What do a man-made canal in Texas, a rare acre-plus hybrid green space/piazza in Queens, and a large North Woods-style fireplace in North Dakota have in common? Not much, which puts them on the cutting edge of retail design.

These architectural elements, though very different from each other, are components in new retail properties that add something special. A new generation of retail developments, which are often components of mixed-use projects, aspire to be much more than mere destinations. Developers and their architects want these retail venues to be places with memorable characteristics.

There may be aesthetic reasons for this — architects in particular want to create unique spaces as a professional imperative — but there are also arguably underlying business reasons. “The mixed-use idea isn't going to go away,” says Steven McKay, leader of the retail practice at DLR Group, a nationwide architectural and engineering firm. “The American shopper now expects mixed use because it creates community, which attracts and keeps people there, and maximizes land use.”

But original retail design isn't necessarily easy. Retail properties have long been characterized by unoriginal design, even before the predominance of national retail chains that offer the same array of products in the same store interiors from coast to coast. It's much easier to design something that could be Anyplace USA, sporting the usual lineup of big boxes, specialty apparel or mid-market chain restaurants.

Original design doesn't necessarily cost more money, on average, than more typical lifestyle center design, but can nevertheless have a measurable impact on retail patronage, according to Thomas D'Alesandro, senior vice president of development at General Growth Properties. “It's more a matter of focusing the design dollars, and thinking carefully, than spending more,” he says. “It takes time and thought early in the project, which is the biggest cost.”

If a design is interesting enough, more people will come, perhaps 20% to 30% more than will frequent a run-of-the-mill type of lifestyle property, D'Alesandro estimates.

Make it real, not Disney

With the increasing popularity of mixed-use developments, architects say that fostering a sense of place for a retail component is a little easier than it once was, since one objective of development today is to create a place in which people live, work and socialize.

“Some years ago, the thrust was in making a destination — a retail-only destination,” says McKay. “Then we started doing mixed-use, which at first meant an office block with retail on the first floor, maybe a coffee shop and a Kinko's. Now we're trying to create new urban and suburban communities, and a sense of community, with retail as a driver,” adds McKay. “It's not just a Disney atmosphere, but a real place.”

Matthew Jarmel, a principal with New Jersey-based Jarmel Kizel Architects and Engineers, whose practice includes retail developments and redevelopments in the Northeast, agrees. “The goal is to create a sense of place, often in the context of mixing retail with residential and office,” he says. Among his own projects, Jarmel cites the French and Somerset Street redevelopment in New Brunswick, N.J. The two towers of the development will feature some 100 condominium units, plus retail space on the ground floors, and about 60,000 sq. ft. of office space.

In other cases, that place can be quite large. A number of sizable mixed-use developments have been created recently in various markets around the country, such as the Summerlin project in Las Vegas, the Estrella Mountain Ranch in Phoenix, or the former Stapleton Airport redevelopment in Denver. In each instance, retail is integral to the schemes, and the retail design strives for something more than ordinary lifestyle finishes.

At Summerlin, for example, retail is featured throughout the 22,500-acre community, including the 2 million sq. ft. Fashion Show Mall with its 72,000 sq. ft. plaza and 480 ft.-long structure known as “The Cloud.”

The structure rises about 128 feet above the sidewalk and provides shade for the entrance on the Las Vegas Strip by day, and serves as a movie screen by night. Elsewhere in Summerlin is the Mediterranean-style Trails Village Center, the adobe-style Pueblo and a retail node that combines auto care with fast-food restaurants.

Something extraordinary

Near Houston, General Growth Properties is working on another mixed-use project, the Woodlands Town Center, which includes the redevelopment of the Woodlands Mall, a General Growth property. Originally developed in the mid-1990s at about 1 million sq. ft., it was a substantial but fairly ordinary regional mall.

Now, the shopping center is on its way to becoming part of a mixed-use redevelopment that focuses on a man-made waterway, which was completed in 2002 by the Woodlands Operating Co. Other elements of the project include a Marriott hotel, a convention center, an outdoor theater, office buildings, loft condos and apartment buildings.

At the 1,000-acre Woodlands project the defining element is the waterway, a 1.25-mile canal along which visitors can walk or ride in water taxis. General Growth's D'Alesandro says the project was inspired by the Riverwalk in San Antonio.

Though not created as a retail node — retail has grown alongside it — the Riverwalk is one of the country's better-known unique places. The popular destination draws not only tourists but also local residents. “As the waterway was planned, we planned extensions of the mall — lifestyle and outdoor streetscape extensions that connect the mall to the waterway,” he says.

“Planning for major retail developments is now more on a district-wide basis, rather than for individual properties,” explains D'Alesandro. In the case of the Woodlands project, General Growth created a nonprofit business improvement district to coordinate various elements of the project.

“We're trying to create a larger context,” D'Alesandro says. “If a mall is successful, there's tremendous opportunity for other development nearby, but it has to be coordinated and woven together, or it isn't going to work as a distinct place, one that people will remember and want to visit.”

Besides the waterway, which is linear, the Woodlands master plan calls for squares and other connected green spaces throughout the district, which D'Alesandro calls a “galaxy” layout, rather than one based on a “solar system” with one main focal point. “For some inspiration we looked at the downtown of Savannah, Ga., which has multiple town squares, and Washington, D.C., which has civic places in a network,” he says.

