(Image: Emily Taylor for Sidewalk Labs)

Episode 7: Stoa

Our latest podcast episode explores innovations that could transform retail — and bring vibrancy to our city streets.

City of the Future
Sep 27 · 22 min read

“City of the Future” is a podcast that explores ideas and innovations that could transform cities. In this episode, hosts Eric Jaffe and Vanessa Quirk discuss the future of retail with author Mark Pilkington, social entrepreneur Sarah Filley, Sidewalk Labs’ Director of Development Carrie Jackson, and others. The following is an edited transcript of the episode.

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Isaiah Michael: So this area was kind of like a bar or reception. Then we had one barber station here and then manicure and pedicures in the back, and this is where we did our grooming services, fully.

Vanessa Quirk: That’s Isaiah Michael. I’m standing with him on the Lower East Side in New York City. We are looking into a vacant storefront where his business used to be: the Classic Man Barbershop.

Music begins.

Isaiah Michael: For us, it was like we were offering this great experience, where you go there not just for the haircut, but because people go there to hang out and engage.

Vanessa Quirk: We met Isaiah through Abigail Ellman, an urban planner with a tenants’ rights organization called the Cooper Square Committee. Abigail was showing me all the vacancies in the neighborhood. Isaiah’s barbershop was the first stop.

Abigail Ellman: You were paying like three times as much as your previous tenant?

Isaiah Michael: Yeah, $8500 a month.

Vanessa Quirk: WHOA!

Isaiah Michael: For 600 square feet.

Vanessa Quirk: That’s a ton.

Isaiah Michael: Yeah, but it’s not so much the $8500. If we were paying $8500 and the water worked and the electrical was fine, you know, there wasn’t a construction project outside the space every single day, then we would have been fine.

Isaiah Michael: We kind of reached a point where it was like, “All right. We’re not running a business at this point, we’re arguing with the landlord.”

Vanessa Quirk: Abigail took me around to see some more of the vacancies in the area.

Abigail Ellman: This was a vintage shop. They were doing a lot of stuff online anyway.

Vanessa Quirk: In 2018, Abigail participated in a storefront survey with the East Village Community Coalition to track all the vacancies happening on the Lower East Side.

Abigail Ellman: Avenue B, which we’re on right now, had 19%. One in five vacancies.

Vanessa Quirk: Through the survey, Abigail discovered why so many businesses have had to close, and the reasons varied — from landlords, to online competitors, to rents.

Abigail Ellman: This used to be a fruit and vegetable store. I went in there before they closed and I asked the owner if he was having any issues and he was like, “Yeah, well. My lease is up. My landlord wants to double my rent.” So it really was just the rent that killed him. Anyway, that was about a year ago and it’s been vacant since.

Vanessa Quirk: Oh, it’s been vacant a year?

Abigail Ellman: Yeah! But like, the incentives are all messed up because he’s not collecting any rent on this space for the time being and this was something that people really needed.

Vanessa Quirk: Abigail also helps businesses that are struggling to stay open — providing everything from legal counsel to business advice. She took me to Gem Spa, a local institution that has been serving egg creams — a New York City staple — for almost 100 years.

Parul Patel: Thank you for stopping in!

Vanessa Quirk: Absolutely!

Parul Patel: So, what flavor egg crème can I get you?

Vanessa Quirk: That’s Parul Patel who took over Gem Spa from her father. Abigail is here a lot to help Parul keep it open.

Parul Patel: We’re facing challenges we’ve never faced before. It’s a daily trauma. You know, worst case scenario, I may end up having to do GoFundMe. It’s not even about “let me get rich so I can go buy a mansion.” No, it’s not that. Right now, we’re in survival mode. It’s just a battle ground. Every day different bullets are being thrown at me from the landlord, from suppliers, from customers. [Sound of cash register]

Parul Patel: Ok, five dollars.

Vanessa Quirk: Thank you.

Abigail Ellman: If we don’t do something, we are going to be left without these really intangible, important parts of our cities, and I think it’s about deciding what we want our cities to be.

Theme music begins.

Vanessa Quirk: As Abigail said, when it comes to retail, we need a vision for what we want our cities to be.

