Are "lifestyle centers" real TOD?A couple recent articles sparked me thinking about lifestyle centers and transit-oriented development (TOD), two independent trends that are getting a little confused because they happen to overlap in rare instances. The first is a Newsweek article on lifestyle centers, Disney-fied "downtowns in suburbia" like we have in The Woodlands or Sugar Land:
Like so many suburbs, Lakewood, Colo., near Denver, never had a downtown. Now it does. Well, actually, what it has is Belmar, a shopping center—only this isn't your basic strip mall. It's what's called a "lifestyle center," an idealized vision of an urban streetscape, with 22 open-air blocks of cafés, performance spaces, offices, housing, parks and, of course, chain stores familiar to anyone who's spent time in the Galleria (can you say Sharper Image and Victoria's Secret?).Now combine those observations with these from a Wall Street Journal article titled, "Why Some Cities Think Developing At Rail Stops Is a Mighty Good Road":
The malling of America has taken a decidedly Disney-esque twist. Designed like elaborate outdoor movie sets, lifestyle centers are meant to look like real towns, with curbed streets, parking meters and themed architecture (think Disneyland's Main Street, U.S.A.). They're cropping up on the fringes of cities from Washington, D.C., to San Diego: 150 so far, with 100 more in the pipeline. ..."It's a buzzword right now, the trendy thing to call your shopping development,"
Many mom-and-pop retailers, already wounded from the onslaught of big-box chains like Wal-Mart, worry these malls may finish the job. "We sort of resent the fact that these lifestyle centers are calling themselves 'downtowns' when we already have a downtown," says Jeanette Billings, a director of the Downtown Naples Association in Florida, formed recently by local merchants concerned about the opening of four lifestyle centers north of the city. Yet shoppers seem to love them.
The mall, built by General Growth Properties, likes to think of itself as a downtown, though the operators clearly don't want it to be too urban: The "code of conduct" prohibits spitting, swearing, skateboarding and congregating in large groups (unlike downtowns, lifestyle centers are mostly privately owned). Such manufactured civility is part of what convinced Chris Salderman, 32, to purchase a loft condominium at Belmar with his wife. "It gives you the feeling that you're in a city, but without all the chaos," he says. "You can walk around at night and there are things to do, but you don't worry about the drunks on the streets." Urban pioneers of suburbia might want to come up with lyrics of their own: "things will be great when you're not downtown."
Opened in 2000, CityCenter Englewood (inc. 438 apts on 55 acres) is one of a growing number of developments offering a mix of uses that have emerged around mass-transit rail lines, a trend that is particularly notable in the car-friendly West. In Dallas, Mockingbird Station on the city's light-rail system boasts an artsy Angelika Film Center, loft apartments that utilize a 1940s warehouse, and retail and office space. And the Del Mar stop in Pasadena, Calif., along Los Angeles's light rail includes 347 apartments stacked over ground floors intended for shops that will give the project a dense, urban feel amid its low-rise Southern California surroundings when it is completed early next year.Here are my observations:
Such projects still have plenty of challenges, one of the reasons the Federal Transit Administration counts only about 100 of them nationwide. Because zoning often favors a single use, such as residential or commercial, developers must work with city officials to change the rules. Land can be difficult to assemble. And upfront costs for developers -- especially with demand to include features such as plazas and parks -- are high with financial returns often slow in coming.
In Houston, about half the land along the city's 7.5-mile light-rail line -- which connects a medical center, sports venues and downtown -- is vacant and developers who have locked up parcels are hanging back. "There hasn't been a rush to build," says Kimberly Callahan, a spokeswoman for Houston-based Camden Property Trust, a real-estate investment trust which eventually hopes to build a residential and retail project on several acres it owns along the city's Main Street rail corridor.
- Lifestyle centers are simply the new malls with the roof removed and a few apartments and/or condos on top. They rely just as heavily on drawing in car drivers from a multi-mile radius as a normal mall (with similar parking requirements), and their retail profile is essentially the same as a mall rather true TOD: more Gap/Banana Republic than everyday needs.
- Notice the small numbers of apartments in these projects. 438 apartments in 55 acres? That's about 8 units/acre - far less dense than normal apartment projects in Houston or most other cities - and of course far too low to come anywhere close to supporting the street retail by itself. And any implication that these developments are meaningfully "taking cars off the road" by allowing people to walk or take transit for errands, shopping, and work is, well, laughable - mainly because a few hundred apartments is a teeny-tiny drop in the bucket of any city large enough to build rail transit.
- Because lifestyle centers have the same economics as a mall, it takes a lot of population to support one, so cities will be lucky if even one in a couple dozen rail stops gets one. In Houston, most spoke freeways support one or two major malls - I would imagine that ratio would hold about the same for lifestyle centers on long rail lines. Notice how even cities with dozens of miles of rail like Dallas, Denver, and LA can usually only point to one notable lifestyle center TOD.
- Developers are leveraging cities' and transit agencies' desperation for TOD (because it was promised as part of the package with the rail line) to get public help for what would otherwise be very difficult projects, whether through easier approvals, zoning changes, or eminent domain for land assembly.
- Non-lifestyle-center TOD (i.e. everyday street retail mixed use) still seems to be a rarity along the newer rail transit lines of the last couple dozen years.