Lifestyle centers have lives of their own

When it comes to lifestyle centers, there's no template — no pattern to follow to ensure a successful design that will attract customers for years to come. Instead, factors including site location, tenant mix, demographics and the predilections of clients make each center unique.

No one knows this better than the staff at Crawford McWilliams Hatcher Architects, Inc. (CMH), of Birmingham, Ala.

“Lifestyle centers have come into their own in the past five years and are hot now,” says Everett Hatcher, CMH executive vice president. “Their demographics tend to be terrific.”

But increasingly, architects and developers are challenged by local planning and zoning requirements. It's just plain hard to find sites without issues. “We've seen huge changes in the attitudes of communities toward accepting new projects,” Hatcher says. “Planned or smart growth is desired by each community but is making the developer's task more difficult.”

CMH has been concentrating much of its talent and energy on lifestyle centers and mixed-use projects in new urbanism settings. The firm is working on two Summit centers. The Summit in Birmingham (Ala.) is a 900,000-sq.-ft. lifestyle center with Saks and Parisian, plus theater and grocery store. The Summit in Louisville is approximately 350,000 sq. ft. CMH also recently completed its second Avenue lifestyle center project for Atlanta-based Cousins Properties in Peachtree City, Ga. The firm is working on a third.

The exteriors of buildings in lifestyle centers must evoke a village feeling without being visually confusing, Hatcher notes. They are perceived as a collection of separate buildings, with individual retailer signatures, yet they must be somehow tied together through their membership in the center. “We have a system to incorporate the retailers' designs into the entire building,” Hatcher explains.

Society today, he observes, is so hectic that people are looking for a refuge — a place to sit and have coffee on a pleasant morning. “Our mission is to create a place that feels good, that makes people want to come there,” he says.

To that end, CMH employs a variety of creative design elements. Aesthetically, CMH designs have made use of classic columns, domed towers and colorful decorative elements.

However, Hatcher emphasizes the importance of never overdoing any approach. There's about a 10-year lifespan to the typical center or mall. Architecture that is too contemporary will quickly date a project. “You want to create a beautiful frame that lots of things will fit into,” Hatcher says.

With a staff of some 35 persons, the 21-year-old Birmingham firm also designs offices, multi-family dwellings and schools. It is responsible for a new 2,500-student public high school slated to open in Birmingham this summer.

“I think we are going to see more ‘green architecture’ that will allow greater energy conservation,” says Hatcher. “The prospects are exciting.”