Thursday, September 14, 2017

Mall to Mixed Use

Nur is an associate at Larisa Ortiz Associates

Over the last year we’ve heard story after story report on the closing of large anchor retailers such as Macy’s, Sears, and J.C. Penney and how the trend might result in another wave of regional mall closures. Analysts from across the board are predicting hundreds more shopping malls in the US to shut down as a result of being unable to find enough retailers to replace ones that have gone, leaving millions of square feet of developed but vacant commercial space.

At the same time, we have also seen story after story emerge of mall owners getting innovative and replacing traditional department stores with a slew of entertainment uses and non-conventional tenants such as offices and urgent healthcare clinics.

It is not surprising then that, now more than ever, shopping mall owners are also going to the extreme of complete overhaul of their properties to create mixed-use neighborhoods as another solution to save themselves. The mall-to-mixed use redevelopment movement started more than two decades ago with the conversion of the Boca Mall in Boca Raton, FL into a mixed-use neighborhood consisting of residential homes, office spaces, shops, and restaurants.  We first wrote about this transformative project in 2015, along with another early project Villa Italia in Lakewood, Colorado which was transformed into the neighborhood of Belmar in 2004. Since then, various other shopping mall owners have taken the same leap in redeveloping their properties into mixed-use communities. Today, we take a closer look at two more recent and still underway projects – City Centre, Houston, Texas and Promenade 2035, San Fernando Valley, California. We look at what it really takes to get a giant mall redevelopment to take off.

City Centre, a mixed use urban development with office buildings, multifamily residential homes, brownstones, hotels, restaurants and retail, and conference spaces, sits atop the former Town & Country mall on the edge of metropolitan Houston area. The regional shopping mall which opened in the early 1980s, closed following the departure of anchor department stores J.C.Penney (a story we’ve heard before).

Like any typical mixed-use development, City Centre is centered on a public square and features a grid-like street network and a pedestrian-friendly environment. Financing it, however, was not so typical. The project was developed by Midway, Cos. a real estate investment and development firm, in partnership with several other companies. Midway Cos had to finance the project by function, identifying separate partners for the various components of the project, seeing as capital partners were not comfortable with such a large and risky undertaking.

Financing and structuring such large mixed use developments continues to be difficult. Rules hindering financing such projects “had their genesis during the Great Depression or early post war era, and are based on the obsolete assumption that mixed-use developments are financially riskier than single-purpose residential developments.”, according to a 2016 Regional Planning Association report. However, with shifting demographics and market preferences leaning towards connectivity and walkability amongst both young Millennials and Baby Boomers, single-use projects may in fact become riskier than ones with higher shares of non-residential uses.

Although not yet expansive and popular yet, the Small Balance Loan program (SBL) by Freddie Mac, launched in 2014, may be a new and viable financing tool for mall owners hoping to transform their portfolio into mixed-use communities like CityCentre. The multifamily housing financial program is a “welcome liberalization in long-term financing” and is designed to provide fast approval of loans for projects with “40 percent of their income—or 40 percent of their space—related to commercial uses”. Thus far, the loans are easiest to get in densely populated metropolitan areas, however, the SBL program is growing fast and may, in the future, become an even more useful tool for forward-thinking mall owners.

With Promenade in San Fernando Valley, the challenges facing the redevelopment of a failed shopping mall were slightly different. Local community scrutiny has been a real impediment to the project still scheduled to be completed in 2035. Given that the 43-year old mall had become a huge “drag on the surrounding neighborhoods” over time, as it became a blighted site subject to “intense speculation over its future”, community support for such a radical transformation was not instantaneous and took a lot of grappling. Even retail tenants were blaming the owner for “allowing the mall to deteriorate to a mere shadow of its former self”.

In order to maintain the mixed use redevelopment project’s transparency, the developers, Westfield Corp, launched a website to seek local residents’ vision for and needs from the mixed use redevelopment, and also to better inform locals of site plans and the sustainability and economics of the project.

Next, to ensure that the mixed-use development remains viable thru 2035, the developers have also ensured that the design of commercial spaces are on trend with what’s occurring across the industry. With the market understanding that the way employees and businesses work will continue to evolve, approximately 150,000 SF of office space will be designed as creative workspaces that include a mix of indoor/outdoor office spaces, co-working spaces, traditional office suites, gallery spaces, and about 60,000SF will consist of work/live studios.

Indeed, mixed use mall transformations as described above may bring several advantages to the local community. From diversifying housing types for existing and future residents to built-in residential market demand for retailers and reduced car trips between work and amenities, the mixed use mall transformation could act as a catalyst for further reinvestment and development in the area. However, mall owners hoping to transform their properties with other partners need to ensure they’re not “dictating supply rather than responding to demand”. As demonstrated by Promenade 2035, market analysis is crucial early on in the planning process to determine what types and how much residential, office and retail space can be viably supported by the local market.

In addition, design experts in commercial spaces need to be engaged to ensure the mall transformations or new developments can accommodate the types of operators determined by a preceding market analysis.

Community engagement throughout the planning process is also key and although many mall developers today are not known for such outreach work, it is important they begin to take on this responsibility with the help of local non-profits because community needs are often nuanced. Conversations with local stakeholders may not only encourage public buy-in but also bring to light different kinds of needs that may not necessarily come up in strict market analyses, including social service, healthcare, public space needs, and architectural preferences. Sometimes, “communities may not be ready to embrace the densities and design standards required to accomplish successful mixed use neighborhoods”, according to Robert Gibbs a retail planning expert, so the open dialogue between mall owner/ developer and the local community can serve to build an understanding around such concerns and guide any concessions that need to be made.

Although the mall to mixed use trend is becoming popular amongst commercial real estate developers, it certainly is no mean feat. But it is one of the solutions that may help us transform the failed suburban landscape across the country and with stronger partnerships, such projects may be easier to accomplish in many more places. 

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