Does a Name Make the Place?
I grew up in the suburbs when everything was new. Our neighborhood backed up to a cornfield that eventually became another neighborhood. Even the parks were new, with clover leaves of baseball diamonds and walking paths and fast-growing trees. The primary naming strategy of these places was to refer to what it replaced. Regardless of what they were constructing, the developers renamed the new sites Deer Run or Deer Creek or Deer Crossing. It might be Oak Meadows or Meadow Glen, or Meadow Wood. The same architecture, the same names, the same sandwich shops could be found in any suburb from Detroit to Des Moines.
That is one way to make a place. Times and preferences change, though. The newness and homogeneity of the suburbs give way to the context and texture of infill redevelopments: projects that take old buildings and refurbish and/or add on to them for a second life, often much different than the original intention. These projects face unique naming challenges.
What follows are two naming/branding challenges you will need to think through before getting started. After that, there are naming trends we can learn from and a case study to make the theoretical a bit more practical.
A property’s history makes it attractive for redevelopment. It can also present a huge challenge. We are increasingly aware of the land’s pre-European history. Most of these places have an era of agrarianism. There are often multiple buildings torn down, rebuilt, and cobbled back together in an indecipherable way. There is an era of decline followed by the proposed re-use, the big vision. The idea of connecting the new brand to a story, to a sense of history is the primary attribute that separates infill projects from ground-up construction. So, it is usually desirable for the name and visual identity to reference some aspect of this history.
The trouble is, which part of the history do you acknowledge? The Municipal Market is in the Sweet Auburn neighborhood in Atlanta. It is a multi-tenant market that has roots back to the 1920s. Municipal is used here like ‘city’ to differentiate this from a seasonal farmer’s market. However, the locals don’t use the name that is on the sign or the website. They call it Curb Market. That is because from its inception through segregation, Black vendors weren’t allowed in the building. They set up on the sidewalk, patrons lining up on the curb. The market recently started acknowledging this ugly part of its history by telling the story on its website. They began using Curb Market on social media. They recognize that the past is complex and sometimes embarrassing. But, talking about it can be a step towards a more equitable future.
So, ask yourself: are we appropriately acknowledging and discussing the history of our property? Are we taking the good parts and ignoring the awkward? And, by these choices, are we empowering or disempowering our neighbors?
The next consideration for infill naming relates to complexity. You aren’t creating a brand name to stand alone. These projects tend to be mixed-use. While that is generally good, it creates brand hierarchy problems. For example, there is an infill project in Lincoln, Nebraska called Canopy Street. Within it is an entertainment district dubbed The Railyard. The Railyard is in the Haymarket district. It contains restaurants and something called the Cube presented by Union Bank and Trust. So, theoretically, some outsider looking at the website might say, “let’s go to the Cube presented by Union Bank and Trust at The Railyard in the Haymarket District on Canopy Street. Of course, no one would say that, but it highlights the issue. These names, at their worst, can be like nested dolls.
Among competing brands, which gains primacy? Should it be the development? That is how it has worked historically. Someone might say, “I am going to the mall.” They wouldn’t have to specify which store. Infill/mixed-use projects have a different value proposition, though. They aren’t offering homogeneity. They are offering a curated mix of chains and local options that appeal to the target audience. Does the local restaurant get lost when paired in an ad with Trader Joe’s? It is a challenge to build the destination brand over time while simultaneously highlighting the individual tenants, who are often on very different scales. Because as a developer, anchor tenants might come and go, but your investment in the property remains.
Ask yourself how you want people to refer to your property and be realistic about what they will do? The YMCA finally stopped fighting and became The Y. Can you simplify the architecture for your customers? The easier you make it for them, the more likely they will do some word of mouth marketing for you.
Including a property’s former use in the name can be an effective strategy. As our cities become increasingly post-industrial, there are aspects of the infrastructure that aren’t as useful as they used to be. Railroads are a good example. There are buildings and land adjacent to decommissioned lines that are prime for reuse. Not surprisingly, there are infill developments called The Railyard in Sacramento, Santa Fe, and Lincoln, NE. Their names honor what was before.
Similarly, the waterfront was once key for transporting raw materials and finished goods to and from our cities. That formerly industrial wasteland is now desirable real estate. Royal Docks and Hawley Wharf are both developments in London. There is a Dockside and a Dockside Green. And there’s Navy Pier, Pier 4, Pier 66, and Pier 70. What was practical now has a different value.
While those tend to be more general, some examples create more memorable names. The Toronto Carpet Factory is a redevelopment with a name so weirdly specific and long that it sticks in your head. Stocking 51 is in an old hosiery factory. The Greyline Station near my office was a defunct Greyhound bus depot (more about that later).
Incorporating the former usage can be effective. Ask yourself: are we specific enough to stand out? Does the name do justice to the legacy of the people represented by the place? Was the prior usage accessible to our desired patrons?
A half-step behind former use in naming popularity is physical location. Our city markets have the cardinal directions nailed down. There are Eastern Markets, Eastside Markets, East End Markets. There is a Southern Market, Western Market, and Northern Market. There are hybrids like the Northeast Market. And there are Central Markets.
