Seven Components of Good Places - Part 1

“The psychology of connection, of human relationship to the material world, fascinates us. What prompts someone to identify with a place? What makes a person choose one store over another, or one brand instead of another?  Without a passion for design, we can’t answer those questions.” – Jodie McLean CEO of EDENS

An underlying sense of authenticity and connectivity is something that consciously or unconsciously is at the center of our engagement with “good places” in our world today. The role of the “Third Place” (the place you like to be that’s not home and not the office) in helping create connected communities has been well documented in books such as The Great Good Place by Ray Oldenburg. Retail and mixed-use developers have, especially in the last decade, embraced the power of place as a critical aspect in the success of shopping and entertainment venues. At Form + Place, an essential point of connectivity for us is the layered experience of buildings, streets and public spaces. We like to say, “context is everything” when we design great places, but context needs to be understood at many scales to connect with authentic experiences. The context for a cup of coffee with a friend may be the table you sit at. The context for that table may be the café or diner. The context of the café may be the building and so on, out into our streets, parks and other pieces of the public realm. From the larger gathering spaces of great cities to the edges of a typical café storefront, societal engagement is made manifest as people utilize places that invite you to stay and take part in a small conversation or a larger community dialogue.

Over the years that we’ve been designing and helping to program our clients’ development projects, we have catalogued certain components and design characteristics that support the goal of good place making. Today’s topic is design between the street and the building edge, and the role it plays in seeing, engaging, shopping and staying.

When F+P was asked to re-conceive the retail component of the NewYork NewYork Las Vegas Hotel, the precedent that we drew on was, in a certain way, very traditional. Great streets in traditional urban settings are often lined with retail and dining venues that bring vitality to the street and in turn draw on the daily foot and vehicular traffic as their life blood. At NewYork NewYork the scale may be different but the task was really the same: re-cast the plaza between the boulevard and the casino as not only a stage set for the building, but also as a desirable place to stroll, shop, dine and take in some street-side entertainment. Opening storefronts to the exterior and de-cluttering the plaza were two critical aspects of this repositioning/rebranding effort. The storefronts pull people in while the plaza provides a place for live music and other entertainment programming to occur. In the inward looking, gaming centric world of casino resorts turning the retail outward to face the boulevard was a initially tough sell to a client such as MGM.

In a similar way, but at a very different scale, the Needham Street commercial corridor in Newton, MA is being transformed piece by piece to be a pedestrian friendly, engaging, shopping & dining destination. Development companies like Crosspoint Associates, Bierbrier Development and others have been repositioning parcels along the corridor to engage the street and provide places for active and passive recreation. 180 Needham Street has been a small and mostly forgettable building on the east side of Needham Street, but Crosspoint’s vision for the property is to repurpose the existing asset by enlarging the street façade windows, creating a dining patio, and leasing the ground floor to a restaurant that would feature a window dining bar.  As the building edges along Needham Street are gradually connected to the street itself through these kinds of façade renovations and open space interventions, the corridor is beginning to act like a more cohesive and walkable commercial district.