Features, Retail Insights

Shopping Centers and the Rebirth of American Cities

Contrary to the popular storyline, shopping centers are not going away. They are transforming into an entirely new entity, and in the process rescuing and reviving the downtown shopping districts in major cities across the country.

Yes, the old-style mall of yore, with acres of depressing walkways and papered-up storefronts, is on the way out. So are the so-called regional malls . . . located adjacent to the interstate and anchored by one or two faded big box stores which have long lost their appeal.

There is an irony to this story. Back in the 1950s, when shopping centers first emerged on the retail scene, their rapid growth sapped the energy out of downtown business centers in cities large and small. Over the ensuing decades, the retail flight to suburban malls resulted in the deterioration and ultimate capitulation of city cores – which became urban wastelands to be avoided by shoppers and tourists alike.

Now, the pendulum is swinging fiercely back towards urban retail, driven by millennials who have rejected the two-car suburban dream and the majority of shoppers who have come to dread the dreariness of traditional mall shopping. And those developers savvy enough to seize on this trend have helped reestablish downtown as a diverse, high-energy mecca for dining, entertainment, shopping and indeed living.

There are three bold urban developments which have completely reconfigured the idea of “downtown” by incorporating the best and brightest attributes of retail real estate. Two of these projects are not yet completed, and one is over five years old. Together, they serve as a lesson in the adaptability of the shopping center format to the new realities of city living in the 21st century.

Brickell City Centre, Miami (Swire Properties)

Brickell City Centre is a five-million-square foot complex developed by Hong-Kong based Swire Properties. Opened in 2016, Brickell incorporates three levels of retail shopping, two office towers and an all-suite hotel. Scheduled for completion in 2019, BCC has already reshaped Downtown Miami, incorporating 500,000 square feet of retail (both luxury and mid-level); 260,000 square feet of office space and over a million square feet of residential units.

Even in its current early stage, Brickell has attracted legions of office workers, commuters and fun-seeking residents from Miami and its suburbs to its heady mix of shopping, dining and entertainment – including a luxury dine-in theater and Italian food hall.

However, the real key to BCC’s success is its expression of “messy vitality” – the spontaneous and sometimes chaotic feel of an old-style city center. In other words, Brickell is the obverse of the traditional mall – open rather than enclosed, impulsive rather than ordered, eclectic rather than cookie cutter. And the overall master plan incorporates the addition of a new downtown transit link to the Miami light rail system.

Brickell’s high design concept relies on that overused word “authentic:”

The design incorporates hallmarks of the 19th century glass-covered arcades emblematic of Milan and Paris.
There is an elevated park, or “public square,” providing vistas from downtown Miami out to the Miami River.
The complex of structures is linked by trestle bridges – and the organization of shops and
restaurants is spontaneous rather than orderly.

In other words, Brickell encapsulates the aura of spontaneity and surprise of a true urban marketplace – marked by lots of sunlight and street-facing shops and restaurants. It also features a rotating schedule of community events including art fairs, farmers markets, mass meditation and spiritual events.

Who ever thought of a shopping center as a place for prayer?

CityScape (RED Development)

Sprouting like a Phoenix from the ashes of that city’s abandoned downtown district in 2010, CityScape has completely redefined the role of shopping centers in city cores.

Pre-CityScape, downtown Phoenix was a neighborhood to be avoided . . . with few attractions and a foreboding atmosphere. Today, thanks to CityScape, central Phoenix is alive with activity and has a distinct buzz – a 24-hour-a-day hive of activity, dining, entertainment and retail.

The idea, as envisioned by RED Development, was to create a fully evolved community where people live, work, play and shop . . . and in so doing reinvent Phoenix itself. In partnership with the City of Phoenix (whose municipal offices are adjacent to the development), RED created a multi-faceted assemblage of office, residential, hospitality and entertainment which has redefined “night life” for the city’s 1.6 million residents. As a result, CityScape has become an entertainment mecca for tourists and visitors with its diverse range of funky eateries, eclectic activities and retail options.

Paramount among these attractions is a year-round outdoor ice rink in CityScape’s central plaza which operates largely in the evenings, as well as a roster of concerts, exhibitions and outdoor marketplaces. The neighborhood now generates enough live-in energy to justify a large-format Fry’s supermarket, as well as a CVS pharmacy and other residential amenities. CityScape also benefits from access to multiple light rail stations and proximity to major concert and sporting venues, as well as Arizona State University’s downtown campus.

Utilizing the essential organizing principles of a shopping center, CityScape has created a “downtown Phoenix” where there was none . . . and demonstrated the transformative power of retail done right.

City Creek Center, Salt Lake City (Taubman)

Six years ago, City Creek Center debuted as a replacement for two failed old-style enclosed malls in a nearly deserted downtown Salt Lake City. Taubman Centers, in partnership with the Church of Latter Day Saints, envisioned a liveable, interconnected downtown in which retail would play a supporting role. A parallel goal was to maintain the natural and historic attributes of SLC – incorporating the iconic “City Creek” ecology into the structural design of the center.

The ensuing development constitutes a virtual playbook on how to reconstruct a major downtown civic center by blending design, environment, history and, yes, retail into a compelling and spiritually enhancing mix. The indoor-outdoor design concept includes a retractable roof, providing a streetscape feel even under foul weather conditions. Over-street walkways connect the center’s two pavilions, as well as several redeveloped office and residential structures and hotels. The confusing maze of original city blocks were actually resized to make them more pedestrian friendly, and to extend the walkability of the mall throughout the city center.

And the ecology of “City Creek” itself has been maintained. As it courses down Main Street (now the mall’s central promenade), the waterway abounds with creek-side parks, waterfalls and a well-stocked range of fish. The entire complex is accessible through SLC’s rapidly evolving light rail sysem.

As one Taubman design executive stated at City Creek’s opening: “We want people to feel good to be in this space.” Shouldn’t that be the goal of every shopping center?

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