Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, modern retail centers have been created from the sites of parking lots, a Navy hospital, even a former car factory. Architects, whose challenge is to create urban centers that are historic yet contemporary, timeless yet modern, have given such properties second lives.

Both downtown and in the suburbs, designers are trying to simulate the feel of Main Street shopping. They're creating stores and restaurants with unique outside entrances, as well as outdoor fountains and plazas.

"Urbanism is one of the new exciting things we're working with," says Sy Perkowitz, founding principal of Long Beach, Calif.-based Perkowitz + Ruth Architects. "If the project is properly laid out, you can put the same retailers in urban centers that have been in suburban centers. People will come back to the city - or stay in it - for dining, entertainment or shopping."

In with the old Re-using urban buildings has the advantage of instantly creating one of the most sought-after qualities in retail design: atmosphere. In fact, Perkowitz says, atmosphere and entertainment often are inherent to urban centers. "Everyone enjoys an urban environment," he notes.

In downtown Philadelphia, the Main Street phoenix is taking the form of Aladdin and his magic carpet at DisneyQuest Philadelphia. Disney's third indoor virtual reality theme park is part of Pavilion at Market Street, a new development by Blue Bell, Pa.-based The Goldenberg Group that features family-oriented entertainment, movie theaters, retail, dining and attractions.

Philadelphia-based Cope Linder Associates designed the Pavilion at Market Street on the site of a former Gimbel's department store. The center will be multilevel, with four stories above ground and one below. It will occupy an entire city block.

"There have been more and more opportunities for urban retail and entertainment projects," says Cope Linder partner William O'Keefe. His firm also is designing 13th Street Passages, which will unify storefronts and streets into a downtown Philadelphia shopping district.

Magnificent Mile Chicago-based Anthony Belluschi/OWP&P Architects recently designed a Nordstrom-anchored retail and hotel project on North Michigan Avenue, Chicago's Magnificent Mile. "We're seeing more urban movement and the revitalization of key areas like Michigan Avenue," notes president Anthony Belluschi.

In designing the center, including the 90-foot atrium entrance, the goal was to create an urban experience befitting one of the most famous shopping destinations in the world, says Belluschi, a 20-year veteran of retail design.

The project, set for completion by year's end, is re-using the former building's limestone facade, which was carefully dismantled and reattached to the new 19-story structure. An internationally known glass artist helped design the atrium entrance, using walls of stainless steel and glass to enhance the interplay of light and color.

"The cities are clearly coming back into vogue. Main Streets are coming back to life," Belluschi explains. "People like walking around outdoors. They don't want to be in an artificial atmosphere."

Suburban revival Sometimes, the urban feel is re-created in the suburbs. Perkowitz + Ruth is designing a project in a Portland suburb that will re-create an urban streetscape. "The city of Gresham wanted something that didn't look like a suburban project because it is adjacent to City Hall," Perkowitz says. "They asked us to come up with a layout to give a sense of urbanism."

But urban designs also have their challenges. "A suburban environment is usually a clean slate," Perkowitz says. "You can choose your architecture. It's not quite as sensitive as coming into an urban area where traffic patterns have long been set."

In addition, downtown land tends to be more expensive, which means urban design is more vertical, Belluschi notes: "You have to determine how far you can take it up. The first one or two levels are good for retail. You start getting less successful when you go higher."

Downtown multilevel buildings are also more expensive than single-story suburban projects. But multilevel seems to work better in urban than suburban areas, Perkowitz explains. "You have to create a reason to go up - excitement, an attraction - and make it accessible," he says. "In an urban situation, people are more willing to do a little detective work as far as ferreting new locations, going upstairs or around and through to find shopping, entertainment or food."

New lease on life Los Angeles-based Nadel Architects Inc. took signals from the sea and from automobiles in designing two California projects, Harbor Center in Costa Mesa and The Plant in San Fernando Valley: "The trend now is to come up with a theme and then take advantage of that," says Sammy Saludo, Nadel project designer.

The only dictate from the developer, Santa Ana, Calif.-based ICI Development Co., was that designers create a state-of-the-art design in transforming Costa Mesa's oldest shopping center, an interior-facing mall the local mayor had called a "rat hole" and eyesore. It had taken the new owners nearly 10 years to buy five parcels of land for the new center along Harbor Boulevard. Anchored by The Home Depot and Lucky supermarket, the final phase of the $55 million center opens this month.

"The client wanted to build a center that had not been built before," Saludo says. "It needed to be unique and be modern for decades to come."

