” and trying to force that uniqueness can dilute the importance of the true Main streets. Some places are more utilitarian and serve a distinct need, such as car-driven health care and services.
There are no ultimate answers, as time will change spaces. It’s hard enough to predict the disruptor events that will cause deep changes, let alone force that kind of change. It is so much better when reinvention happens organically because the need created the change. If this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s how much we don’t know. Just as we didn’t know how policies toward walkability would hold up under a heightened need for cars, we also don’t know how policies to accommodate our newfound reliance on cars will hold up over time.
As commercial property developers and retailers, let’s open the conversation with our cities about making adjustments to fit our post-pandemic consumer patterns and lifestyles, which are here to stay.
The original article was featured in Colorado Real Estate Journal’s May 2022 Edition.