Post #313: Maple versus Mosaic, retail density is not the issue

Posted on July 3, 2019

Post #302 made the case that you can’t expect the entire Maple Avenue corridor to become one big “vibrant, pedestrian-oriented” shopping district.  Any such district would have to be smaller than the length of Maple.  Post #310 pointed out that the Town has no plan for any area smaller than all of Maple.

In this post, I’m going to start to characterize what does and doesn’t appear to work, in this immediate area, in terms of getting that “vibrant, pedestrian-oriented” shopping experience.  I focus on the Mosaic District, then turn to Maple.

And there I got a surprise.  Define “retail density” as the number of retail establishments within a quarter-mile walk of some point.  I figured that Maple Avenue, with those old-fashioned shopping centers, could not possibly be as “retail dense” as Mosaic.  I figured, maybe the reason you don’t see people walking to the shops on Maple is that they are far too spread out.

But that’s wrong.  The center of Mosaic (Strawberry Lane Park/Target) has 81 retail establishments within a quarter-mile walk.  Mosaic claims 350,00 square feet of retail space.  I assumed the sprawling Maple Avenue, with its old-fashioned shopping centers, would have nowhere near that density.  Dead wrong.  The corner of Maple and Glyndon has 107 retail establishments within that same quarter-mile walking distance.   Using Fairfax County tax maps, I calculate just under 440,000 square feet of retail space in that area.

Within a quarter-mile walking distance of the intersection of Maple and Glyndon, there is more total retail space and there are more total establishments than within the Mosaic district.

Some concepts:  Vibrant and retail dense

Vibrant.  What does a “vibrant, pedestrian oriented” shopping district mean, practically speaking?  Near as I can tell, it means you see a lot of people walking to and from the shops.  And I guess you can now thrown in some bikes and scooters for good measure.  Until I see a better definition, that’s what I’m going to use as my working definition:  a lot of foot traffic to the retail establishments.

Retail dense:  Let me define a retail-dense area as a place with a lot of retail locations within a quarter-mile walk of a given point.  The rationale for that quarter-mile radius was discussed in Post #302.  The more retail locations you have within that distance, presumably the more likely you are to have a “vibrant, pedestrian-oriented” shopping district.

This brings me to Broad Street in Falls Church, which, in my experience, isn’t “vibrant”.  Falls Church has a lot of big new mixed-use buildings as you get close to the intersection of Route 7 (Broad Street) and Route 29 (Washington Street).  I occasionally travel to that area, and, maybe I just hit it at the wrong time, but … the sidewalks aren’t full of people.  To the contrary, the pedestrian traffic appears maybe a little denser than the center of Maple Avenue on an equivalent weekend day.   Maybe not.

So I’m fairly sure that building some high-density housing/mixed use buildings on an arterial road will not necessarily guarantee you a little slice o’ “vibrant”.  If my observation is right, then I’d say that Broad Street, by itself, says that maybe you get “vibrant”, maybe you don’t.  By eye, I don’t see much difference between pedestrian traffic to the new shops on Broad Street, and pedestrian traffic on Maple.

By contrast, think of the Falls Church farmer’s market, which has a continuous dense stream of pedestrian traffic to, from, and in the market area.  The Falls Church Farmer’s Market is the epitome of a vibrant pedestrian oriented marketplace.  (So there’s nothing inherent about Falls Church that prevents them from having a “vibrant” marketplace.)

Similarly, the Mosaic District seems to meet the definition of a vibrant pedestrian-oriented shopping area.  Mosaic on a Saturday afternoon, at Strawberry Lane Park, is chock full of people.  Plenty of people on the sidewalk.  In the next section, I’m going to pick apart some of the aspects of Mosaic that drive those high pedestrian volumes.

