Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Getting Big Projects Right: The Seward Park Mixed-Use Development Project

Is it possible to create a seamless connection between big downtown projects and adjacent commercial districts? Can a tenant mix be curated that adequately addresses community concerns while simultaneously allowing a developer to meet his/her investment hurdle? These are just some of the challenges that communities face when a large downtown parcel is poised for redevelopment. Unfortunately it’s easier to get it wrong than to get it right. New development can inadvertently cannibalize existing retail districts. When a big enough project is located in any community, the proximity and convenience of what is offered within the confines of the project boundaries can make it difficult to get visitors to venture into the local community. Moreover, ensuring that an existing area - one that may need some sprucing up anyhow - remains competitive is a huge lift, particularly when existing commercial areas have multiple property and business owners who may not have the financial wherewithal, or the interest, to make the changes necessary to attract new customers.

The Seward Park Mixed-Use Development Project presents just such a challenge. The six+ acres on New York’s Lower East Side has been vacant for nearly 47 years. New development on the site will add 1.65 million square feet of housing, community, retail and commercial space. Because the site is publicly owned, interested developers will not only be competing for the right to develop the property, but will also have to balance community priorities with market realities during the process. This is no easy task in a community that fiercely identifies and defends its small local business owners.
The site of the Seward Park Mixed-Use Development Project

To that end I have collected a few “lessons learned” from other similar projects that have come across my plate in the past few years…

Create meaningful connections between the old and the new. This means taking pains to think about investing in nearby streets and connectors that may not be part of the official development area. Find ways to ensure that there is continuity in public space elements like street lights, benches, bike racks, etc. Consider carrying some of these elements through to the neighborhood so that there is no “us versus them” feeling for the visitor.

Denver Pavilions on 16th Street in
Downtown Denver takes pains
to avoid turning its back on the rest of the retail district
     Make sure that open space connects the project to its surroundings, rather than remains embedded in the middle of the project. If you create a gravitational pull away from edges of the project, the result will be two districts that fail to communicate in any meaningful way. Visitors to the project will probably arrive and have no reason to visit the surrounding community. Warning…there is a natural tension here. The developer will want to pull people into the project but the community will want to make sure the project does not cannibalize local businesses. Managing these objectives and perspectives is always a challenge. One project that I think has done this particularly well is the Denver Pavilions on 16th Street in Downtown Denver. 

The open space in South Side Works,
a large mixed-used development project
on Pittsburgh's South Side is embedded
within the project, giving visitors little reason to
venture into the community.
     Rethink and revisit the typical "mall" tenant mix. Destination mixed-use projects often include a healthy balance of entertainment, restaurants, and retail uses. So what is the ideal mix? Like anything, the answer will differ by project and market. But in most large scale entertainment destinations, 20-50% of gross leasable areas is dedicated to entertainment uses. These include programmable entertainment venues such as ice-skating, live-performance, megaplexes, sports venues, cultural attractions, event facilities, etc that serve to continually renew demand and achieve repeat visitation. Surprisingly retail uses only make up 30-40% of gross leasable area for many of these projects, compared to 60-80% of the average mall.

     Much of this may be easier said than done...but keeping these principles in mind will go a long way towards educating both developer and community on the challenges and possibilities that come with these big projects. 

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