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What It Takes To Transcend The Typical Mall Experience

While online sales are growing, many people are still choosing to shop at brick-and-mortar retailers. Those behind mall redevelopments are seizing on the demand for retail that provides an experience and a sense of place, with developers learning from the successes and failures of malls that have gone before.

Clare DeBriere, The Wayne Ratkovich Co
ULI Los Angeles District Council Chair Clare DeBriere

The Bloc in downtown LA is one shopping center that has not given up on foot traffic.

"We want this to be the living room for downtown," said The Ratkovich Co EVP and COO Clare DeBriere (above).

With the Bloc, a $160M reno of the former Macy’s Plaza at 700 South Flower St, the firm aimed to create an engaging space, DeBriere said.

"We wanted to create a place that was energized, invigorated, beautiful, open, taking advantage of our amazing Southern California weather," she said.

In addition to the flagship Macy's, the company also looked for retailers "who weren't just selling stuff but selling an experience," DeBriere said.

Those retailers include Free Market, PopBar, BrandsWalk, Urban Oven and Boston-based Davio's Northern Italian Steakhouse. There will also be a 24-hour Starbucks that serves beer and wine. Most will open next year.

However, overhauling the plaza, which first opened more than 40 years ago, was no small task.

The Bloc

"We probably should have closed the retail center and hotel while we were doing the rehab, because trying to do this and keep Macy’s and LA Fitness open and the hotel open compromised our scheduling," DeBriere said.

She said the firm also should have had multiple contractors and ones who were more used to working within an existing, occupied building because it was an incredibly complex project.

As a result, the Ratkovich Co has changed course near the end of the project, working with three or four contractors now all doing different parts of the project, which is making it easier to get it finished, she said.

The Bloc

DeBriere said the firm kicked off the leasing program at the Bloc (pictured above) before the final design was even complete—another step that may be reconsidered for future projects.

"In hindsight, it would probably have been better to have waited a bit on the leasing until our designs and construction schedules were finalized," she told Bisnow.

However, now that "we are 99.99% percent complete, our leasing is robust," DeBriere said.

A rooftop deck is scheduled to open in January, and a movie theater has yet to open.

The hotel aims to offer guests "incredibly engaging" public spaces and an amazing hotel staff, according to DeBriere.

It's all about "placemaking," which involves a strategic move that aims to boost foot traffic and create reasons for shoppers to visit particular malls.

Rick Chancellor, LA

“The trends in shopping center development point toward creating a true sense of place that not only requires a well-thought-out physical environment, but to curate the right mix of retail, restaurant, entertainment that keeps people engaged," Cardiff Development Partners partner Rick Chancellor told Bisnow.

The mix of unique restaurant and fast-casual offerings continues to be a major component of what attracts shoppers and extends their time at the shopping center.

"Everyone in the industry is trying to develop a reason for people to stay and shop, so creating a comfortable and engaging sense of place is really key for these projects," Chancellor said.

Westfield Century City
Rendering of Westfield Century City

Many newer projects are trying to differentiate themselves by seeking first-to-market or chef-driven restaurants, he said.

The $950M reno of the Westfield Century City (above) in LA is an example of this approach. It will house the first Eataly on the West Coast and at least another 20 to 25 eateries.

Some projects now also offer specialty, higher-end grocery stores, including Whole Foods, including their smaller 365 concept, Trader Joe's or an upscale regional market.

There are also developments that have not been as successful as they’ve hoped after filling their centers with typical mall tenants that don’t provide a unique shopping experience.

"It’s fallen flat because maybe they’ve got the same group of tenants that would be readily seen at a mall," Chancellor said, "and then why would you want to go there?"

Santana Row in San Jose, CA

The overall layout of the center is key. Some have tried to replicate a grid of street blocks, but have experienced challenges off the “main” street of the center.

San Jose's Santana Row (above) has created an authentic city environment for shoppers, but kept it centralized along a core street, Chancellor said.

CenterCal Properties' projects typically bring in entertainment, food and retail and often have a large theater complex as the anchor. They have a central gathering area for events with food centered around it.

"CenterCal has definitely created a successful model by using a 'racetrack' design with retail surrounding the central park area to keep shoppers engaged and create the sense of place," Chancellor said.

Brookfield Place New York is also a good example of repurposing their environment and curating an upscale and unique mix of retailers and food options.

"The food hall aspect in a high-density environment can work, but you have to have heavy foot traffic to justify that," he said. 

Houston's Baybrook Mall, one of the three largest malls in the city, recently added 555k SF to its existing 1.2M SF center.

The reno allowed for 30 more retailers, a grassy community gathering spot—something unique when proposed for the mall that has become a growing trend in Houston—and a 285k SF lifestyle center.

 NewMark Merrill CEO Sandy Sigal and Family
NewMark Merrill CEO Sandy Sigal and his family

NewMark Merrill, along with Upside Investments, is renovating Crenshaw Imperial Plaza in Inglewood, CA, which dates back to the 1960s.

The property features 238k SF of retail and a 67k SF office building.

It serves to benefit from the construction of the Inglewood stadium for the LA Rams, although NewMark Merrill president and CEO Sandy Sigal (pictured center above with his family) said the company began working on the project before knowing about the stadium.

Crenshaw Imperial Plaza in Inglewood, CA

Sigal said the firm has created a food court on the ground floor for the existing office building and added a school that took up an entire floor.

NewMark Merrill "completed an entire facelift of the center" (rendering above) and will demolish part of a two-store retail building and replace it with a gym, according to Sigal.

For more on the latest on national retail trends, join us at Bisnow's National Retail: West Coast Series on March 28 in Los Angeles and National Retail: East Coast Series on April 4 in New York City.