Something wonderful could happen : pop-up retail programs in Pittsburgh and Portland




Tiebout, John, III

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Business improvement districts (BIDs) have emerged as a key catalyst for downtown revitalization. As quasi-public entities funded by downtown property owners, BIDs are able to experiment with programs that further their various goals, which typically include improving public spaces, cleaning, providing security, supporting local businesses, and promoting downtown. Whether these experiments work or not, it is important that their stories are shared and that ideas are cross-pollinated between BIDs. The purpose of this report is to take an in-depth look at two experimental BID programs, to gauge their impact, and to see what lessons we can glean from their experiences. The two programs featured in this report are Project Pop Up in Pittsburgh and PDX Pop-Up Shops in Portland. Both are pop-up retail programs that began with a mayor’s aspiration to revitalize downtown in the wake of the Great Recession. The two programs had similar goals, and used many of the same strategies to achieve them. These similarities form a solid basis to compare their differences, which include scale, scope, funding, and level of political involvement. Using documents provided by both BIDs and semi-structured interviews with organizers and pop-up operators in both cities, I compile brief case studies of each program. From there I discuss the implications of my findings and distill five key lessons for practitioners. In sum, pop-up retail programs are a worthwhile experiment in cities with vacant downtown storefronts. They provide a low-risk opportunity for entrepreneurs while improving street facades and driving foot traffic downtown. The impact can be gauged in terms of vacant property turnover or the number of pop-ups that became brick and mortar shops, but there were also several unpredictable, unquantifiable outcomes outlined in the Discussion chapter. These programs benefit from working with groups, minimizing political involvement, having a lean organizational and operational structure, and using keen promotional tactics.


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