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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When Repositioning Retail Centers, Retail is not Always the Answer

“We can’t lease our way out of this. Our next move needs to be transformative, inclusive of community, experiential and relevant” – Todd Finard, CEO of Finard Properties

Most of our clients are telling us this these days. While the right tenant can be a key piece of an effort to transform and revive an aging and floundering retail property, getting the tenant to look at the property in a new way is dependent upon creating a vision of how the project can become relevant in today’s changing retail landscape. The truth is tenanting is only one piece of the equation: high quality places, authenticity, memorable experiences and a range of services are the reasons why shoppers come back. In her book The New Better Off, Courtney Martin says that when people are asked what one possession they would take from their burning home, their answers show that they are “defined by their people… their pleasure… their memories and that’s about it. Everything else is, well, stuff.” With this kind of emphasis on memory and experience rather than accumulation of things, it’s no wonder that “experiential retail” is the hot buzz phrase in the industry.

Our clients typically ask us to reinvent retail-centric properties in the context of what we identify as four types of design problems: backfilling dead anchors, inside-outing enclosed malls, converting large dying malls into mixed use districts, and of course trying to reinvigorate the typical strip mall or stand-alone commercial building. Here are some examples of those types. Remember - place, authenticity, experiences and diversity.

Anchor Backfill:

When a JC Penny or other anchor finally goes dark, there is actually a great opportunity afforded to the project. As a sign of the power that this retailer once had, the stores are almost always located at the front door of the project. As the anchor pad is redeveloped it should act as a catalyst in rebranding the project. Including well-appointed open space that can be programmed for public events, outdoor seating for restaurants (a significant staple in the realm of experiential retail) and the inclusion of a grocer or other unique destination that changes the nature of the trip to the mall in the first place. The architecture itself should speak to the diversity of the tenant mix as well as the new, welcoming gesture that the center is making. 

Inside-Outing:

When the well bracketed redevelopment of an anchor pad won’t be enough to turn the center around, we often help our clients to create a property that is turned inside-out. That is to say that the in-line retail between the anchors gets demolished and the heart of the project is reconceived of as a broad open space for parking, strolling, and areas of public space for event programming and passive recreation. When a mall is anchored by 3 or 4 or 5 big boxes, it is rare that all of them can be taken down to facilitate a completely new plan. Often a few or all of them are left standing and the task becomes creating a place and heightening the experience between the anchors while maintaining their points of entry and recasting their role as providing distant focal points that drive circulation patterns and architectural/spatial hierarchy.

The Mixed-use District:

Depending on the disposition of the real estate, the market context and the developer’s appetite for a complicated planning and entitlement effort, some mall sites are ripe for being transformed into mixed-use, high density villages or urban nodes. Projects of this scale and complexity are good candidates for thinking way outside the box and embracing P3 relationships with local civic, university or corporate institutions. The inclusion of programmable public space can create opportunities for community connections, knit together the project with its context, catalyze local stakeholders and put the redevelopment effort on entirely different footing. When residential, hospitality, office and civic uses are a part of the complete picture the chance for a truly authentic place to emerge is set in motion. Key to that authenticity are spaces that have a range of scales, plantings, furnishings and place making features. Different people seek out different spaces and different activities. Acknowledging that in the planning process is critical to the project’s success. 

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Strip Centers and Stand-Alones:

Less glamorous, but more omnipresent and therefore maybe more important, are the strip malls and stand-alone commercial projects that struggle to redefine themselves in today’s retailing world. Take a project like 9/27 Exchange in Natick, MA that is being co-redeveloped by Finard Properties and Crosspoint Associates. Pieces of the existing project like the Stop & Shop, Staples, Panera and a small assortment of other retailers, function just fine, but when the vacant Building 19 space came on the market it presented the opportunity to raise the value of the center and complete a project with a unified sense of place and mutual co-tenant value. The leasing approach of downsizing Staples to free up a critical corner and focusing on dining and service tenants (Dunkin’s, Anthony’s, Chipotle and Partners Healthcare) 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. The architectural upgrades are focused on tenant identity, diverse materials and the synergies of the shopping, dining and working daily experience.

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Implementation of a Transit Oriented Development Master Plan on historic Colony Street in Meriden, CT

In 2013, following a two-year Transit Oriented Development [TOD] Master planning effort in downtown Meriden, CT, Form + Place authored a new TOD Zoning District regulation for the neighborhoods adjacent to the proposed Intermodal Transportation Center, scheduled to open in 2016. One of the key findings of the TOD master plan was that Meriden should position its downtown as an “origin,” as opposed to a “destination” and, therefore, it was recommended that a first step to the implementation process should be to facilitate mixed-income multi-family residential development in the core. The new zoning regulation incentivized this type of development by creating a new use category called “TOD Mixed-Income Dwelling,” specifically designed to eliminate or minimize existing segregate housing patterns.

Integral to building community consensus and testing the new zoning criteria [ie. height, density, shared parking, etc.], Form + Place produced a series of feasibility studies for key sites in the downtown core proximate to the new Amtrak station.  These sites, identified during the TOD Master Plan process, were initially studied through a series of preliminary visioning drawings, looking at issues of massing, public realm interface and connectivity, through the use of both aerial and streetscape level renderings.

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Subsequently, after numerous discussions with key boards and community stakeholders, Form + Place produced more detailed plan and Sketchup model studies for various sites, including for the City-owned parcel at 24/38/44 Colony Street, which was identified as a catalyzing project for the downtown. Designed to accommodate mixed-use development, with residential over ground floor retail, and a new parking garage, this site is currently under construction and scheduled for completion in the fall of 2016.

24/38/44 Colony Street will be home to a 71,000 square foot building with 63 residential units and over 11,000sf of retail space. In addition, at the back of the site, a 275 car garage is being constructed, designed to accommodate 225 commuter parking spaces for the new ITC across the street. This project, a public-private partnership involving the Meriden Housing authority, a private developer and the State DOT, will accommodate the relocation of public housing residents from the Mills Apartments, unlocking additional development parcels on Meriden’s new public park – an example of the effective implementation of Meriden’s TOD Master Plan vision and zoning regulation.

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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.