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An architect’s take on building experiences


Store closings are commonplace. Online shopping options grow. From time immemorial, stores were built with brick-and-mortar. Better materials for today would be innovation and experiences.

We in the field of store design are seeing some promising signs that an evolution is underway.

While the majority of these innovative steps are taking place in town centers and other hybrid and mixed-use developments, enclosed malls stand to benefit from these strategies as well. If the underlying demographics are still strong for struggling retail spaces, there are a number of techniques mall owners and operators can employ to step up their games.

Get local

A shopping center’s surrounding community is invaluable. The cure for a center owner’s woes could lie somewhere within a five-mile radius. Large common areas can be created or transformed to host farmers’ markets or pop-up shops for local crafters, designers, or musicians. Millennials are charged about giving back to the community and being involved. In the retail environment, they are eager to support local producers, causes, artisans, and growers.

Easton Town Center in Columbus, Ohio, has a store called Celebrate Local that features the products of area artists and vendors. It’s something of a brick-and-mortar Etsy, and it capitalizes on a growing national trend of people eager to celebrate and display local civic pride. The Northstar Café, an eclectic organic eatery at Easton Town Center, is locally owned and offers a menu made from locally sourced ingredients. Northstar has fared so well that it now operates five locations.

Get creative

Think about turning empty stores into assets by offering them ups as gallery and studio spaces for local artists and craftsmen. This can infuse a tired center with a spark of creative energy. Shoppers get a rewarding experience from the peek behind the curtain, while center owners add popular artisans to their paying tenant rosters. To see how effective this can be, look to the Short North Arts District in Columbus, a popular arts-based community destination with a wide range of studios, galleries, and retail and dining options.

Get fit

Empty anchor spaces are often ideal locations for a health and fitness-based concepts like yoga studios, rock climbing retailers, spin classes, and martial arts. New activity-based entertainment concepts are proliferating, with creative golf and bowling concepts, rock climbing, and indoor skydiving. Opportunities to be social and get active are increasingly popular. Brands like lululemon host yoga sessions. Bass Pro Shops and REI offer classes, gear tutorials, and special events.

Get tech

Consider helping to create a tech lab for startups and entrepreneurs. Not only does this provide a community space for people to develop ideas and build businesses, but the mall or surrounding retail area offers a great benefit to the entrepreneurs: people to test their products! A mall in San Francisco opened a similar concept, Bespoke, over a year ago and has seen a significant increase in shoppers with the help of this space. Adding interactive technology — from wayfinding to kids’ play areas — is another way to encourage shoppers and guests to engage with the space and elevate a passive experience into an active one.

Get residents

Millennials, and even many Boomers, are increasingly looking for walkable communities and residential options that deliver a true live, work, and play experience. Arcade Providence in Providence, Rhode Island, (one of America’s oldest malls) transformed a deserted mall space into micro apartments, giving residents direct access to shopping and entertainment. These micro apartments, mostly one-bedroom units that are approximately the size of a hotel room, are an ideal addition to the Arcade. The former indoor shopping mall is now two stories of micro lofts — 48 units — over first floor retail. Situated adjacent to downtown Providence, Arcade Providence offers residents the convenience of living in a walkable downtown environment at an affordable price — a win for the developer as well, as the previously vacant space is well occupied.

Struggling malls in still-vibrant residential areas need to re-think and re-market their square footage. Ultimately, they need to give people a compelling reason to get off the couch and visit — and these days it takes more than a food court pretzel or a generic sweater to make that happen.

Jessica Neal is a project manager at M+A Architects, a Columbus, Ohio-based architecture firm. You can reach her at [email protected].
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