Directory of Major Malls
Directory of Major Malls

Best Practices in Designing Urban Shopping

This article was provided by a Guest columnist, Michael Prifti,  Managing Partner of BLT Architects

Well-Designed Shopping Centers and Urban Revitalization

Great urban shopping
centers that compete with those in the suburbs in terms of amenities,
accessibility, and design can revitalize entire areas.  DC USA in Washington,
DC’s Columbia
Heights neighborhood, proved that.  In April 2010, Columbia
Heights was named as one of the ten outstanding developments in the
in the Urban Land Institute’s (ULI) 2010 Awards for Excellence, in
part because of the shopping complex.  It
was also called “one of the greenest shopping centers in the country”
because it has brought “Big Box,” suburban stores normally accessed
by car to a dense, urban area well served by mass transit. 


According to Drew Greenwald, President of Grid
 Inc. and the developer of DC USA and Harlem USA, the
population and income densities in under-served urban locations create enormous
opportunities if the architectural and urban design solutions can maximize the
inherent benefits of urban locations. 
These include its proximity and accessibility, its setting within an
exciting established neighborhood, and the demand for a strong urban pedestrian
oriented architectural expression. The results in Washington,
DC, have been 700 permanent jobs, which is
expected to grow to 1200, and a thriving new center for the Columbia Heights area. 


The truth about DC USA
is that the experience of a transformative urban shopping complex can be
replicated if certain best practices are put in place:


Create Energy

Many underserved urban
neighborhoods are that way for a reason. 
They lack activity and infrastructure and are typically burdened with
crime and poverty.  A thriving urban
shopping facility, therefore, is responsible first and foremost for bringing
positive energy to the area.  Urban
neighborhoods are about pedestrian activity, meaning a project must enhance the
pedestrian experience.  This can be done
with ground level transparency, multiple retail entries, and open display
windows instead of the blank walls of suburban big box centers. 


Mix It Up

There are two mixes
that must be achieved for the shopping center to be successful.  First, the retailers, restaurants, and
services offered must be a good mix of big-box national chains and local
independently owned stores.  This
provides the local residents the things they need as well as sense of pride in
the development.  Second, there must be a
good mix of things open early and late. 
Constant activity and energy will help achieve a feeling of safety, as
mentioned above.


Embrace Mass Transit

Attracting people to
the shopping center is critical to both the retail tenants and the
neighborhood.  It must be easy for them
to walk, drive, or take mass transit there. 
The closer and friendlier the development is to transit, the more
benefits the owner will see.  It is
important to create obvious and easy walking paths from subway or train
stops.  Bus stop locations should also be
embraced.  This will help draw shoppers
from other parts of the city as well as from the suburbs.  Additionally, public transit means that there
need to be fewer parking spaces.


Reach for the Skies

Unlike suburban malls
that can be spread over acres of land, urban shopping centers must be built
up.  They must have critical mass to
attract quality retailers on smaller footprints than suburban
counterparts.  This is done by animating
upper levels with exciting uses. At DC USA, a sports club sits on third floor
and Target has entrances on both the first and second floors.   This creates impactful vertical circulation
that avoids the large public areas traditionally found in indoor malls.  An additional benefit is that there is often
a skyline view to be embraced.  Windows
serve two purposes here.  First, they
shed more light out onto the street from the building, increasing the safety
factor.  Second, people love a great view
of the city in which they live.  This is
especially true when they are drinking, dining, or exercising.  This again, gives people a reason to be there
late and love the new center of their neighborhood.


neighborhoods can offer a significant opportunity to developers and retailers
who are seeking a large population with needs and means.  But not every development will be successful
under these conditions.  Real
revitalization requires a focus on return on design that pairs best practices
with the historical, economic, and cultural realities of a specific urban

Michael Prifti is the Managing Partner of BLT Architects, an
integrated architectural and interior design firm with over 50 years of
experience designing mixed-use, hospitality, and higher education
projects.  He also served as the
principal-in-charge of DC USA.  More information is available at or 

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