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In these three dominant areas, architects have an unprecedented opportunity to reshape retail real estate in the coming years. Recently, four members of the American Institute of Architects' Retail and Entertainment Knowledge Community sat down to discuss these ideas. What emerged was a dialogue that painted a comprehensive picture of today's retail landscape and what looms on its horizon. As they see it, architects sit in a unique position. As the retail real estate industry grapples with how to make old concepts work with these new ideas, architects can have a loud voice at the table, positioned to bring insight and leadership to retail projects in ways, perhaps, they had not in the past. And that makes for an exciting prospect.

At the discussion, Jeffrey Gunning, AIA, Charles Kridler, AIA, Ed Shriver, AIA and Midge McCauley — three architects and a consultant, with decades of experience between them — painted a comprehensive picture of the retail landscape, described both the broad architectural responses and revealed an authoritative grasp of the surrounding environmental, urbanistic and human considerations.

But something else emerged from the dialogue. The panel talked about these ideas not in terms of it being a battle between architect and owner, but that these ideas could lead to serendipitous relationships as designer and developer work closely together. Developers are adept at extracting the most of a project's potential. But architects can bring a different insight, and uncover new opportunities to help create meaningful and memorable spaces. As professionals, architects combine a rich reservoir of hands-on expertise with natural problem-solving skills and a taste for innovation (and sometimes provocation). They can do more than provide a service. They are, those interviewed suggest, uniquely positioned to bring insight and leadership to any retail project — to convert knowledge, experience and creativity into value.

And architects can make the most of that position by pushing developers to go green, by finding elegant solutions for incorporating tried and tested retail concepts into existing urban settings and by fleshing out what works and what does not when putting together intricate mixed-use projects in suburban settings.

Sustained growth

Buildings account for as much as 48 percent of all greenhouse emissions (the primary greenhouse gas associated with climate change) and 68 percent of electricity consumption. Indeed, on a national level, like the U.S. Green Building Council (which developed the LEED rating system), the AIA has worked diligently to raise awareness regarding the nature and purpose of sustainable building practices. For its part, the AIA launched Sustaianability 2030, an initiative pledging architects to achieve a 50 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2010 for buildings they design with the goal of carbon neutral buildings by the year 2030.

“The AIA has been very aggressive about pushing both the profession and the nation to take this seriously,” observes Shriver, a principal with Pittsburgh-based architecture firm Strada, which specializes in urban mixed-use projects. The AIA has been working with the Conference of Mayors and Congress to push sustainability from the store level all the way up to urban planning. The trend, alas, has been slow to catch on with the retail community, says Kridler, a principal with the San Francisco office of Gensler, which has designed LEED-certified branches for both PNC Bank and Bank of America. “You have to be able to make the numbers work,” he adds. “There are very few retailers who are going to do sustainable things because it's the right thing to do — they'll do it if it's right and they either make or save money.”

And here, Shriver argues, architects can play a bigger role as advocates for sustainability. By pointing out to retailers and developers that building green can cut expenses and even add to revenues. Green techniques cut cooling loads and reduce energy expenditures. “These are things they're interested in — even companies like Wal-Mart are installing skylights to lower lighting costs,” Shriver says. Moreover, studies show that daylighting can make customers more likely to purchase goods as it can be more flattering than fluorescents.

Often, retailers aren't aware of their sustainability options, and in this regard, Kridler notes, the guidance of an architect is essential, especially those experienced in gaining LEED Certification. “We can show them how to get there with the least amount of pain or expense,” he says. “In a lot of buildings, in fact, just getting certified isn't very difficult and doesn't add any cost, which is something retailers won't necessarily know.”

For developers who plan a quick turnover and remain disinclined to do anything other than the minimum required to sell a property, architects have a ready answer — one that also addresses ROI. “We point out that savvy investors want a building with a sustainability rating,” Kridler explains. “Buyers recognize the value of a property with lower operating costs, that uses less energy, and is better for the environment.”

Building a new city

Another area where architects can offer expertise is in helping retailers adapt their concepts for urban settings. Many retailers (and even developers for that matter) have cookie-cutter concepts. Retailers have schemes based on building the same boxes over and over. And developers also often rely on the same templates when building power centers and shopping centers. But all of this gets thrown out the window if you want to build in a city.

