Whether called town centers, Main Street projects, or lifestyle centers, the back-to-the-future, entertainment-oriented open-air center was the overriding retail design trend of the start of the new millennium.

Shopping Center World invited some of the industry's leading retail designers attending the CenterBuild conference at the Four Seasons Resort Scottsdale, Ariz., in December to talk about trends in shopping center development and design. The roundtable discussion was held in two sessions. For editorial purposes, the designers' responses have been edited and combined into one article.

SCW: What was the biggest story of 2000 in the shopping center industry?

ALSTON: The public really embraced town centers in 2000. They started to do it prior to that, but in 2000 it was recognized that Easton Town Center, for example, was readily accepted in the marketplace. It was a success. And now, more developers as a result are willing to look at that venue.

TURNER: It used to be we couldn't talk about lifestyle or town center projects, but now there are many variations of those, from more traditional strip center type projects with character and a different type of tenanting that people talk about as lifestyle centers all the way to town centers like Easton. Leasing, as with any project, is critical because getting the right mix of tenants and going toward mixed use is one of the biggest keys to success.

HELLER: The direction this trend took, even for the lifestyle centers with Main Streets, has been driven because of economic issues. People believe, and we're trying to convince them, that it's not necessarily the case that the Main Street concept is also a less expensive concept to construct. A project we've been involved in has gone from an enclosed mall to a Main Street concept. It decided to go Main Street because they wanted to do something different, but not because it's less expensive.

RYAN: We have gone in a short time from entertainment centers to lifestyle centers, and I wonder if it isn't a combination of uses or a consolidation of uses that really is the definition of a lifestyle center. Is that what a lifestyle center is? Is it a consolidation of entertainment, a variety of services and uses that makes a town a town?

PARRISH: The lifestyle concept is forcing a lot of retailers to modify their standard way of doing business. It used to be “I gotta have X number of cars at my front door or I am not going to come.” Well, that's changing.

HATCHER: We are seeing more lifestyle centers that are not high-end. The Old Navy-anchored centers with 10,000 sq. ft. and 25,000 sq. ft. majors where it's a quasi-lifestyle center. These middle-box projects are driven because the communities are becoming much more active, and they are demanding a certain quality of design, that when you come into their communities you are more user-friendly, that you provide more amenities. And in many cases, they partner with the developers to enable them to do that.

NICE: Internet sales have grown 15% this year, while the department stores are flattened, and that is the mentality, that there are many other avenues for people to look at and we need to figure out how to incorporate some of these things.

HOUSEWRIGHT: The interesting test will be when the economy softens. How many of these will be revealed as specialty centers rather than true lifestyle centers that are meeting a true community need? There are only so many $1,500 sofas that people can buy.

TIEDGE: Another thing is consolidation. We deal with the supermarket chains, and everybody's trying to rethink how to buy their food. On the West Coast, we're starting to see Super Targets and Super Wal-Marts, and they're killing the normal supermarket chains. Then they are trying to figure out what size to be, either 12,000 ft., 25,000 ft., then they go back up to 60,000 ft.; drugs in it, no drugs in it. They're all confused — it affects what we do, I know that.

ALSTON: There is a lot of confusion in the marketplace. Developers would be well served to start with the understanding that a town center is not equally as inexpensive to build as a regional mall. It's not even close. You have smaller buildings that are inefficient. You have four façades exposed to the public. If you're going to pull off the magic that makes a town center work, you have to do more than a big-box attitude, and you have to add some detail, ambience and character to these buildings in order to pull it off. It could really hurt the industry if we build too many town centers with the pro forma of the original mall.

HATCHER: The community becomes involved in the design and how it's laid out, but they still want a barrier between their living communities and their shopping. They want the green belt in a lifestyle center rather than integrating streets so it becomes a true community center. So, the project is not truly integrated within the community.

BELLUSCHI: There's been a bit of a backlash against the regional shopping center, the enclosed big behemoth. Even the department stores don't want to be part of it. They are starting to look at freestanding sites. We are not going to see very many new regional shopping centers, as we have known them in the past.

PERKOWITZ: Their reputation is suffering a bit, and a lot of the major department stores and other retailers are saying, “Is it really a good idea to be part of a mall any more?” There is a sense that regionals are not where people really want to go. All of us know they are taking malls apart. Not many are being built.

BELLUSCHI: Also the time frame. It takes a seven- to eight-year gestation period for a regional center, whereas for other formats it's two or three. It's a big difference.

HOUSEWRIGHT: This past year we looked at putting Houston's aquarium in a mall, thereby driving cultural traffic through the mall, not just commercial traffic. It was a fascinating idea, but a very uphill battle, and I don't think it's going to work out. But it was an idea I was completely sold on where we can take what was a one-dimensional community element and turn it into a multi-dimensional one. What a successful urban life has been about for centuries is about choice, richness, diversity and texture.

