Uber Westfield Century City

The best-laid plans.

For as much as mall operators can try to prepare for big crowds, no one can predict the future. With Black Friday now behind the industry and the expected ramp-up in traffic to shopping centers over the next few weeks for holiday shopping, managing the proliferation of ride-sharing drivers onto properties is top-of-mind now and into the future.

“We thought we were very prepared for it this holiday, but at our bigger malls, there was even more of them [Uber and Lyfts] than we expected,” said Steven Craig, the president and chief executive officer of outlet developer Craig Realty Group. “Instead of getting half-a-dozen an hour, we were getting six, eight at a time. It really put on a lot of pressure because people don’t get in really quickly. It’s a logistics or capacity issue that we really need to address because more and more people are using the services.”

In the case of Craig Realty Group’s Citadel Outlets in Commerce, Calif., the ride-sharing area will be moved to a different portion of the center, closer to the perimeter to make it easy for drivers to get in and get out. Mobile digital signage will help make it clear where to go.

Craig anticipated the same will eventually need to be done at the company’s newer Outlets at San Clemente as that center attracts more and more visitors.

“That should get it to where it needs to be. It’s just — there were too many of them,” Craig said, recalling the Black Friday weekend in which he helped direct traffic in and around the Citadel’s parking structure and lots. “At one point [drivers] were stopping traffic on a major street.”

North of the Citadel in San Ramon, Calif., Sunset Development Co.’s City Center Bishop Ranch — which opened in early November — counts multiple driveways and potential spots where a shopper could be standing to wait for a driver across its 300,000 square feet.

“It’s a challenge for the navigation to be that precise,” said senior vice president of retail Jeff Dodd. “With Uber and Lyft, there’s the geo-positioning, which makes it a little more precise. But not being able to control where that passenger’s going to want to be picked up and get dropped off, we felt like the universal layby [designated pullover areas] approach was all purpose.”

The Renzo Piano Building Workshop-designed center was developed with that layby lane circling the project’s perimeter, creating natural points where an Uber or Lyft driver can stop. That’s good enough for now. It’s too soon to know if there will be a need for a designated ride-sharing point in the future, according to Dodd.

Like City Center, Runyon Group’s Platform project in Culver City, Calif., does not have a designated ride-sharing area. However, it’s right on the street, setting off an intuitive spot for shoppers to catch a vehicle, pointed out Runyon Group principal Joseph Miller.

It’s about doing what works for the customer and the project, Miller said. Size plays a part. At the 30-acre project Row DTLA in downtown Los Angeles, on which Runyon Group is part of a team working on that mixed-use development, Miller said it’s important to have a drop-off and pick-up point.

“It’s as considered as any other piece of transportation infrastructure at a project,” Miller said of the placement and design of ride-sharing points. “You’re thinking about getting in and getting out and where a vehicle deposits you. Once you’re there, the design of that space is important, too.”

Westfield Century City added the first Uber Lounge to its property last year as part of a partnership between Westfield, prior to it being acquired by Unibail-Rodamco, to elevate the experience of waiting for a car. The lounge is currently being piloted with the option to potentially roll the concept out to other properties. The program gives shopping center officials at Century City a chance to see where its customers are coming from and where they’re going, pointed out Peter Huddle, chief operating officer for the U.S. at Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield.

As more shoppers come to rely on ride-sharing services in the future and the conversation around autonomous vehicles goes from talk to reality, it begs the question of what developers do with monstrous parking structures should there come a time when there’s the need for fewer spots.

“People have been talking about this in office [real estate] for a long time — that people are not going to need parking anymore, but we found just the opposite,” Miller said. “People are definitely still using their cars, but I think when they go out to eat or hang for the day, it’s not an either or. I think people are using all kinds of ways to get around town. It’s not as didactic as that. So I think that you need to have all of those elements and be able to accommodate the customer.”

A good chunk of the conversation is not so much on the parking stalls as it is areas for idle time. That is, places for Uber, Lyft or taxis to get in, wait for a shopper and then quickly exit.

“Typically, the number of cars that we provide as a percentage of total area built is less than what we would have done in the past and this represents a movement towards high turnover of cars within our car park,” Huddle said. “It also is associated with the future of moving towards autonomous cars, which will be the case particularly in urbanized areas.”

The developer utilizes a carpark design, different from what’s been used in the past, at newer developments that keeps the parking structure levels the same as the floors of the actual shopping center to make conversion to retail, if required, easier.

City Center also had flexibility in mind when it designed its three-level parking structure with the first level on top of the first floor retail. The structure was designed to achieve a 360-degree unobstructed city view. However, because of the configuration, should Sunset Development ever want to convert some of the parking into retail, the second level of retail could be backed out into the garage.

“It’s hard to foresee a time when you would be able to eliminate [parking] from the program. But we certainly foresee a time and experts predict a time not too far in the future where the ratio of parking you may require to be successful could change and allow you to alter that,” Dodd said. “It’s hard to plan for it and not have it be expensive, but if parking ratios change, it would certainly make sense in the future if you can create more leasable space.”

And there’s the rub relating to city codes, Craig of Craig Realty said. Requirements to provide, for example, five car parking spaces for every 1,000 square feet of retail lock developers into allocating space for surface level lots or structures. Plus, in the case of the Citadel and other centers, there’s still a need. The Citadel managed to park 5,000 vehicles on site during Black Friday weekend and between 4,000 and 5,000 off site. Construction on a 600-stall structure begins in February.

“The cities, at least from their perspective, they’re not prepared to yield the ground and say there’s a quantum shift in parking needs,” Craig said. “I think the really big issue is going to be the successful malls continue to become more successful. The ones that were struggling, I’m sure you could make the case in a certain town where they’re never filling their parking lot anymore and that property should be used for something else. I just can’t make that case.”