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5Qs for Dotan Zuckerman about retail’s place in a mixed-use world

The man who curated retail at Hines's Fenton project is now traveling the world and searching out winning retail for Portman.
Al Urbanski
Dotan Zuckerman

When last we spoke to Dotan Zuckerman, he was applying the finishing retail touches to Hines’s big new Fenton Project in North Carolina’s Research Triangle. Mission accomplished, he moved on to head up retail development for Portman, the commercial real estate development company founded by John Portman-- neofuturistic architect of buildings with multi-storied atria that include Detroit’s Renaissance Center and the Embarcadero Center in San Francisco.

With attendance in office buildings suffering from “quiet quitting” post-COVID,  we wanted to ask this artist of activation what we may be seeing on the ground floors of big urban mixed-use centers in the years ahead.

Remote workers have become the vanguard of the white-collar workforce. Gartner Research polled corporate HR directors and learned that 45% of them had cut their in-office attendance requirements to three days or less. How is that going to affect street retail?
Retail had begun defending itself back in 2017 when e-commerce started gaining speed. Then COVID hit and everyone was saying it was the end of physical retail. Slowly but surely, as the pandemic wore on, people started flocking back to stores because they found they couldn’t sit on their sofas and get everything they wanted. All of a sudden, retail revived and, traffic-wise, office became the new retail.

When you take on the retail leasing at a new Portman project like Atlanta’s Spring Quarter, with half a million sq. ft. of office space, how do you begin curating the retail portion?
Whenever we pick up a project, we have a serious merchandising challenge. You want best properties and best uses, but you also have to create value for the office, hotel, and multifamily portions. These days, it’s really specific market-to-market. In Raleigh with Fenton, the food and beverage selections were all focused on local chef-driven concepts. At a Portman project in Charlotte, meanwhile, we’re not focused on James Beard winners. Bartaco will work well there.

What do you look for in specialty retail tenants in today’s mixed-use projects?
I worry about projects developed that are all food. You have to be disciplined and really think about the ratio of retail to restaurant. You try to find that next generation of interesting retailers. You can go to the local market to scout potential tenants, looking for creative concepts or a craftsman that does unique things. That brings a soul back to the shopping centers. But that’s hard to do. It takes a lot of discipline. There’s not a lot of those around.

Retail is a lot more art than science. I travel all over the world and learn about what’s working. In the U.S., Abbott Kinney in L.A. has lot of interesting retailers. And in New York, if you peel off the top layer, you find interesting craftsmen and merchants—Neighborhood Goods, for instance. You always have to skate to where the puck has gone.

Tell us about a couple of the projects you’re working on now with Portman.
One is Spring Quarter in Atlanta. It’s anchored by an historic funeral home, the Patterson Funeral Home. It looks like a big, white Mansion. Every room has its own unique identity. It’s no longer in business, but we’re keeping it in place. We came up with a concept to activate it day and night with restaurants, bars, and event spaces.

And we’re gearing up for a groundbreaking of a building that will have 45,000 sq. ft. of retail that’s between uptown, downtown, in the arts district in Dallas. It’s near the museum and the performing arts center, and we want to give attendees a place to go before and after they go there.

What’s your formula for developing mixed-use projects today?
I think the days of people going to some office park in the middle of nowhere and driving to Applebee’s after work are over. Now you have to be able to retract and have retail in environments where people live and work and give them everything they need downstairs. I’ll quote my old friend Mark Toro. It’s not about the space, it’s about the place.

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