Town center projects that are touted as “authentic places” can fall short of their potential if they are no more than strip centers with upgraded facades and historic themes. Such centers fail to alter or improve the power center model upon which they are based. Hybrid or totally open-air malls provide a refreshing alternative to their predecessors, but still offer the routine collection of national retailers, offering little change to their fundamental nature. The best examples of town center design have changed and improved upon the traditional model to result in more complex and richer environments.

Early prototypes such as Berkeley's 4th Street, and Santa Monica's 3rd Street Promenade provided a new tenant formula that featured a high percentage of home- and leisure-oriented tenants, as well as a large number of dining, entertainment, grocery and service-related attractions. They succeeded in large part because of their attractive urban structure. Subsequent projects such as Mizner Park in Boca Raton, City Place in West Palm Beach and Santana Row in San Jose improved upon the model by incorporating residential and office uses above retail, resulting in more complete environments.

Challenges to improvement

By learning from these projects, it becomes evident that the challenges facing town center design include the following factors: 1) determining the right tenant mix for a given market area, 2) determining the best physical configuration, 3) placing catalytic uses in strategic locations, 4) developing appropriate upper floor uses, 5) providing parking at convenient, yet unobtrusive locations, and 6) creating open public spaces that relate to buildings and activities so they are animated at most times.

Multi-disciplinary development teams with broad experience who can balance the conflicting needs of each project element are best suited to developing successful town center projects. The choices made prioritizing conflicting needs will determine how a center's function and character is developed. A team that is skewed primarily towards one component may relegate other uses to secondary or even unworkable settings. There is a need today for “multi-purpose developers” that can bring this type of project to fruition. Until the development world catches up with the complexities of these projects, mixed-use architects will play a leading role in furthering the “science” of mixed-use in town center design.

Joseph Smart, MBH principal in charge of the Urban Solutions Studio, describes the ideal town center as “a distinctive pedestrian-oriented district that is mixed-use, urban in character, offering a strong Main Street ambiance that is based on time-proven urban design principles.”

Town centers, like the traditional Main Street, should incorporate retail, professional offices, apartments, and civic services and should tie in to a transportation network of trains or light rail where feasible. With offices or apartments above street-level retail, these centers provide for most daily needs and the core of civic and commercial experience.

A challenge for today's design is the creation of distinct addresses, images and ambience for each use. For example, the traditional model located residential or office entries in the midst of retail storefronts. Historically, these were often no more than a modest door leading to a straight run of stairs. Today's market requires lobbies, easy access, identifiable imagery and signage, linkage to parking, security and privacy.

James Paresi, a lead MBH town center designer, sees “the artistry of mixed-use design in providing for these needs while preserving the best qualities of the past.”

Providing the rich mix of old Main Street is much more difficult today, but is achieved at the best of the new centers to result in public spaces that become symbols of their community rather than a brand for the developer. The physical configuration is carefully planned to complement tenant types and public activities while serving a civic purpose.

Uses are located to heighten movement, excitement and activity and districts are often created around tenant types or themes. Restaurant, bookstore, cafe and cinema locations provide the catalytic building blocks, and national retailers along with daily need providers such as a grocer and a gym will result in the variety of uses necessary in a town center. Second floor offices and residences are then integrated to provide mixed-use dynamics. Services such as financial, beauty, travel, insurance and even medical care facilities can round out the mix, providing a wide range of offerings. Planning the location of the “anchors” — in this case restaurants, grocer and major national tenants — is key to creating a bustling atmosphere and providing people-watching opportunities.

The town center's final and most important challenge is to provide an environment that people will return to repeatedly for more than just shopping purposes. In today's hectic lifestyle, taking time to relax, hang out and “just be” can seem like a luxury. Town centers that satisfy everyday needs and provide enticements to linger and relax achieve the “lifestyle” goal.

Raul Anziani AIA is a director at MBH Architects' Alameda, Calif., office. He directs MBH's Urban Solutions Studio, focusing on mixed-use design and urban-oriented developer projects.