MGM Springfield: The Impact of Experiential Retail on the Main Street Corridor

“MGM is seamlessly integrating its stunning experience into the fabric of an historic city. The community’s character is honored by sensitive design and its experience is enhanced through open-air “place-making”. At inception, Form + Place was tasked to respect the DNA of MGM Resorts International, while reviving the energy and charm of Springfield’s long-treasured Main Street. The result is an urban master-plan that blends old and new into a remarkable New England destination.”  – Chuck Irving, Davenport Companies

With total construction costs anticipated to be $900 million, the MGM Springfield project is nearing completion, and is scheduled to open in the Fall of 2018. The project has certainly evolved from early conceptual design studies in 2012, with the signature 25-story hotel tower morphing into a more integrated low-rise building, designed to provide a higher level of definition to the Main Street corridor. The fundamental vision, however, to create a catalyzing urban mixed-use destination with entertainment, experiential retail, restaurants and, of course, a casino, has remained consistent.

 
 

Working with MGM and Davenport Companies, Form + Place’s initial urban diagrams put forward the idea to turn the retail and entertainment component of the casino outward to engage the downtown. While casino retail leasing is traditionally introverted - oriented towards patrons on the gambling floor - it was posited that flipping this focus outward would reiterate the desire to connect with the larger community and to help stimulate economic development along the Main Street corridor. At the heart of the retail and entertainment experience is the concert venue / skating rink which, using the historic Armory building as a backdrop, will provide publicly accessible space with daily programming. The entertainment options will also include an 8-lane bowling alley, a 35,000 sf cinema with 8 screens, several restaurant/pub concepts and a diverse compliment of local and national retail tenants.

From a “place-making” perspective, this experience will be uniquely Springfield. The Armory building, portions of which were damaged during the 2011 tornado, is being refurbished and, together with the 130-year old First Spiritualist Church, which was relocated to the site, represents a thoughtful preservation of Springfield’s architectural history. The church will become the home of Kringle Candle, which will bring its uniquely New England brand to the project. Historic themes will be reinforced throughout the interior and exterior of the casino, with Springfield’s heritage celebrated through the use of industrial materials, the incorporation of artifacts from the Springfield Museums and tributes to famous locals such as Dr. Seuss, who was born and raised on the site.

 
 

It will be interesting to track the impact of the casino development on future economic development in downtown Springfield. Currently, there are plans to renovate the historic Court Square Hotel building into an apartment complex, which will fulfill MGM’s obligation to provide 54 market rate units. And diagonally across Main Street from the casino, Form + Place helped master-plan another exciting new development called Davenport Square. Designed to be synergistic with MGM’s outdoor plaza, Davenport Square will be a mixed-use, Main Street project programmed for retail, restaurants, medical offices and daycare. In addition to these projects, numerous feasibility studies have been done over the past 6-7 years to imagine the repositioning potential of other properties along the Main Street corridor, as far down as Tower Square.  Understanding which uses and vendors will ultimately be targeted won’t become clear until MGM announces the full complement of its retail and entertainment tenants this Spring.

 
 

The Value of Hand Drawing in The Age of Computer Visualization

“Drawings of eyelevel and interior views…tend to show an environment with a warmth, subtlety, and humanity not present in model photographs or computer-generated images.” Paul Stevenson Oles, AIA

Today, architects and planners frequently use volumetric computer modeling from the outset as an integrated design tool.  Visualization firms like NeoScape, Tangram 3DS, TiltPixel and others can use these models to create incredible photo-real renderings, which have broad appeal.  At Form + Place, in addition to using these tools, we believe that hand drawing plays an integral role in the visioning process. 

A while back when I was studying architecture at RISD, I helped teach the Perspective Drawing class. This was before computers became ubiquitous in the architectural design process. Creating “3D constructed perspectives” of projects was a matter of first creating plans, sections and elevations of the building, and then, painstakingly creating the rendering through a process of establishing a view point, a horizon line, a picture plane and then projecting the image manually onto the picture plain with a very long ruler. It was time consuming and if you messed up… there was no easy way of editing the rendering in process. While computers have given us a new range of efficient visualization tools, we have found that the drawing process is still quite valuable both for evolving the design and creating final presentation renderings that convey a narrative that more closely reflects our clients’ goals and values.  They invite the client to participate in the process, rather than suggesting that a design has been finalized.

