The Future Face of Shopping Centers

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\"\"I do not believe for one minute that the mall is dead. Yes, the 75-year-old concept of a “big box with lots of smaller boxes inside” is surely headed in the direction of the buggy whip. Consumers simply do not have the inclination or time to navigate foreboding parking lots and antiseptic walkways to then wait in a check-out line to complete their purchase with a harried store clerk (né salesperson).

Yet there is a dramatic and exciting new future for shopping centers . . . and the signs of the “mall of the future” are becoming more abundant with each passing week. These new properties are living, breathing communities—where retail takes its place alongside trendy, upscale eateries, sprawling green spaces, compelling entertainment and recreational facilities—and even spiritual hideaways.

Actually, these developments are not really “shopping centers” at all. They are, in real estate parlance, “mixed use” environments incorporating residential apartments, commercial offices and health and wellness facilities. They may also include spiritual and wellness aspects, and frequently offer in-development transportation options as well as mass transit links to urban centers.

In fact, the new malls resemble complete neighborhoods, often transforming deteriorating suburban and urban settings into vibrant downtown cores. The common denominator is “engagement”—linking to the larger community through a complex matrix of emotional, physical and sensory ties—and providing the opportunity to shop a carefully curated selection of compelling retail options.

Very often, the driver behind such “vibrant centers” is the sudden departure of a legacy anchor … a faded department store or big-box retailer. The vacancy actually provides an opportunity to transform a large and geometrically uniform space into a compelling environment … say, a contemporary food hall or luxury theater replete with fine dining and lounge seating. In some cases, the exit of a historic anchor propels a complete redevelopment of the entire mall, literally tearing down the walls and opening-up the entire property to the larger community.

Here are five key trends in the “neighborhood-ization” of shopping centers, together with prime examples of each:

1. Converting an Enclosed Mall into an Open-Plan Neighborhood

All or part of the original mall is demolished and replaced with a street-grid structure which fits more coherently into the surrounding community. That structure is then filled with attractive living, working and recreational options in addition to retail—along with seamless connections to regional transit.

Landmark Mall – Alexandria, VA

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Earlier this year, Howard Hughes Corp. announced plans to redevelop an 11.4-acre Macy’s box and adjacent parking lot, and to transform this “big box” mall into an open-air, mixed-use project incorporating retail, residential and entertainment uses. The new development will also feature multiple plazas and green spaces, outdoor seating, an updated transit center and luxury cinema. “Our vision is to revive the site and create a new urban hub on the west end of Alexandria,” the company stated. And the City of Alexandria is providing full-fledged cooperation and support.

Belmar – Lakewood, CO

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Rising out of the ashes of a vacant enclosed mall, Belmar was conceived as a “new downtown” center for this thriving Denver suburb. The old mall was torn down and replaced with an entirely new 22-block mixed-use development featuring an engaging selection of retail options, upscale eateries, art galleries and live music—together with a complement of new residential living options. In the process, Belmar has reestablished Lakewood as a vibrant living, shopping and working environment, home to more than 2,000 residents and another 4,000 within walking distance. Its developer, Starwood Retail Partners, recently added hospitality to the mix with a new Hyatt House Hotel.

2. Establish a Unique Bond to the Community

The center is imbued with an emotional and physical connection to the surrounding community, incorporating elements of health, spirituality and wellness into the overall commercial scheme.

Liberty Center – Cincinnati, OH

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A fully integrated lifestyle community created from the ground up by Steiner + Associates and Bucksbaum Retail Properties on the perimeter of Cincinnati. Liberty Center, adjacent to a premier medical complex, focuses on health and wellness as its predominant theme. In addition to a broad complement of retail and dining offerings, the development incorporates a range of community gathering spots and social settings; parks and themed outdoor spaces; a Children’s Discovery Center, band shell; and spiritual amenities such as a chapel and meditation space. In addition, the Liberty Center offers an array of health and wellness initiatives directed by the nearby Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center and other health care providers.

3. Create a “Shopping Center of Food”

An enclosed mall is reconceived as a “food hall” with a warehouse setting featuring an eclectic and high-energy assortment of indigenous restauranteurs, food, coffee and wine purveyors. While retail is present, it is secondary to the food experience.

– Union Market District – Washington, DC

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The “Union Market District” development created by Edens, Inc., has sparked the revival of a formerly faded industrial area of Northeast Washington, now redubbed “NoMa.” Union Market focuses on a highly localized assortment of restaurants, indoor/outdoor cafes and specialty food shops, including some purveyors who have been in the neighborhood for close to a century. The buzz surrounding Union Market has resulted in a re-discovery of NoMa, and a bevy of new residential and commercial developments in the neighborhood.

4. Revitalize a Major Downtown Urban Center

A redesigned center provides the commercial impetus to revivify a languishing downtown shopping district into a hub of civic activity, attracting new residents, corporate office tenants and a broad range of hospitality options.

– FIGat7th – Los Angeles, CA

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In 2010 Brookfield Property Partners set out to breathe new life into an ailing 1980s-era shopping center it acquired in downtown Los Angeles. Rather than simply repackage a typical big-box mall, Brookfield redeveloped into a diverse and engaging open-air structure that, together with the nearby “L.A. Live” entertainment complex, has helped to transform Downtown L.A. into a cultural, dining and shopping hub with a broad range of new residential and workplace options. As a result, the Downtown L.A. market has become the kind of “live, work, play” environment that appeals strongly to millennials— coincidentally the prime target audience for FIGat7th.

5. Serve as a Cultural Resource

An urban shopping center establishes its position as the primary showplace for art exhibits, concerts, museum programs and other valued cultural activities.

– Parkview Green – Beijing, China

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Parkview Green is one of China’s most dramatic mixed-use developments, enclosed in a transparent, pyramid-shaped structure that keeps out pollution and regulates the interior climate. A primary component of Parkview Green is the “Museum of Contemporary Art,” which is a primary attraction in its four-level shopping center. The gallery is dedicated both to exhibiting contemporary art works in China and to the discovery of emerging artists, and to “promote dialogue and communication in art.” In a city of over 20 million inhabitants with relatively few cultural options, the museum constitutes a primary cultural resource—and, not incidentally, a substantial draw for the mall itself.

– Santafé Mall – Medellin, Colombia

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In an effort to set itself apart from the competition and make its expansive main plaza more welcoming, Santafé, a six-level enclosed mall, began holding regular large-scale events in the plaza shortly after it opened in 2010. The events, which are produced in-house and change every two months, have become so successful over time that the mall now charges a minimal admission price. (Visitors who spend a certain amount at the mall gain free admission to the events.) As a result, Santafé has become Medellin’s highest-grossing mall and one of its primary cultural and entertainment venues.

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