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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

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Yaromir Steiner's conference room overlooks the town square of Easton-a grassy piazza with a fountain at its center, in which children frolic from noon until sundown in the summer, waited on by an attendant who has towels and a smile for the kids. It's a rather rosy view by the standards of today's town centers.

But Easton isn't a town at all. It's a mall. Or, as Mr. Steiner himself-whose firm Steiner & Associates is largely responsible for creating Easton-would have it, it's both. "Here in America, we've stopped building downtowns and town squares," he said in a French-accented basso profoundo. "Where did our urban hubs go, and why did we get rid of them?"

Occupying 90 acres on the eastern edge of Columbus, Ohio, the $300 million project was Steiner's first test bed for the evolution of 21st-century mall design-which could turn out to be synonymous with the future of American urbanism. It's one of the first, most successful examples of the "lifestyle center," 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.

Lifestyle centers are cozy and walkable, with movie theaters, restaurants, bookstores and parks among their main traffic draws. Although the jury is still out on their financial performance vs. traditional malls (the data suggest they're in a dead heat), their plenitude of attractions keep many visitors around for hours, well above the industry average of 81.5 minutes. And retailers such as Limited Brands, Abercrombie & Fitch and Gap Inc. have chosen lifestyle centers for the dry runs of brands such as C.O. Bigelow's, Ruehl No. 925 and Forth and Towne.

They're a response to the decline of both the department store and the regional mall itself. For the first time in more than 50 years, not a single enclosed mall is on the drawing board, at least not through 2008, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers. Executives at development giants such as Simon Property Group and Taubman Centers rush to defend the mall's health. "The most productive retail channels we have are far and away the regional mall," said Simon president Rick Sokolov. The most lucrative "will be the last ones to die," Mr. Steiner says matter-of-factly.

glorypark

By contrast, more than 60 lifestyle centers will be built this year or next, many by those same giants, of which Steiner's are the most philosophically ambitious. Yaromir Steiner himself is a disciple of the 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.

Yet Easton has no permanent residents. Steiner's subsequent projects have corrected that. Zona Rosa, outside Kansas City, added 33 loft apartments to the mix, and the company's latest project, Dayton, Ohio's The Greene, will open 136 apartments this winter. The Greene is only a dress rehearsal, however, for Glorypark, a planned $600 million project in Arlington, Texas, that will include apartments for 10,000 potential residents tucked into 1.2 million square feet of retail and 300,000 square feet of office space across 400 acres. Mr. Steiner has spent the past two years master planning the site in conjunction with majority land owner Tom Hicks, the government of Arlington and the Dallas Cowboys (which are building a new stadium nearby)-all at a cost of $2 million. "You have to think in the long term and on a large-scale basis," says Steiner President Barry Rosenberg. "I'm not saying that cities don't have that vision, but it takes a bold initiative to spend this kind of money when people are asking, 'Why are you raising my taxes?"'

Glorypark isn't the only or even the largest town center being built today. Atlantic Station, going up on the site of a former steel mill north of Atlanta, will house as many as 10,000 residents on its 138-acre site. Legacy Town Center in Dallas boasts homes that sell for upward of $400,000. I discovered Mr. Steiner last May, at the ICSC's annual convention in Las Vegas. Mr. Steiner spoke on a panel that asked: "Is New Urbanism the next wave?" Speaking to a packed house of his peers, he delivered an unqualified "yes." "Single-use environments," e.g., the mall, "will disappear over the next 30 years," and he is helping nudge the trend along.

He is, in effect, resurrecting Victor Gruen's original vision for Southdale Mall when it was planned 50 years ago, a plan that included apartments, houses, school, parks and even a lake. But only the enclosed mall was built, setting a standard that has been infinitely repeated around the world. There are some interesting parallels between Messrs. Steiner and Gruen. Both are emigres from Old World cities-Vienna in Mr. Gruen's case; Istanbul and Toulouse in Mr. Steiner's. "I grew up in a city that was 2,000 years old," he says. "What you grew up with in America was an aberration from an urban-planning standpoint."

I paid a visit to Easton a few weeks ago on the eve of the opening of The Greene, located an hour's drive west. Easton had been commissioned by Limited Brands Chairman Leslie Wexner as a prototype mall of the future. Built in two phases, the first was controversial for its lack of department-store anchors (Macy's and Nordstrom arrived with the second). "Right up until the day we opened, it had a great many critics who said we couldn't do an open-air mall without anchors," said Steve Morris, a former Limited executive turned retail consultant. Not that it ever wanted for foot traffic-today, Easton is the most successful mall in Columbus, with sales of $545 per square foot last year, crushing both Polaris, its enclosed-mall rival across town ($366 per square foot) and Midwest malls in general ($330).

In appearance, Easton is drenched in nostalgia. The complex is a mishmash of architectural styles ranging from the Federalist Hilton Hotel to the Victoriana of its main buildings. But the secrets of its success lie in the fine details, which deliberately reverse five decades of conventional wisdom concerning mall design. The classical mall's climate control, wide-open store facades, two-story shopping and encircling parking are all designed to remove any obstacles to shopping from the path of passive consumers. Alfred Taubman, who has been credited with perfecting the mall, once described this engineering as lowering shoppers' "threshold resistance."

Mr. Steiner's great insight was to put those barriers back in place-Midwest winters, storefronts, traffic and even parking meters. Why in the world, I asked him on a tour of Easton, did you install parking meters? "To keep the managers from parking in front of their own stores all day," he said, and "to ensure convenience" by making it possible for shoppers to dart in and out of stores again, removing perhaps the ultimate resistance to shopping at the mall: navigating its vast congestion.

What if it snows?

His biggest regret when it comes to Easton is that its uses aren't very mixed; much of the space above the stores is fake. When Easton was being built in 1998-99, Mr. Steiner's backers had been reluctant to give him the go-ahead to build upward. Since then, other developers have colonized the surrounding area with the Residences at Towne Center and Easton Commons, and he vowed not to squander the opportunity again.

His resolve is evident when one turns into The Greene off the interstate near southeast Dayton. The town center's four-story, city-block-long apartment building looms over The Greene's grassy center. The 136 apartments won't be ready until January, but the wait list already has more than 500 names. On opening day, a jazz band played standards and jugglers amused the few children who weren't already playing in the new fountain. Lines for the Cheesecake Factory and Brio Tuscan Grille curled around the blocks, and everyone I spoke to murmured about the ineffable feeling of "energy" and "community" in the air. Still, one shopper took Mr. Steiner aside and asked him if he was worried about what would happen when it snowed. "Snow slows people from coming to the project," he said, "but once they're here, it doesn't seem to make a difference." But what about customers bringing snow with them into the stores? "It has been this way," he sighed, "for centuries."
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