As plan and program concepts for a project evolve, we simultaneously model the most basic massing characteristics of the buildings and public realm (usually in Google Sketch-Up) to create an approach to architectural style and placemaking. In an iterative process between sketching and computer modeling, the visual characteristics of a project emerge. In the world of private commercial development our clients need to visualize the project early-on in the process to consider how they might begin to discuss it in the community and with potential tenants and partners. Sometimes, like on the Dascomb Road Project, an interim stage of mixing hand-drawn vignettes with computer model exports allows for an efficient, affordable way of testing the design in public, while presenting a project that is clearly still in process as the client solicits community input.

When Form + Place created the public realm retail concept for MGM Springfield, there were a series of existing buildings on the site that could not be removed and would need to be integrated into the design of the future mixed-use gaming and entertainment venue. One of these buildings was the existing armory, the rear portion of which was damaged by the tornado of 2011, and subsequently demolished. The front castle-like façade of the armory, however, is somewhat magical in its fanciful architecture. Creating an image that cast the building as the backdrop to a concert stage in an open-air setting was key to MGM visualizing the casino and entertainment uses engaging the surrounding streets, and creating a new neighborhood, rather than an inward-looking gaming destination.

The Winthrop Center Business District master-plan involved another type of visioning exercise that called for a softer approach to image making and urban visioning. While the MGM exercise was used as a quick spark to catalyze a new development model for a seasoned commercial entertainment company, the images we generated for Winthrop were intended for the general public, and were used to convey the variety of opportunities that were possible in the Center Business District. To that end, the more accesable approach of free-hand renderings, occasionally complimented by shots of a computer model, was a method that helped bring the community into the dialogue, allowing them to contribute to the process of early idea generation about the future of their city.

In the end, whether it’s a hand drawn sketch merged with a digital export that is then augmented in Photoshop, or an ink and marker vignette sketched over a photo, we are committed to the process of story-telling and communicating ideas. We’ve found that our process is most successful when our clients are engaged early on, often with the aid of hand drawing, which in turn fosters a mutual interest in seeing our projects brought to life.

Needham Street in Newton – Evolving from Strip to Street

“for a walk to be favored, it has to satisfy four main conditions: it must be useful, safe, comfortable and interesting” - Walkable City by Jeff Speck

If you’ve occasionally driven down Needham Street in Newton over the course of the last few years, you’ve witnessed the start of a metamorphosis. This commercial strip has been historically characterized by isolated retailers and a hodgepodge of office buildings and light manufacturing. But over the course of the last decade the consolidation of certain parcels and the general pressure to develop land for maximum return on investment has fostered an opportunity whereby Needham Street could evolve from a classic commercial strip into a genuine walkable and vibrant street.

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As an urban planning diagram, the Needham Street environs is confounding. While it stretches enviably between route 9 and route 95 and the Green Line, an overlay of major arteries and nodes shows that the connection points are constricted, strained or just incomplete. While most of these can be overcome with time and thoughtful planning, it is heartening that the impetus of the evolution of Needham Street stems from the people who shop, work and reside in this area, and who are demanding more from the settings that they live, work and shop in. Thankfully that demand is trickling up to today’s savvy developers who are responding with projects that value place making as an essential design objective.

There is probably nothing more antithetical to placemaking than large swaths of lawn separating the sidewalk from buildings that crave and need street engagement. This was more or less the norm on Needham street until recently when the developers of projects like Needham Street Village Shops (Bierbrier Development Inc.), 170 Needham Street (The Growth Companies), 180 Needham Street (Crosspoint Associates, Inc.), and now the Newton Nexus (also by Crosspoint) put forth proposals that engage the sidewalk directly with building mass, outdoor dining and landscaping that focuses on inviting patrons rather than buffering fast moving cars. The result is a street section that creates a contained, walkable outdoor room such as one finds in good cities and towns. Walnut Street in Newtonville makes a good comparison as it is both a major thoroughfare, and also a village center.

