We hear that the City of Duluth is enjoying the ongoing revitalization of their historic downtown, which includes KWA’s work at Parsons Alley (recent recipient of a 2017 ULI Development of Excellence Award and CNU Charter Award). Like a lot of Atlanta suburbs, Duluth is experiencing rapid growth. The City recognized a need to grow and strengthen their core downtown to be an amenity for residents and to establish Duluth as a Place with its own identity – not just another suburb of Atlanta.
Since completion in Spring 2017, Parsons Alley has become a vibrant public gathering spot and a destination for folks living in and around Atlanta, attracting some of the area’s top chefs and retailers. The steady stream of visitors and crowded Food Truck Fridays show how much people enjoy the space, but what is it about Parsons Alley that works? In this post we’ve tried to break down some of our core design strategies and details. A great resource for us during the design was Principles of Urban Retail Planning and Development by Bob Gibbs: much of what follows – and a lot more – can be found in his book. And like all our placemaking endeavors, we tried to borrow heavily from our own favorite places – New Orleans, Charleston, and some of intown Atlanta’s streetcar suburbs like Virginia Highlands, Decatur, and Little Five Points.
1) STOREFRONTS YOU CAN TOUCH
Aluminum storefront is affordable and efficient, but it’s not nice to touch or look at, and it is difficult to incorporate into a design with traditional references. We opted for fiberglass frames for most of the retail storefronts, which are closer to the wood storefronts you would see in a traditional commercial storefront, but have better thermal performance and require minimal maintenance.
2) IT’S ALL ABOUT THE GLASS
Retailers and pedestrians alike love huge panes of glass at eye level. Expansive clear glass at the pedestrian level allows for inviting window displays, while divided transom windows bathe the interior spaces with a softer light. More window shoppers = more customers. Energy codes now require energy efficient glazing, which is a bit of an oxymoron. This is either achieved by tinting the glass darker, or by paying extra for high performance, clearer glazing. You absolutely need to pay for the high performance clearer glass – you’ll recover the extra expense in increased sales from pedestrians.
3) PERIMETER PARKING
The walkability of Parsons Alley is a huge statement for an OTP development – and that’s not an accident. Pushing parking to the perimeter of the site places the emphasis on the pedestrian within the shopping district, while still accommodating transportation by car.
4) GREAT PUBLIC SPACE
Parsons Alley is ideally located at the end of Duluth’s great Town Green. In designing the public space, TSW used the community-focused plaza to extend that civic space into Parsons Alley and create a natural community gathering space and showcase for public art.
5) FAMILIAR MATERIALS
One of the challenges of the project was making sure that the two adaptive-reuse buildings and four new construction buildings spoke the same visual language. The form and scale of the new buildings were designed with that in mind, and also the use of familiar materials like wood, bricks, and clear glass.
6) OPEN CONTAINER
The city’s open container laws now allow folks to enjoy an adult beverage while on the sidewalk. It also encourages walking from place to place without a rush to finish your drink before you leave. A lot of us at KWA lived in New Orleans for a spell, and we appreciate how these open container laws make for a better, more engaging use of public space.
7) ATTENTION TO DETAIL
A lot of the detailing of the brickwork, storefronts, roofs, and cornices was inspired by traditional retail buildings that you might find in a historic commercial district. We weren’t trying to create a facsimile of a historic downtown, but adding those traditional details helps reference the history of the site, weaves the new buildings in with the old, and makes the pedestrian experience more enjoyable. Observant visitors will find some details in the old photos above in the new buildings at Parsons Alley.
One great way to kill walkability is to design boring buildings and public space. Variety of form, color, and material keeps pedestrians at Parsons Alley engaged. Each building within the project maintains its own charm, while being connected by the public space.