Shopping center development and design begin in earnest with the selection of an anchor, a focal point that will consistently attract people to the development. Many kinds of properties can work as anchors for developments. Department stores, cinemas, and food courts often anchor malls. Open-air developments also use movie theaters, name big box stores, and bookstores. For developers willing to work out mixed-use projects, public properties can perform anchor duties. Some of today’s mixed-use projects are using public libraries as anchors — with good results.
A public development in Millcreek, Utah, for instance, has created a concept that includes a senior center, community recreation center, public park, and a café, all anchored by a public library. The innovative design locates the cafe in the library lobby, which affords access to any of the other spaces in the development; the library sits on one side of the café and the senior center and recreation center sit on the other.
The concept works well. The library attracts people whose ages range from children to seniors. They drop off returns at the library, take out another book or two, spend time in the café and then head over to the senior center, recreation center, or adjacent public park.
The strategy behind the Millcreek development mirrors strategies employed by retail shopping centers. The senior center attracts seniors during the day, while the recreation center generates traffic in the morning and evening.
A number of strategies can tie a public library into a development that draws traffic. These include:
• Main-street designs used by open-air shopping centers.
• An overall design that creates a community icon.
• Using the library itself as the icon.
• Adding a second anchor in the fashion of a mall.
Experience teaches that the most successful developments feature anchors, retailers, and other mixed-use components that the surrounding community needs and wants. While that sounds obvious, it is important not to make assumptions, but instead to survey community members. The ability to entice people to a development isn’t enough to make it work, however. Many developments with attractive anchors fail because they neglect the design of easy circulation patterns. People may want to come, but if they can’t navigate easily, they won’t stay, and they won’t come back.
Main Street Icons
Many recent open-air shopping centers have adapted a small-town main street design — with great success. Open-air centers often bring in a large bookstore — Borders, Barnes & Noble or a strong independent as an anchor. An appropriately designed public library can do the anchor work of a major bookstore.
The overall design of a main-street development can aim for iconic status, using period architecture or design that reflects architectural trends in the surrounding town or city. If that isn’t feasible, the library itself can become the icon, offering perhaps a large lobby with a public meeting space, café, or retail shop. This is ideal for a central library or a large branch, but a library with fewer than 50,000 sq. ft. probably won’t have the mass to serve as an icon or offer the space for lobby amenities.
In this case, to build traffic, designers could develop the center with two anchors, one at each end of the space. With the library as the first anchor, the second might be sit-down and fast food restaurants, a cinema, a big box store, or another public facility such as a symphony hall, outdoor stage, or a senior center as found at Millcreek.
It’s the Community’s Decision
A public library might work in one main street development but not another. The same is true of this restaurant or that restaurant. One community might already have plenty of cinemas to choose from, so it will have little interest in another.
The point is that main-street developments that emerge from community consensus have proven much more likely to succeed than those imposed by a developer on the community. Of course, it is never possible to please everyone, but research can discover the kinds of facilities that a community will be eager to use. At Millcreek, for example, developers solicited tenants based on interests voiced by influential community members, as well as formal and informal surveys carried out prior to the beginning of design.
The Circulatory System
Once the anchors begin generating traffic, the site plan must enable people to navigate the property with naturalness. Poor circulation plans will frustrate even the best development concepts.
Two basic strategies dominate shopping center site plans. The first uses the parking lot to control circulation through the site. In this model, the parking lot sits next to the small shops and other property features. Down at the far end is the anchor attraction. The design literally guides people to walk from the parking lot through the development to reach the anchor, viewing the other offerings as they go.
The second strategy doesn’t guide customers; instead, it provides them with choices. A main street development, for instance, generally includes two or more anchors. The site plan locates the anchors apart from each other and creates a circulation path between them. Parking lines the street running between the anchors, and also sits behind the anchors and the inline stores. Such a design lets the shoppers choose to park close to their destination, while the development’s aesthetics entice them to walk through the property to see what it has to offer.
Libraries with Land
In addition to serving as an anchor that brings people into a retail development, a library may also be able to offer land to a developer. Libraries with land open the door to a host of financial incentives. For example, the library may agree to exchange land that will accommodate the development, for the developer's agreement to design and build the library. Library officials may also be able to leverage tax-increment-financing (TIF) incentives, in which increased new-development property values generate higher property taxes. The tax increment helps to pay for portions of the project.
Really Mix It Up
Some communities will evince interests that go beyond open air retail and include all mixed-use components: public as well as private residential and commercial office facilities. In some cases, mixed-use might extend to a boutique hotel.
Suppose a development was planned around the intersection of two streets, with an anchor at the end of each and parking placed along the streets and behind the buildings. The anchors might be freestanding structures housing a public library, office building, cinema, and a large grocery store. Apartments might be built into the second and third stories of the inline stores along the streets between the anchors. Alternatively, offices might go above the inline retail shops, with an apartment building forming one of the anchors. The residential component could also take the form of townhouses located on a block adjacent to the center.
What makes it all work, however, isn’t so much the anchors or the retail or the mixed-use properties. It is research that provides an accurate reading of community desires. Today, research and experience are finding that public facilities such as the public library may just be the kind of anchor that will attract customers to a retail center.
Jeff Davis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. David Cassil can be reached at email@example.com.