Kitchens: “We look for an architecture that you can see is not ‘bland or vanilla.’ The community wants to see a fabric that looks like a collection of buildings.” Kitchens: “We look for an architecture that you can see is not ‘bland or vanilla.’ The community wants to see a fabric that looks like a collection of buildings.”

WASHINGTON, DC—The ever increasing pedestrian-dominant city environments are presenting new challenges and opportunities for architects and designers of urban retail spaces, who are essentially designing for a different audience than before, David Kitchens, principal-in-charge of Cooper Carry’s Washington, DC office, and Lauren Perry Ford, associate principal in the firm’s Retail Studio there, tell As people in cities move from driving past urban retail properties at 30 mph to walking past them at a much slower pace, architecture and design is taking into account their changing perspectives and providing a finer-grained approach to the way these properties look and function. We spoke exclusively with Kitchens and Perry Ford about how they are approaching this shift and the challenges and opportunities it presents. What are the greatest challenges for architecture and design in urban retail projects?

Kitchens: First and foremost with most of the projects we’re working on, retail projects are turning into mixed-use, which to me presents three challenges: 1) how to integrate the other uses that are going into these developments—more than likely residential, office or hospitality that needs to be intertwined with or added to existing retail; 2) unwinding the original agreements between landlords and anchor tenants that put together mall developments before we can get started with the planning and design of a new potential development (which has more to do with the real estate); and 3) going through the code issues which were part of the original structure/buildings and how that gets integrated into a new mixed-use project.

Perry Ford: Most of the properties we reposition were built in a time when functionally or culturally we were in a more auto-dominant design phase. In the Washington, DC, market, both the cultural and functional drivers for that stage are either diminished or no longer exist. We have pushed for cultural reasons to move toward a more pedestrian-dominant form, which requires a finer-grained design at the street level to enliven and attract pedestrians vs. someone traveling by in a vehicle at 30 miles per hour. It also affects how the property is laid out, which can be quite different from something that was designed and built in the ’70s or ’80s for a very different time and place. This then necessitates how we effectively entice people to migrate throughout the space.

Kitchens: If you look at the original model diagrams that malls were built around back then, there was basically a ring road and then the mall in the center. We designed a Main Street model at Mizner Park, a town-like district we created in Boca Raton, FL. It is retail dominant at the street level with either office or residential on top within the existing community fabric. We are constantly looking to how these developments get integrated almost seamlessly into a community.

Perry Ford: You not only have to have storefronts open to the street and sidewalks supporting pedestrian movements, but you need the “jewelry” of things, like flowers and plantings and signage at a certain level. There’s a level of intense activity going on, and it’s a different design challenge than designing a large-scale department store façade. You notice a lot more detail when you experience the world on foot—you pay more attention to people watching, the smells of food. It’s these things that make the environment quite special and a draw for a patron or someone passing by. Which elements come into play for these projects that are unique to urban settings?

Kitchens: We work in a lot of environments that are “emerging urban,” so the communities have grown up around them, like Ballston Common Mall in Arlington, VA. It started as an outdoor mall with a parking lot and a putt-putt golf course, and the community has grown up around it. The fabric there has been built over time. When we’re doing work like this, whether it’s a teardown and rebuild or an adaptive reuse, we look for an architecture that you can see is not a “development.” The community wants to see a fabric that looks like a collection of buildings, and that sometimes means several architects will work on a design we entitled; other times it gets divided up among different uses so it looks like a community, town or city would. It speaks to the evolution of retail expectations.

Perry Ford: There was a time when large retail centers, with the same stores and same brand over and over again was the norm. Now, at least in the urban DC market, expectations have changed. People desire a more urban sense of place and expect something that’s more “of the place.” They’re looking for something to drive them from one retail destination to another—not necessarily a formula that might look the same from one place to the next. That’s a piece of the pie, too, but they’re looking for a mix of retailing experiences, everything from restaurant to entertainment to traditional shopping venues creating something that’s of the place and unique, differentiating it from its competitors.

