Will the Lifestyle Center Replace Downtown?

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Out on the edge of town, you may notice something that, at first glance, looks a bit like a traditional downtown or neighborhood commercial district. It wasn’t there a few years ago. It might be attached to an enclosed regional mall. Chances are it is surrounded by suburban housing tracts rather than walkable neighborhoods. That thing, of course, is a new retail format most people would call a lifestyle center.
It has been over a decade since the heyday of new enclosed mall construction. That is not to say that enclosed malls have become obsolete. Most continue to be highly effective competitors in the retail marketplace. But by the end of the 1990s, nearly all of the best regional mall locations had been developed. A shrinking number of department store chains were available to anchor new malls, while a predictable assortment of smaller uses filled the remaining spaces. Consumers were growing weary of the increasing homogeneity of the format, and this showed in sales.

Lifestyle centers were the response of developers to the changing retail landscape. At its most basic level, the lifestyle center is smaller than a regional mall and often unanchored by traditional department stores. It caters to the specialty retailers, restaurants, and service chains that continue to add new store locations. The open-air format, design and amenities, and concentration of entertainment uses seek to create a more exciting environment to attract customers. By most industry measures, this format has been a success. Lifestyle shoppers shop more often and spend more than visitors to traditional malls. According to the International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC), the average number of stores shoppers entered was 2.9 at lifestyle centers versus 2.3 at conventional malls. The average retail expenditure per visit was $75.70 at lifestyle centers versus $73.30 at the malls. Lifestyle shoppers made 3.8 visits to their centers in a 30-day period, while mall shoppers paid 3.4 visits to their centers in the same period. These statistics speak volumes about why so many new centers wear the “lifestyle” label.

Learning from Downtown

Developers of lifestyle centers looked to traditional downtowns as an inspiration in creating the new format. Buildings are often made to look like multiple storefronts that have evolved over time. Shops open directly to the sidewalk. Cars have even been introduced into the center with streets and parking. The center will usually have entertainment uses, such as theaters and fitness centers. Residential or office uses may also be incorporated into the mix. There is perhaps some irony involved in the ascendency of the lifestyle format. As downtowns struggled in the 1970s and ’80s, they were often admonished to learn from the mall. Some even took this to an extreme, building downtown malls by enclosing streets or creating pedestrian malls. More often than not, these were spectacular failures. Now as the malls struggle, their owners are looking at downtowns for the answer to their problems, and they may have found it. But do lifestyle centers really succeed in recreating the experience of a true downtown?

Mall operators have an advantage over traditional downtowns in that, as private property, they are able to better regulate many of the issues that present challenges for downtown programs. This starts with location. A lifestyle center, as a new creation, can be located in the best place relative to population and transportation networks. Designed from scratch, it can also create a pattern of uses, circulation, common spaces, and parking that addresses the desires of tenants and customers alike. Ownership allows it to approve or disapprove of potential tenants, determine where they can locate in the center, regulate facades and signs, and establish policies for hours of operation. Tenant fees, paid by all, go toward providing security, maintaining common areas, and promoting the center, without the need for a member-based organization or business improvement district.

All of these advantages might be on the wish list of any downtown manager. It might even seem that lifestyle centers are something of an improved version of downtown, incorporating the best of downtown design and management efficiencies. Of course, downtown advocates would argue differently.

Different Design, Same Shops

While there are some very good examples of lifestyle malls as “new town centers,” the majority fall short in their design, more closely resembling the open air malls that were built until enclosed malls became the norm in the 1960s. Even the best of the centers, though, still miss the mark in a few key areas. Despite their design appeal, lifestyle malls are filled with the same shops selling the same merchandise and the same restaurants with the same food as every other mall in America. Although safe and clean, they may also appear a bit sterile. A close look at the buildings reveals them to be large structures with tacked-on facades, rather than individual structures with their own history. In fact, it is history that is missing from the picture. A true downtown has a patina, a unique feel, a randomness that can’t be duplicated.

Downtowns will not compete by trying to be like lifestyle centers, even though there are lessons to be learned from their design and management practices. Instead, downtowns will succeed based on their ability to differentiate themselves from the homogeneous aspects of these malls. They will build on their history, promote their unique shops and restaurants, incorporate residential and employment uses, provide flexibility in design, and celebrate the quirks, scars, and oddities that have appeared over time. All of these characteristics tell a story that can be compelling, if the district tells it well. These things have an emotional appeal. People will talk of loving their downtown. How many people love the mall?

What can Main Street programs do to help their districts compete? Here are a few tips:

  • Know what role downtown plays in the regional market;
  • Determine the optimal mix of uses;
  • Use the story of downtown to create an emotional bond;
  • Create an urban design pattern based on the desired uses and your story;
  • Build relationships among businesses, property owners, organizations, and customers; and
  • Build ties to strengthen surrounding neighborhoods.