Photo by Idaho Statesman

By Joe Lawniczak, Wisconsin Main Street

As our state, nation and world cope with a pandemic on a scale never before seen in our lifetimes, it has taken a toll on our health, our thinking, our economy and our communities. COVID-19 has also changed—perhaps forever—the the way we do business; interact with each other; and design the places we live, work and entertain. Some businesses, due to their nature, were able to easily adapt by providing window or curbside service, taking sales online or working from home. Others, such as salons, taverns, gyms, concert halls and sports venues, have had to shut down completely until further notice.

As businesses begin to reopen with new employee and customer safeguards in place, we will all breathe a sigh of relief—but it may take years to rebuild the economy, and it will almost certainly look different than it did before. What’s more, with the need to be prepared for future outbreaks of COVID-19 or other infections, we need to rebuild in a way that allows people to be able to live comfortably in a “stay-at-home” situation and for businesses to safely continue providing their goods or services during a pandemic should the need arise again.

The timing of this couldn’t have been more disheartening for those of us in the Main Street movement. After decades of focusing on the importance of downtown development efforts, our Main Street districts were finally once again the hearts of our communities. People were moving downtown, brewpubs and restaurants were thriving, buildings were experiencing new life. But all is not lost—the hard work that went into creating these vibrant communities and the infrastructure that has been put into place to manage them can play a crucial role in helping us rebuild in a smart and sustainable way.

Local municipalities, chambers of commerce, and Main Street organizations have been working hard in the past few weeks to address the needs of their businesses. Many have looked at their existing financial incentives, design guidelines, and local zoning and building ordinances and revised or enhanced them to meet the current needs of their district. That work will surely continue in the months and years ahead as needs continue to change—we are all learning as we go on this.

As some businesses unfortunately will not reopen, this will leave property owners searching for new tenants—and in many cases, they will need to make improvements to their buildings to do so. In addition, buildings may need physical changes to operate in a post-pandemic society. This is the prime time to make such improvements if funding is available, because businesses are empty of customers or not even open at all. When it comes to commercial spaces, it is usually not an option for a landlord to wait to find a good tenant before making improvements—in fact, it can be next to impossible to find a good tenant if a space does not look inviting, since this reflects poorly on the attentiveness of the landlord, and may create concern over the costs and delays tenants might face if they ask for improvements.

If a space is not marketed online, it’s invisible to most potential tenants. When visual enhancements to vacant spaces are completed, work with a realtor or through various commercial real estate databases to get the space listed and visible online. Local Main Street programs, chambers of commerce and/or municipalities should consider creating an “available properties” or “available spaces” page on their website to highlight options in the downtown area, and should work with local realtors to incorporate listing information and provide additional market data along with information on available resources and incentives.

This is also a good time to review how accessible your building or commercial space is for people with disabilities. The 2010 Americans with Disabilities Act Checklist for Existing Facilities is a helpful guide for property owners that illustrates the design requirements for a wide range of accessibility improvements, from those that cost little to nothing, all the way to major improvements that would cost tens of thousands of dollars. To identify needed improvements, property owners should do a walk-through with the checklist, making note of areas in need so those improvements can be made once funds are available. Maintaining this type of list can protect the owner from liability.

If accessibility improvements are done whenever they are readily achievable—in other words, not required as part of a larger remodeling project—then federal tax incentives may be available. There is a $5,000 maximum tax credit for small businesses, and a $15,000 maximum tax deduction for businesses of all sizes. More information can be found here:

This month’s Places Blog addresses the types of improvements businesses and property owners should consider for a post-pandemic world. The blog post focuses on three levels of improvements: projects that can be done for little to no cost; ones that might land in the hundreds-of-dollars range; and those that would require a greater investment but may still be worth it for their impact on future cash flow.

Low- to no-cost improvements

Perhaps the most common adaptation a business can make to accommodate social distancing measures is provide mail-order, delivery or curbside pickup. At the time of this writing, retail businesses in Wisconsin are able to operate in these ways as long as they take necessary safety precautions for their workers. Businesses that have not previously offered these types of services may need to photograph their inventory for posting on the business’s website or social media pages. The business may also need to invest in a means of taking orders and accepting payments online. Curbside pickup may require placing temporary signage at the entrance detailing pickup procedures and contact information—but in most cases, these arrangements would not require physical alterations to the storefront or interior space. While this type of service is critical to businesses’ survival right now, it may also be a useful option in the future for customers with limited mobility or other concerns.

Curbside delivery in Ripon, WI. Photo by Craig Tebon, Ripon Main Street

Temporary signage for curbside delivery can be as simple as a temporary vinyl graphic placed over a new or existing A-frame sign. Social distancing can be enforced (or at least suggested) using floor decals at checkout areas, aisles, waiting areas and more. Photos by Milweb1 LLC.

