Downtown Austin is experiencing unprecedented growth — towers of hotel rooms, condos, and offices are going up, and many of them are banking on retail at the ground floor. This flurry of construction has its roots in a Regional/Urban Design Assistance Team (RUDAT) hosted by the AIA in Austin in 1992; recommendations for the redevelopment of downtown as a viable and vibrant community day and night supported the reintroduction of residential development and all of the amenities that go along with it. Local retail was central to the equation, and as the community armed itself with the “Keep Austin Weird” campaign through the early 2000s, the city government and planners paid attention. The Imagine Austin Plan, unanimously adopted by the City Council in June 2012, identifies growing local businesses and entrepreneurs as a priority.
Two retail corridors — in addition to other concentrated pockets of retail development — have emerged from the recent growth: Second Street and Congress Avenue. Second Street arose from a private-public partnership in which the city set a goal of at least a 30 percent representation of local retailers. The spaces are smaller, rarely exceeding 1200 sf, to encourage small business tenants. Congress Avenue was historically a retail corridor and offers larger spaces, which have been more attractive for a few national chains. Fred Evins, redevelopment project manager at the City of Austin, notes that these two corridors have and will continue to support the growth of a vibrant mix of stores in the area. Efforts to make Congress more pedestrian-friendly and expand daytime retail uses to East Sixth Street are in the works.
With the changes currently underway and more on the horizon, the original pioneers of the neighborhood are happy to see the newcomers. Keepers, Eliza Page, and Rogue Running are three local Austin retailers that opened downtown from 2005 to 2008. These stores have weathered the economic downturn and the growing influence of online shopping, and are now poised for the full-speed-ahead growth of downtown. Each store targets a specific market and does so with a very different design solution. Flexibility, simplicity, curb appeal, and storage are fundamental to all three designs, and these characteristics are properly integrated with the brands and cultures of each store. The life of a retail store is one of fluid changes defined by the passing of the seasons and short-lived trends. In a city where buying local still matters, the continued relevance of these stores is a promising sign.
A retail pioneer on Congress Avenue, the Keepers clothing store opened at the southeast corner of Congress and Sixth Street in 2005. Michael Malone, AIA, transformed a formerly neglected banking hall on the ground floor of a 1970s office tower into an elegant men’s clothing boutique. The location, affectionately known as “Main and Main” in Austin’s planning circles, has long been prime real estate. At the time of the renovation, Keepers was to be the anchor retail tenant for a mixed-use redevelopment of the entire block that was to include two Cesar Pelli towers. The project never materialized; however, the potential redevelopment of Keepers’ block is now once again on the table.
Keepers’ success is a testament not only to the brand and the company’s specialized customer service, but also to the clean lines of the design. The prominent corner and lack of a street entry have proven to be an uncannily fruitful combination. Accessed via the lobby of the tower, the 2,500-sf store has three glazed walls that provide ample views of the well curated double-height interior space. The plan is organized around a central U-shaped cash/wrap and display cabinet. Additional display gondolas flank each side of the register, and wall units mark the perimeter of the store. The millwork is all designed to maximize merchandise visibility and display flexibility, while also providing necessary discrete storage.
The rear of the store provides support spaces for store events and custom fittings. A hospitality bar, which doubles as a shoe display, is a focal backdrop for the store. A “made-to-measure room,” which can be closed off as necessary with sliding wood doors, provides a private fitting space for clients.
The clear-sealed eucalyptus plywood of the millwork and stained concrete floor contrast the polished travertine columns of the former banking hall. Sustainability efforts went beyond the use of eucalyptus tree by-product and the refinishing of the existing finishes. In an effort to minimize heat gain and UV damage to the clothing, the glazed panels of the storefronts were tinted with protective ceramic films.
“We wanted a store inspired by the colors of Texas that would be visually compelling with functional ease and a high amount of flexibility,” says Chuck Haidet, owner of Keepers. He notes that the store still looks great and that the only improvement they are investigating is the illumination of the window displays at night. This change speaks to the evolving demographics of the area and the fact that downtown is becoming increasingly residential, with a diversity of evening traffic beyond the younger patrons of Austin’s bars and music venues.
