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Getting the retail right in suburban live-work-play centers

With the continued success of mixed-use infill projects in urban centers across the country, it was perhaps inevitable that the format would start to expand into new environments. Formerly the exclusive territory of urban environments, dense mixed-use developments have even begun cropping up in Midwestern suburbs. While the general concept of these suburban groundbreakers is roughly the same as their more familiar urban forbears, there are some important differences — from economic dynamics, to the retail layouts and concepts that are best suited to a suburban context.

Municipalities are recognizing the value of these projects and are consequently being more aggressive and proactive about taking advantage of available land. The mandate to find the highest and best use of property, so pervasive in the tight confines of downtowns and city centers, is now manifesting itself in response to market demand in select suburbs.

But it isn’t always easy, and there are obstacles that need to be overcome.

First and foremost, the site must work. Zoning is a persistent problem, which is why Arlington Gateway, a mixed-use development in Upper Arlington on the northwest side of Columbus, Ohio, is so ideally positioned. The modest three-acre site is one of the only places in the city previously zoned for a high-rise building. Over 150 ft. tall at its highest point, the project is slated to include 36,000 sq. ft. of retail and restaurant space among 132,000-plus sq. ft. of office space and 218 apartment residences. It will also have a seven-story, 843-space parking garage.

Another common obstacle is the sometimes-instinctive community pushback against high-density projects. With that in mind, pro-development civic leadership is important, perhaps even essential, not only for helping to smooth any ruffled feathers and help solicit public support, but also for helping set up the economic incentives or subsidies (often in the form of tax increment financing, orTIFs) that are needed to help underwrite the cost of the project. In Upper Arlington, where off-site infrastructure improvements extend a full mile south of the project, the numbers simply would not have added up without the support of the city and local school boards to work out a TIF agreement that benefited both the public and private entities, and created the funding necessary for the off-site improvements.

One way to overcome both lukewarm community sentiment and challenging economic hurdles is to maximize the earning power of a project and ensure that it packs a positive financial punch. While retail square footage in projects like Arlington Gateway is relatively modest, the retail component plays an outsized role in creating the kind of places and spaces where residents and guests alike will want to spend time and money. And because the retail ingredient is such an important part of the mix, developers must get it right.

One critical distinction to understand is that just because the overall notion of a dense, vertical mixed-use project might translate to the suburbs, that doesn’t mean that translation is a direct one. Retail leasing strategies often look different, tenant rosters may look different, and even individual urban store concepts need to be adapted to a suburban context. Part of the appeal of introducing mixed use to the suburbs is that it allows people to stay in the communities they already live in without having to move downtown to experience the kind of retail and restaurant options. The retail makeup must facilitate that. The right mix of retailers is likely to be heavy on restaurants and dining options, with a higher-than-usual percentage of neighborhood retail, striking a balance between convenience options and higher-end retailers.

Retailers need to be cognizant of the fact that their standard urban store prototypes may have to be modified somewhat in a dense suburban project. Brands and business may need to be adaptable to different types of HVAC systems, floorplans and configurations, shared service areas, and flexible with respect to parking, which may be somewhat constrained. Those changes are likely to be well worth it, as a captive audience of daytime office and evening residential at night creates a strong built-in market. Retailers are also likely to benefit from established foot traffic moving through the neighborhood. Arguably the biggest difference between urban and suburban high-density mixed-use projects is that the suburban iterations are unequivocally part of a community. Retailers reap the benefits of that community, but they must also be willing to meet the obligations and (modest) limitations that may come with a suburban mixed-use location.

Lori Bongiorno and John Eymann are principals of M+A Architects, a Columbus, Ohio-based architecture firm.
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