PROSSER: Sometimes it can be as simple as a post office. Here, again, back to this neotrend on what's an obsolete land planning paradigm is that you need to integrate these uses. It can be a day care, a post office or a bank. It can be a school. But until you get out of this segregation of artificial boundaries, it's a new look at what hasn't worked.

PERKOWITZ: All the lines are crossing and everything is becoming hybrid to where any particular site is going to be a mixture of whatever the market will bear. It may be a lifestyle center that features retail and office and housing. It may be one that has office. It depends on the driving force of the market in that area.

SCW: [Apparently some developers] would like to build more upscale town centers, but when they run the numbers, it doesn't work and they wind up building a regular strip center.

ALSTON: The rents they're asking, they're getting in some degree. The one thing that is driving it is certain upscale retailers or even department stores are willing to go in and be only one anchor tenant in centers that are smaller than a regional mall. Those department stores see it as an advantage to the marketplace because they are not surrounded by the May Co., Dillard's and Lazarus.

TURNER: The more retail changes, the more it stays the same. We've always had great retailers, really experience-oriented. People want to feel good about themselves when they shop. People are always going to want to get away, enjoy themselves, and be entertained while they shop. It's more the act and experience of retail shopping. It always has been.

ALSTON: I would urge these developers to look at Ybor City as a working model. The city's participation in that and contribution to the Central Ybor historic development fund was one of the primary components to bringing in Muvico, which is having a positive effect on the adjoining areas — what the city wanted to accomplish.

MUSE: I believe in mixed uses, especially when you can add residential to the retail component, because it makes it more of a 24-hour type of process, it reduces the use of the automobile and it gives people other options of lifestyles.

NICE: The retail problem [is in] doing residential. You have to start bringing in other partners, and it increases the complexity of the projects.

CARTER: The original master plan for Atlantic Station had residential on top of retail, but it's all retail now. In certain cases, mixed-use projects do work. But I don't think it works for every project.

TURNER: The urban village-type project is the trend I see happening. We're working on three renovations to older mixed-use projects, converting them to more of an urban village.

ENGELKE: We're talking about character, because this same generation that wants to go to Main Street never saw Main Street. There's a tendency to make it look old or somehow give it character. But when you're developing, these are new urban spaces and they have to have a level of character. We realized when we worked on Reston Town Center that it needed to have a level of detail that we weren't used to doing because we did big shopping malls.

MOORE: There are a lot of smaller malls in New England having trouble now and looking at turning into power centers. We're working on the Cinema Square Mall, a controversial project for the city, which is encouraging the project to be both a power center and a mixed-use waterfront-type development. But, a mall property has to be significantly devalued to justify turning it into a power center.

TINDALL: So, the multiplexes, the brand new ones, cannot make it at $24 a ft. rent. The adjustment is going to be that it has got to work at around $15 or $16 a ft. for the developer, or the cinemas are all going to go Chapter 11 and restructure.

PARRISH: You are never going to replace movie theaters as a major component of entertainment. It's really a correction in the marketplace, and a lot of the older theaters are what have pulled down the balance sheets of the cinema companies.

HOUSEWRIGHT: I worked on a project for a client this past year to take a vacant theater — six-screen, flat floor — and convert it to office. And it's difficult. Remember that there are some success stories out there, and that's why we said we have the situation we are in. For instance, we did a 100,000 sq. ft. project and put 24 screens with stadium seating in a mall in Oklahoma City, and it's going gangbusters. It's got a third of the market share in the entire metropolitan area.

Clearly, there are some fundamentals that make sense about entertainment, retail and food being coupled together. The trick is doing it judiciously in the right place at the right time.

PARTICIPANTS

  • Michial C. Alston
    Development Design Group Inc.
  • Anthony Belluschi
    OWP&P Architects
  • W. Mark Carter
    Thompson, Ventulett, Stainback
    & Associates Inc.
  • Phillips S. Engelke
    RTKL
  • Everett Hatcher
    CMH Architects
  • James B. Heller
    KA Inc.
  • Tip Housewright
    Omniplan Architects
  • David W. Moore
    Carter Burgess
  • Gar Muse
    Cooper Carry
  • R. Kevin Nice
    Arrowstreet Inc.
  • David Parrish
    Dorsky & Hodgson Architects
  • Sy Perkowitz
    Perkowitz & Ruth Architects
  • Julian Prosser
    Mulvanney Architects
  • Jim Ryan
    JPRA Architects
  • Brian Tiedge
    MCG Architecture
  • Bob Tindall
    Callison Architecture
  • Bryce A. Turner
    Brown & Craig