Meredith Sanger of the Downtown Austin Alliance attributes the success of Keepers to its highly specialized customer service. She comments, “Over 100,000 people come to downtown every day for work, and Keepers has developed a large client base in that market.”
The mixed-use development along Second Street is the darling of Austin’s downtown living. The district is lined with restaurants, coffee shops, and even a specialty grocery store. The Eliza Page jewelry store was one of the first local stores to open there. Like Keepers, in 2005 it moved from another location in hopes of increased visibility downtown. Designed by Kasey McCarty of Kasey McCarty Interior Design Studio and Kevin Gallaugher of Dick Clark Architecture, the 1100-sf boutique features a gallery-style approach to the plan and individual jewelry displays.
The store is laid out with wall-mounted display cases along each wall and three tables in the center of the space. A cash register terminates the public area, and storage spaces occupy the rear of the store. The display cases are hung at eye-level to prevent customers from having to bend over to examine the jewelry. Full-length mirrors flank the wall displays for customer convenience, and the entire store is painted a soft white, which avoids an austere atmosphere. Owner Elizabeth Gibson says that the design intent was one of a contemporary and transparent jewelry box, where the focus would be an uncluttered and interesting display of individual pieces. “I think most people who walk in the store have a refreshing experience because of the architecture. It is a clean, beautiful store, which is quite a departure from a busy downtown city street.”
Kasey McCarty emphasizes the importance of the lighting. “The central void in the ceiling is painted black and adds height to the space. It is an economical design element that allows for flexibility with the lighting while also showcasing the lights.” The displays feature high-quality halogen lights. At night, when most of the jewelry is stored away, the illuminated window display continues the store’s street presence for pedestrian traffic.
Plans for the evolution of the in-store experiences are in the works. In an effort to convince customers to come to stores, retailers are increasingly incorporating specialized client-consultation experiences not necessarily available online. A small workstation for customer consults and new modular display cases that can be moved around for events are part of the future plans for Eliza Page. “The design is truly successful and worked from the beginning. It has allowed me to make changes over the years, and it still allows for more to come,” says Gibson. McCarty concurs: “Design that is true to the intent of a brand and its owner can have a very powerful impact on the store’s success.”
Rogue Running, a running training group with over 3000 members, opened a store in an old East Austin warehouse in 2008 and expanded to Cedar Park in the summer of 2011. Both stores are strategically located within a mile of running trails. Each Saturday, training groups bring 600 runners to the East Austin location and 100 runners to Cedar Park. Working with the architects at Runa Workshop to develop the Cedar Park store, owners Ruth England, Chris McClung, and Steve Sisson sought a design that would reflect the Rogue culture and its Austin origins.
Runa Workshop’s principal, Jean Pierre Trou, Associate AIA, emphasizes that the success of the design is its integration with the Rogue brand. Critical meetings in the early phases of the project helped the architects understand not only what England and McClung were hoping for in the spatial layout and finishes, but also what made the story of Rogue unique.
The 3000-sf store is a long, skinny space, approximately 70’ by 30’, with an Olympic-quality track stretching the length of the store. A shoe-display wall flanks the track on one side, and a long storage and display wall runs the length of the store on the other. The shoe wall guides circulation and defines the program in the store: stretching and shoe testing occur on the track side while additional clothing, supplemental merchandise, the cash register, and fitting rooms are positioned separately.
“We wanted to get the feeling of running outdoors into the store,” says Trou. In order to bring natural light into the space, new windows were punched into the wall of the shopping center. The choice of materials was also essential to establishing the Rogue character in the store. “We looked for elements that had a little finish, but were also rough,” notes Aaron Vollmer, AIA, principal at Runa Workshop. Reclaimed wood, recycled pendant lights, corrugated metal, and polished concrete were all chosen specifically for their utilitarian and rustic appeal.
Once the Cedar Park location was complete, elements of its design were brought back to the original East Austin location; the shoe racks and a few of the displays were refitted with reclaimed wood and corrugated metal. “We completed the circle,” says Trou.
England notes that the project was a great experience for her team. “The architects asked us about us and really gained a true understanding of what we are about — the store reflects that.” Vollmer explains the reason for this approach. “You can bring good design to anything, but it is better to bring design that improves the client’s model and what they are doing.”
Published in Texas Architect, March/April 2013.