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Goodbye Single-Use

Peer over the drawing boards of today's most successful real estate land planners, designers and developers. Listen in on city and township planning board meetings. Follow the scent of a freshly brewed Starbucks coffee and one thing becomes clear, single-use retail environments, whether malls, power centers, lifestyle centers or neighborhood centers will soon be the exception rather than the rule.

This inevitability is perhaps most apparent at the regional mall level, where malls have progressively been replaced by mixed-use town centers. First, we saw the introduction of leisure time uses like cinemas, restaurants and comedy clubs into the retail mix, excellent examples being Horton Plaza in San Diego, Calif., Irvine Spectrum in Irvine, Calif., and CocoWalk in Coconut Grove, Fla.

The integration of these uses was turned up a notch, based on both human and commercial logic, and we saw new open air layouts that embodied traditional urban patterns, such as The Grove in Los Angeles and Easton Town Center in Columbus, Ohio. Next, office space and residential units appeared above the retail, just as they had generations ago in downtowns across America. Examples include Zona Rosa in Kansas City, Mo, and The Greene in Dayton, Ohio. Today, this is clearly the pattern: the traditional regional mall is being replaced by mixed-use urban patterned open-air town centers.

Furthermore, this trend is already apparent in another category: the lifestyle center. Projects like Bel-Mar in Denver and Santana Row in San Jose, Calif, illustrate how well lifestyle and specialty retail can work in harmony and synergy with leisure time uses, all brought together under the open-air “roof” of a mixed-use, urban-patterned neighborhood center.

It's not over until it's over

Look next for the grocery store anchored neighborhood center to adopt these development principles. We believe many communities will start viewing these retail environments as a way to create mixed-use village centers. In “stay by home” fashion, these village centers will incorporate restaurants, apartments and offices in a village square setting that can function as the urban hub of the neighborhood. Although the idea is not original, there are presently very few such applications around the country, Mashpee Commons in Cape Cod, Mass., being one. This is mostly due to the rigidity of the grocery store tenant standards.

Late to the dance

The one category that will be late to the “dance” in this mixed-use approach will be the power center. The challenge in large part is one of scale; the physical configuration and sheer size of the stores. There is a reason they acquired the label “big box.”

However, we can see forward-thinking large tenants such as Target and many of the smaller chains such as DSW, Old Navy or World Market finding ways to fit into sub-regional urban hubs, staying convenient to the housetops that they so desperately covet.

At the same time their irreducible brethren such as Home Depot, Wal-Mart and Costco will move into more industrial neighborhoods, acting mostly as distribution warehouses.

The urban imperative resurfaces.

In all cases, this is simply the recreation of the traditional hierarchy of urban hubs, as they existed in older large cities. Unfortunately, in the rush of building America during the postwar boom across a backdrop of exclusive use zoning, we abandoned forms that had served us well in the past.

We did not take the time to create these mixed-use suburban, neighborhood or village hubs, which would have served admirably as satellite hubs to the original downtowns of these growing cities.

The present trends are simply societal and market forces correcting the urban planning omissions of the 50-year period following the end of the World War II.

Whether the commercial logic of single-use retail lost its way, or it was the maturation of consumerism, or the quest for a more enriching life, the pendulum is swinging back; the centrifugal force of stand-alone retail has played itself out.

As a result, we believe every retail hub, whatever its scale, will be a candidate for reinvention and densification, sooner rather than later. The developments of single-use retail environments as we know them today will be a thing of the past.

CEO of Steiner + Associates.

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