“Urban cores are being revitalized at a fairly amazing rate,” says Kridler. He points to Houston where more people are returning downtown after eschewing the city for years. “Ten years ago, if you were in downtown Houston at six o'clock, you were the last person left,” he says.

The same scenario is being replayed across the country. McCauley, of Washington, D.C.-based Economic Research Associates, which creates merchandising strategies for municipalities and developers, points to a number of factors. For one, more people want to live near where they work than a decade ago. Another is that there is an explosion of Generation Y graduates looking to live in urban environs. “I think improving retail conditions have been helpful as well, because downtowns are hubs for culture — a lot of revitalizations have started with restaurants,” she says.

For retailers, urbanization means opportunity. “It creates the chance for more experimentation in terms of retail formats, different vendors, new ideas, entrepreneurship,” notes Shriver. “You also tend to get more specialized retail,” he adds. “A one-horse town is a one-store town. So the more density, the more urban fabric, and the more people, the more retail tends to fragment. And that creates new prototypes.”

With opportunities, of course, come challenges, of precisely the sort that firms with a history of urban retail work will recognize — and less experienced developers might well overlook. “Successful retail is contiguous, it has very few gaps,” says McCauley. She points to Madison Avenue in New York. There, you have street level retail below grand residential buildings, but the entrances for the apartments and condominiums are on side streets, allowing for an unbroken chain of storefronts on the avenue. “And what we're finding is that a lot of mixed-use developers know one thing but not the other — generally, it's a residential developer who's trying to do retail,” she says. “They're building large residential buildings, and putting massive entrances on the main streets. And retail — which is what makes streets active and alive — is given almost a tertiary consideration.”

The same, McCauley adds, is true for office developers. Office towers tend to be fortress-like skyscrapers covered from top to bottom in dark, reflective glass. Ground floor retail, then, is hidden because passers-by can't see into the shop space. “You wouldn't put your retail in a stretch limo, would you?” she asks.

Worse, in some cases there are no outside entrances. Instead, shoppers have to walk through imposing office lobbies just to get to the retailer. “Every time you have to make a second threshold decision, that has a negative impact on sales,” McCauley says.

While architects can address issues of contiguity, transparency and access, they can also negotiate a successful balance between a building's overall design, and a retailer's desire to customize its storefront.

“There have to be ways that the building architecture can come down through the retail, so the building is anchored to the ground,” says Gunning, a vice-president of RTKL Associates in Dallas. Otherwise, the architecture above the retail doesn't have much to do with what's below it. “The idea is that retailers are given space to do their own materials and awnings, but within proscribed areas of the façade,” he says.

But the biggest challenge in urban locations, Kridler believes, is that it's not a tabula rasa. Developers are used to greenfield sites or else scraping and grading an older site and building from scratch. But in cities, “you don't have a blank sheet — you're always dealing with a certain amount of restrictions.”

The trick, he says, is to ensure a brand's integrity while fitting this “kit of parts” into something that may not be their typical configuration at all. Kridler's firm, Gensler, combined two existing buildings to create a Burberry store. In the process, it unified them with a façade patterned after one of the company's trademark plaid, designs. In another instance, it built a three-level 90,000-square-foot Old Navy in San Francisco. “We couldn't treat that the way we would a typical suburban store,” he says.

Kridler's observation hints at an even more complex undertaking, one in which architects are proving to be indispensable participants: urbanizing the suburban big-box store.

“We're now seeing a retail format which was entirely predicated on lots of land, easy access by car, and an almost off-the-grid social perspective trying to move into the antithesis of its natural habitat,” says Shriver. Stores like Home Depot, Wal-Mart and Target, he observes, have very strong prototypes, and they basically just look for locations where they can place them. To break into urban market, those companies have had to jettison those prototypes and starting from scratch.

In Manhattan, for example, Home Depot built a small format store with no parking. It also worked its logo around the building's existing façade rather than plaster a New York building with its trademark suburban orange concept.

