Sy Perkowitz – INSIGHT: Thinking Outside the Big Box

Arch News Now

February 6, 2018

National retail chains are closing big-box stores at an unprecedented rate. Gone are the days when the question was: What retailer can take this large space? The question now is: How can the box be reinvented to create experience and community? This is reflective of a change in how we are living today. The retail business is changing, but not shrinking. For each company closing stores, 2.7 companies are opening stores, according to a report published by IHL Group. At the same time, boomers and millennials, the two largest segments of our population, are both in the housing market. Both prefer walkable urban or suburban settings, the convenience and service of multi-channel retailing and the experience of local shops, and good food and gathering places.

Now is a wonderful time to be creative and imagine what a beloved destination would look and feel like. Typically, big boxes have optimal real estate locations, having selected their spaces for growing populations that needed their goods and services. Now, many of these established communities often have even stronger demographics and the land has become more valuable. The best use of the land becomes a more pressing issue. The opportunity exists to add myriad uses to a property.

Property owners with big boxes are showing a lot of interest in how residential can complement the shopping experience and, at the same time, reimagining the mix of uses that best suits the community. When a big box is surrounded by a sea of parking, rethinking the parking and adding residential, office, civic, educational, hospitality, or even recreational uses, such as parks or sports courts, becomes a viable solution.

The multi-use environment, much like what is found on the vibrant streets of the great downtowns around the world, is the ideal today. While mixed-use has been a dream for decades, the reality of it is here today and present in some of the most attractive upcoming neighborhoods.

The route to success starts with due diligence. Hosting a charrette with community stakeholders, development team members, architects, and design consultants is a creative way to envision a new life for an existing property. Issues to uncover and plan for include: culture, preferences of the ownership and community, building codes, the potential to salvage or incorporate the existing building (partially or in its entirety) and infrastructure, encouraging walkability, ingress/egress, optimal circulation, signage, and wayfinding.

At Provo Towne Centre in Provo, Utah, the closure of an existing big box is leading the planning of a new kind of destination on the site. Plans to deconstruct the 134,000-square-foot anchor inspired the idea to reposition the entire property. The first phase is to transform the existing box into creative office space and four to six restaurants and retailers. These spaces open onto a new landscaped plaza creating a connection to the center’s entrance rotunda that is redesigned to maximize the view of the sky and mountains. Further plans include adding a hotel and reimagining underused portions of the site as sports fields in the summer and an ice rink in the winter.

Working with national retailers, KTGY Architecture + Planning is involved in a variety of sites where initial planning considers the need to bring residential to areas where the demand for residences is currently underserved. In some cases, the existing building creates a centerpiece for additional development, and in others, the call is to demolish the building and create a new district. Sometimes the vast expanse of parking at regional malls is being transformed into a dense community where contemporary mid- to high-rise multifamily residential is set in a walkable environment with retail shops and restaurants, pathways, and landscaped nodes.

When the solution is to keep the box in place, it is sometimes the case that the existing structure lends itself to being divided into a few restaurants or a combination of smaller users. In these cases, sidewalk and landscape improvements can create a sense of arrival and enhance the ambiance of the new destination to draw repeat visitors.

Today’s properties are successful when they can motivate customers to come out from behind their computers to enjoy the experience of shopping or dining in an engaging atmosphere. The design solution for the big box closures is often one of creating opportunities for people to gather and socialize while offering the goods and services that match their lifestyle. Building a sense of place and creating a memorable destination that appeals across the generations and demographics will keep them coming back for more.

Simon Perkowitz, AIA, PE, is a principal in KTGY Architecture + Planning’s Retail Studio. KTGY serves clients worldwide from offices located in Chicago; Denver; Irvine, California; Los Angeles; Oakland, California; Pune, India; and Tysons, Virginia.