Retailers seek redeveloped public spaces in new shopping environment

  • Aug 10, 2018

This column is featured in Retail Customer Experience magazine.

By Michael Kaiser, Principal, Director of Design

A day does not go by without news of a retail chain closing stores, primarily because of the explosive growth of online shopping. The retail apocalypse, largely driven by digital-savvy millennials, is expected to claim more than 3,800 store closings in 2018, including big-name brands such as Toys R Us, Gap and Walgreens.

But despite the constant drumbeat of doom-and-gloom cast upon the fate of brick-and-mortar retail stores, one bright spot continues to shine on the retail sector:  the growing popularity of turning non-programmable public spaces, such as parks, shopping mall courtyards and unused outdoor space near office buildings, into revenue-generating programmable space.

The monetization factor

In New York, Los Angeles, Dallas, Austin and a host of other cities across the country, more retailers are opening stores in public spaces that are designed to attract those who are seeking a unique experience apart from traditional shopping venues.

Monetizing public spaces for mixed/retail use represents a significant departure from the traditional shopping malls, which typically are not located within walking distance from neighborhoods, include a few anchor stores, smaller retail outlets, a food court packed with chain and locally owned restaurants, and tend to have a lot of unused, non-programmable outdoor space that doesn’t generate revenue.

While some malls are being more inventive, with outdoor restaurant seating, bar/restaurant movie theaters, skating rinks and other attractions, they are struggling to buck the online shopping trend. The sobering reality is that fewer people are visiting the malls these days due to the speed and convenience of online shopping, leaving mall owners to grapple with an escalating number of darkened stores, and to rethink their business strategies on how to stay relevant and, more importantly, profitable.

Where parks, common centers play in

One solution to the problem is for retailers to relocate to parks, town centers, common areas and other public spaces that are being developed for shopping, dining, entertainment, physical activities, and other uses.  These public space projects, typically owned by private entities, allow retailers to create new and innovative ways to entice shoppers back into their brick-and-mortar stores. This not only attracts more shoppers and others to utilize a vacant or under-used public space but also fulfills the need for community in an era known for lessened face-to-face interaction.

Playing an increasingly important role in cities’ development plans, the creation of monetized public spaces has drawn high praise from elected officials like Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings who once commented: “What we’re finding is that parks are the steroids of economic development. When you put them (retail stores) in there, great things start to happen.”

But what does it take to create a successful public space? There are several key elements that can facilitate thriving public space. Those include: food and beverage with ample comfortable outdoor seating in or surrounding the space, lighting, good landscaping with shade-providing trees, and well-defined edges with easy access for pedestrians. The best of these spaces also provide programming and amenities like a children’s and dog park.

A prime example in New York City

New York’s High Line Park serves as a classic example of transforming a non-programmable public space into a programmable and highly active space. The former site of an old railroad spur, the High Line, a 1.45 mile-long elevated park, greenway and rail trail located on Manhattan’s west side, has been dubbed as an “icon of contemporary landscape architecture.”

The High Line is one of the city’s top attractions, with millions of people visiting the site since its opening in 2009. Bryant Park, located in Manhattan’s midtown, is also another popular public space for both residents and tourists, with outdoor exercise classes, game socials, concerts and other activities.

An Award-Winning Approach in Dallas

Another example of monetized space is The Crescent Pavilion, located in the Crescent Development, a 10-acre, postmodern office, hotel and retail destination in Dallas’ Uptown neighborhood.

Winner of an AIA Design Award last year, the pavilion houses Shake Shack, the popular national burger chain restaurant, and is built on what was a leftover corner of the Crescent. The 2,900 square-foot pavilion was designed to sit within and activate an existing grove of stately oak trees. This had the effect of creating a public space that now serves as a mini-park. There are two faces to the building — one faces the park, where the glass pavilion is its most transparent in dissolving the barrier between inside and out. Under the trees, a floating canopy adds shade by day and is illuminated at night, to draw the eye in. The other face of the building is mirror-like and reflects the Crescent’s postmodern architecture, originally designed by Philip Johnson.

The development and use of programmable public spaces is quickly gaining momentum, as millennials continually search for new experiences in everyday life — whether its grocery shopping or meeting friends and family for lunch or dinner at a restaurant. As a result, retailers are increasingly recognizing the value of repurposed public spaces, as perhaps one of only a few proven ways to keep brick-and-mortar shopping alive and well in the digital age.