Fall 2013
Pop-ups Add Pizzazz

Pop-ups add much-needed dose of vitality to downtown retail.

Walnut Creek, CA, was facing a challenge all too common for today’s downtown city centers: how to create a new shopping experience that pulls shoppers into an older segment of downtown—and how to keep those shoppers coming back time and time again.

Forget about thinking outside the box. Their solution was to think outside altogether. The city decided to transform an underutilized public square—Liberty Bell Plaza—into what is now known as Popup Plaza. Since it launched last November, Popup Plaza has introduced a constantly changing mix of retailers, businesses, artists and entertainers. “It’s not a carnival. It’s not a farmer’s market. It’s its own special town square,” says Craig Semmelmeyer, a principal at Main Street Property Services, a commercial real estate firm based in Walnut Creek. Main Street is in charge of managing and leasing Popup Plaza on behalf of the city.

To date, popup retail tenants have been selling everything from baked goods and gifts to sports memorabilia and flowers. In addition to the vendors, the plaza has been successful in generating pedestrian traffic thanks in large part to a busy line-up of events, interactive activities, demonstrations and entertainment. Popup Plaza has hosted musicians, painters and even puppet shows. “To me, what is very exciting is creating the program for live entertainment and performances. That opportunity has exceeded my expectations,” says Ron Gerber, economic development manager for the City of Walnut Creek.

Fresh and fab

The pop- up idea originated last year when the city purchased six RMUs. The objective from the beginning was to utilize space in the plaza in unique and different ways. “The most successful things that we have done are the ones that spill out beyond the kiosks,” says Semmelmeyer.
For example, Popup Plaza signed a license agreement with Ferrari early this summer that will allow the car company to sell Ferrari-themed merchandise, as well as display a car and offer test drives from the plaza.

Main Street would like to schedule additional themed pop-up events in the future. For example, the company is negotiating a deal with local yoga instructors who would like to host outdoor classes at Popup Plaza. Lululemon (a yoga-inspired athletic apparel company) already has a store downtown, and the event creates an opportunity for Main Street to bring other yoga apparel brands and related merchandise in as pop-ups.

Some pop-ups have been up for as little as one day, while others last for a week or longer. It is interesting, because conventional retailers are calling and trying to lease space on the plaza, says Semmelmeyer. “We are having to turn those away, because we don’t want to be ordinary,” he adds.

So far, the city has been pleased with the success Popup Plaza has generated, both in the unique mix of retail and entertainment tenants, as well as the buzz of additional pedestrian traffic to the square. “This is the ‘mallternative lab’ so to speak,” says Gerber. The city is considering bringing the same pop-up model to other locations within the city where the goal is the same—to increase traffic and create fresh excitement and energy.

Downtown merchants also can try a pop-up to promote a new product line or drive more traffic to an existing downtown store. “Popup Plaza provides an opportunity for retailers to try out the marketplace, and it gives entrepreneurs an affordable way to come to this market and see what the responses are like,” Gerber says.


Beth Mattson-Teig

Beth Mattson-Teig is a freelance business writer based in Minneapolis, Minn. She specializes in covering the national commercial real estate industry.
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