After studying the harbor, designers decided to feature highly sculptural forms and angular roof elevations, incorporating metal and bold shapes with images found in the harbor, such as towering masts and sails. Sail-like metal awnings are held up by steel cables.

"Elements like masts and the curved elements on boats and ships gave us an idea of what the design should be," Saludo says.

While the elements are bold, the colors are subdued. "We didn't want colors to compete with the shape," Saludo says. "The shapes themselves were bold enough."

Rolling again The industrial nature of the former GM assembly factory was the basis for designing The Plant, which opened last year. The project was developed by Westlake Village, Calif.-based Selleck Development Group.

What was thought of as an industrial white elephant after closing in 1992 was transformed into 36 acres of retail, including a 16-screen Mann Theater. The 380,000 sq. ft. of retail space used an industrial warehouse concept featuring split-face masonry blocks, corrugated metal siding and steel-framed canopies, with signage alluding to automotive emblems.

"The name suggested it should look like a manufacturing structure," Saludo says. "We used a lot of steel and wire mesh; the simple box-type buildings were enhanced with metal canopies and towers with metal screen mesh. It is industrial, done in a contemporary way with some modern architectural features."

Making all that metal warm and inviting proved to be a challenge, met by the use of "pedestrian-friendly yellow," according to Saludo. "Colors play a big role in warming steel within a large mason building. The landscaping also softens the big boxes at The Plant."

Reflecting local charm Whether downtown or in the suburbs, a chief concern for architects is that a project fits into its environment. Many consumers have grown weary of cookie-cutter designs. In some cases, they'll insist on pedestrian-friendly, community-oriented developments. For designers and developers, sensitivity to such concerns can mean the difference between success and failure.

"It's important that a shopping experience should reflect some of the local character," says David Moore, national director of retail design for Fort Worth, Texas-based Carter & Burgess. "You design projects that fit the environment, but there can be new twists. We try to create something new and more interesting."

For instance, in California, Spanish tile can take more of a Mediterranean/Moroccan twist, or old Cape Cod styles can be livened up with more modern themes.

"People really want to have a sense of their town center," Belluschi says. "Every community has its own qualities. You have to make it friendly, inviting and comfortable."

Moore cites Park Meadows Towne Center in Littleton for its ski lodge feel and use of local Colorado materials. The 1.6 million sq. ft. mall is owned by Columbia, Md.-based The Rouse Co. "Park Meadows created a scene that fits only in Colorado," Moore says.

The first step in designing a new center is to look at the community and how the architecture and traits of that community can be woven into it, Belluschi says. Residents might have a hard time describing this quality in detail, he adds, "but they know it when they see it."

Old buildings also have distinct traits that can be evoked to add a special touch. In turning a former Navy hospital into Long Beach Town Center, a 1 million sq. ft. regional mall, Perkowitz + Ruth used historical Navy and aeronautical themes as part of the design. "We see if there is some type of historical context we can build into the architecture so people in the area will relate to it," Perkowitz says.

In addition, developers are finally realizing the importance of quality materials and amenities when building new malls, Belluschi says. "It pays off in the long run," he adds. "If you do it well, cash flow will follow."

Perkowitz also notes the increasing prevalence of stones, tiles, glazing and other products that traditionally have cost more. "Better materials create a more interesting and inviting environment," he says.

At a time when more consumers are discovering online shopping, retail environments need to be intriguing enough to draw shoppers out of their homes.

"Hollywood excitement is built into every project," Perkowitz says. "You have to have a lasting design and consider what it will look like 10 or 15 years from now." A good design, he adds, can be freshened up with simple cosmetic changes.

Main Street in the suburbs Lifestyle centers that replicate a nostalgic Main Street shopping district are the most obvious trend in the suburbs, according to Moore. These outdoor malls, which allow some vehicular access but create a pedestrian environment, are popular in the North as well as the South, he notes.

"It's a reaction to the malls, though in colder climates there will always be a place for enclosed malls," Moore says. "People like that experience of famous shopping streets, like Rodeo Drive, or Newbury Street in Boston or Michigan Avenue. We can translate some of that experience to the suburbs as well."

Unlike power centers, lifestyle centers boost cross-shopping because they feature smaller tenants. "Lifestyle centers encourage staying and doing several things such as having a meal and seeing a movie," Moore says.

They also tend to be experience-oriented. "It used to be like the Field of Dreams," Moore explains. "You build a big box and people will come. But these days it's much more competitive. That box has to be much more interesting."