Some cities, such as Chattanooga, TN and Harrisonburg, VA have converted many of their downtown on-street parking spaces to curbside delivery uses during this pandemic.

Parking spaces temporarily converted for curbside pickup in Harrisonburg, VA (photo by Andrea Dono, Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance)

As they get ready to reopen their dining areas, restaurants are encouraged to make a plan for how they will enforce social distancing. This may require rearranging seating or the barstool layout so that patrons are at least six feet away from others not in their party. While these adaptations may have an effect on revenue by reducing the number of customers a business can accommodate at one time, they don’t cost anything up front to implement.

David Cooke of Stobys Restaurant in Russellville, AR, measures the distance between tables and booths. Photo by Susan Shaddox, Main Street Arkansas.

Making hand sanitizer and rubber glove dispensers, as well as a trash receptable, available near the entrance is another smart and inexpensive way to enhance customer and employee safety. Installing a plexiglass shield in front of cash registers, host stations, etc. is another relatively simple and inexpensive measure to put in place. For businesses with restrooms available to customers, keeping them locked and available only upon request and having staff wipe down surfaces immediately afterwards is an easy way to ensure cleanliness.

For property owners who are now facing vacancies due to tenant closure, this is the time to make necessary improvements. This may be as simple as cleaning, minor maintenance, and other simple visual enhancements that can make the storefront more attractive to a potential tenant. One creative idea is to add signage that takes the negative (a vacant storefront) and spins it into a positive (a space full of opportunity). Other ideas include filling the display area with balloons, balls or other colorful props; having local artists display their work on a rotating basis; and working with the local historical society to create display boards about the history of the building or downtown. These simple and inexpensive methods for making the storefront look alive rather than empty will not only aid in finding a tenant but will also make the entire district look more vibrant.

Temporary signs or displays that make a vacant storefront look bright and alive can help property owners attract new tenants. Photo by Jeff Fortin, City of Waukesha, WI

When it comes to accessibility, some low-cost improvement projects include changing doorknobs to lever or loop handles, lowering bathroom mirrors and towel or soap dispensers, installing or adjusting door closers, installing offset hinges to make doorways 32 inches clear, and lowering door thresholds to ¼ inch. Operational changes for accessibility purposes might include keeping all aisles free of obstructions, widening aisles where necessary, lowering display shelf heights, retrieving merchandise when asked, providing curbside service or deliveries, or even meeting in a separate space that is accessible.

The simple, inexpensive changes outlined above can help immensely in making a building and its future business tenants more resilient in the face of an unpredictable future.

Medium-cost improvements

Given reduced vehicular and pedestrian traffic volumes, right now is an opportune time to make physical changes to Main Street buildings. The first order of business, especially for owners seeking new tenants, should be touching up the existing storefront and interior space. Years of wear and tear may warrant minor repairs, a thorough cleaning and a fresh coat of paint. These simple projects can go a long way in suggesting to potential tenants that the building is well cared for, especially in spaces that are structurally sound with original windows and doors still intact.

As of this writing in Wisconsin, aesthetic improvements to buildings are now allowed during the pandemic, but must be done by a single worker.

Removing things that were specific to the former tenants, such as slat walls, signage, changing rooms and bright paint colors, can help to make a space more attractive to a new tenant. Giving potential tenants a blank slate to work with can help them better imagine what their business could look like in the space. These so-called “white box” improvements can be done for relatively little cost, especially if the owners are willing to do the demolition, repairs and painting themselves.

White box improvements, like these in La Crosse, WI make a space into a clean slate that helps potential tenants envision their business inside. Photo by Willow Boutique and Downtown Main Street, Inc.

In spaces where the storefront or transom windows have been covered over, this might be the perfect time to open them back up and allow more natural light into the space to make it feel bright, airy and clean. In some cases, a suspended ceiling may go right up to the transom windows. While it would be expensive to remove the entire ceiling and reroute all of the electrical and ductwork, a more affordable option might be to only remove the first row or two of the ceiling grid, thus allowing the natural light to shine in without requiring costly reconfiguration work.

Removing materials that conceal original storefront elements is often a relatively simple project.

In some cases, even the storefront windows have been covered over. This might require a lot of work to bring the windows back to their original size—but in some cases, if the original storefront elements remain but were covered over with another material, it might be possible to restore the original appearance for only hundreds, instead of thousands, of dollars. The materials underneath would no doubt need some repair and painting, and perhaps new glass—but no actual reconstruction may be needed.

In the accessibility category, some mid-range improvements include widening doorways to 32 inches clear, installing push-button automatic openers on entrances, adding grab bars and accessible toilets and sinks, lowering portions of checkout counters, installing audible/visual alarms, and building a ramp at the side or rear alley entrance.

