Mixed-Use Facilities: Then vs. Now

Feb. 7, 2006
Cities across the country are experiencing the renaissance of mixed-use facilities

The concept of mixed-use facilities is becoming its own “back to the future,” as Suman Sorg, president at Washington, D.C.-based Sorg and Associates, puts it. “We used to live in cities that just naturally had mixed-use facilities,” she says. Buildings were constructed based upon the fact that people lived above stores and businesses. But as time marched on, mixed-use facilities became less popular and the residential sector spread out. Now, it’s a return to the past, and mixed-use is coming back. Big cities across the country are experiencing this renaissance: People again want to live and work in the same place, and want to be located in vibrant retail/entertainment areas.

A growing movement in the mixed-use arena is residential over retail. “This wasn’t a popular idea in the recent past,” says Sorg. “People thought that retail would be noisy, there would be a lot of cars, there would be fumes and smells - they didn’t want to live above all of that.” Today, mixed-use facilities can be designed and built in a way so that retail and residential can peacefully coexist, and many of these disturbances can be minimized if they’re kept in mind during the design and planning stages. “Not having glaring signage and lighting from the retail establishments interfering with apartments ... and working to keep privacy for the residents is important,” says Sorg. Mixed-use facilities designed with an all-business feel won’t necessarily make for a warm and relaxing residential atmosphere.

Another key factor in mixed-use involves security: Separation of circulation is vital. Dividing parking areas, elevators and elevator lobbies, and other areas that both residents and visitors use ensures that residents feel comfortable and safe, and that entrances to retail/entertainment venues are easy to get to (and easily distinguishable from living quarters).

Building systems (HVAC, electrical, plumbing, etc.) must be designed to accommodate a variety of loads and uses. In the case of residential over retail, “the vertical cores just go straight up through the retail to the first level of residential and on up. Then we thread in all the mechanical systems, making them stack and work for a potential retail occupant below the residents,” says Sorg.

As the case has been with mixed-use facilities for many years, it’s typical that these buildings start out fairly simple since each tenant typically requires different design criteria. “We tend to design generic retail space; most of the retailers have their own ideas about what they want inside,” says Sorg.

Achieving a successful mixed-use facility can take place with new construction or renovation of an existing facility, but Sorg points out that it’s “a little bit easier in new buildings.” In some cases, developers are turning unoccupied sites into new mixed-use facilities; in others, they’re modernizing existing buildings previously used for office space (or other uses) into a single structure that accommodates multiple types of operations. It’s these projects that are drawing an interest, even though repurposing unoccupied space has its own set of challenges. Changing offices into multi-family residences can be difficult, especially considering that many of the “deep” interior spaces don’t receive much daylight or feature much of a view. It can also be daunting to deal with existing infrastructure when it comes to ensuring that mechanical equipment and communications systems can handle increased loads and will be able to accommodate improvements and advances in the future.

Mixed-use facilities are not only gaining in popularity in U.S. downtowns, but other building types are embracing the format as well. Trends on college campuses and in hospitality facilities, office complexes, and shopping centers are focused on a mixed-use format. Indianapolis-based Simon Property Group is taking up mixed-use arrangements to rework its existing retail properties and squeeze out more revenue - it’s a common-sense approach for recycling abandoned department-store space and using pads and outparcels. Hotels around the nation are creating mixed-use facilities (offering restaurants, spas, timeshare properties, and golf courses, etc.) to cope with the seasonal ups and downs of the industry and reduce dependence on the hotel business. As the student population becomes more demanding, the customary boundaries between academic and nonacademic buildings are merging. Student services (computer rooms, student lounges, coffee shops) are being dispersed throughout campus buildings. And, office buildings are offering more than just workspace. Restaurants, yoga studios, dry cleaners, hair salons, and others are popping up in office facilities to offer employees more services under one roof.

“As cities and downtowns become good places to live, other things will improve as well,” says Sorg of the long-term impact this trend will have. “Things like transportation, better schools ... cities will become very desirable places in which to live.”

Leah B. Garris ([email protected]) is associate editor at Buildings magazine.

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