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Even popular retail malls are reevaluating and refocusing to amplify experiences

July 13, 2022

By Darren Burns

Gateway cities are reimagining their retail centers as buzzing mixed-use communities. Why and how are they doing it?

This article first appeared as “Amplifying experience” in Stantec Design Quarterly, Issue 15.

Prior to the pandemic, the typical mall owner would plan to reexamine and reinvigorate its spaces on a 5-to-10-year cycle to reanimate and reactivate the mall, attract new tenants, increase dwell times, and hit all the key metrics of retail success. Malls that might be struggling because of poor location or tenant mix would look to make changes to increase the quality of their tenants or leases per square foot. The typical mall—an enclosed retail center with anchor tenants surrounded by a donut of surface parking—was judged, redeveloped, and refreshed by its owners from a retail perspective.

In recent years, many malls have taken a hit from the rise of omnichannel retail and the decline of anchor stores. But even malls that rank in the top 10 for North America—highly successful, revenue-generating retail complexes with bustling Apple Stores—are getting a second look from the development industry.

At The Amazing Brentwood, our team transformed a 1950s-era suburban shopping center into a vibrant mixed-use community hub with access to transit. Phase one includes open-air retail, a public plaza, dining, and entertainment, six levels of below-grade parking, and three high-rise towers. (Stantec in association with James K.M. Cheng Architects)

Increasingly valuable land

Why? Location. Location. Location.

 In some parts of North America, particularly in the metro areas of gateway cities such as Boston, Toronto, San Francisco, or Vancouver, the value of the land malls occupy has escalated dramatically. For instance, the price of land in Vancouver’s Lower Mainland has skyrocketed to a point where the land a mall sits on is worth more than the aging asset built on top. Developers are choosing to reposition or augment the value of their mall real estate based on land value.

These properties are increasingly being acquired by developers with aspirations beyond pure retail execution. They want to expand their development focus to include office and multi-family residential. All over North America, investors are balancing the value of the retail asset with the site’s development potential. They’re reevaluating their mix.

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Brentwood brings potentially 6,000 residents in the new towers into the community to boost the mall and surrounding areas.

Maximize density

Developers want to maximize density and increase returns on this expensive real estate. They see that existing malls have a vast number of opportunities and variables they can play with to achieve a project that meets today’s needs. They can leverage additional development on the retail side, around the workplace, or with rental or privately-owned multifamily residential units—in a mixed-use model that suits the local market and microeconomic conditions.

This is happening at dozens of malls across North America. Two great examples are found in the greater Vancouver, British Columbia, area―The Amazing Brentwood in Burnaby and Oakridge Centre in Vancouver. Both malls have high land values, possess large areas of land (roughly 28 acres with surface parking), present themselves similarly to their urban surroundings, and, somewhat surprisingly, find themselves directly adjacent to mass public transit, the SkyTrain system.

Each site offered their clients numerous opportunities for building density, especially through transit-oriented development. Both Brentwood and Oakridge were purchased by developers with great depth of experience in both retail and residential. Likewise, Metrotown, the largest mall in Burnaby at 70-plus acres (where our team is creating a comprehensive 80-year master plan) is a site that current ownership is keen to densify and maximize the opportunities that the land value and city’s community plan presents.

Altogether, this represents a compelling set of business drivers fueling the trend toward transformation of successful malls into complex mixed-use developments.

But even malls that rank in the top 10 for North America—highly successful, revenue-generating retail complexes with bustling Apple Stores—are getting a second look from the development industry.

Deconstructing the experience

Previously characterized by an enclosed, perhaps skylit, mall surrounded by shops and surface parking, a new paradigm is emerging for these properties. By taking a new approach and turning the mall experience inside-out, we can create a public realm experience that greets and animates the exterior urban realm. It interweaves elements of the outdoors—the street, the sidewalk, trees, and the sun—into the retail experience. It also prioritizes activity within the lower floors of new buildings.

The podium base is where the action is—supporting commercial space, office, and entertainment uses alongside retail. Brentwood is characterized by two or three stories of podium mall, below-grade parking for residential and retail elements, and tall towers—a mix of residential and condo residences. Within its podium, Brentwood has movie theaters and an associated gaming venue. The complex offers more food and beverage than a typical high-end fashion mall. On top of the podium, the semi-private roofscape offers outdoor amenities for residents.

Existing mall as challenge

This new vibrancy of this mixed-use development necessitates that owners update the existing mall so that it can stay relevant. Should it be torn down and replaced? Or renovated?

That depends on several factors. If the mall is generating significant revenue and/or its existing lease agreements are complex, it may need to stay operational during construction. But mixed use is not the only solution. Most North American communities are heavily over retailed, and as omnichannel shopping expands, the list on will continue to grow.

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Vancouver’s first mall, the Oakridge Centre, was built in the late 1950s. Over the next decade, Oakridge Centre will double its retail size and welcome new retail, millions of square feet of residential, children’s play areas, and a rooftop park. (Stantec, Gensler, Henriquez Partners Architects)

Transformation and adaptive reuse are taking advantage of an ever-changing landscape. An anchor tenant space for Sears today may be an Amazon last-mile distribution center tomorrow or a new community-based health center.

Better places

There’s clearly a compelling business case to invest in these multifaceted, mixed-use communities for owners and developers. But this approach also gives us an opportunity to create better places with long-term relevance that are more financially resilient than heavily retail-dependent malls of the past. We design these new mixed-use environments with a focus on public amenities and activity, the outdoors, and unique and shared experiences rather than the retail transaction, an event which can happen almost anywhere today.

If we take the long view, these places are about gathering, experiences, dining out—enjoying leisure time in the public realm. Retail, too, is evolving. To stay relevant, retailers must tap into real-time experience. As a bonus, these mixed-use communities feature a robust resident population for the development—potentially 6,000 residents in the towers at Brentwood, for example—and bring new patrons to the mall and its surrounding neighborhood with commerce and activity. When we can modernize and activate our malls to offer experiences that aren’t available online, our projects are more likely to stand the test of time.

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  • Darren Burns

    Darren is an architect, designer, and leader with over 20 years of experience specializing in the commercial sector, particularly in retail, mixed-use, and complex project delivery.

    Contact Darren
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