MAIN STREET Goes MAINSTREAM

Article excerpt

With their "Main Street, U.S.A." feel, lifestyle centers have become increasingly popular-and with the blossoming concept comes a unique set of rewards and challenges by Darnell Little

Say the words "lifestyle center," and some people might think of a health and wellness spa or perhaps a fitness and nutrition dub. But, lifestyle centers are actually the latest step in the evolution of shopping centers.

These new commercial urban villages are retail-laden town centers where visitors can do a lot more than just shop-and they're proving to be quite successful.

Approximately 150 lifestyle centers are currently in operation, according to information from the International Council of Shopping Centers. Their popularity has grown exponentially in the past several years: While 32 lifestyle centers opened in the 1990s, nearly 90 have opened since 2000, and many more are under development.

"The trends are very strong," said Mez Birdie, CPM and director of retail and investment services for NAI Realvest. "The lifestyle centers offer more entertainment than your traditional mall. They have a better mix of restaurants, theaters and shoppinghence the popularity. Even the setting and ambience are more appealing, and diat makes people want to spend more of their time in them compared with the typical regional mall."

DEFINING THE TREND

The technical definition of a lifestyle center is an open-air shopping center that has a main street design. They range from 150,000 to over 500,000 square feet. They are developed in more affluent areas and have large trade areas, according to IREM information. While retail shopping is abundant, these centers include plenty of restaurants and entertainment venues like movie theaters, which makes the experience about more than just shopping.

A heavy emphasis is placed on design and landscaping-giving the lifestyle center a village square or Main Street atmosphere. And while these centers may contain a big-box retailer, the focus is on upscale boutique shops and specialty stores-not an anchor.

Capturing that Main Street ambience was die plan behind die Village of Rochester Hills in Rochester Hills, Mich., said Jim Fielder, a vice president with Roben B. Aikens & Associates, which opened the center in 2002. This 375,000 square-foot development touts a streetscape design with stores lined along boulevards offering plenty of street-side parking.

"We have really tried to create a downtown feel-like something that would have been around 40 or 50 years ago in a bedroom community that really didn't have a gathering place of its own," Fielder said.

In addition to retailers like J. Crew, Abercrombie & Fitch and Williams-Sonorna, the Village of Rochester Hills also sports nearly a dozen restaurants and a Radiance Medspa-all situated in a heavily landscaped environment designed to be pedestrianand driver-friendly.

Fielder said the village square atmosphere is what makes the center unique. Local residents see the center as a place to congregate and feel a sense of community, he said. Every year it hosts a Christmas tree lighting and around 4,000 people come out to sing Christmas carols while the Rochester Hills mayor lights the tree.

"Don't get me wrong, we're not the most philanthropic people in the world," Fielder said. "We still have a sense of needing to do business. It's just those kind of things really make a center more of a place unto its own, as opposed to being just a shopping destination."

LAWS OF ECONOMICS

The sense of community experienced at lifestyle centers is just one of the complex aspects distinguishing these developments from regional shopping centers.

Thomas Wilder, a principal at the Wilder Companies, said several elements separate lifestyle centers from traditional malls. Wilder Companies is developing a string of lifestyle centers branded as the "Loop." Two Loop centers are already open-one in Orlando, Fla. …