From Main Street: Will Lifestyle Centers Replace Downtown?

Posted on: November 19th, 2012 by National Trust for Historic Preservation 2 Comments

This blog post was adapted and edited for length from an article on the National Trust Main Street Center. Read the original piece here by Michael Stumpf, consultant and principal of Place Dynamics LLC.

Lifestyle centers -- a new open-air retail format smaller than a regional mall and often unanchored by traditional department stores -- are developers' response to a changing retail landscape. These centers cater to the specialty retailers, restaurants, and service chains that continue to add new store locations. The open-air format, design and amenities, and concentration of entertainment uses seek to create a more exciting environment to attract customers.

Interestingly, developers of lifestyle centers looked to traditional downtowns as an inspiration in creating the new format. For example:

  • Buildings are often made to look like multiple storefronts that have evolved over time.
  • Shops open directly to the sidewalk. Cars have even been introduced into the center with streets and parking.
  • The center will usually have entertainment uses, such as theaters and fitness centers. Residential or office uses may also be incorporated into the mix.

The format also gives mall operators an advantage over traditional downtowns in that, as private property, they are able to better regulate many of the issues that present challenges for downtown programs, such as:

  • Location. A lifestyle center, as a new creation, can be located in the best place relative to population and transportation networks.
  • New design. Designed from scratch, it can also create a pattern of uses, circulation, common spaces, and parking that addresses the desires of tenants and customers alike.
  • Ownership. Owning the properties allows operators to approve or disapprove of potential tenants, determine where they can locate in the center, regulate facades and signs, and establish policies for hours of operation.
  • Available resources. Tenant fees, paid by all, go toward providing security, maintaining common areas, and promoting the center, without the need for a member-based organization or business improvement district.

Historic downtown La Crosse, Wisconsin.

But do lifestyle centers really succeed in recreating the experience of a true downtown? While there are some very good examples of lifestyle malls as “new town centers,” the majority fall short in their design, more closely resembling the open air malls that were built until enclosed malls became the norm in the 1960s.

Even the best of the centers, though, still miss the mark in a few key areas. Despite their design appeal, lifestyle malls are filled with the same shops selling the same merchandise and the same restaurants with the same food as every other mall in America. Although safe and clean, they may also appear a bit sterile.

A close look at the buildings reveals them to be large structures with tacked-on facades, rather than individual structures with their own history. In fact, it is history that is missing from the picture. A true downtown has a patina, a unique feel, a randomness that can’t be duplicated.

Downtowns will not compete by trying to be like lifestyle centers, even though there are lessons to be learned from their design and management practices. Instead, downtowns will succeed based on their ability to differentiate themselves from the homogeneous aspects of these malls. They will build on their history, promote their unique shops and restaurants, incorporate residential and employment uses, provide flexibility in design, and celebrate the quirks, scars, and oddities that have appeared over time.

All of these characteristics tell a story that can be compelling, if the district tells it well. These things have an emotional appeal. People will talk of loving their downtown. How many people love the mall?

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The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded non-profit organization, works to save America's historic places.

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2 Responses

  1. Cher@NewburghRestoration

    November 20, 2012

    Great piece. If developers are so inspired by historic downtown areas, what I don’t understand is why don’t they revive these historic districts and build upon them? You don’t have to create an entire new area when there are myriads upon myriads of depressed historic downtowns.

  2. Diana McFadden

    November 23, 2012

    You’ve convinced me, as an advocate for Smart Growth. I’m joining through my workplace giving campaign!

    I hope to see a complete stoppage of road construction – and of any development that is NOT based on Public Transit, bicycling and walking. No more kowtowing to the car!

    In Support,
    Diana McFadden
    71 Ridge Road, Unit E
    Greenbelt, MD 20770