The evolution of Needham Street into a place rather than just a drive by strip will depend on not just engaging, street-focused site design, but also the development of high density housing options. Avalon at Newton Highlands started that ball rolling several years ago. It seemed a pretty perplexing development at the time, but now as the neighborhood evolves, it seems like Avalon was ahead of the curve in seeing the underlying potential in Needham Street. This hasn’t been lost on Northland Development which has proposed the biggest plans unveiled yet. Their 30-acre masterplan for the Oak Street spur off of Needham Street proposes to bring 950 new units of housing and seems to genuinely embrace the walkable neighborhood concept.

Through the latest economic cycle great progress has been made to raise the quality of the environment as part of the ongoing development boom. Time will tell if good planning and an aggregate of projects that embrace the value of engaging the street edge can stitch together Needham Street as a cohesive, walkable whole.

Technical Assistance Panels: The Power of Teaming ULI, Professional Expertise and MassDevelopment

Among the diverse initiatives that the Urban Land Institute and MassDevelopment champion to help communities across the Commonwealth, the day-long Technical Assistance Panel [TAP] charrette is one of the most engaging for panelists and stakeholders alike. The December 12th TAP in Ashland, MA, co-chaired by Michael Wang of Form + Place and Jamie Simchik of Simchik Planning and Development, brought together professionals possessing a wide range of expertise from land planning, architecture and landscape architecture to market analysis, environmental permitting and the real estate development world.

The Ashland TAP, not unlike recent panels in other Massachusetts communities - such as in Yarmouth, Dedham and Leominster - was a 12-hour brainstorming session that asked panelists to tour the focus area, review documents [recent studies, zoning, etc.] and conduct a series of interviews with the goal of addressing a few key questions posed by Town leadership. In Ashland’s case, experts were asked to make recommendations for how the Town might stimulate economic development in a downtown that already has a variety of assets, including a collection of architecturally distinct buildings and a surrounding area rich in natural resources – river, parkland, etc. Ashland does have some fairly unique challenges, however, ranging from an active commuter rail line that bisects Main Street on grade, a commuter rail station relocated outside the typical “walkable” TOD radius, and some environmental concerns stemming from a nearby Superfund site.

As with many outer-ring suburban communities, revitalizing the core often centers on the need to create a “there” there. Among the recommendations that the panel put forward, the incentivization of multi-family residential development in the downtown – ideally in a mixed-use equation – was identified as an essential driver. But attracting a critical mass of people to live in the core clearly requires a holistic vision for what downtown Ashland can become. The Town is currently studying how improvements to the streetscapes can simultaneously improve traffic flow and create a more pedestrian-friendly environment. The panel felt that revisions to the zoning that would promote development patterns to reinforce the definition of street walls [continuity], create opportunities for more density and facilitate a diverse mix of uses [i.e. restaurants/coffee shops] would go a long way towards attracting private investment. This must happen in conjunction with improvements to infrastructure and thoughtful consideration of how to reshape the public realm to allow for the integration of memorable spaces that can be programmed for active and passive use.

Technical Assistance Panels can be a key stepping stone and present a rare opportunity for communities to gain insights from a group of experts that do not have any specific allegiance to their community. Often local efforts get bogged down by the anti-development sentiments of a few outspoken stakeholders who spread fears of the potential disastrous impacts on school systems, traffic and parking. In many cases, studies have shown that these concerns are unfounded or can be reasonably mitigated.  With a number of key development parcels already under Town control, Ashland is in a good position to push forward a catalyzing project or two.  Partnering with private land owners who have significant holdings in the downtown will be an essential component to bringing Ashland's vision for a new town center to fruition.