Kitchens: It might be more programmatic, but in a lot of these environments that are urban, or emerging urban, these projects can draw from uses that have developed around them, like an adjacent movie theater or some other component. They can draw from one another, so we look at how we can make those connections. If it’s more suburban than urban—and we will see more of this in the future—as people look for more sustainable or smarter developments in suburbia, we will most likely begin to see ground-up projects that mix that together. In one project we’re working on, we were asked to provide for a public green space of about an acre in size that will be the first play in urbanizing it. We will begin to build a community there that’s walkable and design it in where it doesn’t exist today.

Perry Ford: “You notice a lot more detail when you experience the world on foot—you pay more attention to people watching, the smells of food, and these things make the environment quite special and a draw for a patron or someone passing by.” Perry Ford: “You notice a lot more detail when you experience the world on foot—you pay more attention to people watching, the smells of food, and these things make the environment quite special and a draw for a patron or someone passing by.” When repositioning these projects, what is your approach?

Perry Ford: When you’re repositioning, the first thing you look for—whether it’s urban or suburban—is what is that unique quality of the site? Are there pieces and parts you can play off of that are unique to its place? We had some of that at Ballston Mall, where an urban environment had grown up around a place that had previously been suburban, and we could tie in and play off of it in a symbiotic way. In areas where you have a piece of real estate surrounded by a highway or ring road, as is the case at Landmark Mall, you really have to recreate a sense of place there, which is much more straightforward. You’re looking at how to create something special that hasn’t been created 30 miles down the road in a similar development—something that truly speaks to the community.

Kitchens: In both Landmark and Ballston, they each took totally different directions. In these areas, as in most cities and towns, you’ll find the winners and the losers. The challenged malls can’t quite keep up with the changing demographics; they are seen as tired and old and have lost their appeal. With the Ballston Mall renovation, the number-one concern for Forest City was how could the asset be repositioned to be more appealing? Our answer and solution was to rip as much of the covered mall roof off the top of the building as we could and turn the existing buildings out to the street. At a central vertical arrival point of the mall, the roof was kept in place with a vertical connecting atrium space designed to represent a collection of urban buildings coming together. The result was the formation of an active pattern of movement from the street up to existing entertainment and recreation anchors. The existing mall really resembled the building shoulder to shoulder block patterns of Washington, DC.  Downtown DC has a lot of buildings that capture the perimeter of every block, yet is broken up by smaller internal former service alleys that have been redeveloped into pretty cool, funky spaces. We took that idea with the Ballston common mall space creating an open air three story mews with the existing mall buildings facing out onto the mews. What use to be an enclosed mall becomes a tight cool place to shop and discover—and that’s how we celebrated what had been the mall.

At Landmark, there were two anchor stores—Sears and Macy’s—both were going to remain. The rest of the mall was empty. Our design approach is to demolish the mall structure and build an outdoor mixed-use main street with mixed use buildings of retail and residential. This construct will serve as the beginning of a village. As retail stores begin to buy into the new development, we have a phased infill redevelopment plan for their on-grade parking areas. As these sites become available, there is a connected street pattern which these development blocks will plug into. Landmark then will transform into an Alexandria westend neighborhood, rather than simply a “mall.”

Perry Ford: We were creating a Main Street with an urban feel. There are a host of urban issues that have to be resolved with a drastic repositioning. What else should our readers know about designing for urban retail projects?

Kitchens: Two things we’ve learned from 20 years of doing these type projects. First, we’ve gone from single-use environments to mixed-use environments. Everywhere we work today, most of the zoning is mixed-use unless you go somewhere that’s truly rural. When you go into something like this, it’s to the advantage of all the uses: the real estate value goes up when you mix uses together; they play off each other. There’s more value in having office, hospitality and residential over a retail environment—it’s inclusive, people feel immersed in great gathering places, and retailers love them. Similarly, the value of the uses above the retail goes up because of the retail downstairs.

Perry Ford: They can walk downstairs and have all of their lifestyle needs met through their shopping experiences. There was a time 15 or 20 years ago when the typical family lived in a quite large, suburban household, very much separated from its retail environment. Now, people are looking for and willing to live in much smaller homes and are depending more and more on the retail environment to be their urban, civic living room.

Kitchens: Even though people are walking and moving slower through these urban-type environments, it gives retailers the opportunity to develop their own identity, making it more unique and most likely personable. Design is important, and this lets them have far more freedom, creating a far more active environment.