According to the Urban Land Institute, the back-to-the-city movement is now a clear trend poised to continue well into the 21st century. Nationally, the increase in city housing permit activity from 1999 to 2000 exceeded the average annual increase in city housing permits from 1990 to 1998 by 35%. In contrast, 1999 to 2000's suburban housing permit activity nationally was only 21% ahead of the average level of activity during the 1990 to 1998 period.

In a sign of the changing times, the most suburban of national retailers — the big boxes — are exploring new downtown venues. Meanwhile, as more cities implement downtown revitalization strategies with mixed-use commercial, office, entertainment and residential projects, shopping has become an essential ingredient for renewed economic development. And city planners, developers and designers are finding that big boxes should be included in the mix.

Big boxes are busy rejiggering traditional store formats to squeeze into city spaces and take advantage of untapped urban consumers. Target recently opened a multi-level store in Pasadena, Calif; Home Depot is invading Brooklyn and Manhattan; and TJX Cos. opened multi-level, infill TJ Maxx stores in Westchester, Calif. and San Jose, Calif. Even suburban mainstay Wal-Mart is going urban with a three-level store at Los Angeles' Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza.

“We are not simply looking at traditional sites,” Wal-Mart community affairs manager Peter Kanelos recently told SCW sister publication National Real Estate Investor. “Wal-Mart is continually evolving to meet our customers' needs, which is why we are willing to do non-traditional Wal-Marts.”

But big boxers face some obstacles in moving into the city. The multi-level stores required in these markets are expensive to build and operate. “You can't go multi-level without a high real estate value and high-volume traffic projections,” says Jeff Nichols, real estate manager for Home Depot. He says the chain's Brooklyn stores are performing well because they lure enough traffic to offset added expenses.

CityPlace redefines Long Beach

A new Wal-Mart will be one of the biggest attractions at the CityPlace redevelopment project in downtown Long Beach, Calif. Opened in October 2002, CityPlace transformed an obsolete district into a revitalized urban community through master planning, development partnerships and a carefully selected retailer roster that includes big boxes. The $75 million redevelopment comprises 475,000 sq. ft. of retail, 290 residential units (which includes 69 loft condominiums), a 138-room hotel and parking for 2,900 vehicles.

CityPlace's predecessor was Long Beach Plaza, a regional shopping center that occupied eight city blocks. Originally developed by The Hahn Co. in the 1970s, The Plaza was a failed enclosed mall whose inward-facing shops had no connection to downtown.

Deck parking on either side of the dumbbell-shaped mall further limited pedestrian access. “The old, enclosed mall was a planning mistake, and less competitive than other markets,” says Robert Zur Schmiede, a redevelopment officer with the Long Beach Redevelopment Agency.

The mall was purchased in 1999 by a joint venture partnership between Cleveland-based Developers Diversified Realty (DDR), Coventry Real Estate Partners and Prudential Real Estate, and demolished in December 2000. According to DDR, the joint venture shared the city's vision to bring retail back to downtown Long Beach.

The new owners, seeking a viable master plan for city approval, tapped Los Angeles-based architecture firm The Jerde Partnership because the firm's retail design experience included a revitalization plan for San Diego's downtown Horton Plaza.

“The existing mall disrupted the urban fabric. The City and the development partner envisioned reconnecting the street grid and demolishing the old mall. The overall goals included bringing new retailers downtown, while retaining the existing retail mix,” says Bruce Jolley, planning director for The Jerde Partnership.

After ensuring that zoning ordinances allowed mixed-use projects, DDR worked with the City of Long Beach and Jerde to master plan the site, and then hired KMD Architects for design implementation. The master plan creates a new Main Street environment with retail and mixed-use amenities, resulting in a pedestrian-oriented community for the area. The plan reopened several closed city streets and created new pedestrian and vehicular access.

And to better blend the project into the urban fabric, CityPlace is designed as a continuous streetscape with touches of the Art Deco motifs found throughout Long Beach, from older buildings to the docked cruise ship Queen Mary. Exterior elevations are of varied heights and comprise different materials but maintain a unified scale. Parking garages and large anchor stores have new façades with Art Deco details.

CityPlace mixes outward-facing street-level retail with residential units to create 24-hour activity downtown. The new retail mix includes big-box stores and lifestyle tenants such as Nordstrom Rack. These stores have footprints of 25,000 to 30,000 sq. ft., which are not alien to cities. A 125,500-sq.-ft. Wal-Mart anchors the center, and necessity retail, such as Albertson's, as well as smaller local tenants appeal to the 400,000 people living within the five-mile project radius. The downtown Long Beach market previously lacked both a big box retailer and a supermarket.

