Florida hardwood hammocks, the small, vine-entangled forests that once dotted the state from the Panhandle down to the Keys, have all but vanished in north Florida as urban development choked their habitats.

When The Avenue Viera is completed, though, there will be one more “genuine” Florida hammock in the Cape Canaveral region. It will be the one-acre centerpiece of Cousins Properties' latest lifestyle center.

Whether it's a tropical forest or a desert oasis like the one built for Woodbine Development Corp.'s Kierland Commons in Scottsdale, Ariz., operators of lifestyle centers have been setting the bar higher and higher for — and pouring more and more money into — the elaborate landscaping and hardscaping designed to set their properties apart and attract customers.

“It's much more of an environment than just a shopping center,” says Bill Bassett, senior vice president for development at Atlanta-based Cousins Properties. “The landscape is very key for us.”

As one might imagine, maintaining a Florida hammock doesn't come cheap. Cousins spends three to four times as much on their four Avenue lifestyle centers as they do on power centers. They're not alone. Throughout the industry, the money is there to back up operators' commitment to the appearance of common areas. While the average cost per acre to landscape a big box shopping center is $12,000, lifestyle centers pay as much as $30,000, says David Floyd, a principal at Site Solutions, LLC in Atlanta. The cost per square foot of hardscape (the paths, seating, walls, fountains and public art) can climb as high as $15 at a lifestyle center, compared with $2 for basic pavement at a power or other retail center.

Of course, there's no guarantee that a given amount of money spent on landscaping will assure a certain level of rent. It's an investment in image and reputation, which is built — and pays off — over time, says Terry McEwen, president of Memphis, Tenn.-based Poag & McEwen, which pioneered lifestyle centers. His firm will spend from $500,000 to $1 million on the initial landscaping and hardscaping of a project. From then on, the annual budget for a site will be “in the hundreds of thousands,” McEwen says of his company's six existing lifestyle centers and the four they expect to open in the next couple of years.

The cost of maintaining beautiful vistas at Bayer Properties Inc.'s Summit lifestyle centers in Birmingham, Ala., and Louisville, Ky., is second only to what the company spends on security. “The look and feel of a Summit is unique,” says Curtis Furgason, senior vice president for property management at Birmingham-based Bayer. “It requires a large budget.” That means about $350,000 a year for the Summit Birmingham, and $200,000 for the Summit Kentucky, after an initial $1.2 million.

SETTING THE TONE

That may sound like a lot of money, but it's worth it to operators. Landscaping sets the whole tone of a center, according to Kelly Duke, in charge of pre-construction at ValleyCrest Cos., the Calabasas, Calif., firm that designed the common area for Caruso Affiliated Holdings' Commons at Calabasas and The Grove at Farmers Market, both in southern California. “A big box building with a few plants is less appealing on an emotional level than a boutique retail center with big trees and flowering shrubs,” he says. Large trees in particular can make a relatively new center look more established and inviting.

Selecting the elements and designing the common areas of lifestyle centers has become a field of study unto itself. David Brockman and James Hyatt, principals with San Francisco-based EDAW Landscape Architects even developed guidelines to successfully plan and execute these projects. In their landscape design guide Principles for Landscape Design in a Retail Center, they stress the importance of setting a site apart with an original concept and then balancing the aesthetics of that design with the needs of retailers.

Dallas-based Woodbine spent $3.5 million working to create the desert scene at Kierland Commons, complete with barrel cacti, a diamondback rattlesnake pattern etched in the paving and an amphitheater and rock formation that collects water and simulates rain. “What we're often doing is creating a ‘there’ in communities that are starved for one,” says Brockman, who helped design Kierland Commons. “These places are often the heart and soul of a community.” The River Rancho Mirage, which Brockman designed for Los Angeles-based J.H. Snyder Co. near Palm Springs, Calif., features a 100,000-square-foot lake, the “River,” and a cove with an oasis amphitheater.

As successful as The River Rancho Mirage and other highly designed centers have been, some in the industry warn that it's possible to have too much of a good thing. Developers run the risk of making aesthetics too much of a priority in the overall design, compared with more practical concerns. No one would disagree that a picturesque Main Street is more pleasant to look at than a parking lot, but if customers have to leave their cars too far from where the shops are, some may take their business elsewhere.

“You have to be careful that you don't over-romanticize and forget the lessons that were learned the hard way,” says architect Everett Hatcher, executive vice president at CMH Architects Inc. in Birmingham. “In most old towns you didn't have enough parking and in many cases that's why they dried up and blew away.”

Similarly, if the attraction to the common area is too great, that creates another problem for retailers. “There's a fair amount of trial and error,” says Site Solutions' Floyd, who oversaw the design and installation of a complex interactive fountain that was a magnet for kids at one Avenue lifestyle center. “We had to remove it even though a lot of work had gone into it,” he recalled. “The kids loved it so much the moms couldn't get them to go to the stores.”

That certainly doesn't mean that themed lifestyle centers are fatally flawed. “They are just a format that's still in transition,” says Hatcher, who worked on Avenue and Summit lifestyle centers among others. One of his favorite sites, The Avenue at East Cobb in Atlanta, earned awards including the Urban Land Institute Award for small-scale projects in 2002. “It's a case of a development that incorporates intelligent design on many levels and really gives back to the community.”

Once a great design has been achieved and the landscaping has been planted, maintaining it poses another set of challenges and built-in costs. Assuring healthy, vibrant plants and trees that enhance the shopping experience without presenting physical or visual obstacles is the goal of Cindy Tucker, Summit Properties' full-time horticulturist at its Louisville site.

“With shrubs and other plantings we have to watch the maximum height to make sure the views aren't being blocked,” which means constant pruning of some 60 evergreen shrubs and 40 flowering shrubs plus maintaining a variety of trees throughout the site. Then there are the center's 300 pots and 265 hanging baskets full of annual flowers. These require a 500-gallon water container pulled by a special four-wheel-drive truck. Tucker, a certified horticulturist who studied for six years, says her workday typically starts at 4:30 a.m.

Another concern in developing lifestyle centers is the impact they have on the environment. Whether it's because of public pressure, to meet the demands of local authorities, or a choice made by the developers themselves, more and more lifestyle centers are taking such issues as water consumption and soil erosion into account. In order to compensate for the vast amount of water consumed by the lake at The River Rancho Mirage, EDAW developed a water-conserving plan that includes a satellite-controlled irrigation system to measure natural rainfall and humidity and take them into account in watering the landscape.

Many centers face stringent requirements when it comes to replacing trees cleared for development, for instance, says Site Solutions' Floyd. His firm is working on a project in Savannah, Ga., where developers are trying to meet the U.S. Greenbuilding Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design requirements. “It's really not easy to do,” he confesses. “Retail is a high-impact product with big buildings and flat surfaces,” and tenants generally aren't selecting sites for their environmental conscientiousness.