Redevelopments with a residential focus often use the street address for the brand name. In Chicago, there is Eight Eleven Uptown and 1819 Division. 60_80 Atlantic is a development of two buildings located at 60 and 80 Atlantic in Toronto. These names can be a little forgettable and interchangeable with similar developments across the country.
Often, developments use the street name or some variation. In Atlanta, there is Krog Street Market and High Street Atlanta. Ponce City Market is a shortening of the road: Ponce de Leon Avenue. Without the numeral, these names feel less dated. The examples of Ponce and Krog are also uncommon words that lend interest to the brand. ‘High’ doesn’t do that as well.
Geography can be an effective anchor for a brand name. Ask yourself: are we following a trend or picking a useful strategy? Is the name unique enough to stand out from our competitors? Can we push further?
Of course, there is the risk of creating a name that is too generic in any industry. Generic names are familiar, and familiar feels safe. In naming, that is not true. Generic is forgettable. There is nothing safe about having a forgettable brand name.
People are drawn to infill redevelopment projects because they are interesting. The buildings have a story, and they have character. The architecture is unique. The naming and brand identity should work in tandem with that history. There is a development outside of Nashville called The Factory. It is on the right track but doesn’t quite get us where we want to go. Several probing questions could have taken this a bit deeper. What did the factory produce? Who owned it? What was it before it was a factory? Each development has a story; what is yours? The Factory doesn’t work as well because most infill projects contain some sort of manufacturing space. It isn’t a unique attribute.
It isn’t uncommon for infill projects to be on non-traditional shaped lots. That probably isn’t enough of a differentiator to use as the basis of the name. There are several Triangle Square developments. At first, it sounds pretty clever. It is a square in the sense of a town square: a place where people gather. But, it’s also on a triangular-shaped lot. So, it is a funny, punny sort of name. A square can’t be a triangle; it’s a square. But, the joke sits on the surface.
So, avoid generic names when you can. Your property is oozing history. Take the time to learn from it. What makes it unique? What makes it weird? What stands out?
With all of these considerations, you might be tempted to name it after yourself and call it a day. But, with a little extra work, you can address history sensitively and honestly. You can address brand architecture problems before they become a problem. You can learn from trends like naming the project after the former use or geography. You can stand out from the generic names.
It is one thing to point out considerations. It is another to show how to navigate them. Here is an example from a project we recently worked on. We began as a consultant and created a name for a market within a larger infill project.
Our primary office is on the northside of Lexington, Kentucky. Across the street was a defunct bus depot. It was the headquarters of the Southeastern Greyhound Lines. By the time we moved in, Lextran, our local bus service, owned the building. But, it was too big for them and too old to maintain it effectively. The building had been mostly vacant for more than decades when a developer purchased the building. The vision was a mixed-use project with street-facing retail, office space, and a multi-tenant year-round market. The market was the central feature of the project, and it had some brand challenges.
The market was to be operated by a nonprofit in the neighborhood. It was intended to be a way for local entrepreneurs to get a low-cost start, specifically as an incubator for businesses started by people of color. The development was called Greyline Station as a nod to the history of the building. The question posed to us was: should the market have the same name or something different? We started by assembling a team. In addition to our in-house team, we brought in a photographer and two designers who had ties to our neighborhood. The nonprofit also had a team dedicated to the project, and the developer was involved. There were about ten of us working on the project.
As we surveyed the neighborhood, it became quickly apparent that we would need two names. The name Greyline refers to a bus line that was a physical symbol of the legacy of segregation for many people. The name was a barrier to the people it hoped to include. While it added complexity, the payoff of neighborhood inclusion was worth it.
Our first step was to research other market names. As mentioned, the predominant trend was to use the cardinal direction (north, east, south, west) or words like city or municipal. We wanted to create something more unique. We wanted a name with historical significance that could be inspirational to someone today. We looked at street names, neighborhood names, prominent citizens. We didn’t have much luck until we narrowed the citizens to civil rights activists. There was a woman who grew up and lived on the northside of Lexington named Julie Etta Lewis, sometimes called Julietta. She was a civil rights hero who led non-violent protests and sit-ins.
But, we didn’t want to co-opt this woman’s name. Members of our small group canvased the neighborhood, discussing the idea with younger folks who had never heard of her. We held meetings with the surviving members of her family. We talked with her contemporaries. The support was overwhelming. We were all excited about the opportunity to celebrate her and inspire a new generation through the Julietta Market.
The process of developing this name shows that with a complex decision-making group, you can constructively address history. You can push through former use, geography, and the generic to create a meaningful name. Brand architecture can be part of the consideration but shouldn’t be the deciding factor for building a brand. And this process shows that it is possible to include rather than disempower the neighbors to create something everyone is proud of.
Support: Ciara Leroy, Danielle Meadows-Stinnet, Brian Campbell
NoLi CDC: Kris Nonn, Samantha Johnson, Jaria Gordon, Cubaka Mutayongwa