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Lifestyle Centers: The New Pitfalls and Potential

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...

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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.”

This story first appeared in the May 16, 2005 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Here, WWD profiles four distinct centers, either up and running, or on the horizon.

  • The Woodland Hills Mall in Houston is one of General Growth Properties most successful redevelopment projects. For General Growth, among the largest developers of lifestyle centers, construction often involves add-ons and redevelopments of existing malls, and leads to the creation of indoor and outdoor settings on the same shopping center site. The company currently has 15 redevelopments under way involving a range of lifestyle projects.

    The latest piece of Woodland Hills opened in spring 2004 and enlarged the center to 1.3 million square feet. The expansion allows shoppers to stroll along the retail and restaurant streetscape, all connected to the mall by The Woodlands Waterway, “a river-walk,” according to the company.

    “The latest expansion was approximately 230,000 square feet of outdoor retail and restaurant space that connects to the mall, but is open air. There’s a waterway and you can actually come to the center by boat,” said John Bucksbaum, chief executive of General Growth.

    What also makes this center distinctive are its village components and the outward-facing retail, creating a streetscape. It makes shopping easier, so visitors can drive to and park right by store entrances. The center has lush landscaping to integrate with the river walk and the open-air setting.

    Another prime property is The Shops at La Cantera in San Antonio, which is expected to open in September, according to General Growth. It’s another open-air project, with 13 separate buildings, and 1.3 million square feet for retail. It will include the first Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom in San Antonio, flagships from Dillard’s and Foley’s, more than 150 specialty shops, a theater complex and restaurants.

    It also will have a Main Street atmosphere, with landscaped garden courtyards, shaded arcades and meandering water features, the company said.

    Considering its distinctive character, Bucksbaum said, “I don’t know what you call that project. A mall? A lifestyle center? But retailers like it, and the community likes it.”

    For Bucksbaum, it’s tough to strictly define a lifestyle center, but he says he knows one when sees it. “Generally, architecturally it is distinctive, it’s landscaped nicely, there are elements of common space providing seating, water, a park-like environment. It requires something that is not ordinary. People are starting to call anything without a roof a lifestyle center. I don’t think that’s correct. It’s also not correct to suggest a lifestyle center can’t have department store anchors. It’s really any retail development that provides a special place and experience for the customer.

    In some instances, when General Growth builds, “we are not averse to building things with roofs,” Bucksbaum said. “Some projects will have roofs, some won’t. Portions of the center will be enclosed, other portions will be open. New projects will incorporate all these pieces.”

  • St. Johns Town Center, in Jacksonville, Fla., at 4775 Town Center Parkway, is a huge hybrid center built by Simon Property Group, America’s largest developer of shopping centers. Simon’s primary strategy has been to build projects of a size and a scale to dominate a trading area.

    St. Johns is no exception. The 1.5 million-square-foot open-air retail project includes a 608,000-square-foot retail village as well as a 450,000-square-foot power center, and a town center with a Main Street design and a community center. Tenants include Dillard’s, Barnes & Noble, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Target, Ashley Furniture, Designer Shoe Warehouse, JoAnn Fabrics, Old Navy, PetsMart, Pier One, Ross Dress For Less and Staples. Restaurants include The Cheesecake Factory, Maggiano’s and P.F. Chang’s.

    When the center opened last March, 39 retailers — or more than one-third of the mix — made their Jacksonville debut, including Apple Computer, Brighton Collectibles, Designs of the Interior, Hollister Co., J. Jill, Sigrid Olsen and The Sharper Image. St. Johns Town Center also includes a Homewood Suites hotel and three multifamily residential projects opening in 2006. It’s a joint venture between Simon and Ben Carter Properties LLC, an asset management, leasing and development company.

    “There are certainly aspects of St. Johns that it shares with lifestyle centers,” said Richard Sokolov, president and chief operating officer of Simon. “It’s open air. It has a very good selection of specialty tenants, but there are aspects of St. Johns that also make it very different,” particularly its diversity and size.

    “When you look at the configuration of St. Johns, it’s a series of city streets,” Sokolov explained. “Incorporated into that is a Homeward Suites hotel, a residential project sold as condominiums and an apartment complex for rental,” Sokolov said. There is also a Village Park Green, for community events.

    Simon has about eight lifestyle centers in various stages of planning, and will average around five openings a year for the next five years. For the industry in total, he sees 15 to 20 lifestyle centers opening a year, “even if developers want to open 50,” collectively.

  • The Shops at Atlas Park, scheduled to open in spring 2006, will be New York City’s first lifestyle center. Located in the Glendale section of Queens, at 8000 Cooper Avenue at the intersection of 80th Street, the center will contain a 400,000-square-foot retail and office project, an eight-screen movie theater, parking for 1,600 cars and a park. Considering the urban setting, the park is a real mark of distinction. Recreational space is severely lacking in the boroughs.

