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Tips for Creating a Vibrant Retail Streetscape

The Metropolitan in downtown Columbia, Maryland, includes a linear open space that serves as a “front porch” for eateries, retail, and services frequented by residents of the nearby apartments. (Image courtesy of Design Collective)

The Metropolitan in downtown Columbia, Maryland, includes a linear open space that serves as a “front porch” for eateries, retail, and services frequented by residents of the nearby apartments. (Image courtesy of Design Collective)

Streetscapes create a sensation of depth and charm that beckon to passersby. People are drawn to lush landscapes, open green spaces and great tree canopies. They feel welcomed in these spaces and want to share them with others. Many new developments aim to provide streetscapes and open spaces that create holistic connections, enhancing their projects with authenticity and community. Here are some insights into how to create these.

Building Community Through Authentic Connections + Open Spaces

Strategically integrating retail and open spaces brings benefits beyond the satisfaction of the immediate customers. It contributes to the entire district or neighborhood as these elements are knit into the urban fabric. Thoughtful planning should address more than tenant mix and leasable space; it needs to consider quality of open space and the surrounding environment. Today’s consumer has an appetite for quality. Young professionals are flocking to new developments that support a work-life balance. An individual who lives or works near a new development can bring his or her family and friends to dine, shop, run errands, and play, extending their time spent together and within the development. Retail can benefit from this type of place-making by creating destinations that people want to stop and use for other purposes. If a young family can dine out and then spend time enjoying the adjacent open space, they’ve struck gold. Who doesn’t need to spend more time smelling the roses and playing with their kids?

Quality open space allows engagement with friends or family beyond simply dining and then getting in the car and heading home or to another destination. After such an experience, children will want to go back and dine at the adjacent eatery so they can play at the park afterwards. Friends will also suggest grabbing drinks someplace they can eat and then catch up while strolling and shopping.

Thoughtful connections to regional transit also provide access and connectivity while eliminating the need for vast parking and overdesigned avenues. Designing with transit in mind offers young professionals the opportunity to access shopping and entertainment without having to depend on a car or pay for parking.

A great example is a new project in the East Liberty neighborhood of Pittsburgh. Eastside has strategically leveraged government dollars to make this new development a dynamic retail and living environment with easy access to transit. Through the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Tiger Grant program, the Eastside project received funding that helped offset the cost for enhanced transit and below-grade parking. The main goal of the program is to promote transportation solutions that encourage commuters to seek alternate transportation and to improve mobility for all people. But it’s not just about buses, trains and walkability: Cyclists are drawn to developments equipped with ample bike shelters, racks, and amenities such as bike repair. Eastside captured this opportunity to accommodate a fast-growing bike culture in its city and across the U.S.

Strategic planning is at the heart of great development, but it doesn’t end there. An understanding of place is the foundation for authenticity. For example, the vibrant Eastside development in the East Liberty neighborhood of Pittsburgh manifests the passion of the developer (The Mosites Company) who understands and deeply values the community. Every design decision gives the development a character that complements its place and contrasts harmoniously by using materials that reflect both the industrial edge of Pittsburgh’s history, and the local community.

Another example of the desire to seek authenticity is the recently completed Metropolitan in downtown Columbia, Maryland – a Kettler and Howard Hughes Corporation development that successfully integrates a mix of housing and retail adjacent to a traditional mall. Early planning work completed by Design Collective, recommended the addition of a linear open space adjacent to and fronting the retail. The park was designed to serve as a “front porch” for a dynamic tenant mix consisting of the Corner Bakery, MOD Pizza, and Cal Burger integrated with services such as a Floyd’s Barbershop and a European day spa. This mix of retail not only serves the nearby apartments but will also serve future units on the adjacent two blocks being added through 2017.

The East Liberty neighborhood of Pittsburgh combines materials that reflect both the industrial edge of Pittsburgh’s history, and the local community. (Image courtesy of Design Collective)

The East Liberty neighborhood of Pittsburgh combines materials that reflect both the industrial edge of Pittsburgh’s history, and the local community. (Image courtesy of Design Collective)

A major challenge of the development included the integration of storm water management systems and a children’s playground as mandated by the design guidelines. In addition, the developer and design team had to address a local mandate requiring the developer to invest at least 1 percent of the overall development construction cost to public art. Given these requirements, the design team set off imagining an environment that blended the three — stormwater management, playground and art — into one solution. Working with a local artist, oversized flowers and leaves reminiscent of the local tulip poplar tree, prevalent within the community and nearby Symphony Woods, became the conceptual inspiration for a series of sculptures (think slides and tunnels) set amongst plantings, a lawn, and a mister fountain. The goal was to provide a play environment that was engaging and fun but a cut above typical off-the-shelf play structures to complement the surrounding development. The result is art that takes on an “Alice in Wonderland” effect for the children and provides an environment for play while mom and dad sip their lattes and enjoy lunch and conversation. Even the water feature was well conceived. Five misting columns, set flush in grade, allow children and adults to indulge in the allure of water and cool off without getting drenched. The misters can be triggered by pressing one of five buttons on a nearby wall that activate a random sequence of jets. It keeps the kids guessing and engaged.

