The recent fate of suburban “lifestyle centers”

In sprawling suburbia, there can often be a lack of central spaces where people come together. One recent solution proposed by developers is to build “lifestyle centers,” basically walkable outdoor shopping areas where people can park and spend a day. Here is an update on how these facilities have fared in recent years:

All forms of real estate were punished by the financial crisis, but among the hardest hit was the category that includes the Arboretum. Known as lifestyle centers, they are upscale suburban and exurban developments fashioned as instant downtowns, replete with lush landscaping, communal gathering spaces and a faux Main Street vibe. Eschewing traditional anchors and recession-proof tenants such as grocery stores, the centers promote traffic-building events such as wine tasting, concerts and exhibitions.

Nationally, lifestyle vacancy rates grew faster than any other retail segment, and rents declined the most, an average of $7.38 per square foot, during the last three years, according to CoStar…

Across the Chicago market, shopping center vacancy rates have made slow progress, dropping to 8.6 percent in the first quarter from a high of 9 percent last year, according to the CoStar Retail Report. In 2007, prerecession vacancy rates were below 7 percent…

The lifestyle center blueprint is generally credited to Poag & McEwen, a Tennessee-based developer that pioneered the concept outside Memphis in 1987. The firm has since built more than a dozen centers nationwide, including the north suburban Deer Park Town Center, which opened in 2000 as the area’s first…

I’ve been to a few of these facilities in the Chicago area and the experience is fascinating . I haven’t seen any sociological research on these relatively new spaces but here are some interesting facets:

1. This article suggests these centers can be “instant downtowns.” It would be interesting to see whether these facilities are typically built in places that already have downtowns (so they are competition or supplementary if the community is quite large, like the center at the northwest corner of Route 59 and 95th Street in Naperville) versus being built in suburban communities that never had downtowns (so these facilities are more like replacements). I would also imagine that many suburbanites also have a different image of downtown, more similar to a “Main Street” commonly found in small towns (and enshrined at Disneyworld). But perhaps “a faux Main Street vibe” is good enough for suburbanites. What would it take for one of these facilities to really catch on in a suburban community and replicate some of the functions of a downtown?

2. Can these really be “public spaces”? Do people actually come here regularly to sit and interact with others or are they more like outdoor shopping malls? It seems like there needs to be a critical mass of people who would visit these facilities and would also commit to them before they would be more than shopping malls. These places are a long way from the neighborhood life suggested by people like Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. (I also wonder how much of these facilities are actually private property versus public property.)

3. How many of these facilities are accessible by anything other than cars? It is one thing to push New Urbanist concepts (walkability, denser spaces, more traditional architecture) but another to plop New Urbanist designs in the middle of typical auto-centric communities.

4. What sort of lifestyles are promoted by such centers? It is likely the typical American consumerism of middle and upper-class suburbia that one can find elsewhere with perhaps a few events or activities might to provide a touch of color and attract people (wine tastings, exhibitions, etc.).

5. Is an investment in a facility like this better than an investment in strip malls or more conventional shopping centers? I imagine communities might find them more visually attractive but do they generate more sales tax revenue?

7 thoughts on “The recent fate of suburban “lifestyle centers”

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