Retail Traffic Associate Editor David Sokol recently sat down with Max Steele, vice president of San Francisco-based architecture firm Gensler, to talk about the architect's role in remalling, trends that are influencing remalling projects and competing schools of thought in retail architecture. Since 1999, Steele has headed up Gensler's retail, entertainment and environmental graphics studio in Houston. Previously, he was a design manager for The Rouse Co.'s operating properties unit in Columbia, Md., which was responsible for repositioning portfolio assets.

Retal Traffic: In this first issue of Retail Traffic, we talk a lot about repositioning obsolete malls, even resurrecting them. Are retail developers asking architects to get involved in these kinds of projects at a particularly early stage? A well known equivalent would be the redevelopment of the World Trade Center, in which architects were asked early on to imagine what the uses, movement and aesthetic of those 16 acres could be.

Max Steele: Not very often. Most of the time, when owners start to notice a negative trend at their mall, they look to themselves for solutions. But, increasingly, savvy developers are beginning to look outside to people who know their businesses. At Gensler, there is not a project where we don't see design as an opportunity to contribute, very tangibly, to our clients' business goals. We try to strategically analyze the whole, comprehensive situation, not just help make something look prettier.

RT: Is this new breed of owner less confident of his or her own choices, or more willing to take an interdisciplinary approach?

MS: I think a more progressive and interdisciplinary developer is aware that it's not just something that they can resolve internally through their own group — through their marketing, leasing and business people. They can reach out. I think it happens more often with savvy developers that recognize that there are people who have a bigger-picture view of things.

RT: What kinds of trends are you referring to? Are these demographic, cultural or style changes?

MS: The new shopper belongs to one of two groups I can think of in addition to all the ethnic markets that are emerging: It's the 11- to 22-year-olds who have disposable income, and it is the senior market that is aging. The seniors are the most underserved. The young people are very interesting to look at because they are tech-savvy. They don't like malls. They don't want to be given the script.

RT: In addition to a market opportunity, what about seniors makes them interesting determiners of shopping to come?

MS: Most of the seniors now are going to be aging baby boomers like myself, and they really don't like shopping indoors. They're bored of the corridors of shops, the big vacuous courts inside that have artificial statements to them (see story on authenticity in design on page 198). I also think that security is really important to older consumers, as well as ease and comfort. The needs of these two groups, seniors and the members of Generation Y, together have led to the creation of new formats, like town centers and lifestyle centers.

RT: A town center isn't necessarily comfortable outside in the winter, on the other hand. Mixed-use properties might be: A senior wouldn't even have to drive to his or her shopping. He or she can just walk downstairs.

MS: The centers that are doing really well — the lifestyle or town centers, or Main Street shopping — are accounting for that kind of a shopping pattern, which allows you to drive up, run in and do two or three things. I don't think it's just true for the seniors, I think it's true for all people who want it to be easy and convenient. So I think it's a good format and most of all, it's real and it's fun. It doesn't matter what age you are. If it's fun it's going to be more successful.

RT: Often, we see a retail property that looks like it should have apartments over storefronts, but it doesn't. Is mixed-use development really the next big thing, and if not, what are the barriers to it?

MS: If it's truly mixed, it's challenging in all aspects. Zoning and financing are huge barriers. Building is difficult, even sound zoning. This is not cut out for the people not willing to take on a challenge.

But it works. Recently, for the Denver Pavilion on 16th Street, we argued to put in a charter school and library, but they didn't do it. But now they're considering doing it to get traffic there. If people have got to drive to a destination, then you've got to mix uses to have other reasons to go there. It's just a practical solution, it's much more effective for our harried lifestyles, to do several things while you're making this trip.

RT: How do you define fun?

MS: An element of surprise, an element of whimsy. Something that takes you out of the ordinary and something that puts a smile on your face. It can be very different for different situations, but something that has meaning to it. Most of what's really important now is to tell a coherent story. The places that will be enduring are the ones that think that through. I think that retail inspired by Main Street and lifestyle centers is a result of trends, but I don't think they're trendy. They are responding to some basic real values that all of us have, which even the Rouse Co. was touching on 20 to 30 years ago. I think this is going to be a long-lived situation.

RT: Let's go back to working with developers from stage one.

MS: We have a series of exercises that find out the client's business goals, which range from practical issues to branding, identity, image and personality. And through these exercises we're able to draw out from the client things they hadn't thought about. It helps them get outside of the box and look at themselves differently. Through that process we've been able to present our value as designers, as strategists.

RT: We're talking about architects who know local culture, they know psychology, they know urban design, they know basic strategy —

MS: And they know branding.

RT: How does an architect train himself in all these disciplines?

MS: They're trained in the real world. Architects don't always get into what flesh-and-bone people are. They talk about design in a high-design sense, and I think people are more down to earth and they like to be entertained. It doesn't have to be high design. You'll find any developer who says that architecture doesn't matter. What they really mean is that the architecture is not as important as the tenant mix, the overall personality of a place. I think that many savvy developers now see the power and the merit of a sense of place. But to do that, I think people are more impressed by theater than they are by architecture. Whoever creates a place has to understand people and they have to understand the business.

Who Max Steele
Vice president in the Houston office of Gensler