Eric Jaffe: Because, right now, we’ve created a system that means ground floors are vulnerable — places that serve daily needs, that act as community hangouts, that are local institutions.

Vanessa Quirk: And that doesn’t just hurt store owners; these vacancies impact the vibrancy and community of a city itself.

Eric Jaffe: Welcome to “City of the Future” a podcast from Sidewalk Labs.

Vanessa Quirk: Each episode we explore ideas and innovations that could transform our cities.

Eric Jaffe: We’re your hosts, I’m Eric Jaffe.

Vanessa Quirk: And I’m Vanessa Quirk.

Eric Jaffe: And in this episode, we’re talking about an idea that could help retailers and community members thrive — and create more active street life in the process.

Vanessa Quirk: Stoa.

Theme music ends.


Eric Jaffe: It’s not just small businesses that are suffering. The big guys are failing too, Retail chains like Sears and Toys R Us have gone bankrupt over the past few years.

Vanessa Quirk: Just last month, Barneys announced it was filing for bankruptcy after 100 years in business.

Eric Jaffe: And it’s not just New York, or even in the U.S. It’s global.

Mark Pilkington: I’m in London and my street is a big shopping street. And it’s got about seven or eight vacancies in about 200 yards of prime space. So it’s definitely affecting everybody.

Vanessa Quirk: That’s Mark Pilkington, author of a new book “Retail Therapy: Why the Retail Industry is Broken — And What Can Be Done to Fix it.

Eric Jaffe: Shouldn’t the subtitle of his book be “How to Compete with Amazon”?

Vanessa Quirk: Um, well according to Mark, most people assume that that is the root of the problem. But there is a lot more to the crisis than just e-commerce.

Mark Pilkington: Retailing is a very, very, very difficult business model. It’s a very high-fixed-cost business model. You’ve got your stores, you’ve got your rent, you’ve got your people, you’ve got your stock, all sitting there. And if you don’t do a certain level of turnover, it’s going to start killing you very, very quickly. You only have to lose 10 or 15 percent of the sales in most stores and they become unprofitable. If one just thinks of it as being e-commerce, then one misses a lot of the richness of the causes — and then you don’t necessarily come up with the right solutions.

Eric Jaffe: So Mark is saying that there are other factors for this 10 to 15 percent decline in sales.

Vanessa Quirk: Yeah. And to give you one example: millennials aren’t shopping. Perhaps more than any other demographic, they just haven’t recovered from the impact of the Great Recession. And that’s been a huge hit for the retail sector.

Mark Pilkington: Younger people are the people who, historically, went and shopped, you know? The problem is that income is so badly distributed between older people and younger people now. In the United States, only 15 percent of the wealth is owned by people under 45. I mean, older people have always been relatively wealthier, but that is a very striking statistic. You’ve got a young consumer that wants to have nice things, but really can’t afford it.

Vanessa Quirk: Another main character in this story is private equity. By 2017, about half of the top 200 retailers in the US were private equity owned. In other words, venture capital firms were swooping in and buying big stores.

Mark Pilkington: What they like to do is they go into businesses that are reasonably stable and grow then very, very fast. And then they want to exit them and sell them for a multiple of what they bought them for. It tends to be quite short-termist because they want to get the results quickly. And it’s got this emphasis on debt. Now when you combine that with retail as it was 30 or 40 years ago, that’s fine. But with retail as it is now, where it’s going through massive disruption and it’s got these big long-term challenges, it’s a marriage made in hell.

Music begins.

Mark Pilkington: So the crisis has now moved from the retailers to the landlord because the landlords’ business model was to borrow money long-term against these very regular, very reliable, five-to-ten-year leases. And the income was pretty sure. You know? And with all the retailers going bust, they can’t fill the spaces. So the problem has now moved one stage back to the retail landlords.

Eric Jaffe: So that’s why you can walk down a street in one of the most popular neighborhoods of New York City, and see only big chains or vacant stores — landlords are waiting for another stable, reliable chain to sign a long-term lease.

Vanessa Quirk: That said, some smaller players are actually succeeding in this new retail landscape. Direct to consumer companies like Warby Parker, Everlane, Bonobos — they can get products to people much, much cheaper by cutting out the middlemen. In fact, a lot of these online shops have been so successful they’re opening up stores now.