    “We want to have a deep connection to the community and really provide the people in this market with a public center,” said Damon Hemmerdinger, the project’s development director. We’ve gone further than other projects in allocating land to the park,” which will be two and a half acres. “From the consumer point of view, we needed a big idea to penetrate their consciousness and persuade them to change their shopping, dining and entertainment habits.”

    The project will consist of eight buildings housing retail and office space, including 60 stores, restaurants, offices and services. It is geared to cater to the 128,500 households earning in excess of $75,000 and living within 3.5 miles of the center, according to Hemmerdinger. Although retail tenants have yet to be announced, he sees The Shops at Atlas Park housing a mix of men’s, women’s and children’s apparel; jewelry; shoes; fashion accessories; housewares; gourmet foods, and a variety of cafes, bistros and restaurants. The site is on a 12-acre tract of land surrounding the park, which will be landscaped and designed with a fountain, a performing arts area and crisscrossing pedestrian walkways.

    Atco Properties & Management, a New York-based, full service, family-owned real estate organization, is developing this retail project on the old Atlas Terminals site, a property owned by the Hemmerdinger family for more than 85 years. Damon Hemmerdinger’s great-grandfather bought the property, which became the site of Atlas Waste Manufacturing. Atlas Waste collected scraps from knitters and tailors, washed them, bundled them and sold them as rags.

    “It’s a grand public space,” said Theodore Amenta, the design architect for the project. “You can come to the park with your baby, sit on the lawn and have a sandwich. The park is surrounded by buildings. Everything is white, to abstract it and let the buildings become the backdrop or stage set for the visitor experience. The park is about the size of the public space at Lincoln Center, rectangular, 220 by 400 feet.

    “Many people look at Queens and say they would rather live in Manhattan,” Amenta added. But perceptions could change with this project. “People who live in Queens and have their mother-in-laws visiting from Italy or Denver will want to take them here. This will be an immense tourist destination.”

    Aside from the park, and from being the city’s first lifestyle center, there are other distinctive elements, as Hemmerdinger suggested. “It’s the density and affluence of the market surrounding the project. It’s much higher than any other lifestyle center with the exception of The Market Common Clarendon in Arlington, Va., which is denser in terms of the number of $100,000 households, but we have an overall much higher density. We are targeting the audience of households earning over $100,000.”

  • Yacht Haven, situated on Charlotte Amalie Harbor on St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands, is a prototype for future lifestyle centers — also called Yacht Haven — that might open in exotic seaside resorts in the Caribbean, the U.S. and Europe. They’ll be designed to offer plenty of amenities beyond just docking the yacht.

    Yacht Haven in St. Thomas will begin opening in phases toward the end of this year, and will cost about $160 million. Along the 22.5-acre spread will be an 80,000-square-foot retail village, a new marina, 30,000 square feet of office space, 12 luxury condominiums and four restaurants. Stores are expected to open in the first quarter of 2006, and will include world-class designer brands, and about 20 to 25 percent local merchants. Phase two, costing $50 million, entails a 70-room hotel, 40,000 square feet of retail, one or two more restaurants, a 25,000-square-foot conference center, expanding the marina and upgrading a water theme park.

    “One of the major distinctions is that about 80 to 90 percent of the patrons of the center would be vacationers. I don’t think that’s true of most lifestyle centers,” said Sheri Wilson Gray, executive vice president for sales, leasing and marketing activities for Yacht Haven, which is being developed by Island Capital Group LLC, a New York-based real estate firm.

    “The mentality of planning the property is geared to the flow of people on vacations, cruise ship passengers in harbor for five hours or at most overnight, the megayacht or charter boat passengers that could be in for an extended period. There’s a different frame of mind” from an urban setting. “Speed of transaction or how fast people get out is not an issue. For the most part, people will be spending time in the stores, shopping in a leisurely fashion.”

    Island Capital plans to transform existing marinas and build new ones around the world that will encompass state-of-the-art docking for megayachts, smaller cruise ships and other craft as well as upscale shopping, dining and hotel and recreational facilities.

    Positioning of the stores is also important. Service-oriented retail, such as a dry cleaner, a rental car office, a bank, a florist or a drug store would probably face the parking lot, whereas fashionable stores would be in the front, facing the water.

    Overall, the target market for the center is the affluent to the”extraordinarily affluent,” Wilson-Gray said. “The water is the dominant feature and just like if you were building a waterfront home, the home is oriented to maximize the views of the water. Most [tenants] have great views.

    Another distinction: Retailers will be keeping their doors open, making it more inviting, but raising the costs to cool the stores.

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