Well-Designed Shopping Centers and Urban Revitalization

This post is been written by guest columnist, Michael Prifti who 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 www.BLTa.com or www.aReturnOnDesign.com
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 Americas 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 Properties 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.
Underserved 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 landscape.
Projects such as DC USA can be found on the Directory of Major Malls website at ShoppingCenters.com,listing details on the 7,100+ major shopping centers and malls in the US and Canada. Visitors to the site can create a guest account and can run a query for Lifestyle/Specialty centers and purchase reports on an “as needed basis” or subscribe to see all listings 24/7. For questions, call 800-898-6255 to speak to a sales associate.
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