Why would a developer consider stacking two big boxes? The challenges are numerous. The complications of building on an urban site and the complexities of density create enough difficulties to make a developer's head spin. Now, add the need to work with retailers with specific criteria contradictory in nature to high-density development.

The 500,000-square-foot Midtown Crossing project currently under construction at San Vicente, Pico and Venice Boulevards in Los Angeles had great urban appeal. Significant frontage on three major streets, a nearby MTA transit station and a surrounding neighborhood of single and multi-family homes made it an attractive property for big-box box retailers. But such retailers have significant parking requirements that were complicated by numerous challenges specific to a compact urban site.

“The cost of relocating the transit station, and permanency of the drain channel significantly burdened the front-end development costs and demanded careful engineering analysis,” says John J. O'Brien, director of Hollywood, Calif.-based CIM Group, a development company that focuses on revitalizing urban districts. “But we found a way to use disadvantage to our advantage.”

The location's topographical challenges motivated the owner to consider stacking two big boxes to maximize the site's density. The challenges of building on an urban site somehow had to be addressed as well as the retailer's operational challenges.

Keeping these constraints in mind, CIM enlisted Studio One Eleven at Perkowitz + Ruth Architects to plan a site and design a structure that resolved very real concerns of big-box box tenants while maintaining a sensitivity to community aesthetic and safety expectations.

“Retailers wanted to be assured that a multi-level location worked as efficiently in loading and unloading goods as their single-floor locations,” says Jeff Kreshek, principal, leasing for CIM Group. The design had to address height clearances, freight elevators that service two different goods and loading on two decks. “Additionally, we had to ensure the customer experience would not be confusing to the retail patron.”

The site's sloping topography proved a double-edged sword. The topography limited visibility of the first-floor retailer but allowed for parking and loading opportunities that wouldn't otherwise exist.

The loading and service area design utilized the different grades by creating access points from either side of the property. Trucks service the second-floor retailer from the south side where the grade is at its highest. A 30-foot retaining wall created a loading area wide enough and with sufficient clearance for the first-floor retailer.

As the primary draw for retailers to urban locations is higher traffic volume, it was important to provide street frontage sign exposure for retailers on all four sides of the property. To reconcile visibility concerns due to grading on the southern edge of the project, Studio One Eleven created an extensive signage program.

Brad Williams, project director at Studio One Eleven believes signage needs to be more than advertising. “Sign programs that engage architecture help create an energy that attracts the urban consumer,” he says. “One of our goals at Midtown Crossing was to create a seamless marriage of architecture and sign graphics that would bring out the best of both.”

The sign program for Midtown Crossing, which cost approximately $114 million, identifies design criteria for color, proportion and placement. The challenge in designing signage appropriate for an urban context is incorporating vibrant colors at a larger scale, while not overwhelming the architecture. Both the architecture and the signs should have the aesthetic strength to stand independently yet cohesively be read as a whole.

Aesthetic Concerns

Another aesthetic challenge to stacking two big boxes is the building mass. “CIM Group is interested in enlivening the street at the pedestrian scale,” says O'Brien. “The magnitude of the big boxes alongside a parking structure was a concern to CIM and the city.”

As the south side of the project appeared to be one story due to grading, the massing of the Pico street frontage was of the utmost concern. The design solution was to set back the second story and stack it over the street-front garden center.

The greenery and fountains in the garden center, and decorative elements of the green screen add to the pedestrian experience. The set-back second story breaks up the plane and creates shadowing for green space while protecting some light views. In this way, the project brings needed value retail to the inner city as a better looking green alternative for land management.

Other design and planning elements that relate to the customer experience also needed to be mitigated to meet retailer requirements. Special attention was given to directional and way-finding signage. Pedestrian access from the parking structure and MTA station to the major tenants and shops were designed to activate the street and encourage safety. Internal circulation paths had to connect to existing neighborhood sidewalks.

The structure responds to the unique operational needs of both tenants. “Structurally, stacking two prototypes designed to be stand-alone, single story buildings is no easy task,” states Scott Jackson, associate project manager with Perkowitz + Ruth Architects, who is leading the construction document phase of development. “The prototypical column placement and building footprint had to be modified for each tenant.”

Multiple Entrances

But once designed, could they lease it?

The main concern of prospective retailers interested in Midtown Crossing was parking. Most big boxes feature wide lots of surface parking. Without the surface to dedicate to parking, a parking structure wasn't an option; it was the only solution. But how to get patrons to park at their preferred entry level, without confusion?

The solution: Each store connects to its own parking level within the adjacent garage.

“The advantage of multiple entrances at all three levels is that it alleviates circulation congestion,” says Jackson. “The natural grading of the site allowed for access points to the parking garage on all three levels without creating a need to build ramps from the street level to the structure.” A spiral ramp lets cars access other levels once inside the garage.

President and CEO of Perkowitz + Ruth Architecture in Long Beach, Calif.