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How lifestyle centers have evolved with the times

BY Josh Poag

In the 1990s, The Limited conducted a study that produced shocking results: Fully 43% of Americans wouldn’t go to the mall! This was a direct and perhaps inevitable result of a philosophy that was so unconcerned with the quality of the shopping experience that malls were often designed with escalators located solely at the ends of the building — in an attempt to “force” shoppers to pass more storefronts.

In my home, it was actually more than 30 years ago when my father noticed that my mother wasn’t enjoying family trips to the mall, and he decided to do something about it: design and deliver the kind of retail destination that people wouldn’t see as a chore, but as something engaging and enjoyable. Thus was born the lifestyle center. My father, Dan Poag, was responsible for coining and trademarking the term “lifestyle center.” He started Poag & McEwen to develop them and three decades later its successor, Poag Shopping Centers, remains on the forefront of lifestyle center innovation.

Dan Poag’s background in developing strip centers gave him a platform for creating an entirely new and ultimately groundbreaking concept: a commercial development that fused strip center-style convenience and accessibility with the premium brand appeal that was previously found only at larger enclosed malls. By introducing a mix of national specialty retailers and restaurants and adding amenities and aesthetic details designed to make the experience of visiting the center a positive one rather than a wearying obligation, he hoped to break the mold.

Josh Poag

Josh Poag

He envisioned a combination of amenities and aesthetic details that would feel like something entirely new and appealing — outdoor centers with vibrant open spaces, not dissimilar from the bustling social and commercial energy of traditional small town squares. Today the lifestyle center concept is ubiquitous and calls to mind some of the most commercially successful and socially vibrant projects in the country. It’s a concept that is widely open to re-interpretation and, indeed, lifestyle centers have evolved substantially from their earliest iterations.

Trailblazing projects like The Shops of Saddle Creek in Germantown, Tenn., One Pacific Place in Omaha, and The Avenue at East Cobb in Marietta, Ga., were typically designed with the u-shaped layout common to the first lifestyle centers. Arguably the biggest step forward was made at Town Center Plaza in Kansas City in the late 1990s. Town Center Plaza was big at 660,000 square feet, and it not only generated a great deal of buzz, it also demonstrated that the lifestyle concept could work well with larger developments, and helped inspired a wave of equally ambitious projects.

The u-shape layout, however, did not translate as well to larger projects. The logistics of getting from one end of the center to the other became too burdensome, so architects and developers took the next big leap forward, creating Lifestyle 2.0. This was conceived around a layout that would come to be known as the Main Street concept: two sides of retail adjacent to a central street, accommodating primary parking in front of stores and overflow parking outside the Main Street. Main Street allowed lifestyle-based designs to scale up while still feeling intimate and navigable without too much effort. By creating central spaces that were ideal for concepts like larger public parks, plazas, lakes and performance areas, Lifestyle 2.0 was able to accommodate larger community gatherings and a wider range of experiences. The Promenade Shops at Saucon Valley in Central Valley, Pennsylvania, and The Promenade Shops at Evergreen Walk in South Windsor, Connecticut, are excellent examples of Lifestyle 2.0 designs.

The innovation didn’t stop there. Lifestyle 3.0 projects today include residential and hospitality uses, denser, more vertical designs, and a newly expanded range of high-end services and amenities to complement strong programming and community engagement. Avalon in Alpharetta, Georgia, for example, achieves mixed-use density with residential and office over street-level retail. Strong social media programming helps maximize a series of promotions and special events, and premium extras like valet and concierge services are popular with residents and visitors alike.

The most radical thing about the lifestyle center wasn’t any one single design innovation or merchandising practice, it was the insight that now seems obvious: Customer experience matters. By elevating customer experience to the top of the priority chart, lifestyle centers changed the game. While the nuts and bolts have changed, experience-driven design remains at the core of lifestyle center design philosophy today.

The lessons of the past three decades have presented lifestyle center developers the insights they need to reimagine, redesign, and redevelop Lifestyle 1.0 centers to gleaming new projects. In Florida, The Avenue Viera, is undergoing just such a transformation, connecting residents to the project from over 1,000 new multi-family units and two new nearby hotels. The center also recently added three first-to-market restaurants; Urban Air, a 37,500-square-foot entertainment venue; the first Florida location for outdoor lifestyle retailer Leaf In Creek; an expanded fitness selection; and several new health and beauty tenants.

The new retail center paradigm my dad envisioned three decades ago has displayed remarkable resiliency in the marketplace and will continue to do so. Lifestyle 4.0 can’t be far behind.

Josh Poag is president and CEO of Poag Shopping Centers, which manages and/or leases 16 lifestyle centers comprising approximately 6 million square feet.

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