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EXPERT ANALYSIS: Mixed-Use Density Yields Urban Excitement

Since the 1950s, suburbia has been enticing people away from cities with the promise of green and uncluttered space. As eager new suburbanites began experiencing their unspoiled lifestyle, they found that they were required to compartmentalize the components of their lives: work, shop, dine and play, In the process, they inadvertently disassembled a wholeness of being that city life offered by providing for all these pursuits as a part of the walkable community to which everyone belonged.

Today, commercial real estate developers have a unique opportunity to do something transformative. Rather than perpetuate the separation mania of the past 50 years by rushing to create retail “lifestyle centers” — which insidiously imitate real cities by constructing faux second-floor offices or residences above stores in what's really just a shopping center — we now have the opportunity to create a healthier society. We can build real mixed-use environments based on high ideals and a sense of social responsibility; to do something profoundly restorative for society by creating holistic mixed-use neighborhoods.

True mixed-use density that creates walkable, multi-level, live-work-play neighborhoods loaded with stimulating and engaging pedestrian-level detail creates “experience,” the core of exciting urban living.

Mixed-use density creates the dynamics of a neighborhood that is constantly in use. It fosters the natural interaction of business people going to work, people recreating, people shopping, people watching other people and people just being themselves. There is magic in mixing different kinds of people in the same place for different reasons.

At Stark Enterprises, our appreciation for the urban experience and mixed-use density emerged over seven years of conceptualizing and executing Crocker Park in Westlake, Ohio. Crocker Park, which is 50 percent residential space, 30 percent shopping and 20 percent office and almost 2 million square feet in total, integrates office use and residential space above a retail streetscape that defines city blocks and is part of a classic grid of streets. This is the kind of street grid, with every component competing and harmonizing, that great cities have developed over time and that generates a collective consciousness of being part of something great.

Walk this way

When a city is not pedestrian centered — when cars on the streets are more important than people on the streets — the blended, urbane environment that excites people is lost. We're so pedestrian-oriented at Crocker Park that we gave serious thought to posting signs that would read “Jaywalking encouraged”.

Great cities such as New York and Boston are built for pedestrians. And the key to creating that pedestrian environment is mixed-use density — vertical integration of residential, office and retail space that drives activity around the clock, seven days a week. It activates the streetscape as the layers of offices, residences and hotels above provide the diverse mix of people who sustain the shops and street life below.

Successful old cities grew up over time. The fabric of their blocks and streets resonate with a sense of familiarity. People feel at ease in this kind of space. To create the urban feel the street spaces must be designed as outdoor rooms — meaning that scale is critical. The faces of buildings across the street from each other should recreate the feeling you might have in a comfortable room. At Stark Enterprises, we think of this as community feng shui.

Great places are sensual, emotional. They have spirit, an essence and a story to tell. To create these places is not without challenges. It requires a commitment to thinking in terms of psychodynamics, the human emotion, conscious or otherwise, that affects behavior and choices.

You can't foster pedestrianism effortlessly: You must discover what works for people, advocate for authenticity, be fearless about eclecticism. The more unusual and mixed an environment, the more inviting, entrancing, intriguing it is, the more livable it is.

In an area full of beautiful homes spread far apart with no main street and no downtown, Crocker Park now supplies Westlake with a sophisticated center, a point of reference, a strengthened identity and an additional source of pride.

Architecture is a natural medium for celebrating details. Close attention to masonry, metal cladding and other high quality materials and to windows, dormers, balustrades and other architectural details makes all the difference in how people feel about a place. Rooflines, mostly neglected in the United States, have great potential for drama and inspiration — like the rooflines in London with all those chimneys, and like the spires of a Gaudi Cathedral.

Everywhere — in signage, in plantings, on banners, in special touches like outdoor hearths and decorative espaliers — we invite beauty through the details at Crocker Park. We infuse art into the context of the place; the point being that buying the overstuffed sofa or the designer purse or the elegant gardening tool is part of the visitor's full experience. Aesthetics have tangible economic value as well as intangible artistic value.

Our retailers are also discovering that bustling streetscapes in the context of mixed-use density greatly enhances impulse shopping as does the revival of the lost art of window shopping that takes place there.

New Urbanism

Mixed-use density is hot. In a market, like many, where most of the rental housing stock and office supply in the suburban metropolitan area is on average more than 30 years old, obsolete and not relevant to today's lifestyle, new state-of-the-art mixed-use density/urban fabric has a competitive advantage. The cultural pendulum has swung back to fuel a demand for a working and living lifestyle that can only be found on “vibrant” city streets. The infrastructure capacity of the suburbs and the essence of what they are cannot possibly satisfy the magnitude of the demand. Crocker Park's ratio of mixed-use upper floors to streetscape retail is only 3-to-1.

As fast as we can finish them, our apartments above retail are pre-leasing with paid deposits, sight unseen, at the highest rents per square foot in the state of Ohio. Our office space in Phase I is 60 percent committed to after only four months of marketing. It's all about the quasi-urban experience we've created and the lack of supply/competition.

This is the great hope for America's true urban centers, like downtown Cleveland. Finally, after 50 years of humiliation and defeat at the hands of suburban sprawl, urban centers can provide something that the suburbs cannot: true mixed-use density in more authentic and compelling ratios of mixed-use (apartments and offices) over retail — ratios of 10-to-1, 15-to-1, 20-to-1 and beyond. This level of density generates even more diversityand volume of population and creates the opportunity for even greater vibrancy and neighborhood dynamics.

Identifying a large enough strategically located development site to put at least 1 million square feet of retail and a corresponding ratio of mixed-use density above it allows us to build new American cities on the original street grids of our beloved hometowns and in many cases, to eliminate the blight of surface parking lots at the same time.

The investment in such developments (well over $1 billion) and their critical mass are large enough to change the image of a city in decline and to positively impact the self-esteem of the 3 million to 4 million residents in the region surrounding that city.

My high school basketball coach exhorted us to not stand there waiting for the ball; “go to where you think the ball is coming.” At Crocker Park we're not simply focusing on foot-candles and numbers of parking spaces. We're changing life in the community. We're innovating instead of preserving the status quo — we're creating the places where people want to be.

Developers have the power to change things that need changing. When we build from scratch we can design for activities, interaction or whatever is needed to strengthen community.

As we design, we hold great power for good — the power to create vibrant places and experiences that immerse us in the excitement of the moment. At Stark Enterprises, making this holistic lifestyle accessible to as many people as possible is our mission.

Robert L. Stark is CEO of Stark Enterprises and developer of Crocker Park, a mixed-use project in Westfield, Ohio.

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