Stroll through a mall center court these days and you may think you have stumbled into the lobby of an upscale hotel. Mall owners are taking cues from the hospitality industry and transforming center courts into spaces where shoppers can sink into a soft chair, order a latte and recharge their batteries.

The goal is to combine comfortable seating with dynamic design elements. The new seating areas are often complemented with eye-catching designs, such as wall murals or artwork, as well as amenities ranging from cozy fireplaces to Wi-Fi access and flat-screen TVs.

Mall owners also are looking for ways to bring the energy of an urban streetscape into the mall interior by introducing restaurants around the center court to create more of a lounge or sidewalk café atmosphere.

“Traditionally, shopping center owners have tended to discourage areas where people have congregated, because they felt that those people should be out shopping,” says John Bemis, an executive vice president of leasing and development at Jones Lang LaSalle in Chicago. But the industry has learned that encouraging shoppers to linger — extending the length of the visit — has a direct impact on increasing sales. That's important because the longer a shopper is at a retail property, the more money they spend. Shoppers who visit malls for 180 minutes spend an average of $205.20 compared to the $54.20 spent by shoppers who stay for 30 minutes or less, according to ICSC.

To encourage more relaxation, architects are steering away from hard furnishings and materials such as metal, brick and ceramic tile. Instead, the focus is on incorporating soft textures and warm designs with materials such as wood and stone, complemented by natural lighting.

“What we're trying to do is create designs that are not too edgy, so they won't age quickly and will last longer periods of time,” says Alex Espinosa, a partner at Dorsky Hodgson Parrish Yue in Cleveland. “At the same time, we don't want to make center courts boring.”

Convertible spaces

Such design changes are paying off for mall owners. The $10 million renovation in 2005 of West Oaks Mall in Houston helped boost the occupancy level of the Jones Lang LaSalle managed property by 20 percent in just one year. The 780,000-square-foot renovation was inspired by local history and culture. Warm colors, soft lighting and casual furnishings were used to revitalize its common areas. In addition, new materials such as wrought iron, oak, leather and limestone were introduced along with images of the Texas landscape to serve as a backdrop.

The challenging economic climate for enclosed malls is forcing operators to strike a delicate balance between form and function. Owners are striving to create both a dynamic and inviting destination, while at the same time design a flexible space they can leverage to boost revenues at the center.

“You certainly want to maximize your ability to produce income in the common area, while still maintaining a friendly and comfortable atmosphere for the shopper,” Bemis says.

Macerich Co.'s the Oaks Shopping Center in Thousand Oaks, Calif., for example, is in the midst of a $250 million multi-phase renovation and expansion that is transforming the traditional enclosed mall into a contemporary shopping center with both open-air and enclosed shopping areas. The initial phase includes the addition of a two-level, 138,000-square-foot Nordstrom department store, which opened in September. The adjacent two-level enclosed shopping center also is being reconfigured to replace the center's existing lower-level theater with a new food court that will offer both indoor and outdoor seating.

One of the design goals for the center court was to create a “hotel lobby” type of atmosphere that invites people to sit down and relax. However, it was also important to design a versatile space. “We're striving for a perfect blend of creating a great experience for shoppers, as well as being flexible enough to accommodate various promotions and events,” says Ken Gillett, a senior vice president for property management at Santa Monica, Calif.-based Macerich.

The shopping center hosts a variety of events throughout the year ranging from educational seminars to fashion shows. The Oaks recently hosted a “Beauty Bash” for Nordstrom as part of the retailer's grand opening celebration. The special invitation event drew a crowd of about 2,000 women to the mall's center court. The key to achieving that versatility was designing seating areas and planters that could be moved or removed altogether to open up more space. As a result, careful thought and planning must go into the placement of permanent fixtures, such as fountains, elevators and concierge desks.

Flexing fiscal strength

The giant center courts that have dominated malls across the country are becoming increasingly rare. Traditionally, center courts have hosted everything from celebrity book signings to auto shows. “Developers are much less interested in accommodating those kinds of events today, especially if it means increasing overall construction costs and CAM [common area maintenance] fees,” says Stan Laegreid, a principal at Seattle-based Callison.

The challenge is to make center court space functional and create additional revenue streams while cutting costs. One solution is to downsize the center court. In their heyday, center courts typically measured approximately 90 feet in diameter with some at the larger malls spanning up to 120 feet. Today, Laegreid says, the size of center courts has shrunk by about 30 percent to 40 percent compared to what would have been the norm 5 to 10 years ago.

As more enclosed centers add outdoor elements, it is also an opportunity to shift the center court to an outdoor environment. FlatIron Crossing in Broomfield, Colo., for example, created an open-air center court. The Macerich-owned property's design draws upon its surrounding landscape using natural materials and featuring a giant climbing wall to reflect the outdoor lifestyle of its community.

Mall owners are facing greater pressure to boost revenues, and carving out income-producing space from the center court is an attractive option. Some malls are introducing more carts and kiosks to center court spaces, while others are taking advantage of sponsorship opportunities.

“It is important that we remain flexible and functional, and at the same time attractive,” says Jim Williamson, senior project manager and director of sustainable initiatives at CBL & Associates Properties Inc. in Chattanooga, Tenn. “We're not trying to just fill up the place and make it a bazaar.”

CBL's CoolSprings Galleria in Franklin, Tenn., features interactive promotional “towers” that create additional sponsorship and advertising opportunities. The towers are a design element that complement the center court, but there also is an opportunity to generate income by selling the space to businesses, says Williamson.