A serious retail hole is about to be filled in the upscale Detroit suburb of Rochester Hills, Mich. A gap of some 30 miles currently exists between major malls and brand-name retailers in the area, forcing affluent residents to take road trips to nearby Troy and Sterling Heights to purchase high-end goods. But that will change in September 2002 when locally based developer Robert B. Aikens & Associates completes its latest project, The Village of Rochester Hills.

The 375,000-sq.-ft. lifestyle center will rise from the ashes of Meadowbrook Village Mall — an underperforming, 26-year-old, 150,000-sq.-ft. property that Aikens has been trying to turn around for years. “We worked for 15 years trying to secure national tenants at Meadowbrook,” says Bruce Aikens, executive vice president. “But it remained an unanchored center filled mainly with local tenants.”

In the early 1990s, Aikens began to court Birmingham, Ala.-based department store chain Parisian to serve as anchor for Meadowbrook. Aikens executives were impressed with the newly emerging lifestyle centers they saw springing up such as Poag & McEwen's Saddle Creek in suburban Memphis, Tenn. They felt the upscale format would be a perfect match for Meadowbrook's immediate trade area, with its $103,457 average household income.

“We realized an open-air component could be just what Meadowbrook needed,” Aikens says. After an economic analysis revealed converting the center to an open-air format was justifiable, the developer initiated plans to do just that in 1996. Soon after, its national retailer drought ended. Parisian and several lifestyle retailers jumped on board the bandwagon.

But that was only the beginning of the battle. When Aikens announced its plans to turn Meadowbrook Village into The Village of Rochester Hills, NIMBYism reared its ugly head. Homeowners in the area surrounding the project were unfamiliar with the lifestyle concept, and concerned about how it might affect traffic and property values. “We had to explain to them that this was neither an enclosed mall nor a strip center,” Aikens says. “In time, they understood that the project would bring Rochester Hills the town center it never had.”

To further ease residents' concerns, Aikens planned a large buffer zone of wooded green space around the project. In addition, the developer offered a landscaping allowance to residents whose homes border the project. Farmington Hills, Mich.-based JPRA serves as project architect for the center, while Bloomfield Hills, Mich.-based Peterhans, Rea + Roman serves as project designer.

“The village's design hearkens back to traditional town planning,” says David Peterhans, a partner at Peterhans, Rea + Roman. “We're avoiding overstated signage and graphics because we're focusing on a pedestrian scale rather than a drive-by scale.” Pocket parks and benches lining the center's double-loaded Main Street encourage patrons to stroll through the project.

The Village of Rochester Hills is almost fully leased, and an impressive lineup of tenants has snapped up key spaces. In addition to the 120,000-sq.-ft. Parisian, Farmer Jack Food Emporium, J. Crew, AnnTaylor, Chico's, Talbots, Abercrombie & Fitch and Abercrombie Kids will be included.

Longtime tenants The Bombay Co. and Casual Corner will return to the center after the dust settles, while three restaurants and one locally owned shoe shop will remain open during the construction process.