Eric Jaffe: So it’s a reverse move from online to brick and mortar?

Vanessa Quirk: Not quite! It’s brick and click!

Mark Pilkington: The stores are much smaller in very high traffic, cool locations. But they don’t have a lot of stock in the store. Really, they’re using the stores as customer recruitment points. They’ve got a different relationship with their consumers. They must want interactive.

Vanessa Quirk: Brick-and-click stores are all about the shopping experience.

Mark Pilkington: If you see yourself essentially as a seller of goods, then people can get goods more cheaply on the internet any day of the week. But what you can’t get on the internet yet is that experience. I think people still want to have engaging experiences, and go out and meet other people.

Vanessa Quirk: So what do you think the future of retail will feel like?

Mark Pilkington: It’s going to be all about entertainment. Basically, it’s going to become kind of quite theatrical.

Eric Jaffe: “Retail that’s quite theatrical.” What does that even mean?

Vanessa Quirk: Uh well, I literally just booked us tickets to something, and it might just explain what Mark’s talking about here: an immersive retail theater experience!

Eric Jaffe: Uh, ok. I’m a little nervous right now. I’m not going to lie.

Vanessa Quirk: I don’t know what we’re in for. [Laughs]

Eric Jaffe: All right… let’s go.


Speaker 3: Hello, you’re here for the House of Showfields?

Vanessa Quirk: Yes.

Speaker 3: That is your ticket into the experience.

Vanessa Quirk: Ok, is this an art installation? It’s just pillows! I’m in the pillows. I’m in a bed of pillows.

Eric Jaffe: Oh, all right. Each room has a different theme, a different installation, a different set up, and a different set of merchandise.

Vanessa Quirk: Shoes! [Laughs] Ooh, this is my size!

Woman: Are you here for the experience?

Eric Jaffe: I guess so. Is there something else to be here for?

Woman: Great, come on back.

Vanessa Quirk: Ok, so the bookshelf is a door. We’re going through…

Woman: This is the next part.

Eric Jaffe: Behind closed doors here…oh, I get to slide down?

Woman: Oh, yeah!

Vanessa Quirk: Nooooo. Ok, I’m in the slide. I’m coming. [Sound of sliding] Jesus Christ. [Laughs] That was faster than I anticipated.

Eric Jaffe: Ok, here I go…oh my goodness! Wow!

Vanessa: [Laughs]

Eric Jaffe: Ok, I didn’t know I was sliding today. That was great.

Nuria Spokesperson: Hello, I’m Dr. Genevieve Eiolosomiajala.

Vanessa Quirk: Hi, nice to meet you.

Eric Jaffe: Hi!

Vanessa Quirk: So we’re in the Nuria space.

Nuria Spokesperson: The forest.

Vanessa Quirk: The forest, sorry.

Eric Jaffe: And like every good forest, there’s a slide with people coming down screaming.

Nuria Spokesperson: What did you expect when you walked into immersive theater retail?

Vanessa Quirk: All right, that was an experience.

Eric Jaffe: What do we do next?

Vanessa Quirk: I heard there was a snack?

Gem Spokesperson: Yes, come with me. Now, did all of you remember to take your multivitamin this morning?

Vanessa Quirk: No.

Eric Jaffe: Everyday.

Gem Spokesperson: Everyday you forget or you remember?

Eric Jaffe: I forget.

Gem Spokesperson: That’s what I thought. Now, with this new vitamin called Gem, you will never forget. Do you know why? Because inside of this vitamin we have all kinds of incredible nutrients, including B12, B5, B6, Omega 3, Iron, and Biotin, which is amazing for your hair and your nails.

Vanessa Quirk: That’s true.

Gem Spokesperson: Now give it a taste and tell me what you think.

Vanessa Quirk: Yummy.

Eric Jaffe: This is great. Wow!

Vanessa Quirk: Ok, thank you.

Vanessa Quirk: Ok, now we’re walking into Ethos.

Eric Jaffe: This is Ethos.