In addition to working with retailers on brand reinvention, architects have been instrumental in clarifying the essential issues involved in the suburban-to-urban transition. These include jettisoning multiple acres of parking and confronting the complications of how you take a four-by-eight sheet of drywall home on the bus, interfacing with urban streets and sidewalks and, most significantly, downscaling.

While retailers have, over the past decade, warmed up to multi-story formats, says McCauley, every time you cut out stairwells or have to create access, it takes away selling space. “It requires, not only careful consideration of the design, but of the merchandise,” Kridler says. To that end, his firm has been working on a new concept for Nau, a Portland-based apparel retailer. It operates kiosks where you can order merchandise. It has examples in the store, but it doesn't carry a full selection. Kridler describes it almost as a hybrid between a store and a catalogue.

“I'm not sure we really have a good solution yet,” Shriver admits. “But there are lots of people trying different things, and it's something we're all watching and are interested in.”

Refining the mix

The final trend the panel identified is the continued evolution of lifestyle and mixed-use centers in suburban settings.

Ever since Easton Town Center outside Columbus, Ohio came on the scene, other designers have tried to learn from and emulate the project. As it has expanded, it has continued to set a tone. Most recently, the project has become host to non-retail uses.

The prototypical suburban mixed-use center is a retail-driven, open-air town square, combining upscale shops with residential and office space, green and water features, and leisure-time venues like restaurants and movie theatres a situation, says Kridler, where you can live, work and play, all in one place.

With complex programs that address everything from the particulars of how stores restock merchandise to issues of landscape design and urbanization, these centers represent an unprecedented opportunity for client/architect collaboration. Even as dozens have already been built, architects believe they are still at the beginning of the learning curve in figuring out what works and what does not.

The irony, of course, is that these suburban mixed-use centers are effectively “instant” downtowns. Their popularity is driven by the identical impulses underlying the revitalization of urban cores: not only a distaste for long commutes and the desire for amenity-rich, walkable streets shared by college graduates and empty-nesters, but a longing for a sense of place.

“You can travel across the country, and find suburban developments that have no feeling of community — there's no Main Street,” Shriver says. “People have a real desire for it, and what engenders that is a physical environment where you can get together.”

And just as architects are working to re-knit retail into the urban core in ways that will stimulate growth, they face a similar mandate in the lifestyle center — but from the ground up.

To those venturing into the arena for the first time, the requirements can be daunting. “They tend to feature retail on the ground floor, and residential and/or offices above,” says Gunning, whose firm has created a number of such projects. Often, architects have to create a new street grid in designs that hearken back to traditional town planning schemes. Unlike shopping centers of old, as well, street parking is often a part of the mix (in addition to structured parking that is often concealed so as to not break up the aesthetic of the center).

From a retail standpoint, the properties also turn conventions on their heads. “They incorporate ideas about anchoring with larger, stronger tenants — to have enough critical mass, there would have to be maybe a minimum of 250,000 square feet of retail,” Gunning suggests, though projects can be much larger. But whether a mixed-use center is anchored by a major chain hotel or department store, or a natural-foods grocery or art-house cinema, the task, Shriver believes, is to use retail as a facilitator of community. “A lot has been written about people going back to church to get a sense of belonging,” he says. “And I think of retail as the secular version of that.”

Along with addressing design and planning considerations, architects have proven to be important mediators — not only in terms of finding the right interrelationship of uses, but between competing agendas and personalities. “There's a symphony of different elements, all of which have to work together, and it's not all controlled by the same person,” Shriver explains. The result, says Kridler, “is multiple ownerships. One guy will do the housing, another the retail, and then there's community development.” Conducting the players requires the skills of a Toscanini. One of the biggest challenges is putting another use on top of retail, Gunning believes. “Retailers want wide open spaces and not many columns, and they don't want stairs coming down through their stores. So there's a real intense coordination that has to happen between the uses.”

Given that lifestyle centers are typically inserted into an existing suburban fabric, negotiating adjacencies can prove tricky — and as in urban downtowns, architects are particularly adept at troubleshooting problems that might otherwise go unrecognized. “Some of the developers are building what they call town centers, yet they're still turning them inside, and have these huge surface parking lots around them — it's a de facto mall,” McCauley comments.