Smaller sense of place

A mixed-use project doesn't need to be as massive as the Summerlin or the Woodlands to foster a sense of place, however. Other projects tie into existing urban and suburban environments to achieve that end, within the context of a smaller mixed-use development or redevelopment.

In Overland Park, Kan., an affluent suburb of Kansas City, DLR Group is working on Lee's Summit, which will include a convention center, hotel and retail “villages” with residential components — all together about 210,000 sq. ft. of retail, mixed with 500,000 sq. ft. of office space, 600 residential units and 200 hotel rooms. “It will have a broad-brush mix of local and national tenants, but that's not necessarily the most interesting feature,” according to McKay of the DLR Group.

“We did a lot of photographing of the existing buildings in Overland Park, and studied their scale and their materials and massing. We kept the design within the scale and language of the city's detailing, but it wasn't a copy. It was a reflection of the city, and yet new.”

In Portland, Ore., DLR created a master plan for the redevelopment of the Clackamas Town Center. “The existing mall is in the heart of the city, which is a little unusual,” says McKay, “but the redevelopment builds on that by adding a lifestyle street of shops, plus residential, office and hotel are all tied together by a mass-transit component, which is important in Portland.” Distinct design elements reflect the Northwest, including seasonal potted plantings, basalt rock features and an “eco fountain” with turtles and koi.

McKay says the costs involved in these kinds of projects are roughly similar to freestanding lifestyle projects, citing a high of $125 per sq. ft. and a low of $56, with the exception of a boutique project in California, that ran at $380 per sq. ft. “[The California project] had nearly all custom finishes and was an exception,” he says.

Built to last

It is possible to spend more on a sense-of-place retail development, if it happens to be in famously expensive New York. In the Borough of Queens, the architectural firm A&Co. has designed a master plan for the Atlas Park redevelopment, which is kicking off with a 400,000 sq. ft. retail component in eight buildings. The development cost is about $500 per sq. ft., says Theodore Amenta, principal of A&Co., which designed the property. He acknowledges that dollar figure is probably double what it would cost in other markets, and even higher than average in New York, though comparisons are difficult in the city since few projects this size can be built.

Amenta says the cost is justified, however, because Queens is a relatively affluent, yet underserved market, and because Atco Properties & Management, the developer, intends to hold the asset indefinitely. “What is in vogue isn't as important as long-term durability of the property,” he says. “The cost can't be recovered by flipping, and the owners have no intention of doing that.”

About 12 acres of a former industrial site are under redevelopment, not a sizable parcel in most places, but quite large by New York standards. Ultimately, the project will measure about 24 acres, according to Amenta, including other possible components besides retail. “We're converting it to an approachable public use,” he says. “Our first thought was to create open space, so we did — more than two acres in the center of the project, which is a lot of open land in New York. It includes elements of parkland and piazza, and will be the riveting reason to come.”

The project will also feature mostly smaller tenants in its retail component. “Urban retailing has several currents at the moment,” notes Amenta, including the likes of Wal-Mart, which are trying to shoehorn themselves in with specially designed formats for urban areas. The developer of Atlas Park opted not to pursue the larger users, partly because large retail tends to dominate a project, but also because a collection of smaller tenants helps create a distinct place. “Smaller locals are a particularly urban, and a particularly New York thing,” he says.

Trickle-down effect

While they may offer better opportunities to create a sense of place, mixed-use properties don't have a monopoly on the idea. It seems to be trickling down to stand-alone retail as well.

One way to build distinctly is to add details usually associated with higher-end properties to mid-level developments, says Jarmel of Jarmel Kizel. That tactic, however, does run the risk of becoming a kind of formula itself. “Even in places that aren't upper-end lifestyle centers, I'm seeing a more upscale aesthetic,” he says, noting that a traditional center might feature a glass storefront and maybe nondescript big-box sides. “Now, more brick and stone and glass are being used with pavement that isn't concrete, but brick pavers. The styling extends even into the signage.”

Part of the reason for the upscaling is that tenants — especially those with clout in the retail world — are demanding it. “In retail architecture these days, instead of a snapshot in time, clients are asking for design that's more timeless,” according to McKay of DLR Group. “The bar of design expectations has been raised for retail,” he points out.

Some of the shift away from blandness and toward a sense of place is being driven by local governments, which are forming architectural review boards in many cases. “There's a new interest now in streetscapes and rooflines, and trying to create a more interesting cityscape,” notes Jarmel. “A lot of [municipalities] aren't accepting the same old designs anymore.”

Other examples of the trend are even smaller and can be found in some unexpected places. In Grand Forks, N.D., where Barrington, Ill.-based GK Development Inc. renovated the town's 616,500 sq. ft. Columbia Mall recently to add a food court, Garo Kholamian, president of the company, decided to create a themed food court.

“A lot of people have a lake house in the woods in that part of the country, so we decided that the food court was going to evoke the North Woods,” he says. “The décor, the large fireplace and the other elements were created with that in mind, which most of the people who come to the mall would be familiar with and appreciate,” he says, adding that creating a North Woods-style food court added about 25% more to the cost per square foot than an average food court. “But it's worth it, because we're investing for the long term.”

The strategy has been successful, Kholamian notes, in that the food court is very popular. Now GK Development is planning another food court in a mall that his company acquired recently in Peru, Ill., not far from Chicago. “We don't know what it's going to look like yet, but we're going to avoid the cheap tile floors and standard tables and chairs that could be anywhere,” he says. “We want this to be a unique place, not just anyplace.”

Dees Stribling is a Chicago-based writer.