Last month I completed my ULI ‘trifecta’, leading the third Mixed Use Development Course in 12 months. Over the past year, we have taken study groups to Los Angeles, San Francisco and most recently, Washington D.C. This cross-country tour revealed three markets that could not have expressed the property type more differently in terms of character, forces and emerging lessons surrounding mixed use. Washington D.C. is on fire. Rivaling San Francisco for the pure energy and amount of development underway, D.C’s is a finer grain, almost surgical neighborhood regeneration. While San Francisco is seeing construction of big towers in targeted areas – Transbay Neighborhood, Rincon Hill, and Market Square around Twitter’s new headquarters; D.C’s development appears to be a strategic and well calculated campaign to tackle and improve tough neighborhoods beyond the core. The neighborhoods I saw just two years ago that were considered ‘the frontier’ are now well underway, and the ‘front line’ has now moved into the next challenged neighborhood one metro stop further out.
Another great trend I saw (which surpasses San Francisco’s efforts) was the intervention of contemporary architecture into existing historic neighborhoods. The juxtaposition of clean lines and big windows against blocks of brick row homes creates a welcome contrast and fresh energy, yet very compatible neighboring development. One of the outstanding projects we saw was Roadside Developments City Market at O, which combines residential apartments, a new Giant Supermarket (to replace an old one) and a hotel. Great architecture, incredible amenities and some interesting public realm solutions made this a tour favorite.
We started our three day program at Reston Town Center, which after 20 + years, stands as testament to the value good decision making. The winner here is the street fabric and scale (one of my favorite subjects and most admonished recommendation to my clients: ‘get the streets right and the rest will follow!’). The scale of public realm, the simplicity with which it is crafted, and the high quality storefronts have led to an incredibly successful retail setting. And it’s not only about retail – the office and residential all receive a significant premium over similar projects within a ½ mile just because residents and employers want to be able to walk to Main Street.
I took an evening to visit 14th Street between P and U. While no longer part of our tour, this corridor has been a great place to visit since I first went there in 2004. Still a work in progress, this area clearly illustrates the idea of ‘form follows funky’. 14th Street is about as vibrant, eclectic and exciting as a neighborhood high street can get. Every time I go there, there are great new restaurants (check out Pearl Dive for the ½ price oysters), but also carefully crafted, scaled and articulated infill condos and apartments buildings, interesting adaptive reuse, and enough of the tired old neighborhood businesses to ensure the place never gets too ‘precious’. The other great surprise and success we saw was Bozzuto’s Monroe Street Market out by Catholic University. We visited this project just two years ago when it was raw dirt, and I was shocked and awed by what has been accomplished in just 24 months. What was once a series of left over parcels in an eroded street grid has given way to an extremely well done urban neighborhood of apartments and ground floor retail. The artist studio spaces were an extremely clever public benefit, and the quality of the public spaces in the apartment buildings screamed millennial, while making me want to rent a unit just to be part of the vibe.
The streets were scaled perfectly, and Torti-Gallas’ master plan had all the right urban design and framework moves to integrate the new neighborhood seamlessly into the surrounding fabric as if it had always been there. While the architecture was a bit nostalgic urbanist for my taste, it was well done, and the flatiron building (Portland Flats) had some great floor plans. What really blew me away was the density metrics – 80 DU per acre and a 3.5 FAR on a gross basis. While these numbers may seem high to many folks, the way the buildings were organized and massed and the quality of the public realm made it feel less dense than the numbers would imply.
One of the consistent take-aways from all three places – Los Angeles, San Francisco and DC – was the challenge and limitation of ground floor retail. While public policy and naïve planning vision aspires to ‘retail on every street’, within the three markets, multiple projects were forced to hammer away at the limited amount of retail that can be actually be supported within any given neighborhood. Along with this reality, much of our discussion revolved around mistakes that residential developers/ designers make when they try to ‘do retail, or mistakes retail developers/ designers make when they try to ‘do residential’.
Our discussion of challenge and compromise was put to rest by Chris Weilminster of Federal Realty when he said, “if you have a great mixed use project, residents will take an odd floor plan to live in the development, but retailers will NOT accept an inferior retail space”. If you are going to make a mistake (and you shouldn’t) it sounds like the residential is more fungible.
So after 12 months and 24 projects, we can say that the complexities and challenges of mixed development have not diminished. But the value proposition of this real estate typology – both in dollars and human settlement- is becoming much more evident. P.S. – in September I’ll be taking this program to Singapore and Hong Kong. Stay tuned for what is learned from these markets and which lessons are truly global and which are local.