Nice as it is to make headlines and earn accolades, our greatest joy comes from creating places that people love to experience.

Urban Land Institute

July 13, 2015

Crafting Authenticity for Retail Destinations

By Sean Slater

In one of the oldest neighborhoods of Oakland, California, a short pedestrian alley called Temescal Alley has recently become the “East Bay’s Hippest Street,” according to Condé Nast Traveler magazine. Its buildings— a number of them built in the early 20th century as stables for horse-drawn trolleys—are modest. The 18 shops that open onto the alley and its neighbor, Alley 49, are local businesses, including a vintage clothing shop, an art gallery, a synthesizer store, and an apothecary. The wait to get a haircut at the barbershop can take hours. The menswear store, Standard & Strange, takes its name from a line in Jane Jacobs’s 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

The standard and the strange” is a good way of describing the appeal of “authenticity” in the urban landscape. In reaction to the perceived homogeneity of suburban shopping malls and mass-produced goods, as well as the rise of the craft movement and the buy-local movement, many of today’s consumers want to shop in places that have a handcrafted or bespoke feel to them. Because big-box and internet retailers have captured the low-cost end of the retail spectrum, brick-and-mortar retail stores cannot compete on price, so they need to focus on offering unique environments and experiences if they are to remain relevant.

National retailers are taking notice. Starbucks is rolling out the Starbucks Reserve Roastery and Tasting Room, the first of which opened in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood last year. It sells small-lot coffees roasted on site. The question arises: how far can authenticity go? Is it an ingredient that national real estate investment trusts (REITs) can add to their conventional shopping centers?

The typical shopping mall, built all at once by the same developer and usually designed by the same architect, offers coherence and predictability for both national retailers and consumers. Traditional main streets, however, developed incrementally over a much longer period of time, with individual property owners using different architects. In the modern age, new, authentic-feeling retail environments tend to come about either because a “lone wolf” developer creates and curates a complex of buildings over time, or retail tenants group themselves by affinity along a few blocks of a street— often sparked by one successful shop.

Fairfax Avenue in Los Angeles is an example of the organic model. A four-block stretch of Fairfax was long known mostly for businesses serving the area’s Orthodox Jewish community. In 2004, Supreme, a New York City–based streetwear shop, opened a branch on Fairfax and began attracting similar retailers, followed by hip restaurants, including a few run by celebrity chefs. Streetwear, a style of casual clothing that draws on hip-hop and skateboarding cultures, arose in reaction to the mass-produced clothing available in conventional malls. The distinct cultures of urban streetwear and the existing shopkeepers seemingly have one thing in common: the need for an open storefront facing a busy street with a common sidewalk.

In the case of Temescal Alley, local husbandand-wife landlords Sarita Waite and Raymond Lifchez, an architecture professor at the University of California, Berkeley, selected the tenants.

An older and larger version of the lone-wolf model is Fourth Street in Berkeley, California. This popular retail street started taking shape in the 1980s in a formerly industrial area. Local design/build firm Abrams/Millikan & Kent created a building design center on the street, with home furnishings, design stores, and Fourth Street Grill, a California cuisine mecca until it closed in 1993. Over decades, the development grew into a shopping corridor with about 70 shops and restaurants. Anthropologie and Apple sit alongside locally owned cafés and clothing stores.

Another lone-wolf example is what LAB Holding, a Costa Mesa, California–based development company, calls the “anti-mall.” The company’s first anti-mall, the LAB, opened in Costa Mesa in 1993 in a former night-vision goggle factory. It was aimed at attracting urban youths who were disenchanted with conventional malls. “The LAB stands for ‘little American business,’ ” says Shaheen Sadeghi, company president and founder. “Twenty-three years ago, when we started this company, we felt that the energy, the excitement, the entrepreneurship, and the sense of connection are usually generated by smaller or newer companies.”

Tenants include Urban Outfitters and vintage clothing merchant Buffalo Exchange, as well as various one-of-a-kind clothing shops. Materials from factory buildings were recycled to serve as walls and planters for the complex. An indoor/outdoor courtyard contains a living room with couches and magazine stands, and art shows, local music performances, and poetry readings are held there. With LAB Holding’s blessing, local knitters have yarnbombed planters and signs in the complex, lending it a crafted feel. LAB Holding opened a second antimall, CAMP, in 2002, with retailers targeting health and outdoors enthusiasts.

Ferry Building, San Francisco

Creating a sense of authenticity can be crucial for retail projects that, on paper, lack some of the traditional markers for commercial potential. San Francisco’s Ferry Building, for example, is now a model for market halls across the country, but before its redevelopment, it had terrible prospects from a traditional retail standpoint. Completed in 1898, the building had declined after the Bay Bridge opened in 1936 and significantly diminished ferry traffic. In the 1950s, the Great Nave—a dramatic 660-footlong (200 m) skylit concourse on the second floor of the Ferry Building—was converted to office use, Abbot an effort that included inserting a third floor and suspending a ceiling from the nave’s arched roof trusses. The construction of the double-deck Embarcadero Freeway further eclipsed the structure.

After the freeway was demolished in the 1990s, the Port of San Francisco held a public competition to redevelop the Ferry Building into offices. Local developers Wilson Equity Office, Primus, and Wilson Meany teamed up to win the project. “There was 200,000 square feet [19,000 sq m] of office space on the waterfront that people would invest in,” says Chris Meany, cofounder and managing partner of Wilson Meany, the Ferry Building’s current owner. “But the request for proposals said that you have to have a ground-floor use that will attract the public.

In 1998, there was 100 percent agreement in the development community that retail would fail there.”

No parking was available. Half the surrounding trade area consisted of water. And six traffic lanes separated the building from the rest of the city
The winning team was the only one to propose restoring the architectural feature that made the building’s interior compelling in its ferry terminal days—the Great Nave.  “Our idea was let’s restore the building and really get to the soul of the building, which is its nave, and that will be a magnet and attract people,” Meany says. The team proposed giving the ground floor, which would become the main public area, a view to the nave by cutting two large holes in the second level’s original mosaic floor. The solution alters the original building but reveals what made it special. California’s Office of Historic Preservation and the National Park Service allowed the alteration. In considering how to create a market hall that felt authentic, the development team visited a number of examples around the world.

“The successful ones were all uniquely adapted to their particular place. We said, ‘The Bay Area has a series of artisans and chefs who share a belief in sustainable agriculture. So we’re going to invite them to cohabitate,’”

Meany says. The idea was to create a retail street with stalls beneath the Great Nave. The revamped Ferry Building opened in 2003 and continues to draw crowds of local residents, office workers, and tourists.

La Brea, Los Angeles

In 2008, the Los Angeles office of Madison Marquette bought a complex of 11 buildings dating to the 1930s on one block of South La Brea Avenue in Los Angeles. Although the company was not able to purchase two parcels, the 11 were enough to create a unique shopping district….

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