December 15, 2005

Making today's mixed-use projects work

  • A focus on urban living is driving changes in office, multifamily and retail projects.

    Image by E.V.Radvenis
    Washington Square, designed by CollinsWoerman for Wasatch Development Associates, is a 473,000-square-foot mixed-use project slated for downtown Bellevue.

    Developers rely on the architectural community to stay up to date on the latest design trends. Architects blend national and international trends with local personality to create projects that enhance their communities and maximize values for their owners.

    In response to demands for greater density, and a renewed interest in the urban lifestyle, developers today are focusing more and more on mixed-use developments. While each project is shaped by a specific set of goals, today's trends lean toward a combination of uses and the inclusion of amenities and services.

    Let's look at mixed-use design trends for three product types: office, multi-family and retail.


    Technology and progress have pushed office design to new levels of sophistication. Architects have changed their approach to traditional office design to more directly address the needs of the office user and accommodate the way business is conducted today.

    Modern office design focuses less on traditional formalities. A single-use office tower with a "throw-back" lobby consisting of marble floors, a security desk and elevator bank is no longer attractive to today's user. These concepts from the past do little to support today's demands for employee efficiency, recruiting or retention.

    Interior office design also reflects a shift in how employees work today. The business world has become a 24-7 environment. Employees stay at the office longer and make themselves more available through cell phone and computer technology.

    Because of this, potential tenants now look for the building to host a range of amenities that make it easy for employees to manage their every day demands without having to leave the building. Coffee and sundry shops, restaurants, clothing retailers, dry cleaning, banking and postal facilities are all services the average office worker could use.

    In addition to retail, successful office developments contain common areas that foster group interaction, communication and productivity. These common spaces act as an extension of the work space, allowing employees to hold informal meetings after picking up coffee, work over lunch, take time away from their desks, or step outside for an afternoon meeting in the sun.


    Today's buyers expect their homes to not just be well designed, but also to be an iconic address, something that distinguishes it from others and has an identity among the greater community. Developers have learned that one way to achieve this is to incorporate retail that has the power to draw the public. This is most frequently achieved with the addition of a restaurant or specialty retailer at the street level.

    Inside these urban residences, there is a continual shift toward quality and availability of services. Prospective residents are increasingly willing to buy smaller units with higher quality finishes than previously was the norm. Movie theaters, game rooms, flexible, convertible space and private gardens are fast becoming standard.

    The next level of available amenities comes with the growing popularity of the mixed-use residence hotel. These buildings offer an exclusive address, private residences with panoramic views and access to an array of hotel services. These could include valet parking, laundry and maid services, and restaurant and catering services. Massage and spa treatments, turn-down services and dog walking may also be offered.

    Retail centers

    No use determines the quality of life on our street levels more than retail. Well designed retail projects become community gathering places, attracting the public and encouraging them to stay longer, while supporting the requirements of the resident neighborhood.

    Developers rely on designers to create great spaces that transform their projects from being merely a shopping place to being a destination.

    The public face of retail is also changing. Centers are becoming the hub of the neighborhood, containing not only retail stores, but also dining, recreation, health-minded services and entertainment. This mix encourages people to stay longer because they have access to a variety of services and amenities without having to get in the car to change locations.

    Pedestrian-friendly exterior spaces with landscaping, artwork, public features and even planned activities are designed to be inviting and create a positive energy and sense of place. These spaces strive to be memorable and encourage visitors to not only extend their stay, but also become return customers.

    Storefronts that encourage window shopping and easy access to the interior create an urban feel and enhance the pedestrian experience.

    In large developments, one might also see the addition of office and residential space to broaden the retail program. The available services and amenities are attractive to tenants and residents that desire a 24-7 lifestyle, while providing the retail stores with a built-in customer base.

    No matter the combination of uses — office, residential, retail, hospitality, etc. — it is clear that the trend toward mixed-use is proving to be positive from an investment, neighborhood and community point of view.

    Mark Woerman is a principal with CollinsWoerman, an architectural, planning and interior design firm based in Seattle.

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