Retail, Real Estate, and Community

We're in the midst of a sea change in the roles played and opportunities presented by retail, technology, the importance of place as a cultural tool, consumer behavior, and more. What follows is some anecdotal evidence, random statistics, and theorizing.

From a conference at UCLA earlier this year I learned that Westfield Malls is deliberately downsizing from 179 to 35 location (according to one of their executives during a panel discussion) or to 23 (according to another panelist – which was either an additional piece of information OR a misquote of the original number).

As more and more retailers go bankrupt and pull out of their leases – both anchor stores such as JCPenney and Macy's, as well as smaller yet critical players such as The Limited, WetSeal, Radio Shack, and more – it seems only wise for property owners to also anticipate change and bow out of the mall business.

One of the opportunities that arises is the idea of redefining the mall experience, much like the Third Street Promenade did in the late '80s and which The Grove took to a new level in the early '00s. The latest incarnation comes from The Runyon Group's PLATFORM in Culver City. PLATFORM is relatively small – maybe 15 stores – with a 50-50 split between food (both fast-casual and fine dining, including coffee and ice cream) and retail: a few fashion brands, a few homewares stores, a florist. For the most part, the shops are either one-offs or quirky enough to count, e.g., Blue Bottle Coffee. The curated shop mix is deliberate, as is the support of percentage-only pop-up shops that provide novelty and surprise. 

PLATFORM also devoted significant attention to the landscape architecture: the outdoor space is intentionally designed to encourage wandering and lingering. An insightful article in Metropolis about Landscape Urbanism (the argument that landscape, more than buildings, have fundamentally changed the way cities urbanize) helps explain what we're experiencing at PLATFORM — and likely also underpins Rick Caruso’s Grove (as just one example). What makes The Grove successful is not the store mix per se, it’s that the mall itself has been redefined and its purpose re-invented. The mall’s purpose is not to facilitate shopping, it is to facilitate community – or the appearance of community. The Grove is the town square of the 21st Century. The town square is created within the white space, the open space outside of the buildings (i.e., the formally lease-able space). This is the same concept PLATFORM has applied. They have created a destination, a place to be (not to do) for their residents and visitors.  

For many of you, this will sound like Starbucks. They did not build a coffee shop. They built a community center.

PLATFORM partners with their retailers to offer events. One such panel discussion was a think tank that brought together LA's leading design moderator (Frances Anderton) with several designers and community agents to talk about space. This kind of dialogue was a collaboration between the real estate entity (Runyon) and the store to establish themselves as design thinkers and city planners. So the mall itself becomes a vehicle for educating and influencing community opinion, and doubles as a casual form of city planning. This understanding of the interconnections between shopping and living and thinking also explains why Runyon – as well as Westfield at their newly renovated Century City Mall – have built housing above their retail. High rise apartment and condo living is both smart urban planning and ensures a built-in audience for street level retail, gyms and other wellness activities, and services. 

The growing popularity of WeWork offices, which are now adding WeLive apartments, and shops such as Tom’s Shoes on Abbot Kinney, which is packed all hours of the day with freelance and gig employees on laptops, signals real estate's opportunity to create community. Especially in the urban areas of Southern California, where so many people work for themselves, have relocated from other states, and generally feel disconnected, people are hungry for somewhere to be and to belong. Good design, i.e., architecture, outdoor space, and resources, can fill that need.


Lesley Roberts