What's in a name? When it comes to how we categorize a development and its retail and associated experiences, a great deal is at stake. The popularity of the lifestyle center, in all its guises, brings into focus the naming quandary.

The roots of the contemporary retail experience, and the present confusion, were established in the 1990s, when dramatic changes in retail merchandising included a consolidation of existing retail tenants, a redefinition of the concept of “anchor,” a proliferation of discount and off-price retail concepts, and the rise of Internet retailing. Consumers played a big role, as influential Baby Boomers expressed preferences for more amenable retail environments and for more consumer-sensitive products.

At the same time, women, who continued to make most of the purchasing decisions, became more fully integrated into the workforce and the number of single-parent households grew steadily. These factors combined to create a consumer with new needs and desires — and more pressures. Multi-tasking, possibilities for integrating experiences (shopping, dining and entertainment, for example), and the search for greater convenience and support services became essential to this time-starved, life-challenged consumer.

Our industry answered with a variety of stimulating retail environments and shopping modes. We witnessed creative alternatives to urban sprawl through better land planning and zoning and greater access to — and interest in — the diverse goods of the global economy.

Next, in an effort to market and understand these new formats, came the “name game.” We're all familiar with lifestyle center variants like fashion center, leisure time center, specialty retail center, urban entertainment center, town center or urban village. The list goes on.

Unfortunately, even the official ICSC categories are lacking the necessary guidance, especially in the newer lifestyle center category — too numerous to quote here and even harder to comprehend. The ICSC list of lifestyle centers includes nearly 100 designated centers representing a diverse range of development philosophies, sizes, layouts and mixes of uses.

This naming difficulty is particularly germane to the mixed-use developments that Steiner + Associates' calls “New Town Centers.” We believe that simply tossing the unique format and experiences that define new town centers indiscriminately into the lifestyle center category is a disservice to developers, tenants, investors, planning officials and consumers. (See story, next page.)

The Lifestyle Center

Let's review the confusing nature of the lifestyle center designation itself. Its original and most restrictive definition is when it identifies a non-anchored strip center of about 200,000 square feet to 300,000 square feet, generally in an in-fill location, merchandised with higher-end specialty tenants. I believe the term was coined by Poag & McEwen when they opened their Shops of Saddle Creek in 1987 in Germantown, (Memphis) Tenn.

A broader definition was the one adopted by ICSC, expanded to include anchored and non-anchored centers ranging from 100,000 square feet to 800,000 square feet, but still open-air. The broadest definition is the one used by financial institutions that essentially defines lifestyle centers as any unusual project that is at least partially open-air and is not a mall, a power center or a community center.

A lifestyle center is a retail environment that is responsive to the values, needs and lifestyles of its customer. The problem with this “broad brush” approach is that the resulting retail environment then becomes a moving target. I would claim that in the ‘50s and '60s the regional mall was a lifestyle center and so were the power centers in the '80s and '90s.

We believe that definitions of the retail environments must be based on objective characteristics of the center. This is how we would like to introduce the “New Town Center.”

New town centers are designed and sustained by employing the same fundamental principles of town planning that have created and maintained vibrant urban centers for decades. Because they are designed on human scale, provide plenty of on- and off-street parking and are anchored by public meeting space, new town centers are “pre-designed” for adaptive reuse and re-lease, as our society and its values and needs evolve.

Examples include Stark Enterprises' Crocker Park in Cleveland, Caruso Affiliate's The Grove at Farmers Market in Los Angeles, Related's CityPlace in West Palm Beach, Fla., Simon's Bowie Town Center, in Bowie, Md., as well as our Zona Rosa in Kansas City, Mo., and Easton Town Center in Columbus, Ohio,

It should be noted, however, that all these centers are works in progress toward the perfect new town center. All have imperfections. But what they clearly have in common is the use of public spaces as anchors and using, in one form or another, traditional urban design inspired layouts.

Adapting and further refining this category will advance the retail development community in many ways. We will have an analytical framework to properly assess value parameters such as the ratio of retail to residential, office, hospitality and civic space; the comparative financial impact of each of these uses; design criteria for streetscape and street widths; analysis of pedestrian and vehicle traffic patterns; and contributions to economic and environmental sustainability. We will be able to do so without disturbing existing retail analyses like prospective customer profile, market area demographics or individual tenant space requirements.

Like lifestyle centers, new town centers are living entities that will evolve and mature over time. With a sound definition in place, we can avoid the present lifestyle center evaluation dilemma and better represent ourselves to the retail industry, investment community and the public — the people for whom we build and whom we serve so passionately.

CEO of Ohio-based Steiner + Associates where he oversees the company's retail and mixed-use development, leasing and management functions

The Name Game

Defining the new, “New Town Center”

Despite their many appeals, lifestyle centers normally do not embrace neo-traditional and new urban principles of town planning and development. They are an upscale version of the familiar strip center model. In contrast, a commitment to build a mixed-use environment, based on neo-traditional town planning principles, produces a retail development that is completely different from a lifestyle center.

Some distinguishing characteristics of the new town center include:

  • Critical mass, of more than 400,000 square feet of retail, part of a total mixed-use project of at least 800,000 square feet needed to truly become a destination, a place, a town and a center for the surrounding community.

  • Integrated uses, with office and residential, services and hospitality planned to exist as integrated vertically or adjacent to retail uses.

  • Proper scale and pace, of buildings, street widths and grids, following traditional urban design patterns, to provide pedestrian-friendly walking conditions 24/7.

  • Significant leisure time component of at least 50,000 square feet, integrated with the traditional retail uses making the district the social hub of its community and helping to keep the center “alive.”

  • Being anchored first and foremost by authentic public spaces, consisting of streets and sidewalks, plazas and squares, fountains and parks — all the places available for both public enjoyment and civic functions.