 Sketch Diagram of Key Opportunities from TAP Charrette

Sketch Diagram of Key Opportunities from TAP Charrette

Westford Valley Marketplace – Experiencing Community in Today’s Shopping Places

“Yes, technology has changed the way people shop. But it will never match the feeling of real-life experiences and sense of community. People will always want to get out, feel good about their surroundings, and to connect with the world beyond an inanimate, one-dimensional screen.” – Andy LaGrega, Principal, The Wilder Companies

Like many of our clients, Andy LaGrega believes whole heartedly that to stay relevant in the retail game, developers have to offer experiences and amenities that speak to the idea of community engagement. That can be a tall order when repositioning an existing retail strip center, especially if it has a continuous arcade, little or no public space amenities, and is generally outdated in its architectural style. Westford Valley Marketplace is very typical of strip centers of its vintage, but along with being newly anchored by a Whole Foods Market, it is being renovated to address three critical design elements in these types of centers.

Curb Appeal in Approach and Orientation:

As one arrives at Westford Valley, the presentation of the existing building facade is a somewhat grim, grey monotonous band at the outer edge of a continuous arcade. The façade provides little or no retailer identity, but it is punctuated occasionally by gable end roof forms. These elements provided an opportunity for the project team to develop a composition of forms that engage shoppers as they enter the center and group tenant signage on distinguishing architectural elements. The roof forms additionally allowed the team to establish a more traditional New England vernacular style throughout the center.

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Overcoming the drawbacks of the arcade:

The arcaded retail strip center is a building type that we are often asked to help reposition by our clients. It derives from an outdated assumption that you had to protect shoppers from the weather to get them to come out and spend money. In today’s market it’s been proven that patrons prefer an environment that is more “open air”… as long as there are engaging reasons to stay a while and visit multiple venues. Since it is often too expensive to tear down the arcades and rebuild new facades in their place, creative ways of rebranding the outer façade and softening the arcade itself with updated lighting, signage, and finishes is critical in these efforts. While wrapping existing steel pipe or concrete columns with new masonry or other finishes may seem intuitive, arcade columns often compromise sight lines to tenant storefront, so care needs to be given to how it is done and how often.

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Making the best of open space opportunities:

At Westford Valley Marketplace a zone of shrubs was originally planted at the outer edge of the Arcade. This zone now provides an opportunity to create an area that is a tenant and patron amenity as well as a real community benefit. By combining hard and soft landscape elements along with new lighting, seating and other outdoor furniture, an active zone of programmable public space can be created along the front of the entire center. Café and other food tenants can spill out onto these enlarged sidewalk areas to engage shoppers and create a sense of place and desire to linger longer. Like all our successful clients, The Wilder Companies runs active programming campaigns, communicated through social media and other outlets, that help to bring out shoppers for unique community retailing events. Small open spaces that provide areas for sidewalk activity are perfect places for these kinds of events to occur, and support the sense of community that is so critical to the success of today’s retail centers. 

9/27 Exchange in Natick - Transforming Retail in Today's Market

Retailing continues to be about placemaking and creating reasons (often more than one) for people to leave their house and interact. The ever changing retail landscape requires Landlords to get creative with their Tenant mix and make selections not just based on pure income generation but longevity and balance as well. Stand still and the market will pass you by.” – Kerry McCormack, Director of Development Crosspoint Associates

Kerry isn’t our only client who’s telling us this. Strip malls and stand-alone commercial projects struggling to redefine themselves in today’s retailing world need to be thinking about placemaking and diversifying the tenant types that draw patrons to the center. Now under construction, 9/27 Exchange in Natick, MA, being repositioned by Finard Properties and Crosspoint Associates, is a great example of combining placemaking and a creative leasing strategy to keep the center relevant in today’s market.

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Pieces of the existing project, like the Stop & Shop, Staples and Panera, were doing well enough, but when the vacant Building 19 space went up for sale it presented the opportunity to downsize Staples and free up a critical, highly visible corner of the project. The corner was leased to Partners Healthcare which will generate consistent foot traffic and set the stage for a significant architectural and public realm upgrade. This will create a center that encourages a longer stay as well as an enjoyable, walkable environment for employees and shoppers alike. Rounding out the anchoring leases with Chipotle, Anthony’s Coal Fired Pizza, and a Dunkins pad provides a three-tiered food offering, further diversifying the types of trips and length of stay for the average patron.