Ethos Spokesperson: Welcome. I am B, the wellness expert, and this is my Ethos. I like to start with some CBD healing balm.

Vanessa Quirk: Can it go anywhere?

Ethos Spokesperson: Just rub that into the temples-

Vanessa Quirk: Oh the temples.

Ethos Spokesperson: The neck, the shoulders-

Vanessa Quirk: Oh, it smells really nice.

Ethos Spokesperson: The chakras, if you know where those are. If you do, please tell me. [Sigh] I actually studied musical theater and I’m just pretending to be a wellness expert, but don’t record that.

Eric Jaffe: Well, I feel better already, so it’s working.

Ethos Spokesperson: Good. The things I Googled are working, wonderful.

Vanessa Quirk: That cream was not messing around, it is strong. Whew!

Ethos Spokesperson: I bathe in it sometimes.

Vanessa Quirk: I’m not kidding, that CBD stuff is still tingling on my face.

Sound stops.

Eric Jaffe: I’m still processing that whole experience.

Vanessa Quirk: At least the tingling has stopped on my face.

Eric Jaffe: That’s good. Ok, all of those products that we talked through — they’re real items you can go back and buy online?

Vanessa Quirk: Yup. I’ve already looked up some of the cute shoes I saw there.

Eric Jaffe: But did you buy them?

Vanessa Quirk: No, but I might later. But that’s besides the point! I had a fun, theatrical experience! So retail can be about more than just buying things.

Eric Jaffe: Ok. I had fun too. But is that really enough to solve the retail crisis?


Music begins.

Carrie Denning Jackson: Experiential retail is really one piece of the puzzle, but it’s not everything and it doesn’t solve the issue that we have at hand of vacant storefronts. And so we actually have to step back and think more holistically about the role of the store and the store on the street, and how it contributes to our everyday life to start to tackle that challenge.

Eric Jaffe: That’s Carrie Denning Jackson. She works on retail innovation at Sidewalk Labs.

Carrie Denning Jackson: Retail, just the word itself, it tends to connote shopping for people. And your street life is actually about way more than that. If you think about it, what do you do on the street? You’re interacting with friends, you may be going into the grocery store to buy something, but maybe you’re going to the hairdresser, maybe you’re going to get your haircut, you’re going to lift weights or going to the gym, you’re dropping your kid off at daycare, you’re getting your teeth cleaned. There’s a lot that happens on the ground floor that’s more than just retail. And so when you leave your house, there is this bustle, there’s something going on, and this sense of neighborhood connections that can happen.

Music fades. Sounds of Ancient Greece.

Eric Jaffe: To achieve this vision of a bustling community, Carrie looked to a city of the past for inspiration: Athens.

Vanessa Quirk: In Ancient Greece, the Greek agoras were not just markets where vendors would come to sell their wares, but places where citizens would come together to talk politics, art, and culture.

Eric Jaffe: And surrounding those agoras were covered walkways, which helped people gather, rain or shine. The Greeks called them stoa.

Sound ends.

Vanessa Quirk: Carrie and her team at Sidewalk have developed a stoa for the 21st century.

Carrie Denning Jackson: So what we imagine with Stoa, I think unlike the Ancient Greeks, is that it’s almost like having a warehouse on your ground floor. Imagine very high ceilings, large spaces about 40 feet by 40 feet, with few columns in between. So you can just do a ton. It’s the type of space where you can have your Cineplex, you can have your grocery store, you can have your small barbershop, you can have a restaurant. It really has a whole range of uses.

Eric Jaffe: The great thing about stoa, you can have true mixed-use. Not just stores but offices, schools, community spaces — and they’re all working in concert to create a vibrant ground floor.

Vanessa Quirk: This stoa wouldn’t just create vibrancy on the ground floor of cities, it would also start to address some of the challenges facing tenants, challenges that lead to retail vacancies. And Stoa’s adaptable enough to handle whatever uses a neighborhood might need.

Carrie Denning Jackson: We don’t quite know what’s happening with the future of retail or food and beverage. A lot is changing. And so our view is that the stoa allows us to be flexible and adaptive over time.

Eric Jaffe: Critically, this system would also have a strong exterior shell, which also means you can be way more flexible with the interior.