A different problem arises when a multi-story lifestyle center abuts a district of single-family homes. “Most communities would fight residential units that would put eyes in their backyards,” Gunning admits. “So you have to create some sort of greenbelt that both communities can enjoy, and creates a separation of at least 100 feet.”

These difficulties pale, however, before the aesthetic brain-twister: How to avoid the visual clichés that produce a “Disney-fied” version of reality? “I'm not a fan of the faux downtown,” says McCauley. “And oftentimes it's because they've used cheap materials, and you don't create charm and authenticity in something that's built overnight.” Some projects lack imagination because they lack motivation. “We know our clients are comfortable with ‘Italian Hill Town,’” Shriver says. “So somebody takes an Italian hill town, slaps a few crenellations on it, and calls it a day. Creating original designs while still creating a sense of community is a huge challenge, and I think architects can do a lot better.”

Nonetheless, if there's one area in which the participation — indeed, the imagination — of the architect has been invaluable, it's the elevation of the lifestyle-center aesthetic from the level of glorified mall to something more timeless and enriching. One of the solutions, Gunning suggests, “involves creating a final product that has a sense of serendipity. The variety you find in actual downtowns comes from having multiple owners who build over time. You can't force eclecticism, but you can encourage it with the design guidelines that you write. We like the idea of incorporating both prophesy and memory in these projects — some buildings look forward, others look back. But nothing is a copy, and you achieve the variety that's an essential aspect of an authentic downtown environment.”

As an example, Gunning cites RTKL's in-progress Glory Park in Arlington, Texas, a 100-acre project set between the Texas Rangers and Dallas Cowboys stadiums. The master plan includes a large hotel/condo tower and large-scale condominium structures. “But the rest is a comfortable, small-town walking scale,” he says. “We have one block that's essentially multiple retailers on the ground floor, and residential above it. And we divided that single building into multiple façades, to make it look like different buildings that were put up over time. We tried to use typologies that are reflective of traditional downtown architecture — we have a mercantile building, a civic building, an urban apartment building. But we're not copying so much as borrowing things like proportions, window openings, and roof lines, so it doesn't come off as Disneyesque.”

Interestingly, the most significant facilitator of a successful lifestyle center, Gunning suggests, may well be community input. “Sometimes you have public meetings, where you do visual preferencing with representatives of different groups,” he explains. “You have a better chance of your project reflecting the personality of the community if you ask people what visually represents them.” In the end, creating an architecture that a community can take genuine ownership separates a true town center from a place that has a fountain and a P.F. Chang's, Kridler quips.

Looking forward

Each of the architects has a different vision of the retail landscape five years hence. “There's tremendous segmentation of the market, as a result of which you see the rise of the specialty store — that's a trend that will continue,” Kridler says. “Anyone who makes a good product — but doesn't have their own store — is probably a good potential client.” Such specialization, combined with the desire for walkable communities, he believes, will result in increased numbers of shopping streets.

A decade ago, for example, no one would have thought of University Ave. in Palo Alto, Calif., or Fourth Street in Berkeley as places to shop. Now, McCauley says, they offer a more powerful shopping experience than the regional malls.

As for Gunning, “I could see a lot of consolidation in retail, based on what emerges as the best locations. There are a lot of second-tier retail projects that are becoming increasingly empty as more innovative projects are opening, and the lifestyle centers won't all survive — their circles of influence are too overlapping. So there's going to have to be some rethinking done on these properties.”

Shriver, meanwhile, thinks the cities will continue to be the place to look. “Architects are going to be working with corporations, retailers, developers, and the cities themselves,” he says. “The formats have changed so much since the 1940s, when the downtowns were in their heyday — how do they come back? How do we put a Wal-Mart into an urban core and make it effective without blowing up downtown?” Managing that continued evolution from suburban to urban will be a huge challenge for architects.

The different puzzle pieces do indeed form a picture, one that sends a powerful message: Whether it's Kridler's shopping streets, Gunning's consolidations, or the downtown reintegrations envisioned by Shriver, densification remains the next wave. “Successfully doing that is good for everybody,” Shiver states. “It is sustainable, it's about community, it is good for the cities — and it's good for retail.”

Marc Kristal writes regularly about architecture and design for Dwell, Metropolis, Interior Design, and Elle Décor.

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