By  on May 16, 2005

NEW YORK — When it comes to lifestyle centers, people forget. "The first lifestyle centers actually date back to the Second World War and earlier," said Theodore Amenta, a veteran design architect for real estate and retail projects. "Country Club Plaza in Kansas City is about 60 years old. The concept has been around for a very long time, but most people have a much shorter sense of reality."

However, in the last five years or so, lifestyle centers have been proliferating to the point where many in the real estate and retail worlds worry about overexpansion. Some builders have even launched legal battles to block construction of lifestyle centers that move near their traditional malls.

"I am concerned about it," said John Bucksbaum, chief executive of General Growth Properties.

According to Bucksbaum, with fewer than five traditional malls a year being built, developers and retailers are pressured to seek other expansion opportunities, and the availability of capital is spurring lifestyle center construction.

"We have seen what overbuilding can cause in all sectors," Bucksbaum said.

According to Richard Sokolov, president and chief operating officer of Simon Property Group, about 150 lifestyle centers have been announced and are targeted to open over a five-year period. He predicted, however, that less than half of them will be built. "It remains to be seen whether all of the centers announced obtain approvals," he said.

Nevertheless, lifestyle centers are here to stay, and not necessarily at the expense of traditional malls. "Eighty percent of the people who go to lifestyle centers say they never go to the mall," said James Rosenfield, national director of retail services at real estate services firm Cushman & Wakefield. "The lifestyle customer is closer to the customer who shops downtown boutiques."

Still,"there will be fewer shopping malls, but they won't be extinct," Rosenfield added. "The weaker ones will be converted to big-box centers, residentials or something different" that includes a lifestyle wing.

Lifestyle centers tend to be open air, anchored by a cinema or big book store and contain a collection of better restaurants that feed off the cinema traffic. Typically, they have at least 150,000 square feet, but average 300,000 to 500,000 square feet with 100 tenants or so, and interesting architectural elements. The best create a sense of place, although, as Rosenfield observed: "It's tricky to create a sense of history or authenticity."

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