In our time-starved, pressure-filled lives, “shopping” no longer brings back memories of a Main Street department store decked out at Holiday time or that one-of-a-kind gift bought on vacation. Shopping has become a chore. And couldn't we buy that gift by catalog or online; so what if we couldn't touch or smell or see it in person, romancing that we had made a wonderful and private discovery.

I can sum up the success of the New Urban Retail and Leisure Time environments by saying, “Shopping is Back” — as a social activity bringing together people of diverse interests and disposable incomes; as an enjoyment of a sensory environment; and as a “spending extender” with novel types of retailers, approaches to merchandising and complementary selling opportunities.

The post-World War II urban exodus in America transformed the shopping experience, divorcing retail from other uses. In contrast, New Urban Retail deliberately introduces “leisure time” uses in retail developments. These environments, more compact than conventional retail projects and with landscapes and promenades that encourage walking, are adjacent to an urban fabric or have the ability to achieve critical mass. They are meant to be the social hubs of communities — the connector of civic, office, hospitality and residential uses.

Easton Town Center in Columbus, Ohio, and City Place in West Palm Beach are examples of developments that generate their own critical mass, while in Coconut Grove, Fla., and Los Angeles we see how Cocowalk and the Grove at Farmer's Market, respectively, complement surrounding neighborhoods.

Coming full circle

The number of quality town center developments across North America is rapidly growing, some standing where a regional mall might have stood a generation earlier. Other are designed for discrete niches — whether the focus is on entertainment, like Horton Plaza in San Diego and the Spectrum at Irvine, Calif., Newport on the Levee in Newport, Ky., or Centro Ybor in Ybor City, Fla.; prestige specialty retail; or more general, convenience-oriented “Main Street shopping.”

Challenges remain: Increasing close-by residence and office uses; eliminating “barren periods” during the daily cycle; more aesthetic and efficient parking; and expanding the range of tenants. The good news is that leading national tenants are expanding their horizons, learning how to fit physically and aesthetically within these environments and adopt new merchandising styles and strategies.

Cinemas, comedy clubs and themed restaurants and pubs embrace the dynamic we are creating. Now, a restaurant chain like McDonald's is stretching its creative wings at Easton (and soon other sites) with special seating areas for families/kids, tweens and adults and expanded entertainment features — all fitting within Easton's feel and fabric. Among retailers, Barnes & Noble is adapting its entrances and interior sections for the urban retail milieu, which places a premium on responding — physically and merchandising-wise — to nearby tenants for mutual benefit, unlike the power center model. The Limited continues to experiment with many aspects of modern retail presentation and store locations. And don't think that department store entities aren't paying close attention to the vitality and cash register chimes at New Urban Retail developments.

We expect these trends to grow because, like the urban life and neighborhoods we remember from our youths, they fulfill basic human needs for community. With modern construction, marketing and merchandising prowess and efficiencies, they make great commercial sense.

Yaromir Steiner is president of Columbus, Ohio-based Steiner + Associates Inc., which has developed 1.6 million sq. ft. of town centers.