Can a team of real estate developers build a new downtown from scratch and make it go? The Georgetown Co., New York, and Steiner + Associates, Columbus, Ohio, have set out to do just that in Columbus, Ohio.

"Easton is a planned community that in essence tries to combine the best of urban America with the best of the suburbs by combining a place where you can work, shop, play and live," says Marshall Rose, chairman of The Georgetown Co., developer of the overall Easton project.

Easton lies inside the northeastern quadrant of the Columbus city limits, at the intersection of the I-270 Columbus Beltway and Morse Road, a major east-west surface street. The Limited Inc., whose headquarters lies due east of the site, contributed the Easton parcel to the joint venture managing the project and remains a limited partner in the deal.

The development's 1,200 acres approximates the size of the downtown area of a small- to medium-sized city. Not intended as a suburban alternative to a neighboring city, the project aspires to equality with downtown Columbus.

The entire Easton plan calls for the development of approximately 4 million sq. ft. to 5 million sq. ft. of commercial office space, more than 1 million sq. ft. of lodging and conference facilities, a significant amount of residential square footage, and 4 million sq. ft. of retail entertainment and restaurant space.

In rough terms, three commercial parks will cross the southern half of Easton, while four distinct retail projects and a hospitality center will line the northern half of the project. Residential developments will ring the commercial-retail core.

The four retail projects are:

* a big-box power center, which is now open;

* a big-box value center, also up and running;

* an enclosed regional fashion mall, which is still in the conceptual stage;and

* the Town Center, which began construction early this year and is scheduled for completion in summer or fall 1999.

The combined GLA of these projects will span more than 3 million sq. ft., making the retail and entertainment offerings nearly 500,000 sq. ft. larger than the 2.5 million sq. ft. of retail offered by Mall of America.

Whether this ambitious concept of creating a second downtown for Columbus will work depends upon the success of the $100 million Town Center, which is viewed by the developers as the engine that will drive the whole development.

"We are developing the Town Center as a leisure-time destination," says Yaromir Steiner of Steiner + Associates, who is co-developing the Town Center with Georgetown.

Steiner makes a distinction between a leisure-time destination and a shopping center: "If you want to buy a shirt or a sweater, you go to a shopping center," he says. "If you want to go out for dinner and a movie, you go to a leisure-time destination. The objective of the Town Center is to be a social magnet, to bring people here to this urban focal point to spend their leisure time."

A leisure-time destination, says Steiner, has three components: architecture, people-generators and programming.

Vintage architecture The architecture of the Town Center recalls the classic downtown of middle-American memory. The design will tap these memories by creating a hub for working, playing, shopping, loafing and living around a densely conceived, 30-acre site set virtually in the middle of Easton's 1,200 acres.

At the center of the Town Center will be a square, which will offer a fountain in summer and an ice skating rink in winter. The buildings surrounding the square will replicate urban building types characteristic of 20th-century America.

Chief among these buildings is The Galleria, which will preside over the northern side of the square with a spectacular two-story, steel-framed, glass-entrance facade rising to a peaked glass roof. Red brick wings will flank both sides of the arcade-like entrance. Architectural accents, like a Roman-numeral clock set beneath the peaked roof, will create the illusion that the structure may be a restored urban train station.

The Galleria will set the architectural tone for the square. "Our work in these kinds of developments has taught us that a soft, warm architectural character plays an important role in gaining community acceptance," says John Clark, president of Baltimore-based Development Design Group Inc., the project architect.

"In The Galleria, the first floor is 13 feet from floor to floor, which gives the building a warm and human scale," he says. "This differs from shopping center designs in which the floor-to-floor heights are much taller, often too tall to move people easily from the first to the second floor."

Like The Galleria, the architecture on the other three sides of the square meets Clark's criteria for human scale and warmth. To the east, another structure extends the red-brick look established by The Galleria with there-creation of a two-story town hall replica. To the south, still another brick building recalls a mid-century, small-town library. On the west side of the square, the architecture mimics a restored town-square cinema from the 1950s.

"We want each of these structures to have its own individual architectural flavor," Clark says. "In developing the designs, I spent a lot of time in small towns and in the small communities in the city of Baltimore searching for ideas to create a collage of building fronts. Throughout, there are changes in the brick detailing, different sizes of windows and entrances, low and high parapets. The changing scale helps to create a soft, warm strolling environment."

The four-street grid inside the square will allow automobile traffic and offer metered parking. Just outside of the square against either end of The Galleria, plans call for tiered parking structures to accommodate expected traffic and create a feeling of urban density, another design goal of the Town Center.

