The recent move by several national retail chains to close hundreds of their stores across the country creates a tremendous opportunity for shopping center owners, developers, communities and design professionals. This is a nationwide trend that reflects a shift in how we are shopping and living today.
Property owners around the country are evaluating what to do with these empty big boxes. In years past, if a large retailer couldn’t be found, the space would be divided into two or three smaller retail spaces. This remains a viable option today in some cases.
Expanding retailers with a store footprint of 10,000 to 20,000 square feet are also attracted to these locations. Breaking down the large boxes to mid-size footprints creates an opportunity for expanding retailers to open a new store in an established, mature location.
However, with more cities encouraging mixed-use and vertical developments, owners are studying options to break out of the confines of the enclosed mall to create a multi-use environment. Such developments might include residential, hotel, shopping, dining and office uses, much like what is found on the vibrant streets of the world’s greatest cities. This forward thinking is redefining shopping centers and big-box retail spaces across the country.
As architects, we are sometimes asked to provide schemes that show different options for development — ranging from dividing a big box to make room for multiple tenants to revitalizing a big box into a walkable destination. Owners can then visualize and assess what will suit their business plan and benefit the surrounding community well into the future.
Complexities of Mixed-Use
Transforming a tired and partially vacant retail center or big-box space into a vibrant, morning-to-evening mixed-use destination, takes experience and finesse. But complexity takes many forms when working with a mix of uses. There are several key considerations necessary when seamlessly integrating a variety of uses into a single complex, including:
Zoning — A new kind of development may require rezoning. It takes precise drawings, site plans, data and supporting information on benefits to the community — all told by a great communicator — to help municipalities and stakeholders feel comfortable with a proposed development where uses vary from the existing zoning.
Parking — A variety of uses may require a variety of parking. A mix of uses may mean that one parking structure can serve day and evening. It may mean that a valet is needed, or reserved spaces, or a combination of curbside and structure parking. Creating parking that makes the best use of land, and adds architectural interest of enduring beauty, are all things to consider.
Identity — A mixed-use destination is more than just a shopping destination. It may also be a residential community or an office building. Identity for the development can be achieved with the careful design and selection of a name, wayfinding, amenities, public art, landscaping and public spaces, as well as the quality of the architecture of the buildings.
Model the Masters
While there is no single way for a development to achieve both status and longevity in a community, the walkable city-style destination is one that has endured for centuries. As inspiration, a design and development team can look to the great cities of the world, or some of the newer best-in-class developments that create an inviting, comfortable, cool place.
Developing a main street through a portion of a retail center, and linking the properties with pedestrian walkways, results in a neighborhood that embodies a mixed-use environment.
Transforming a retail center in this manner opens up new possibilities for anchor tenants. Destination restaurants can easily become the anchors by drawing onsite residents, nearby employees, as well as visitors from the surrounding communities.
As demonstrated in Scout on the Circle, a Combined Properties redevelopment located outside of Washington, D.C. that was designed by KTGY, replacing an aging retail center by dividing it into city blocks can define a progression of pedestrian experiences ranging from public plaza spaces and promenades to private residential courtyards.
A city street atmosphere also lends itself to adding local, one-of-a kind retailers that may include fashion boutiques for women and children, home stores and specialty services such as tailors, gyms, dance studios, music schools, spas and beauty salons. This type of development can also include medical centers, colleges, churches and civic centers.
Incorporating uses other than retail helps to establish the development as a destination. This is particularly true of medical office suites that, in addition to being more easily adapted from big-box retail space, draw visitors of all ages, particularly baby boomers who are likely to visit the neighboring restaurants and shops.
Creating densification with a diversity of uses provides the community with a morning-to-evening, live-work-shop-dine environment. A walkable, city-style district harkens back to the town center, builds a sense of place, and creates a memorable destination that appeals across generations and demographics to become the heart of the community.
Simon “Sy” Perkowitz is a principal at KTGY Architecture + Planning, an Irvine, Calif.-based architecture firm.