Renowned design firm reflects on retail's next generation

A little more than a year ago, Anthony Belluschi Architects merged with OWP&P Architects, the largest architectural firm in Chicago. The united firm, 375 people strong, now includes 30 Belluschi veterans with experience in high-visibility, mixed-use, urban retail projects both domestically and abroad.

Ask Anthony Belluschi, AIA and principal, just what makes his firm such a draw for retail developers, and he cites the reason succinctly: design. “We are a design firm, and we spend an awful lot of time on design — that's one of the things we pride ourselves on,” he says.

What trends is the firm seeing in retail architecture today? “The large regional centers are few and far between,” Belluschi says. “That's a trend that's been occurring since the mid-1990s.”

Renovations, however, are going full force. “Renovation has always been a primary part of retail, because retail needs to be refreshed on an ongoing basis,” Belluschi says. “Most retail projects have a 10- or maybe 15-year lifecycle where they need to be refreshed and brought up to current design trends.”

Lifestyle centers, a seemingly new phenomenon in the past five or six years, also are becoming popular. According to Belluschi, however, the term “lifestyle center” represents a product that has been around for awhile, but has taken on a different methodology. “It's a high-end neighborhood center that becomes much larger than a neighborhood center because it has no enclosed public space,” he explains. “It's really exterior public space.” Belluschi reports that higher-end tenants are gravitating toward lifestyle centers.

Yet another trend Belluschi foresees is a retail product that will fall somewhere between a neighborhood center and a regional center. “There's still a desire on the part of many developers to figure out where this is going and to see if there's something that might be even beyond the lifestyle and regional centers — and that's perhaps more of a specialized design.”

Belluschi also points to an impending trend toward more residential projects with a retail component. He posits that residential is the hottest market in the country, and that other markets are somewhat overbuilt.

Current projects for the firm include the recently completed 520 Michigan Ave., a 300-room hotel on top of five levels of retail. The project's retail atrium and arcade is the entrance block to a new Nordstrom just behind Michigan Avenue. “We've spent seven years on the project,” Belluschi says. “It's complex and urban and very much a mixed-use project.”

Another major design project is in the La Defense business district of Paris, France. The firm won an international competition for the sought-after project. “It's a huge, $80 million reconstruction of a large commercial complex that is primarily retail, but has some office ingredients,” Belluschi explains. He expects the project, already one year under way, to take three or four more years to complete.