With all the debate on the state of the economy and the outlook for the residential real estate sector, Stark, a prominent mixed-use developer remains bullish on the sector.
Retail Traffic: Has the slowdown in residential real estate affected mixed-use?
Bob Stark: Yes, for sure! Especially because people are hesitating to develop the residential component in light of the mortgage crisis. That's the biggest concern. But, secondarily is the fact that retail has slowed dramatically. Retailers have cut back as a result and they have tried to lowball their rents, which makes it difficult to meet the expectations of your pro-forma.
RT: Currently, Stark Enterprises is working on the Warehouse District in Cleveland. Has your vision of the project changed any given the slowdown?
Stark: No, my vision hasn't changed at all. The course of developing it will take longer than the downturn in the economy will last. We're doing all the predevelopment in anticipation that a complete recovery will occur by the time we open in 2011.
RT: Will it be like urban renewal projects in other major U.S. cities?
Stark: The Warehouse District is not a brownfield development. The area is not dilapidated or blighted. The only blight is the surface parking. The value of the land does not exceed the price of using it for a parking lot. It's been frozen in time and what we're doing is thawing it out.
RT: What are some of the common mistakes when developing mixed-use projects?
Stark: The biggest sin of all is many of the projects don't have the critical mass to create a credible mixed-use context. The magic of mixed-use is the grid. The grid should have a minimum of three streets going north and south and three streets going east and west. What you then have is a checkerboard of city blocks that establishes a walkable neighborhood. I've seen mixed-use developments confuse a Main Street as curved instead of straight. It [prevents the visitor from] being able to see from one end of the project to the other.
RT: Stark Enterprise's projects Crocker Park and Eton Chagrin have been cited as examples of successful mixed-use environments. What lessons were learned putting them together?
Stark: It starts and stops with your definition of mixed-use. Mixed-use to me, as opposed to multi-use, is vertically integrated retail, entertainment, office and residential stacked on top of each other. That principle right there puts a lot of different people doing different things in the same place at the same time, which creates the dynamic tension that creates the energy of a true mixed-use environment. That's what makes it work.
RT: Are there any strategies that worked better in one of those projects more than at the other?
Stark: Because Eton came before Crocker we took that and made it better. For example, wider sidewalks and more street furniture. We learned a wonderful thing about scale…you can't build buildings too small relative to the amount of people space.
RT: What is the return on investment for the added cost, time and work?
Stark: There is no scientific answer. The time, energy and complexity is exponentially greater.