This integration of art and play was developed by local artist Mary Ann Mears, in collaboration with Design Collective, to add authenticity for visitors who recognize the relation of the art to the specific locale.

Thriving Treescape = Authentically Human

Planning for trees is an important decision. Big trees create character and shade, and they scale the building to the pedestrian. Often overlooked, proper planning, and implementation, of necessary soil volume is crucial to a thriving treescape. Everyone has encountered developments where trees were planted in a 4’x 4’ pit or seen a tree damaged by a tree grate. Often the grate has been neglected and has not been properly enlarged as the tree has continued to grow, causing damage and ultimately killing the tree. In addition, the undersized tree pit only allows enough uncompacted soil for the tree to survive a few years before it begins to decline, resulting in a stunted and unhealthy tree.  Studies are clear that tree growth is directly correlated with soil volume, and starving a tree of adequate uncompacted soil volume results in short-lived trees that need replacement and do not support a long-term aesthetic. Enlarging tree pits, the use of structural soil, Silva Cell systems, and other methods are widely used and becoming more prevalent. All techniques have the same goal: to provide more soil volume for the tree to thrive.

Large tree growth is an investment worth the upfront planning and expense. The funds invested in a thriving treescape provide an increasing return as time unfolds, tenants extend leases, and consumers remain drawn to the environment. Early planning allows cost-effective solutions, such as micro-bioretention facilities, to be layered into the site design in a way that saves cost.  Low cost options are ideal, but if necessary, more expensive systems such as underground storage or structural pavement systems can be used.  The cost of the planting is already included as a cost for the typical project.  Integrating stormwater management into the already planted areas maximizes the use of space and if planned correctly can save funds.

Planning early is important. Each project moves through a planning stage where the puzzle is being solved and a balance between leasable square footage and amenity is achieved. Engaging a landscape architect early allows the development plan to be properly vetted and the landscape creatively integrated. Often waiting and making important decisions on tree placement and proper soil volume results in more costly measures. Of course, each project will be unique in its needs.

Pike & Rose uses a modular stormwater management system that supports tree growth and provides uncompacted soil volume in the urban environment. Using a system such as Silva Cell allows the streetscape to accommodate retail and dining without sacrificing the long term sustainability of the tree. (Image courtesy of Design Collective)

Pike & Rose uses a modular stormwater management system that supports tree growth and provides uncompacted soil volume in the urban environment. Using a system such as Silva Cell allows the streetscape to accommodate retail and dining without sacrificing the long term sustainability of the tree. (Image courtesy of Design Collective)

Urban Environments and Storm Water Management

It is in the urban environment that developments truly become mixed-use. Sustainability in this context means long-term success of the environment with people living, working, and shopping in the same area. Successful urban projects capture and capitalize on every square inch of land, and need to provide desired amenities such as a band shell, fountain or programmed lawn space as well as thoughtfully designed storm water management systems.

Relatively recent factors, such as storm water management requirements and sustainability initiatives like LEED, are encouraging — if not requiring — developers to increase green space and decrease the use of pavement or other impermeable surfaces. This has led to more sophisticated open spaces where storm water management systems are balanced with program and are often becoming more visible to passersby. Designers are now placing plantings both for beauty and also to accommodate storm water collection and infiltration.

Many cities are facing aging infrastructure, and, as a result, designers are tasked with the decision to upsize storm/sewer systems or consider alternate approaches. Integrating storm water management in smaller systems can effectively keep water from overburdening local infrastructure. Letting the landscape contribute by capturing and filtrating water on site, effectively reduces the burden and takes peak pressure off infrastructure systems.

The Pike & Rose project, in Rockville, Maryland, by Federal Realty Investment Trust, is selling a different lifestyle, one in which authentic, vibrant open spaces and streetscape, large trees, and storm water are fully integrated into a dense urban environment. The development is a true mixed-use environment, balancing multi-family housing, office, retail and structured parking in a dense configuration. With over 493 residential units already constructed as well as 150,000 square feet of proposed retail and 80,000 square feet of office and a new iPic Theater, coupled with a well-designed streetscape consisting of big trees, quality materials, and beautiful plantings, a new energy is created.

Pike & Rose uses a modular suspended pavement system that provides uncompacted soil volume to support large tree growth and doubles to provide additional on-site storm water management beneath your feet. Although tight on space, these innovative systems allow for streetscape needs such as trees, planting and sidewalks to coexist with retail and dining in a compact footprint. The retail here is viable as residents and office workers buy local services and dine at restaurants located in the ground level of their building or within walking distance. With a clever use of lighting, trees, environmental graphics and high-end materials, the streetscape is vibrant and attractive even when few people are present. The result is a new community alive with people at any time of the day or night, midweek or weekend.

Vibrant streetscapes create communities that compel residents and workers to extend their stay for leisure activities, without having to jump in the car for their next destination. Mature trees add to the aesthetic, contributing to the authenticity and community that begins to flourish and attract larger crowds and more residents, that will, in turn, invite others to share in that experience as well. SCB

Brian Reetz is a senior associate at Baltimore-based Design Collective. This article was featured in the November 2016 issue of Shopping Center Business magazine. 

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