The U.S. suburbs proved a fertile breeding ground for big-box retailers and power centers in the 1980s and 1990s. Wal-Mart, Best Buy, Lowe's and a bevy of other category killers mushroomed in middle markets and outlying suburbs, nourished by rich demographics and enough green fields to support super-sized, one-level stores and expansive parking lots.

But recent declines in outward growth for many major markets are prompting big boxers to rethink site selection for new stores. Built-up urban locations now offer an enticing number of young professionals and empty nesters in an under-stored environment. But big boxers have to adjust their formats and think creatively to corner these consumers.

“Big-box retailers are coming into urban areas,” says Darrell Pattison, director of design at Cleveland-based KA, Inc. Architecture “To get a presence in these dense markets, chains such as Kmart, Target and even Wal-Mart are reconsidering their store configuration.”

In University Heights — a first-ring suburb of Cleveland — developer Starwood Wasserman snagged the attention of Target with its plans to rehabilitate a 40-year old, freestanding Kaufmann's store at a busy intersection. With more than 136,000 people and an average household income of $79,908 within a three-mile trade area, the project showed serious traffic potential.

The Providence, R.I. developer originally envisioned a 300,000-sq.-ft. center with a new Kaufmann's and a new Tops Supermarket. But when Target expressed an interest, the project headed in a new direction — up.

KA created a vertically dense design for the newly christened University Square that incorporates three levels, 600,000 sq. ft. of GLA and 100 feet of storefront exposure. The new configuration allows space for a two-level, 165,000-sq.-ft. Target, a two-level, 165,000-sq.-ft. Kaufmann's and a single-level, 58,000-sq.-ft. Tops. An additional 213,000 sq. ft. of space is set aside for big-box and small shop tenants and 10,000 sq. ft. of one-level space will house restaurants.

“Rerouting the utilities and keeping the existing Kaufmann's open during construction has been a challenge,” says David Bader, director of site planning/landscape architecture at KA. “Especially in keeping enough parking available to support traffic.”

The site was hardly large enough to include the stretch of blacktop necessary to support Target, Kaufmann's and additional tenants. KA and Starwood Wasserman agreed to locate a five-level, 2,500-car parking structure within the U-shaped mass of buildings, creating streetfront exposure for tenants. The open-air parking structure allows sunlight in to illuminate the space, and the three anchors' main entrances are located on separate levels.

University Square's architecture will incorporate elements from nearby John Caroll University, downtown Cleveland's Warehouse District and the Cedar-Fairmount district in University Heights, says KA Inc. senior project manager Craig Wasserman.

As any development team knows, behind every successful new urbanism project is a foundation of municipal and community support. University Square is no different.

“A project like this won't happen without a public/private alliance,” Pattison says. “You have to have a city willing to step forward and recognize that a project like this will help revitalize the neighborhood.” The Cleveland-Cuyahoga County Port Authority provided assistance in the form of tax increment financing for the project's $21-million parking structure. University Heights schools will receive about $27 million in taxes from the development during the next 30 years.

Kaufmann's opens its doors in March 2002, along with part of the parking facilities. After a series of phased openings, University Square will be complete in March 2003.