Vanessa Quirk: We can even move the walls.

Mark Bauernhuber: This one is actually on a track so it rolls.

Music starts.

Vanessa Quirk: That’s Carrie’s teammate Mark Bauernhuber, an architect. I went up to Toronto so Mark could show me some of the flexible wall prototypes they’ve been working on.

Mark Bauernhuber: You could actually pull these apart and what you get here is a glimpse of the interlocking mechanisms.

Vanessa Quirk: So they kind of look like a door latch to your house, you know? Oh! It turns.

Mark Bauernhuber: Yeah, so just turn that little red key and you can interlock that to this next panel and then all four of them move together. So now they’re one and even with just that one clamp, they’re all moving now together.

Vanessa Quirk: Oh yeah!

Mark Bauernhuber: You can move a 16 or 20-foot wall with one hand and it almost effortlessly glides across this larger opening that we have here. So in that sense, it also demonstrates things can be big but also easy to maneuver and really nimble within the larger space.

Music ends.

Eric Jaffe: The key to this flexibility is actually the utilities. Usually all these wires are embedded inside a wall, which means you have to demolish it to move it.

Vanessa Quirk: But if you embed the utilities in the baseboard, you can renovate a space in half the time.

Carrie Denning Jackson: You don’t have to have a conduit running through the wall. So it is much faster to do renovations. You don’t need to bring in an electrician, you don’t have to worry about piping or gas. You can just take the wall down, bring it back up, and it can take a couple days as opposed to weeks.

Eric Jaffe: So you could have different kinds of spaces constantly popping up or down.

Vanessa Quirk: Mmmhmm, or a store could convert their space at night for events, music, anything really!

Eric Jaffe: This flexibility also means a ground floor can help new businesses grow over time.


Sarah Filley: Flexibility is key because you want these businesses to start small and then you want them to expand into the space next door. That should be built in.

Vanessa Quirk: That’s Sarah Filley, a social entrepreneur focused on community development. For Sarah, flexibility isn’t just about physical space, it’s also about lowering the barriers to entry for a diverse mix of retailers.

Eric Jaffe: In 2011, Sarah co-founded America’s first retail incubator, called Popuphood. It started in Oakland, California, a city hit hard by the recession.

Sarah Filley: There was just a handful, maybe three or four retail entities down there. And when Sears closed, that was really the nail in the coffin for retail in Downtown Oakland. And so as citizens, we really saw an opportunity to take the ethos and the startup culture of this bay area and apply it to civic innovation.

Vanessa Quirk: So Sarah and her team approached landlords with vacant properties around the neighborhood and asked them to make a deal. Popuphood would chip in money to help the owner upgrade their space. And they would take on all the marketing to drive people to these stores. In exchange, the landlord had to do one crucial thing: rent their space for six months, for free.

Eric Jaffe: Did it work?

Vanessa Quirk: I went to Oakland to find out.

Chase Clark: So this is Old Oakland. And you can see the architecture totally changes to this beautiful old Victorian style.

Vanessa Quirk: Chase, would you mind introducing yourself?

Chase Clark: Hi, I’m Chase Clark. I own The Black Squirrel. It’s a yarn and fabric shop in Berkeley, and I’m opening a second one in Oakland that’s going to be only yarn, hand-dyed stuff. I was priced out of all my neighborhoods. I looked at rents and they wanted triple nets so, ten grand a month. And I’m like, as a small retail business, I cannot afford to pay that at all.

Vanessa Quirk: No!

Chase Clark: So I almost thought my dream was dead. And then I met Sarah from Popuphood, and she connected me with the space in Berkeley that I’m in now, and it’s just been amazing.

Vanessa Quirk: Amazing!

Chase Clark: It was like a godsend because I couldn’t get a business loan, I couldn’t find a space. And it just lowered all the barriers to the point where I could just open my shop. And now it’s this wonderful thing that’s been going for like three years. We have a weekly group it’s called Stitch & Bitch.

Vanessa Quirk: Cool!

Chase Clark: And I started it in Oakland when I moved here like, 10 years ago. We’ve had to move multiple times because the cafes that we frequent would close.

Vanessa Quirk: Oh my gosh.

