Two Thoughts on Lifestyle Centers

Articles in two major papers over the weekend--the Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe--gave a glimpse at what the mainstream reception is to lifestyle centers.

Within the retail real estate industry it's easy to toss terms around--mixed-use, lifestyle, power center--and just assume that everyone knows what you're talking about. It has become commonly accepted that customers love lifestyle centers and mixed-use properties and are eschewing older, more traditional retail settings like regional malls. As a result, developers are racing to build more of these kinds of projects.

But it's interesting to take a step back and read what people outside of the industry have to say about these developments.

On one hand, the Times' piece, an editorial written by The Atlantic's Virginia Postrel, raves about the CityWalk project in Los Angeles.

In fact, CityWalk says far more about the state of shopping centers than it does about the state of cities. Over the last decade and a half, the once-monolithic mall has become more diversified, more aesthetically appealing and more porous. Outdoor "lifestyle centers," often without department stores, are reinventing the city street, while traditional malls revamp to provide more entertainment, more restaurants, more appealing public spaces and more reasons to linger. After five decades of experiment and evolution, the American shopping center is finally beginning to fulfill its inventor's dream: to re-create the human-scale European city "filled, morning and evening, day and night, weekdays and Sundays, with urban dynamism."

You can't get more glowing than that. The piece goes on to trace a bit of the history and evolution of shopping center design and concludes things have taken a turn for the better.

But you can't please everybody. The other article, a news piece in the Globe wrestles with the question of whether new open-air projects, meant to ape small town Main Streets, are actually a threat to traditional downtown shopping districts.

"It has been really tough," said Richard McManus, former president of the Hingham Business Association, which represents downtown businesses. "Here it was a double whammy." McManus said downtown is drawing more service businesses now, as opposed to retailers. Restaurants are particularly strong downtown, he said.

In Reading, downtown merchants are eyeing warily what was originally planned to be a 400,000-square-foot lifestyle center about a 1 1/2 miles from downtown. Opposition from residents and officials earlier this year prompted W/S Development to withdraw the plans and rethink the project, which is likely to include other uses besides retailers, according to company officials.

So even in trying to deliver what people want, developers face criticism and opposition. That said, it still seems worthwhile to fight and get these projects built as they are creating vital retail environments that connect well with their surrounding environs.

What are your thoughts?

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