The architectural upgrades are focused on creating tenant distinction, diversifying building materials and improving the synergies of the daily shopping, dining and working experience. To accomplish these goals the design team had to overcome significant challenges in the existing building. The slab height in the old Building 19 space had to be lowered to create comfortable, easy at grade access. The exterior wall of the Building 19 is essentially a solid block wall that will be opened up with new tenant storefronts. A new palette of materials -cultured stone, architectural stucco, metal panel accents and PVC trim - and a variety of façade types will emphasize individual tenant identity. Varying parapet heights and cornice details will further distinguish one tenant from another while taking care to not exaccerbate snow loads at the roof edges.

P3 and Zoning: Benefiting from Early Private Sector Engagement

In the ongoing effort to stimulate economic development, towns often have a full range of resources available, but none may be more important than early engagement of the private sector.

The Town of Winthrop, Massachusetts has been very proactive in working to re-envision their Center Business District [CBD] by utilizing regional planning agencies like the Metropolitan Area Planning Council [MAPC] to study key variables including zoning and parking. Winthrop also engaged MassDevelopment and Form + Place, Inc. to produce a master-plan for their CBD – a process that included a feasibility study of a key town-owned development site in the core area. Following the adoption of the master-plan, Winthrop was able to obtain a MassWorks grant to help unlock necessary infrastructure improvements. Even with a well constructed planning approach such as this, many towns struggle to define a strategy that will ultimately stimulate economic development. Often changes to zoning are undertaken without a clear understanding of what is needed to unlock the potentially catalyzing project that could lead to successful implementation.

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In its comprehensive plan, the Town of Watertown, Massachusetts put forward a multi-faceted vision for future development that included crafting design guidelines for village centers and key commercial corridors. In addition, the plan called for the repositioning of the east end of Arsenal Street - largely zoned industrial – into a Regional Mixed-Use District [RMUD]. With town resources focused on putting forward new design guidelines, Boylston Properties and The Wilder Companies, owners of the Arsenal Mall, approached town leadership with an offer to help implement the new zoning framework. Form + Place was retained to help steer a collaborative effort between the development team and the town. 

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A first draft of the new Regional Mixed-Use District [RMUD] was completed in April of 2015. The new district was designed to facilitate transformative development in a key “gateway” location, which was identified in the comprehensive plan as needing an innovative approach to zoning. One of the most important aspects of the proposed regulation was to allow multi-family residential within a mixed-use context, a use currently prohibited in the industrial districts that defined the area. In addition, the developers hoped to update key dimensional criteria to allow flexibility for taller buildings, which would not only help achieve an increase in density that the town desired, but also take advantage of views, and promote access to the adjacent open space conservancy land and Charles River Reservation.

Another significant goal of the new RMUD zoning was to establish an approvals process conducive to regionally-scaled development that would likely be phased over a significant period of time. The incorporation of a new Master Plan Special Permit process now allows developers to submit for a holistic conceptual master-plan approval, followed by detailed site plan reviews for each project phase, which are reviewed for consistency with the master-plan.

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Engaging the private sector to help craft zoning can be complicated politically, especially when a community is feeling the pressure of growth. Strong town leadership and planning staff are critical to the process, as they must help quell fears that zoning proposed by a developer is not in the town’s best interest, especially when it can be linked to a proposed large-scale project. Utilizing the private sector to assist with these types of efforts, however, presents a tremendous opportunity for a community, since the proposed zoning criteria are likely to be shaped by a strong understanding of market forces. Community outreach efforts are often a key to assuring that an appropriate balance of flexibility and certainty is achieved, and efforts such as this are most likely to succeed if there is an effective collaboration between public and private entities.

After nearly six months of dialogue with Watertown staff and town officials, plus extensive feedback from community stakeholders, a new zoning amendment was approved at a joint public hearing of the Planning Board and Town Council on March 2nd, 2016.

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