Chase Clark: And we’d have to move on. At my shop we have it on Thursday nights.

Vanessa Quirk: This is a cool little street market. We just stumbled onto a street market. This is neat. These shops around are also like, just kind of retail shops along either side of here?

Chase Clark: Yeah! There’s galleries, retail shops, restaurants, coffee shops. And there’s upper offices too. So it’s a really great mix of everything.

Vanessa Quirk: Yeah, and there’s a lot of people here.

Chase Clark: Tons of people! Down here is really cool and I feel like Sarah really had a hand in just making it better. She just started with those few little retail spaces, fun little popups, and then everything else happened organically — the restaurants happened organically, and the people came on their own after that. And that’s what’s magic about it.

Eric Jaffe: That sounds great! I’d love to know how replicable it is. Were there lessons from Oakland that other cities can learn?

Vanessa Quirk: Yes, absolutely! Sarah’s actually working with other cities now — not only to help them better support tenants, but to make sure that the tenants, the landlords, and the city are all working toward the same goal. But she also pointed out that it’s not always easy.

Sarah Filley: For example, one of the hurdles that we have is that when a business wants to do something out of the ordinary. And a cat cafe is a great example of that.

Curious music begins.

Vanessa Quirk: Ok. Is this from personal experience?

Sarah Filley: Yes, we did one in Berkeley. And we were the first ones. And what was brilliant about it is that it had a social mission to increase cat adoptions. But that was a little bit of a hurdle to get some permitting allowance.

Sarah Filley: There are many brilliant new retail concepts that are going to be coming down the pike, so to speak. But you can only be as innovative as the person sitting at the desk in the municipality who’s going to approve your business, you know?

Vanessa Quirk: A city’s policies are important to opening a shop, but keeping a shop open for the longer term? That, says Sarah, takes other kinds of support too.

Sarah Filley: Businesses don’t just move into a shop and it’s over. They need continuous marketing support, economic development support. They need technical tools to grow. A thriving business ecosystem is fairly fragile.

Music ends.


Vanessa Quirk: So how do we support that fragile ecosystem? Well, Carrie and the retail team at Sidewalk believe it should be built into a neighborhood from the beginning.

Eric Jaffe: That’s why the stoa concept goes beyond flexible physical spaces. It encompasses a whole host of innovations that can allow tenants to thrive and grow.

Vanessa Quirk: And, for Carrie, that includes flexible leases.

Carrie Denning Jackson: Often a brand or a retailer, whoever, they’re testing their concept. They don’t know if it’s going to work, they’re testing. It’s like testing a new recipe. And so we want to enable that, offering options for tenants for one month to six months to a year to more, and have lease terms that are really as tailored to them as possible.

Vanessa Quirk: Another way tenants could be supported is through sharing space. This idea is called co-tenancy.

Carrie Denning Jackson: Can there be a way for two different merchandisers to actually be in the same space and split their rent? That’s pretty challenging, but it can be done. We’ve seen that with coffee shops and bars sharing the same space at different hours.

Vanessa Quirk: So imagine I’m a tenant in your city of the future. What are some of the ways that it would be easier for me to go ahead and set up shop? Or take advantage of this co-tenancy idea?

Music begins

Carrie Denning Jackson: Great, so I’m going to just, for argument’s sake, say you are a daycare provider. We’d want to know exactly what you need, and then go through the process. So there’d be some permitting support you’d get, some construction and design support. And so you plug in: “This is what I need. I need a space with not a lot in it, but open. No columns, don’t want kids running into columns. You want it pretty wide and open.”

Vanessa Quirk: Big space to set up my playground.

Carrie Denning Jackson: Yeah, you need a restroom, you need lockers. And you put in all of that information and you say, “I’m generally open in the middle of the day. Not in the evenings, not super early in the morning.” Meanwhile, say I own a yoga studio. Turns out I have pretty similar needs. I don’t want columns in my space. I need lockers but ‘m open in the morning, and I’m open in the evenings. And so you could have some sort of tool that kind of matches you guys. And you know, you could split rent, potentially.

