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Monday, October 23, 2006

Atlanta's Atlantic Station - A Lifestyle Center

Atlantic Station originally uploaded by wizum.
After hearing so much about them, I have finally experienced a Lifestyle Center, this one in Atlanta - the new Atlantic Station which the website describes as a live/work/play community in midtown Atlanta.

The 9/25/06 issue of Ad Age features an article titled "If You Shopped Here, You'd Be Home By Now, FIRST IN A SERIES: Yaromir Steiner is Convinced the Future of America is the Shopping Mall" by Greg Lindsay. It defines lifestyle center as "a real-estate industry term for the upscale, open-air malls that eschew both the department-store anchors of traditional malls and big-box behemoths with acres of parking." This article and its companion piece from the 10/2/06 issue titled "Say Goodbye to the Mall SECOND IN A SERIES: Regional Plazas Face Extinction Thanks to Growth of Mixed-Use 'Lifestyle Centers'" provide a fascinating glimpse on how this new phenomenon differs from the traditional mall.

In case you weren't aware, the traditional mall is a thing of the past. No new malls are scheduled for development for the foreseeable future. Instead, we'll see approx. 60 new lifestyle centers going up between now and 2008. The reason? "It's a couple of things," said Michael Kercheval, CEO of the ICSC. "One is recognizing that the baby boomers will respond ideally to something that recalls their pasts. The second is that it's much easier these days to win approvals from cities, towns and their mayors to build a mixed-use development with trees and fountains than a mall, when the outside of most malls resembles a prison surrounded by a sea of asphalt." [grim description!]

Lifestyle centers -like Atlantic Station- recreate the feel of an urban center, with streets and traffic and stores mixed in with restaurants and movie theaters, offering convenience, camaraderie and entertainment on a human scale. Retailers generally feel that the centers "actually liberate and empower their brands in a manner the typical enclosed mall never could."

They break with traditional malls on several fronts: no department store anchors and plenty of 'barriers' to fully engage shoppers in the experience [e.g., streets to cross, traffic to watch out for, no piped-in music, unexpected weather...]. In integrating living with shopping and working, they represent the "holy grail" of New Urbanism, "the movement of urban planners and architects working to reintroduce the human scale and layouts of traditional towns to the snarled development of sprawl."

To get a big picture perspective of Atlantic Station, I purposely stayed in the car [I was also really tired!]. Next time, I'll go for the pedestrian approach.

Atlantic Station is still a work in progress, but as part of a large sprawling city like Atlanta, it is widely touted as an excellent example where living, working, shopping are fully integrated in a more holistic manner. [See Atlantic Station Delivers by Suzanne Marques from the 10/19/2005 issue of 11Alive.com.]

It's a massive project with 3000 to 5000 residential units [10,000 people expected to live there eventually]. IKEA anchors one end of the 138 acre environmental redevelopment and reclamation of the former Atlantic Station Steel Mill. It will include 15 million square feet of retail, office and residential and hotel space broken down as 11 acres of public parks, 2 million square feet of retail space, and 1000 hotel rooms. Just staggering, and equivalent to creating a small city [it even has its own zip code]!

As of October 2006, the core shopping district is mostly complete [Target has yet to be built]. In many ways, it resembles a traditional mall laid out in an urban grid complete with streets and parallel parking spots [time to polish those skills!]. Ample parking is available underground and subway-like stairways take you above ground to the shopping.

A surprise: a supermarket amidst the Studio D, Victoria's Secret, Abercrombie and other stores, restaurants, and movie theaters. Kind of neat - if you don't mind shlepping your grocery bags around.

Although some of the retail spaces will have living spaces above them, I was disappointed that the townhouses/condos weren't better integrated with the shopping/dining/entertaining areas. Living, although compact, is still separate from the rest and has a suburban feel [except for those few who live immediately adjacent to the action]. If I assume that a lifestyle center wants to create an urban area similar to a NYC or a San Francisco or a Paris where neighborhoods have distinct personalities resulting from the neighboring resources, then I would expect flower shops and corner grocers interspersed amidst the buildings in the 'Home Park' and the 'Commons'. Where are those 3rd places [as described by Ray Oldenburg in his book "The Great, Good Place"] that create community? I hope they're coming.

I was also surprised at the potential for intense traffic jams within the 'District'. On the plus side, it allowed me to gawk from my car and experience the big picture! Rereading the Ad Age articles, though, I appreciate that the congestion is part of the experience!

That said, I'm interested in watching how this develops. I'm excited about the concept of lifestyle centers. These are models for smart growth and sustainable development. They are also about retail experience and integrating that experience into our work/live/play lives, creating an environment that fights urban sprawl, attempts to recreate urban town centers, and certainly addresses the flaws of the mall model [Have you read Paco Underhill's "Call of the Mall"? See recommended reading section/retail trends].

Lifestyle centers represent a fascinating opportunity for retailers, too. Especially those wanting to test new formats and approaches that mesh more fully into their target audiences' lives. What an opportunity for a carpet or flooring store to reinvent the store model -- maybe as a "flooring cafe" as suggested by John Jantshch from Duct Tape Marketing in this post titled The Return of the Department Store -- in a format that could create that 3rd place, and establish itself fully into the day-to-day lives of the consumers of this mini-city! It's ripe for the picking for retailers with the right level of passion! If you aren't convinced that some get it, read Atlantic Station broadens retail base from the 10/5/06 issue of TheStoryGroup.com.

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