Planning for Waterfront Retail Development

Planning for waterfront develoment, in particular waterfront retail venues, in the proximity of water bodies, begins with recognition of the human fascination with water – people enjoy viewing water, immersing themselves in water, floating or boating on water, smelling water, and playing with water, among the many water-based activities.

Placing retail stores, restaurants, and other “at retail” venues in the proximity of water, is an interesting variation on the usual approach to development retail offerings for consumers.


This is due primarily to the water’s edge, and/or the water body itself, being an active “extra” element that must be accommodated in configuring the retail experience.


Generally speaking, a path that follows alongside an attractive water body, is far more interesting to people than a path that does not include water. The reason for this fascination is an interesting matter of speculation, but regardless, the fascination exists.


There are interesting “lesson learned” that may prove useful in setting design approaches for waterfront retail in various locations.


It is important to note that the water body in waterfront development, as the water’s edge, are the essential locational features establishes each particular place as a destination. However, there is nofunctional or aesthetic relationship between retailing and adjacent water bodies or water’s edges. The most successful waterfront retail facilities essentially plan for their shops to have no relationship to the water, instead planning for moments of water experience in ways that do not interrupt retail rhythm. Waterfronts, to retail, then, are primarily about providing a sense of place, and placemaking, the reason for the retail to exist at a particular location versus another. Human beings enjoy water, the small, sight, sound, the aura of being on or about water. This human connection to water is factor of interest in retail planning.


The second primary contribution that a water body or water’s edge makes as a foundation for planning waterfront retail is a scenic backdrop, whether for approach zones, sightlines, or view corridors through the site.


These primary contributions of water to waterfront retail experiences – providing essential locational attributes of place, and scenic/view possibilities, places water above all other natural elements, as a place making juggernaut.


In each of the following examples, we focus less on how successful each waterfront retail project may be, and instead, focus on specific design tactics that appear to work well. From this review, it is clear that the presence of water bodies and water’s edge, does impact storefront rhythms (both visual and physical access) and this impact must be addressed.


A starting point in planning for “retail near water” is identifying how the water body will be experienced, and there are some distinct differences, such as:


How does the water’s edge meet the land side?
Does the water and land-side edge meet at the same level?
Same level like a beach?
Or differential like a harbor-side bulkhead?
Does the water body have visibly dynamic action?
Like waves or current?
Or vertical in some way like a waterfall or fountain?
Does the water experience include moments over water?
Like bridges or piers?


As well, waterfront retail can exist adjacent to water bodies that have greatly varying land-water relationships:


Oceans and seas


StoneCreek Partners Resource pages are provided freely and without limitation for personal, private, non-commercial use, and may be linked to as a source page. All resource page information is based on 30 years of practitioner’s experience of StoneCreek Partners’ principals in the retail, themed entertainment, hotel and resort, residential, and commercial real estate industries.