Landscaping And The Retail Center Experience

by Scott Reid

How landscaping can add to creating an experience for shoppers, who are seeking places to spend time as much as they are money.

Late last year, online retailers Google and Amazon unveiled plans for same-day delivery of goods purchased from their websites. Modern convenience has advanced to the point where consumers need only to press a button and purchases will be delivered to their doorstep within a few short hours. These advances have not prevented shoppers from getting out and patronizing brick-and-mortar stores but they have contributed to adjusted expectations from the shopping public. A recent Neilsen survey indicates that shoppers are seeking convenience coupled with an enriching experience when considering where to spend their money.  No longer satisfied with trekking to a destination shopping center to conduct their retail needs, people are increasing looking for local, neighborhood-scale options, places where one can stroll, engage in a community activity, or simply to be an observer of the world around them.

Currently over 80 percent of all Americans reside in an urban center, reversing a decades-long trend of population flight to the suburbs.  This new generation of city dwellers are returning for the great public spaces, walkability, diverse people, and activities. They are looking for convenience as well, choosing mixed-use communities found in urban centers, closer to shops, restaurants, and the office. Developers and investors responding to these trends have created retail centers and mixed-use developments that have become some of the best economic performers of recent years. Whereas traditional shopping centers, and even more modern “lifestyle” and entertainment-focused venues, are struggling to attract shoppers and spending, several that are doing well have focused on integrating the built and natural environments through the creation of robust “landscape infrastructure.”

City Creek’s Walkable, Landscape-Infrastructure Spine

Landscape infrastructure goes beyond simple planting plans to create a more holistically integrated and naturalized environment by looking at a development as a whole — from the layout of streets, sidewalks, plazas, and buildings to outdoor City Creek Center Tom Fox 0580 webCity Creek Center, a 20-acre pedestrian retail experience woven into the fabric of downtown Salt Lake City, is the redevelopment of two shopping centers that were traditional malls.natural features and amenities that are iconic and in tune with cultural, social, and environmental uniqueness.

The result is the creation of pedestrian-oriented urban places where people want to spend time — shopping and otherwise. Retail centers can create a strong sense of place through a vibrant, holistic outdoor experience that genuinely connects with local and regional shoppers. Landscape infrastructure that is technically sophisticated can also save money and natural resources.

One prime example is City Creek Center, a 20-acre pedestrian retail experience woven into the urban fabric of downtown Salt Lake City, Utah. City Creek Center is the redevelopment of two shopping centers cut from the traditional mall design: a cluster of internally focused retail housed within a non-descript enclosure, with minimal effort to address the street and the local context. By contrast, City Creek development firmly places itself within the locality of Salt Lake City by celebrating the natural feature responsible for the original settlement, the creek itself.  Winding its way through the center of the outdoor mall’s two super blocks, a naturalized creek carves out a meandering pedestrian corridor, giving the impression that the urban structure grew up around the original creek. It makes for a pleasant strolling experience, including the ability to window shop amidst a diverse array of internationally known merchants with the soft trickle of the flowing creek as company. The pedestrian corridors all terminate at large public plazas, defined by strong architectural edges. Around the perimeter of the retail center, the city sidewalks are celebrated with large street trees, benches, outdoor cafes, and architectural lighting. This urban center is accessible via a light rail station within the context of the two blocks and five levels of underground parking. City Creek Center is a successful model for retail center development, boasting over 100 stores and restaurants contributing to a 36 percent boost in retail sales figures for the downtown Salt Lake City economy since opening day. Development partners Taubman and the Latter Day Saints Church note it as a beyond-expectations success.

Streetscape, Outdoor Dining Enliven Santana Row

Further west, Santana Row is a 40-acre mixed-use neighborhood incorporating shopping, dining, entertainment, and trendy residences within the existing context of San Jose, California. Previously a relatively sparse, suburban-type development, the project established high standards for densification, resulting in a vibrant urban street life. The design evokes the sensibility of European urban centers, with landscaped parks, plazas, and streetscapes organizing the structure; visitors can stroll, shop, or dine at a sidewalk café under the canopy of mature street trees. Developed and owned by Federal Realty Investment Trust, its public open spaces are programmed with regular activities and events such Santana Row Bill Tatham 2681 epi webThe design of Santana Row in San Jose, California, evokes the sensibility of European urban centers with landscaped parks, plazas and weekly farmers markets and outdoor concerts that add another layer of attraction. The architecture of the district reflects a diversity of styles and details, contributing to a feeling that this development was a natural growth over time.  Santana Row’s iconic outdoor experience has established it as Silicon Valley’s premier shopping district. Having debuted to above-expectations performance in 2002, Santana Row continued that success and at its 10-year anniversary in 2012 was reported to hit $24 million in local sales taxes the prior year, as well as $100 million in food sales and 30,000 average daily visitors.

Houston’s Mixed-Use CityCentre Connected by Central Park

Another renovation of a former mall site, CityCentre is a 37-acre mixed-use development by Midway Companies that is setting a new standard for urban design in the sprawling metropolis of Houston, Texas.  CityCentre goes against the old suburban grain with a pedestrian-friendly street organization and a popular, central public open space that plays host to over 150 events annually. Dense architecture provides a strong edge to the street life, reinforcing the value inherent within urban open space. The diverse blend of retail, dining, and entertainment options coupled with extensive lifestyle amenities make CityCentre one of the city’s most popular neighborhoods for young professionals and empty nesters equally. Winner of the 2012 Development of Distinction Award from the ULI’s Houston District Council, CityCentre has reported average restaurant sales of more than $725 per square foot, and retail sales of $475 per square foot, whereas Houston overall averaged $336 in a recent study.     CityCenter showcases a rich mix of materials and careful detailing to create an inviting and memorable experience, one that local residents treat more like a community space rather than a shopping center.   

China’s Uber-Urban Cities Reclaim Walkable Origins

Looking overseas, landscape infrastructure can help preserve critical open space for established cities undergoing hyper-modernization and development. In the heart of one of Shanghai’s most densely populated districts, Gubei Gold Street Gubei Gold Street Tom Fox 3877 webGubei Gold Street reclaims the public realm by transforming a city street into a vibrant and spacious pedestrian model.reclaims the public realm by transforming a city street into a vibrant and spacious pedestrian corridor, replete with cooling fountains, lush parks, and varied gathering spaces set amidst a bustling mixed-use neighborhood. Ranging between 40 and 80 meters wide, this pedestrian sanctuary extends three city blocks and is flanked on either side by high-rise residential towers. A mix of local and international retailers, cafes and restaurants, art galleries and cultural centers activate the ground level and integrate seamlessly into the promenade experience.  Bucolic scenes from everyday life — neighbors chatting beneath the shade of the street trees and parents tending to their children as they play in the park — coexist with the bustle and energy of the urban retail experience — busy shoppers laden with bags or the constant low din of an outdoor café. Gubei Gold Street has established a new development model that owes its success to a grand landscape gesture
robust enough to compete with Shanghai’s intense urban structure.

In today’s retail environment, landscape is so much more than colorful accent plantings at the front entrance to the mall. No longer subservient to the architecture, landscape infrastructure establishes a clear framework from which to organize the building mass, the urban program, and the connections into the local community. Recent case studies exemplify the value of a vigorous landscape program for future retail developments to offer the types of layered experiences that customers are seeking. 

— Justin Winters is an associate and Rene Bihan is a principal at SWA Group, an international landscape architecture, planning and urban design firm. They are based in the firm’s San Francisco office.

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