By: Jeff Cohn
President & CEO, COHN

Developers across the U.S. have found new inspiration “across the pond,” looking at the shopper experience through a European lens and creating places that capture the spirit and charm of the old continent.

There are two such examples that recently caught my eye, and while different in scope and execution, both real estate concepts are hoping to elicit the same sense of whimsy you feel while walking down a cobblestone passage.

1. The Activated Alley

In various urban pockets of the U.S. (Denver, Seattle, Chicago, Washington D.C., and San Francisco, to name a few), communities and real estate developers have discovered underutilized space begging for revitalization: the alleyway.

Due to the spatial environment of a narrower thoroughfare, these places inherently feel more European than our bustling U.S. retail corridors. So far, new place uses range from urban gardens to community gathering places to hidden restaurants and other various retail opportunities, and we’re looking forward to what innovative developers dream up for the activated alley movement in the next five to 10 years.

Something special is certainly on the horizon for this real estate trend, but we already can look to several winning examples, such as:

  • Nord Alley (Seattle) — Currently six alleys have been activated in Seattle, and there are sure to be more coming. At Nord Alley, the revitalization started with simple landscaping and community events. Then came its city permit designation as the first-ever “festival street.” And with every new visit to Seattle, I see it become more and more alive.
  • Dairy Block (Denver) — Earlier this year, developers in Denver (where COHN headquarters is located) announced an activated alley called the Dairy Block that is set to open in Spring 2017. In addition to office and lodging, the space will have boutique retailers and dining options.
  • Five Points Alley (Cincinnati) — To reactivate one of Cincinnati’s most historic areas, The Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation worked to create something new from something old. Recently completed, Five Points Alley has been resurfaced and refurbished with lighting additions, landscaping and a performance stage.

2. The Woonerf

From the concept name alone, you’re transported somewhere. (Into a Dr. Seuss book? The Nordic Lands? An anagram puzzle?) The word “woonerf” was clearly not an American invention, and the concept originated in The Netherlands. Translated literally from Dutch, woonerf means “living yard,” and once you hear about the concept, you’ll see why this name is perfect.

The woonerf is a streetscape where cars, pedestrians, and bicycles are supposed to share the same path—without any stop signs, traffic lights, sidewalks or other rules of the road. According to Jon Banister’s recent write-up on Bisnow, “instead of dividing a street with barriers like curbs, sidewalks and bike lanes, woonerfs open up the street and allow for every use simultaneously.”

In this world without signage, drivers must be on high alert because they no longer are kings of the road. In fact, Banister reports that lower vehicular signage has been proven to improve pedestrian safety. Meanwhile, the center benefits from undivided spatial atmosphere, where all types of traffic can move freely and movement is more kinetic. We’re excited about the possibilities of the woonerf, and Banister did a great job of pointing out a few shining examples in development:

  • The Wharf (Washington, D.C.) — The hero of Banister’s woonerf profile, The Wharf is a mixed-used waterfront project set to open in 2018.
  • Eckington Yards (Washington, D.C.) — Described by developers as "commercial community where retail, maker and service spaces can attract businesses which will co-exist in a manner which will provide an active community." Will open in 2019.

“REinvented: Eurostreets” is the third installment of the REinvented series by COHN. Collectively, COHN has more than a century of marketing experience in the retail real estate industry.  From the launch of Neiman Marcus’ famous holiday gift guide to the recession of traditional malls to the rise of social media and it’s impact on shopper engagement, we have been there for it all. REinvented is our way of applauding the resilient and ever-changing retail real estate industry by spotlighting creative and game-changing retail applications we are seeing from coast to coast and beyond.