Bold new ideas are, once again, creating unique new developments in urban centers across the United States. Like a powerful magnet, downtowns are back - bringing real estate developers, employers and employees, small businesses, residents, and retailers to the nation's cities. We are coming to the downtowns, or, in some cases, recreating them, because a city-like environment offers a great gathering place.

In this fast-paced, digital age, our leisure time is precious. With just hours to spend each week, we want to become immersed in a gathering place with family and friends. To shop, to dine and to watch people. To get fresh air, or to simply hang out. And when we do, we want our surroundings to be electric, authentic and unique.

Many downtowns have that invisible pulse. Beyond New York and Chicago, new projects are springing up to take advantage of the urban fabric, in places such as Austin, Texas; Denver; Norfolk, Va.; and Tampa, Fla. These projects represent a return of retail, restaurants and entertainment to the metropolitan epicenters. Using the urban core of offices, warehouses, museums and years of history, the downtowns are being reborn. Housing often follows the retail and entertainment, bringing another layer of vitality.

Many suburban areas have huge populations, vast residential neighborhoods and shopping center after shopping center. But, they lack the true spirit of a downtown gathering place. The Mills Corporation recognized the opportunity for an urban, streetscape-like destination in the midst of suburbia, and in 1998, The Block at Orange in Orange County, Calif., was born.

The Block at Orange is actually a redevelopment of what began as a pure Mills-type center. We already had success in Southern California with Ontario Mills, which is approximately 40 miles from Orange. The site for The Block was an existing mall, built in 1957, that had not seen renovation or merchandising initiatives in years. After an extensive market study, we decided to build an entertainment-based project, supported with eclectic retail.

The result was The Block, an entertainment and retail concept that offers Orange residents the feeling of Sunset Boulevard without the 45mile drive. Shops, restaurants and attractions such as Dave & Buster's, Cafe Tu Tu Tango, Vans Skate Park, Ron Jon Surf Shop and the Alcatraz Brewing Company are woven into the streetscape along with a 30-screen AMC movie complex and a 25,000 sq. ft. GameWorks.

The Block at Orange, as well as future Blocks in other locations, will be designed to evoke the essence of America's great city blocks like Times Square, Michigan Ave., Rodeo Drive and South Beach, all the while tailoring it to The Block's specific site and targeted consumers. To make a downtown-like revival a strong attraction, you also must give customers a shopping experience and ambiance that ties in with their area. We've taken the essence of a great downtown and fused it with energy and excitement to give customers a unique sense of place.

And it's working. According to estimates prepared for both the City of Orange and The Mills Corporation, redevelopment of this site could result in the The Block at Orange becoming the largest single source of sales tax and property tax increment revenue for the city and the redevelopment agency.

Orange officials are excited because the shoppers' return means an economic turnaround for the entire area, which will spur more commercial and residential development. As more people come back to the city, commercial development creates more office space and more businesses move in to tap into the new labor market. Eventually, all these efforts reinforce each other and the entire city benefits.

We will continue that turnaround with our next Block project at the site of the former Atlantic Steel Mill in Atlanta. The 1.2 million sq. ft. Block at Midtown Atlanta is projected to open in 2001 and will be the retail and entertainment portion of a master-planned office, hotel and residential project that includes developers Hines Interests, Post Properties, Jacoby Development and CRB Realty, Inc. All together, this project will redefine the very soul of downtown Atlanta.

Developers are approaching a new century of retail and entertainment possibilities - everything from traditional bricks-and-mortar centers to e-commerce. The real estate marketplace will continue to be a challenge of great opportunities as we explore new ideas and new markets, from the suburban venues to urban streets, to the World Wide Web and beyond. But through it all, our basic human interests have remained the same, from century to century. We want the energy, excitement and engagement of a gathering place, and we're finding it - in downtowns and in the suburbs, too.