The Principles of Successful Centers Part 1

By: James C. Auld • AIA • CDP


As the retail landscape is transformed by consumer choice and market forces, lifestyle centers have emerged as a popular alternative to the traditional shopping mall — they are community-oriented, pedestrian-friendly destinations offering both retail and entertainment amenities. Our award-winning Victoria Gardens in Rancho Cucamonga, California, recognized as one of the best examples of the typology, opened over a decade ago and is still vibrant, successful, and still evolving.

What we have learned designing lifestyle, open-air and mixed-use developments is that there is no one template, but rather a set of principles that serve as a guide for each unique opportunity.

1. Analyze the Context Holistically

In an environment filled with cookie cutter strip malls, big box stores, and chain restaurants, it is important to remember that every community is, in fact, different. Our job is to understand the physical, cultural, and historical context of the particular project in order to create a center that will resonate with the community. To that end, we work closely with the developer and representatives from the community to learn how the geography and climate influence the local lifestyle. We ask: What are the cultural roots of the place? The shared stories of collective memory?

We not only analyze the current context, we also look to the future, at how the community is evolving. What are the aspirations of the residents and how can this project be a part of their future?

2. Establish a Harmonious Urban Framework

With any project, there’s always a surrounding urban fabric made of streets, sidewalks, and landscaped areas supporting cars, bikes, pedestrians, strollers, or skaters. This is not peripheral, it’s an opportunity to weave the new project into the existing life of the community. We explore all the ways that we can attach the new development unto the familiar framework and literally steer the traffic to the project. What’s going on around here that can be leveraged to create a physical hierarchy that connects the project to the fabric of the place? The goal is to direct that extant, ambient energy onto the people, activities, and stores to the benefit of the new center.

3. Make it Organic, Flexible, Adaptable

Opening day is just the beginning of the life of a center. That’s why we design for the inevitable changes in fashion, technology, and retail strategy. We have long studied how people adapt public spaces for their own purposes, so we offer them options. Outdoor spaces, parklets, mezzanines, community rooms that can be programmed or freelanced by the users. We plan for an easy flow from inside to out and all around. These are places for a variety of people—young and old, groups of teenagers, couples on dates, moms with kids in tow. And their needs and wants will change over t ime and the project should be able to flex and change, too.

In our next post, we will explore: 
4. Encourage Tenant Design Dissonance
5. Furnish Art and Amenities
6. Create Civic Streetscapes

James C. Auld, AIA, CDP
STIR Architecture