Mosaic District

In summary:  Mosaic is a pedestrian-friendly, vehicle-unfriendly district that requires users to walk to most stores from on-site parking garages.  Sidewalks are protected from vehicles by rows of parked cars.  Vehicle speeds are low.  During peak shopping periods, high pedestrian density and the lack of traffic controls means that pedestrians control the crosswalks and cars proceed with caution.  It is geographically compact, and all shopping is within a quarter-mile walk of the central Strawberry Lane park.  But (except for housing literally built on-site) it is remote from any residential areas.  The only practical way to get to Mosaic is to drive, but that’s usually not a problem because traffic usually flows well on the adjacent arterial roads.  And most importantly, it contains a large number (81) of entertainment-type retail establishments, with (arguably) just one  department/grocery store (Target) dedicated to any type of mundane day-to-day shopping.

If you agree with that description, click here to skip down to the discussion of Maple Avenue.  Otherwise, detail follows.

First, Mosaic forces you to walk.  Mosaic by-and-large does not provide convenient parking, adjacent to the shops.  It provides two large central garages, and then a single row of street-side parking.  Even if you are just going to a single retail destination (other than Target or MOM’s organic market, which stand directly adjacent to the garages), you end up on the sidewalk.  As an added bonus, the street-side parking effectively shields the sidewalk from any passing car traffic.

Second, the area within Mosaic is pedestrian-friendly and car-unfriendly.  I hate driving through Mosaic, because it was clearly built for pedestrian access first, and car access second.  The large volume of pedestrian traffic plus intersections with no traffic lights means that cars must proceed with caution.  At peak shopping periods, the crosswalks belong to the pedestrians, and cars are the nuisance users.

Third, getting to the Mosaic district is the reverse:  car-friendly but pedestrian-unfriendly.  And that makes sense, because except for the housing built on-site, nobody lives near Mosaic.  It’s in the middle of a large industrial/commercial zone, adjacent to major arterial roads.

In my limited experience, traffic generally flows well on the arterial highways adjacent to Mosaic.  Just to give an example, per Google, right now (10:30 AM Wednesday morning), for me, it’s a 6 minute drive to Giant Food on Maple, versus a 9 minute drive to the Mosaic District.  To a pretty close approximation, the time it takes me to get to MOM’s organic market in Mosaic is not materially different from the time it would take me to drive down Maple Avenue to Giant Food.

And it’s not that the roads to Mosaic are lightly traveled.  They aren’t.  Based on Virginia Department of Transportation 2018 traffic counts for Fairfax County (.pdf) US 29 between Nutley Street and Gallows Road averages 32,000 vehicles per day (page 12).  Gallows Road between US 50 and US 29 averages 39,000 vehicles per day  (page 77).   It’s that they are built to handle the traffic.  Both highways are 9 lanes across at their intersection.

Fourth, Mosaic is “retail dense”:  It packs in a large number of different retail businesses within a quarter-mile walking distance.  In Post #302 I noted that everything is within a quarter-mile of Strawberry Lane Park.  And, by their directory, I count 81 different retail establishments, more or less. (Falls Church Farmers Market has this as well, — you probably have 75 vendors within a 500 foot walk).

Fifth, Mosaic has no “everyday” retail outside of the anchor stores:  Target and MOM’s organic market (grocery).  (And you can probably make the case that, for most, MOM’s would not qualify as a source for everyday routine grocery shopping.)  It is, in the language of MAC, almost pure “destination retail”.  It is almost entirely dedicated to entertainment shopping/dining, not practical, necessities-of-life shopping/get the family fed dining.  Except for Target, which provides all your necessities in one store.  (Similarly, the Farmer’s Market could plausibly be characterized as specialty shopping.)

A first analysis of Maple Avenue:  Retail Density.

Mosaic was a green-field development.  They tore down the multiplex theater that formerly occupied that site and started from scratch.  They could structure it to be an attraction and aim for a particular demographic.  For us, a key question is whether you could retrofit Maple Avenue to produce anything even remotely similar to Mosaic?