Generating the people With construction under way, Steiner has turned to filling the TownCenter with a variety of tenants, which he calls people-generators - businesses that will draw people to the square for leisure-time activities.

People-generators fall into seven categories: cinema megaplexes; interactive game facilities; health clubs; live-entertainment concepts; bookstores; restaurants; and selected retail offerings designed to complement the people-generators without competing with surrounding shopping centers.

Nearly a half dozen tenants, including all of the anchors, already have signed up.

Planet Movies by AMC, a new cinema-restaurant concept, will occupy about half of The Galleria. The 150,000 sq. ft. joint-venture entertainment concept will combine a 30-screen, 6,200-seat AMC megaplex theater with a Planet Hollywood restaurant, an Official All Star Cafe and associated retail. "We expect this concept alone to generate between 1.5 million and 2 million visits per year," Steiner says.

GameWorks, the second major signed tenant, will occupy 30,000 sq. ft. of The Galleria. Developed by Dream Works SKG, Sega Enterprises and Universal Studios Inc., GameWorks will feature "neighborhoods" offering racing, sports, motion simulation and fighting games. Food retail areas will offer informal lunches and dinners as well as a full-service bar. This sixth member of the GameWorks chain will aim to generate at least 1 million visits per year to the development.

Lifetime Fitness, a health club concept based in Minneapolis, will occupy about 100,000 sq. ft. of space in the period cinema building on the west side of the square. Steiner's projections suggest that this facility will generate about 750,000 visits per year to the project.

Three tenants will provide live entertainment and aim to add approximately 250,000 visits per year to the Town Center. While the locations for these have yet to be determined, the tenants themselves will include a blues or jazz club, a comedy club, and a unique cabaret called Shadowbox, which has already signed up.

>From its downtown Columbus location, which opened in 1994, Shadowbox currently offers a combination of one-act theater, music and sketch comedy. The concept has gained a dedicated following in the city.

"We had been looking for a place to expand when the idea of Easton Town Center came up," says president, CEO and show host Steven Guyer. "We weren't enthusiastic at first because we didn't understand the idea.

"After talking to the developers, we changed our minds. Right now, there is no district in Columbus where you can go at night to have a good time. The idea that the Town Center could become a district like that is very exciting."

Steiner's demographic studies suggest that these Town Center tenants have the potential to draw 4 million to 5 million people per year to the Town Center.

A Barnes & Noble bookstore, 12 large and small restaurants, and associated specialty retail shops will add spice to the primary people-generators.

In addition to architecture and people-generators, says Steiner, programming or animation is a third component important to the success of a leisure-time destination.

"We will animate the Town Center with special events, festivals and concerts," he says. "Animating techniques can be small or large. For example, we hope to have streetcorner musicians and outdoor food stands set up in a way that will add urban feel to the character of the Town Center. We're also planning a building for the square that will contain a small stage.

"Animation is really the last step in a project like this," he says, "and we haven't really focused on it yet. We'll get into that aspect sometime this summer."

Favorable demographics Of course, architecture, people-generators and animation will not work unless there is a pool of people willing to be generated, so to speak. Steiner says he needs about 4 million visits per year to support the concept, and he says the region's demographics will make that possible.

Columbus ranks as Ohio's fastest-growing metropolitan region. More than 200 advanced technology companies have located there, in addition to leading firms in the insurance, banking, communications and franchise food industries. According to National Real Estate Investor, Columbus ranks fourth in new office construction among 122 U.S. cities. By the year 2000, projections suggest that the regional population will reach 1.5 million and household incomes will average $65,000.

To evaluate the demographics related to the Town Center, Steiner used Prizm, a geographic information system mapping tool supplied by Arlington, Va.-based Claritas Data Services. Prizm allowed Steiner to go beyond the standard technique of drawing a circle on a map.

"We defined our market area with a map that looked at a variety of population segments within different driving distances of the project," Steiner says. "We believe that those living in outlying areas will drive about 20 minutes in toward the city to get to Easton. On the other hand, we believe people living on the downtown Columbus side of Easton will be willing to drive only 15 minutes out toward the project."

Within that market area, the map shows a population of 627,000 people. Of course, not all of those people will visit the Town Center. But Prizm defines a number of target communities within the base population: upper-middle-class suburban; wealthy suburban; rising young families with kids; seniors with high disposable incomes; and young 20-somethings who earn little but live alone and want something to do with their disposable cash.

"Within the categories we like, we believe there are people who will visit the Town Center one to three times a month or 12 to 36 times a year," Steiner says.

A little math implies that Steiner's goal is well within reach. If 200,000 people within the base population visit the Town Center 20 times a year, 4 million people will contribute their disposable income to the project.

And Columbus will discover a new downtown.