For restaurants and retailers alike, it might be possible (if allowed by your municipality) to install a walk-up window on a side or rear wall. It could be locked and sealed when not in use, but could be essential to modified operations if a similar shutdown is ever required again. Simple temporary signage could be used to direct people to the window when it’s in operation.

Great example of an alley-side walk-up window in Salina, KS. Photo by Roadfood.

These types of medium-cost improvements, when combined with some of the low-cost strategies previously given, can make a real difference in the viability of a business and/or the attractiveness of available tenant spaces.

Investing for the future

With sufficient funding, property owners can take the opportunity to go beyond aesthetic improvements and make investments they’ve been putting off for years. Examples might include removing the suspended ceiling to expose the original tin ceiling, rerouting or upgrading electrical, installing new lighting and coiled ductwork, upgrading the HVAC system, installing rooftop condensing units, and removing unsightly window A/C units, among many others.

Removing a suspended ceiling can open up a “can of worms”, requiring the relocation of electrical, lighting, ductwork and more, but doing so can also make a huge difference in making a space attractive to new tenants.

If the original storefront was removed or downsized, this would be a perfect time to reconstruct a new one that fills the entire original opening and has large display windows of the type retail and other commercial businesses desire. While making these improvements, it’s an opportune time to incorporate features related to social distancing.

For restaurants that have been able to stay afloat and reopen after the pandemic, this might be the time to consider adding a walk-up window in the front, or a walk-up or drive-up window on the side or rear wall (where allowed). If done in front, it is crucial from a design standpoint that it doesn’t ruin the architectural or historic character of the storefront. This trend was even gaining steam before the pandemic: a Chicago Tribune article from 2017 highlights many of the Chicago-area businesses that made these types of changes back then.

A walk-up window in Maysville, KY. Photo by Ledger Independent, Maysville, KY

But it’s important to look at changes like these comprehensively now that we’ve been through a shut-down like this. Businesses that made changes before the pandemic could have never predicted some of the other factors that would affect safety. For instance, Iggy’s Eggies restaurant in downtown Detroit converted their storefront windows to allow for walk-up orders prior to the pandemic—but when social distancing measures were suddenly required, they found that they were not able to provide their employees enough space inside to allow for social distancing, so they made the difficult but admirable choice to temporarily close to protect their staff. In the future when looking for or designing new spaces, businesses will need to take into account the social distancing and safety measures we’ve learned from the pandemic. The American Institute of Architects (AIA) has developed a checklist for businesses, called the ReOccupancy Assessment Tool, that addresses many of these design concerns.

Before and after photos of a walk-up window in Detroit that was installed prior to the pandemic. Unfortunately, the space inside was not large enough to allow for social distancing measures for employees, and the business decided to temporarily close due to safety concerns. Photos by Devin Cullham.

Walk-up windows in existing entryways like this one in Cincinnati (left) and in London (right) can be installed while still respecting the original design. Photo on left by 13th Street Alley. Photo on right by Sam Newberg-Joe Urban.

If a walk-up window is not an option, perhaps local ordinances would allow you to replace the storefront windows with operable or roll-up windows to allow for walk-up business.

Photos of roll-up storefront windows in Libertyville, IL. Photos by Main Street Libertyville and Main Street Social restaurant.

If none of those are an option, perhaps the local community allows food carts. This could be an alternate strategy to continue selling food without allowing indoor seating. Outdoor seating has always been recommended by Main Street professionals as a way to add life to the street. Today, it provides for additional seating options when distancing requirements are in place. Customers may be more comfortable with outdoor dining than indoor confined spaces. Plus, this could be a logical area to provide curbside pickup in the case of another shutdown.

If funding is available, this is also a perfect time to make major accessibility improvements. Providing an accessible route into and throughout a business should be a major priority, and in fact, the law states that property owners are supposed to be making such improvements whenever readily achievable, especially when they are doing no other remodeling work. Providing ramps into the space (if needed) without impeding on the public right-of-way or destroying the architectural or historic character of the building is important. In cases where a lift or elevator is required, this is a good time to plan for that. If it’s possible to reconfigure the building entrance to allow for at least 18 inches on the handle side of the door without altering the original storefront configuration, that should be done as well.

Restrooms are another accessibility item that should be upgraded at this time if funds are available. The 2010 ADA Checklist for Existing Facilities is a good resource to determine what spacing and design requirements apply to your property.

For buildings with upper-level apartments, figuring out ways to provide porches, balconies or patios for tenants can help immensely in making stay-at-home orders more tolerable (and units more marketable), providing tenants with safe, secure and secluded outdoor space without leaving home.

Ultimately, there are many ways that businesses and property owners can make the best of current circumstances and implement design ideas to support resilient and sustainable business operations in the future. With improvements like these, and with the social distancing and safety measures we are all getting used to, businesses will be prepared to operate safely in all sorts of circumstances, and staying at home can be less lonely and isolating for all.