It’s obvious that almost nothing about Maple matches what was done to create Mosaic.  Every shop has adjacent parking.  The shopping is mostly for everyday necessities.  A high-volume arterial highway runs through it, with no streetside parking.  Pedestrians are the “nuisance” users of the crosswalks.  Getting to any particular location is often difficult due to traffic.  And it sits in the middle of an extensive housing district.

But what about retail density?

Now we get to the numbers:  Just how retail-dense is Mosaic, and how does that compare to Maple Avenue?   (Note that this puts aside all notion of how (un)pleasant is is to walk alongside Maple Avenue traffic.  This is just about geometry and counts of stores at this point.)

For this, I’m going to return to the “standard” quarter-mile walking distance that I discussed in Post #302.  This seems to be the most common distance used for planning purposes to represent how far the typically shopper will walk to get to a store.

As it turns out (see the post referenced just above), more-or-less the entire Mosaic district is within a quarter-mile walking distance of the central Strawberry Lane Park.   All we need to do is count retail establishments to get a crude measure of the “retail density” of Mosaic.  And, by their directory, for Mosaic I count 81 different retail establishments, more or less, all within that quarter-mile walking distance.  Mosaic claims 350,00 square feet of retail space currently built.

For Maple, by eye, I think the center of shopping concentration appears to be the intersection of Maple and Glyndon.  Call that the Glyndon Shopping District.  Using Google Maps, the one-quarter-mile walking distance takes in everything along Maple from just past Beulah to the east, to Whole Foods to the west.  That includes two large and several small shopping centers, as well as individual stand-alone retail establishments.  It also includes all three grocery stores in Town (Fresh Fields, Giant, Whole Foods).  I also count a handful of establishments off Maple, but I have probably missed some others.

I did my inventory of Maple Avenue retail by driving up and down the road, so I have the various shopping centers listed in serial order.  That greatly simplifies the counting.  All I need to do is add square footage, based on the Fairfax County tax map system.

Here’s my count, from Wendy’s to Whole Foods, in summary form. I get a total of 107 establishments and 437,000 square feet of floor space.

You can download the detailed listing as an .xlsx (Excel spreadsheet) file by clicking this link:  Glyndon Shopping District Inventory, 7-3-2019

Conclusions?  Caveats.

There are probably some small mistakes within my inventory of Maple Avenue shops.  But by far the single largest potential source of error is whether or not Mosaic’s published retail data include Angelica Theater.  Based on the writeup, they may or may not have included that as “retail”.  Fairfax Count lists that as having 73,000 square feet of floor area, and that’s a “retail establishment” as I would count it here.  So if the Mosaic data omit that, then the total square footage counts (including Angelica) would be much closer.

Otherwise, what does this analysis tell us.

First, I just thought that this was an interesting fact in and of itself.  Under the definition used here (within a quarter-mile walk), the corner of Maple and Glyndon is more “retail dense” than the Mosaic District.

Second, obviously the mix of establishments is radically different.  We mostly have plain, everyday community-serving retail, and casual dining.  Mosaic, other than Target, is very much an upscale retail and dining experience, for this area at least.

Finally, I think the real point of this is that if you are serious about creating a “Mosaic-like” experience on Maple, you can’t put it at the heart of our existing shopping (what I called the “Glyndon Shopping District”) without getting rid of a lot of community-serving retail.  The heart of the Maple Avenue shopping district is already more “retail dense” than Mosaic.  A new retail district would have to displace what’s already there.

And as an economist, let me say that I would attempt to do anything like that with extreme caution.  Just a guess here, but probably we have the retail that we have there because it fits the community.  We’re mostly not a community of hipsters and high-leisure-time Xers and millenials.  I think Vienna advertises itself as a small-town family-oriented residential community.  And that’s more-or-less a match to the retail we have now.

It’s not that we lack for retail.  And it’s not that our retail is so spread out as to be un-walkable (once you are on Maple).  It’s that it’s mostly down-scale, get-the-errands-done, gas-the-car, get-the-family-fed kind of retail.  And it’s most NOT the kind of shop-for-entertainment retail that characterizes the typical Mosaic establishment.