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Retail Development Trends in a Changing Economy

May 24, 2010

Retail owners who are succeeding right now are incorporating groundbreaking design approaches and planning strategies

The U.S. economy moving in the right direction is good news for retail developers and owners, as dried-up capital and the inability to attract new tenants have brought months of stagnation.

The retail developers and owners who are succeeding during this changing economic climate are doing so by being creative and sensible, particularly in how they’re incorporating groundbreaking design approaches and unique planning strategies. A number of current and emerging trends are being implemented in an effort to make retail projects more successful, enticing to tenants, and appealing to the community in which they’re sited.

Trend No. 1: Utilizing Green Elements
Many retail developers are learning that green-driven elements are not only beneficial to the environment, but also to the bottom line. Such design elements are particularly popular during the planning and construction of surface parking lots.

Using large detention basins, which consist of an impoundment or excavated basin for the short-term detention of stormwater runoff, allows for the controlled release of contained water, and deals with the issue of pollutants and sediments being released into local water supplies.

In denser urban areas, where large detention basins aren’t an option, porous pavement, rain gardens, and bioswales are being implemented. With porous pavement, rainwater passes through the pavement into an underground reservoir of stone that helps filter the oil, grease, and sediments that frequently accumulate in parking lots. Rain gardens feature specially engineered soils and plants to collect runoff, and lower the nitrogen and phosphorus levels in the rainwater. As with porous pavements, the water is collected in an underground stone reservoir prior to discharge into the municipality’s system.

Bioswales are vegetated stormwater collection areas strategically placed around a surface parking lot. Water captured in the bioswale is slowly treated to increase the quality of stormwater runoff while simultaneously reducing the amount being discharged into a sewer system.

Retail developers and owners are also reconsidering the materials traditionally used during the construction of a surface parking lot; such changes can reduce the impacts of the urban heat island effect. This phenomenon can lead to higher energy costs for adjacent buildings, but has also been shown to significantly increase the temperature of stormwater being discharged into lakes and streams. The urban heat island effect can be neutralized with light-colored concrete (which reflects heat rather than absorbs it), as well as with trees and various canopies to provide shade.

Trend No. 2: A ‘Main Street’ Approach
The days of the strip-mall retail center appear to be numbered – more retail developers and owners are in favor of a Main Street aesthetic. Storefronts now have the appearance of freestanding buildings, each with its own unique style and attractive facade. The structures are meant to stand apart and promote a sense of destination, like a typical town center.

While storefronts with their own style and facade might sound like more maintenance work, they don’t have to be. In many cases, specific maintenance-free materials (such as masonry, precast stone, and fiber cement siding) are used to provide a different look, but make upkeep and replacement easy for facilities managers.

Another trend that goes along with the Main Street aesthetic is to place the bulk of the parking that serves the center behind the buildings and pedestrian walkways serving Main Street. This way, the focus is on the structures, the pedestrian spaces, and the shopping experience instead of the parking. In some situations, there really is no "back" of the building; the buildings are surrounded by walkways and parking.

All in all, the Main Street approach caters to the idea of a neighborhood. When completed, Main Street shopping centers are designed to look like they’ve always been in place, serving and complementing the community in which they’re located.

Main Street at Exton, located in Exton, PA, is a pioneering development that embraces this type of design. The 300,000-square-foot retail center is made up of 13 retail buildings, each boasting its own look. It houses a number of major tenants (including Barnes & Noble, Bed Bath & Beyond, Old Navy, and Pier 1 Imports) and provides some parking along its Main Street, with the bulk of the parking located behind the retail buildings. Thanks to this set-up, the center fosters pedestrian and vehicular traffic all throughout the complex.

With the creation of Main Street at Exton, a downtown area was formed where none previously existed. The retail center has been adopted by local residents as the community’s new downtown area.

The success of Main Street at Exton and similarly designed retail centers has inspired many developers and owners to recreate this approach in other communities. Main Street-style centers eschew the design elements that cater to "car culture and cookie-cutter commerce," as one designer so eloquently put it.

Trend No. 3: Blending, Not Leveling
Another important trend in retail development right now is the incorporation of existing architectural elements into new developments. Developers are looking to blend – not level – because this exhibits a greater sensitivity to a community and its structures. This approach is particularly attractive in well-established communities (where local landmarks are more likely to exist). It can also be a more cost-effective option in today’s economy, working with what’s already there vs. tearing it down.

A good example of this approach can be found at the Shops at Riverwood in Hyde Park, MA. This retail center, which is currently in development, is located on the site of a paper plant that was originally chartered by the King of England in 1728. It’s considered America’s oldest paper mill.

As part of the collaboration with the Boston Redevelopment Authority, there was an upfront commitment to collaborate with the Boston Historical Society and the Preservation Alliance to preserve history by incorporating the paper mill’s powerhouse and 165-foot-high smokestack into the development’s design. The powerhouse and smokestack are made of brick masonry; they needed some repair and re-pointing, but will now last for another 100 years after those simple updates.

Incorporating these elements captures the nostalgia of the old mill and pays homage to those who worked there. At the same time, the powerhouse and smokestack provide an attractive architectural focal point for the shopping center. These design elements will assure that the shopping center stands out as a community landmark for years to come.

These elements also make the retail center easily identifiable and describable. Tenants have well-known landmarks to refer to when trying to explain the location of their shops; the elements can also be used as a way for community members to find and identify the Shops at Riverwood vs. other retail centers in the area.

Finally, this approach assures that the retail center will immediately fit into the Hyde Park community and be accepted as an integral part of the neighborhood. Even though the paper mill stood derelict for years, the structure is now poised to become a recognizable fixture in the community. Residents viewed the mill as an important part of their neighborhood; including portions of it into the overall design confirms that the new center will be viewed in the same manner. This preservation also helps the retail center’s reputation. Community members view the retail center as a good addition to the neighborhood, especially since it helped save and resurrect an old building that was an eyesore before.

Trend No. 4: Getting the Community on Board
Working hand-in-hand with members of the neighborhood throughout all phases of a project is a key trend today. Retail developers and owners are learning that it’s not solely about design and planning solutions, but also about community solutions.

One emerging way to accomplish this is to include community space in the retail center, which helps dispel the idea of a retail center being "just another big mall." Community space can be used as youth and senior activity centers, a rentable auditorium for local performances, a social services hub, or a computer lab.

Such space can help the community satisfy needs that have gone unmet; it will also ensure that the retail center is accepted as an integral part of the neighborhood. In the case of the Shops at Riverwood, the community needed a meeting place to hold neighborhood gatherings. Space that wasn’t desirable for retail tenants was used for this purpose – it served the community without detracting from the leasable spaces.

Another plus: The space is being used during off-peak hours at the center, so it provides life in the building during times when there may not be much going on otherwise. More pedestrian movement and activity equates to a bigger sense of security for tenants.

Engaging members of the community can also provide creative ideas that can be implemented into the project plans. For example, with the Shops at Riverwood, the name of the center was voted on by community members. The community also recommended that the team incorporate views of the river; the project team positioned the building to take advantage of those views. Community members also asked that smaller spaces within the center be made available to the local retail community so existing businesses could easily integrate.

Far-Reaching Results
This focus on creativity and sensibility has far-reaching consequences for retail developments and the communities in which they’re located. These trends are contributing significantly to the success of retail centers by making them more attractive to tenants and shoppers.  

Tom Scott is a principal with Waltham, MA-based Peterson-Griffin Architects (www.pga-architects.com).

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