Walking through Vestar Development's four-year-old Desert Ridge Marketplace I was struck by how a project of this size — 1.2 million square feet — could consistently convey the impression of intimacy. The massive 190-acre complex contains the retail square footage of a good-sized regional mall. But it is chopped into distinct districts for entertainment and lifestyle in the middle, soft goods stores on the north and hard goods on the south. So you feel as if you are constantly passing into disparate projects with different feels.

The selection of materials plays in to that impression. There are fire and water features. Palm and mesquite trees; torches and mist machines line the project's walkways. Within the project's lifestyle section — named The District — is a massive outdoor fireplace around which families and groups of friends gather, even late at night after the shops have closed. There is also a small outdoor stage that plays host to nearly 300 events a year, giving the center an ever-beating pulse.

But why did Vestar choose to go this route rather than build a true regional mall? The site seems as if it could support it. And where are the department stores? There is a Kohl's and a Target Greatland. But there isn't a tenant around which others are clearly clustered.

“Since we are located about five miles from another regional mall and with the ever-changing evolution of department stores and consolidation, we felt it was unlikely that a traditional regional mall would be viable,” says David Larcher, executive vice president of Vestar. So the firm went to the drawing board and came up with, at the time, the largest hybrid power/lifestyle/entertainment center.

The company admits it was taking a chance. But it also focused on a particular demographic — the Generation Y shopper — and set out to create an atmosphere distinct from a regional mall or upscale lifestyle center, such as Woodbine Southwest Corp.'s nearby Kierland Commons. To help realize the vision, Vestar brought in tenants that appeal to that 11-to-28 age group: Jillian's, Tower Records, Fatburger and others. It also commissioned San Diego-based SGPA Architecture & Planning to turn the vision into a reality.

“It is really intended for a younger group, especially in the District,” says Keith Pittsford, SGPA principal. ‘We addressed that through lighting design, signage and graphics.” FRCH Design Worldwide assisted SGPA.

Offbeat features, including a giant guitar positioned on the outdoor stage and 24-foot-tall, 12-foot-wide graphics plastered on the tenants' outside walls, provide imagery.

In building the project, the development team preserved all the mesquite trees located on the site, saved them and nurtured them and then re-planted them in key spaces throughout the District.

The project accomplishes everything Vestar set out to do, and the developer is using it as a model for other works. Vestar has two similar-size projects in development, one in Phoenix and one in California, that both pull concepts from Desert Ridge Marketplace.

The center provides a glimpse of what large-scale retail can look like in an age where department stores don't have the cachet they once did.

Vitals

Location: Phoenix

Size: 1.2 million square feet

Opened: 2001

Owner: Vestar Development Co.

Architect: SGPA Architecture & Planning

Major tenants: Target Greatland, AMC 18 Theatres, Barnes & Noble, Albertsons, Ross, Old Navy, Marshalls Mega Store, Ultimate Electronics, JoAnn etc., Jillians, Tower Records, Kohl's and DSW Shoes