Big mall owner sees its future in town centers
General Growth Properties, the nation’s second-largest owner of shopping malls, has decided to start redeveloping its more than 200 properties by adding housing, offices, hotels, and other elements — and applying New Urbanism’s techniques in some locations. Thomas D’Alesandro IV, senior vice president of the Chicago-based company, told a session at CNU in Philadelphia that he foresees “the reinvention of existing malls into mixed-use centers.”
The firm has quietly had Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co. work on a plan for redeveloping Utah’s first enclosed shopping mall — the Cottonwood Mall in Holladay, just south of Salt Lake City — into a mixed-use development. That project, whose design has not yet been made public, joins mixed-use redevelopment projects that the company is pursuing in Columbia, Maryland, Natick, Massachusetts, Rock Springs, Wyoming, and elsewhere.
Through acquisitions, the company, also known as GGP, has become the owner of Mizner Park, a path-breaking new urban center in Boca Raton, Florida, and Water Tower Place, the high-profile multi-level shopping mall, hotel, office, and residential development on North Michigan Avenue in Chicago. In November 2005 GGP acquired the Rouse Company, giving it ownership of the mall at the heart of the 1960s new town of Columbia, Maryland.
GGP’s acquisitions, and an awareness of changing living patterns and widespread opposition to sprawl, have given the company a growing appreciation of mixed-use development. “We’re looking, going forward, at being a different company,” D’Alesandro told a CNU audience May 19.
D’Alesandro pointed out the significance of his own history and position. “I head development at General Growth,” he said, and “I have never built a mall.” What he has done over the years is orchestrate development of Virginia’s Reston Town Center during a formative period of that project and work as an executive at The Woodlands, a “new town” begun in the 1970s north of Dallas.
profitability of mixed-use
Those experiences have shown him the profitability of bringing varied, complementary uses into close proximity. Reston Town Center, he said, contains more than two million square feet of offices, which are “leasing at the highest rates in northern Virginia.” The Hyatt Regency hotel anchoring the eastern end of the Reston center outperforms every other hotel in the region, he said. Similarly, the Woodlands Town Center has “the highest office rents in greater Houston” and has a hotel that is “the best-performing in greater Houston.”
In Columbia, where zoning approvals for redevelopment are yet to be secured, “the big idea is to integrate the mall into a larger urban fabric, kind of like the 19th-century urban arcaded streets were in Europe,” D’Alesandro told New Urban News. “The tactics would include walkways and streets connecting the mall to Columbia Town Center’s lakefront district, which abut one another but have never been connected from a pedestrian point of view…. Other sides of the mall would have their own connections to streetscapes.” Parking lots would be replaced by structured parking. Residential, office, and retail space would be added. A hotel may be built, too. The Howard County government had Design Collective, a new urbanist firm in Baltimore, devise a 30-year plan through a public charrette process (Dec. 2005 New Urban News). GGP has since retained Cooper, Robertson & Partners, another new urbanist firm, to create a plan.
“I think Columbia presents an excellent opportunity to develop a protocol for mall conversion into mixed-use town centers that we will be able to study and extend to other properties across our portfolio,” D’Alesandro said. “My belief is that this is going to be a long-term trend extending over at least the next twenty years, so much so that people will become as familiar with a mall conversion protocol as they are with a prototypical new urbanist residential neighborhood…. It will start out slow as people learn the new ‘formulas’ and pick up speed once they have got them down.”
“We are paying close attention to the quality of the buildings and to the quality of the spaces between the buildings,” GGP chief executive John Bucksbaum said last year of the company’s plan for developing Summerlin Centre, a mixed-use hub for Summerlin, a large planned community on the western edge of Las Vegas.
It is not clear how closely the company’s projects will hew to New Urbanism’s principles. Some may not be new urbanist at all. One project that D’Alesandro cited in his CNU presentation — Otay Ranch Town Center in Chula Vista, California — apparently is a lifestyle center rather than a new urbanist development. Otay Ranch Town Center offers pleasant outdoor spaces, but they appear to be part of a shopping and entertainment complex that does not have housing, offices, and civic buildings embedded in it.
In Massachusetts, the Natick Mall is being expanded and augmented with 215 condominium units, a hotel, and six parking decks containing 7,045 spaces, among other things. At Cottonwood Mall in Utah, which has a 52-acre property, “we’re purposely letting the mall die,” D’Alesandro said. “We will come back and build a mixed-use center.” From a new urbanist perspective, it’s encouraging that GGP hired Duany Plater-Zyberk to work there, but what DPZ has proposed to do with the forlorn mall from 1962 has not yet been disclosed.
“A lot of malls were built as one-phase projects,” D’Alesandro said, and GGP now sees its properties as candidates for more than one phase of development.