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August 25, 2022

How to create a compelling destination

  • In the last 20 years, there have been new efforts at turning shopping malls into mixed-use environments.


    Development patterns in the U.S. are changing. According to the Census Bureau’s Annual Retail Trade Survey, from 2019 to 2020, online sales increased by $244 billion. Our shopping centers and malls are going through a significant transformation. While the number of stores is decreasing, the remaining stores are reinventing. As a result, the shopping experience is less transactional and more experiential.

    Space once occupied by a single mall is being reevaluated with an eye toward various uses, including residential, office, hotel, etc. Of course, there is no one right way to create a compelling destination or a place where people want to live, work, and play. But we do know the importance of parks, green spaces, and open areas, whether it’s a great lawn, playground, garden, town square, or biking trail.

    Images courtesy of MG2 [enlarge]
    The green space with its F&B Pavilion will anchor the new mixed-use community at Crossroads in Bellevue.

    Not only are they essential for mental and physical health, but they provide opportunities for social interaction and for building community. For developments, curated parks are a destination and can serve as an entertainment venue that draws crowds day in and day out. Curated parks can become the heart of a dynamic mixed-use community, encouraging activity, fostering connection, and promoting a healthy lifestyle.

    It is not widely known that architect Victor Gruen, the father of the shopping mall, did not set out to create a monolithic entity. In the early 1950s, he designed Southdale Center in Edina, Minnesota, modeled after the European arcades he knew as a child in Vienna.

    “Gruen’s design for Southdale would become the single most influential new building archetype of the postwar era,” says Steven Johnson, the author of Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World. “But there is a tragic irony behind his success. The mall was only a small part of Gruen’s design for Southdale. His real vision was for a dense, mixed-use, pedestrian-based urban center with residential apartments, schools, medical centers, outdoor parks, and office buildings.”

    Green space abounds and surrounds the new multifamily residences at Crossroads. The F&B Pavilion can be seen in the background.

    Instead of a vibrant, urban community, Southdale and its successors propelled suburban sprawl. But in the last 20-plus years, there have been new efforts at turning shopping malls — frequently accompanied by large swaths of land, often in the form of expansive parking lots — into mixed-use environments. In some instances, entire malls are coming down, making way for brand new ground-up, mixed-use districts. In other cases, land used for parking is being turned into multifamily residential units, office buildings, health care clinics, and hotels to create a 15-minute lifestyle.

    Recently, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo and professor Carlos Moreno of Sorbonne University have brought the “15-minute city” to the public’s attention. It’s a simple and compelling concept: people live, work and play, go to school, exercise, shop for groceries, etc., all within a 15-minute walk or bicycle ride. During COVID, the 15-minute city captured the imagination of people everywhere, the perfect foil to those early pandemic days when everyone was forced to stay inside and isolate.

    We can take the 15-minute, multi-modal, mixed-use model to the next level with two words: Healthy Communities. They’re not a new idea. In 2013, the Urban Land Institute released the report, Ten Principles for Building Healthy Places. It begins: “Put people first.”

    Healthy Communities are not simply urban spaces with a mix of uses. Putting people first means accounting for multiple needs. For example, how do residential, office, and retail buildings connect? Putting people first instead of the vehicles that carry them means we are considering how pedestrians will use the public realm. How far are they willing to walk between destinations? What amenities are needed along the way for people to feel safe and invited? And how can we insert green space — from pocket parks to robust open spaces — into the environment? Putting people first means offering people choices, providing them with spaces where they feel comfortable pausing, spaces that invite interaction and encourage socialization.

    To create Healthy Communities, MG2 has expanded on the traditional live-work-play model, adding the more intangibles of “nourish,” “learn” and “move.” The plans for Crossroads, in Bellevue, is one example. At Crossroads, we intentionally knit residential, retail, and green space into the fabric of the community and improved connections to transit and community hubs for a pedestrian experience throughout and beyond the property.

    One of the key aspects of Crossroads, in addition to a multifamily residential complex, will be the 15,000 square feet of green space — open to the public — with a freestanding food and beverage pavilion meant to anchor and draw in the neighborhood. Along with an expansive lawn, there will be outdoor seating, picnic tables, barbecue grills, fire pits, and a music stage. The park will be programmed and activated throughout the year and connect the residents to the shopping center and a nearby public park with trails for walkers, runners, and cyclists.

    The park, with a sculptural play space, water feature, open lawn, and small cafes, is key to the Washington Square community.

    Another example is Washington Square in Tigard, Oregon, just outside Portland, where a mix of new offerings is replacing closing anchor stores. These additions are not only reinvigorating the mall but also introducing new ways to connect as a community. The mix of uses includes a hotel and co-working space alongside future multifamily residences with various food and beverage offerings and entertainment venues.

    But the glue that holds it all together is park space. At Washington Square, careful consideration was given to how people make their way through the property. What will draw people to the area? What will encourage them to linger? What will drive them to return? In this case, that includes a sculptural play area, water feature, and flexible open lawn space with small cafes along the perimeter and larger restaurants to act as focal points.

    Both Crossroads and Washington Square have tailored approaches to existing developments and offer a mix of live-work-play, nourish-learn-move. They’re what we need right now: dense, mixed-use, and pedestrian-based, with a focus on outdoor green space. They’re healthy communities: just what Victor Gruen had in mind.

    For 20 years, MG2 Principal Mark Taylor has dedicated his career to building community-centric, mixed-use retail environments that inspire, entice and delight.

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