Music ends

Carrie Denning Jackson: It’s our goal to weed away all the stuff that a tenant doesn’t want to deal with and the stuff that’s challenging. Whether that’s permitting or getting locked into a ten year lease when they don’t want to and it’s too risky. We want to get rid of all of that.

Eric Jaffe: To help manage stoa, Sidewalk is developing a technology platform called Seed Space.

Carrie Denning Jackson: The seed space concept is such that you’re guided and walked through the whole process. We want to make this as user friendly and easy for the tenant as possible.

Vanessa Quirk: Seed space could bring the kind of metrics that ecommerce platforms have into the physical world — not only to help match tenants, but to gauge what’s working on the ground floor.

Music begins.

Carrie Denning Jackson: There are plenty of places where they’re not necessarily driving huge amounts of sales, but they’re an unbelievable asset to the community. Bookstores might be one of those places where tons of people are coming, but they’re not necessarily purchasing a book every time. They’re just sitting and hanging out. And so, you know, is there a way you can get a sense of the foot traffic they drive to the neighborhood and provide them maybe a tenant credit back on their rent because they’re bringing so many people that are then going to the coffee shop, going to the juice shop, and spending and attracting people to the neighborhood. So it’s a really interesting way to think about the role of each store.

Music ends.

Vanessa Quirk: That is a really interesting idea. I know that San Francisco does something similar to this — the city actually subsidizes the rent of legacy businesses that have been around for years. And I could imagine taking that idea even further! Like, could you also give credits or subsidies to some of the tenants that face even more challenges than bookstores — I’m thinking community spaces or arts programming… tenants that would add vibrancy and value to the neighborhood.

Eric Jaffe: Right, because if stoa works, it should show landlords that when there’s vibrancy on the street, in the long term, that’s also better for their bottom line.

Carrie Denning Jackson: Yeah, you have to be able to prove that a great neighborhood means great economic outcomes. I think that’s one of our jobs to do, is to really make that overt: that fantastic quality of life does lead to great economic outcomes.

Music theme starts

Carrie Denning Jackson: A reason I got into doing this work when I was in college, and then business school, was because I was frustrated as somebody in their twenties that there was nowhere to spend time on the weekends besides a bar. And I would have liked a space where I could have spent time with friends, but also do things that I enjoy, which was creative things, like making art. Those spaces don’t exist. Ultimately, at the end of the day, we want to make this place that’s vibrant and dynamic — that has arts and culture and like, all the things that we think drive a great place.

Vanessa Quirk: Ultimately, addressing the vacancy challenge requires bringing together so many different elements:

Eric Jaffe: It means providing a flexible physical space that allows for a wide mix of uses.

Vanessa Quirk: Supporting tenants who want to experiment, to pop up for a season, or to try something new.

Eric Jaffe: Or bringing tenants together — for community events, or to share space throughout the day.

Vanessa Quirk: It also means giving a more permanent home to those community anchors that make a neighborhood great.

Eric Jaffe: And by doing all these things, you can actually activate a neighborhood. Not just from 9 to 5, but for 12, 14, even 18 hours a day. And throughout the year.

Vanessa Quirk: And then you create that street life, that unique interaction of people and place, that makes a city feel alive.


Eric Jaffe: Thank you for listening to City of the Future, a podcast from Sidewalk Labs. Your hosts are Vanessa Quirk and me, Eric Jaffe. We are produced by Benjamen Walker and Andrew Callaway.

Vanessa Quirk: Mix is by Zach Mcnees. And a special thanks to Abigail Ellman, Isaiah Michael, Parul Patel, Mark Pilkington, Carrie Jackson, Mark Bauernhuber, Sarah Filley, Chase Clark, and Regina Evans.

Eric Jaffe: Our art is by the great Tim Kau. Our music is composed by Adaam James Levin-Areddy. If you want to hear more of Adaam’s work, you can check out his band, Lost Amsterdam.

Vanessa Quirk: To learn more about Sidewalk Labs, visit our website, where you can subscribe to our newsletter at the bottom of the page.

Eric Jaffe: See you in the future.

Vanessa Quirk: Bye!

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A podcast from Sidewalk Labs.

Sidewalk Talk

Where technologists and urbanists discuss the future of cities.

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