Wal-Mart, for the first time in its history, modified its prototypical building to include a corner entry, mock display windows, an Art Deco façade and a parking structure. To get the right design and retail mix, planners employed ‘upholstery’ by wrapping the big box with other smaller tenants around the perimeter. This technique of burying boxes in layers of other shops provides streetscapes, eliminating large blank walls on the side of the big box buildings for a more active frontage. Three large parking garages remain invisible to the streetscape.

“The Jerde Partnership's master plan created spaces with pedestrian scale, proportion and site interconnections. The main advantage of CityPlace is the proximity to a range of mixed-use office, commercial and residential areas located near big-box stores, providing options for walking or driving. The demographics of the nearby housing units in walking distance will support the range of retailers. Additionally, downtown redevelopment has prompted a surge of 1,500 new residential units under construction at various income levels,” says Zur Schmiede. A light rail connection to downtown Los Angeles will also draw shoppers who are located further away, but who would prefer not to drive.

As of late fall 2002, more than 90% of CityPlace is leased or committed. DDR also invested in a 369,000-sq.-ft. mixed-use entertainment center, The Pike at Rainbow Harbor. Located six blocks from CityPlace, this new center, slated for a 2003 opening, includes restaurants and a 14-screen movie theater. The Pike's waterfront location, convenient to the convention center, aquarium and the Queen Mary, will further strengthen Long Beach as a visitor destination. Another 3,000 housing units are in the pipeline over the next few years, developers say.

Urban locations right on Target

Target is also adapting to capture urban infill markets. The retailer abandoned its traditional power center format to fit into an old Montgomery Ward anchor spot at super-regional power center Jantzen Beach Supercenter, 10 miles outside of downtown Portland, Ore. The 145,000-sq.-ft., two-level Target store uses a Vermaport cart escalator to assist consumers in moving purchases between floors. While costly to install, the affordable location in an existing mall made the Vermaport a worthwhile investment.

Getting customers to the second retail level requires a merchandising and design strategy encompassing architecture, lighting, and graphics, as well as Vermaports. But that's only the tip of the iceberg. Target faced other challenges in retrofitting the Ward's location, such as The City of Portland's Design Review guidelines, says Brian Fleener, AIA, a principal of Mulvanny G2 Architecture of Portland, the firm commissioned to design the project. While guidelines can often result in plain vanilla prototypes, design savvy and thinking outside the box yielded cost effective design solutions for Target.

In order to make a big box look less boxy, for example, Portland requires a glazing percentage. The architects wanted to offer pedestrian views into the store, but merchandisers wanted all exterior walls used for product display. On the ground floor, the cafeteria and the store's administrative offices, which are typically located in the interior, were moved to the building perimeter to face the street. The second floor façade was modified from the Target prototype to give the appearance of windows by using exterior spandrel glass.

In that same spirit, breaking up the façade through several design features, including lighting and detailing, made the building appear less massive. Metal canopies, rather than continuous awnings, punctuate the exterior by extending over the pedestrian sidewalk. Exterior lighting was designed to accentuate design elements at night, and provides good visibility. Mulvanny G2 customized the big box through the city's design process and provided a northwest look.

Urban areas need street activity; and just as big box retailers traditionally avoid multi-level customer circulation, neither do they use display windows or multiple entries. But installing unique cart escalators and offering passers-by a window into what customers are doing inside adds more energy and excitement, and that's a plus in a retail environment.

And Target's techniques for adapting to multi-level urban formats is catching on. At nearby Northgate North, an older Seattle commercial district without space for a traditional big-box format, vertical stores are the alternative design solution, and major retailers are increasingly amenable to making multi-levels work, says James Adams, also a principal of Mulvanny G2.

Here, “the parking garage also presents opportunities for reinforcing a retailer's brand though creative graphics and wayfinding signage,” he explains, and they help keep the urban shopping experience simple and stress-free.

As CityPlace and Target Jantzen Beach illustrate, breaking into new urban markets means breaking out of big box prototypes. And as long as demographics support the adjustments, retailers will be willing to make the change. “Obviously, when you are building stores, there comes a time when you move into areas where you haven't been traditionally focused,” says Wal-Mart's Kanelos. “This is part of what's driving this trend.”

Barbara Nadel, FAIA, is principal of New York-based Barbara Nadel Architect.