How Texas Developers Can Curate Unique Retail Experiences in Post-Pandemic, Mixed-Use Environments

by Taylor Williams

By Barry Hand, principal, Gensler

In a recent tour of a name-brand corporate campus, the host carefully explained to our team that his company’s policy regarding working from home (WFH) and returning to the office (RTO) remained loose as they completed a “year of learning.”  

This “learning” presumably involved listening to staff, observing who badges in when and where, experimenting with what works and what doesn’t and resolving the best way to get their arms around the most effective policies. 

Barry Hand, Gensler

This explanation has surely been given repeatedly in recent years. It appears most companies prefer to bring their people back to the office, but they also want to adopt policies that will work best for employees and customers, as well as the future of their organizations. 

While there are outliers that have instituted clear return-to-office directives, most firms are adopting change management strategies organized around attracting staff back to the office. They are doing this by leaning on experiences and amenities that demonstrate to employees the benefits of being present in the office. It seems the “experience” around which retail and food-and-beverage establishments are designed has now also reached into the corporate world.

The Amenitized Workplace

Increasing numbers of companies are carefully listening to their staffs and choosing to embed their shrinking office space footprints within a mix of activated, walkable lifestyle amenities.

This strategy allows companies to off-load overhead amenities like foodservice, fitness and convenience retail to third-party tenants co-located just down the block, while also touting the urban, walkable qualities of their workplaces. 

All of this leads back to the impacts of the constantly shifting tectonic plates that make up the state of retail. To be sure, discount or online retailers have covered a large segment of the
two-dimensional transactional retail in our lives.  

An Urban Attractor

Those of us engaged in the strategic planning and design of commercial placemaking have known for some time that the revenue-generating retail space committed to physical brick-and-mortar centers is an elusive, shrinking commodity that increasing numbers of property owners are chasing.

The pandemic accelerated that trend as much as any other. And increasingly, retail and food-and-beverage (F&B) spaces are now viewed clearly as experience-based amenities. This has to do with strategically satisfying the human need for connection and for our patrons who are drawn to a sense of community. 

At the AT&T Discovery District in Dallas, the formerly dusty and gray ground plane docks, data centers and office spaces set among an overgrown plaza were converted to a food hall and beer garden with dining, collaboration and employee spaces. The site now serves as an urban attraction in which the public can see AT&T teams work. 

More importantly, the lifestyle amenities at the base of the AT&T world headquarters have boosted morale among employees and made AT&T more attractive to educated tech and business talent. The relatively small plaza, lawn and retail/F&B offerings anchor the world headquarters, bringing a diverse offering of experiences in a place now carefully and quietly curated around the AT&T brand expression.

At Legacy West in Plano, which at first glance is an outlier built with hundreds of thousands of feet of inline retail storefronts, employers such as Boeing, WeWork and Liberty Mutual populate the floors above the street-level retail storefronts. Residents are not far behind.

Sales within these stores are strong, but the intangible strength is the value added to the office and residential spaces — all of which together comprise a walkable neighborhood with a range of experiences and offerings. 

These events include football watch parties, outdoor dining events, fashion shows, tribute band concerts, strolls along the storefronts, business cohorts and launch parties for various products. Recently, long after the shopfronts were closed, a local artist climbed atop a custom van outfitted with a specialized mount on which he could spin canvasses and create paintings to music. The paintings were ultimately for sale, but the spectacle of the actual activity was enough to attract and entertain hundreds of pedestrians in the neighborhood. 

The 50-acre lifestyle zone centered in the 192-acre Fields West development in Frisco represents another example of these trends in action. Fields West is currently in the planning/design phase, and construction is scheduled to begin in 2024.

In addition to 350,000 square feet of retail and two hotels, Fields West will house 350,000 square feet of boutique office space and 1,050 residential units  atop the retail podiums. Curated around the heritage of the larger Fields Family Ranch and bookended by the new PGA of America headquarters on one side and a theme park on the other, Fields West will become yet another bold urban node on the North Texas horizon. 

The activation of a half-mile spine of dynamic retail space, open green spaces and a mix of walkable uses that come together as a series of durable, linear neighborhood places will punctuate the development’s walkability and pedestrian-friendly qualities.

Broader Applications

Ultimately, the elusive community experience is built upon human connections, a range of exhibition, contemplative space and bonds built with friends and family around food and drinks. 

For example, the streets of New Orleans have for decades been uniquely populated with children who tap dance for money. It is one of the many authentic threads in the tapestry of sights, sounds and smells of a Saturday morning in the French Quarter. 

Who hasn’t enjoyed a busker in the subway stations or streets of New York? Or a juggler at Covent Garden in London? We speak often of the need for purposeful public spaces in successful and interactive, people-centric places. 

Diversity of both planned and spontaneous experiences and offerings is necessary for places to be durable in our communities. Carefully programmed public spaces with events and gathering areas allow operators to quickly establish senses of placemaking that are successfully curated toward a range of demographics in the community. 

Today as much as ever, in a world awash with a barrage of digital messaging and shallow connections, there is a vast and almost insatiable appetite for visceral in-person human interaction. Astute retailers, hospitality providers and employers are carefully understanding this demand and increasing foot traffic and sales on the back of satisfying the human need for community and experience-oriented places.

— This article originally appeared in the May issue of Texas Real Estate Business magazine.

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