Creating a Successful Mixed-Use Project

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Shaw Neighborhood in DC, photography by Mark Luthringer

As the need for urban infill housing increases, so will the need for mixed-use. Here’s what to consider when planning these complex developments.

Mixed-Use developments are becoming more popular, not only with developers and city planners trying to increase density, but with residents and businesses. The idea of having multiple functions within a singular project or building can be both exciting and overwhelming. Simply putting housing or office over retail isn’t as easy as building a single-use tower or even garden-style apartments. What’s even more interesting is that the concept of shared space or mixed-use is nothing new, just another example of what’s old being new again.

Harder than it Looks

Because it is far more complex than building single-purpose housing or commercial space, mixed-use development is challenging. Beyond the usual considerations that go into a project, mixed-use requires planners to strategically consider local retail markets, retail operations, density, separation of residential and retail, unique construction requirements, and much more. In short, it’s harder than it looks.  That said, when the opportunity presents itself for an urban, infill project, close to existing (or planned) mass transit, with existing density and a critical mass of customers, the highest and best use is almost always mixed-use. Done correctly, mixed-use plans create the best value for the developer, the city, and the community.

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Opportunity

Before any design begins, it is important for the development team to strategically identify how this retail will be integrated. Will the retail space be used for a neighborhood anchor (grocery, gym, movie theatre), a destination (entertainment, fashion), or will it simply serve the occupants above and close neighbors (coffee, casual dining, services)? Simply building a retail space will not equate to great retail. Market research is needed to examine what  exists in the neighborhood, current and future market demand, and the development team’s goals.

Design

Once the decision has been made to proceed with a mixed-use project, selecting the correct design and construction team is critical to fulfilling the vision. The designers—including mechanical, electrical, and plumbing, as well as acoustical and structural—need to be experienced in this project type so that they understand the needs of all residential and retail users. Obviously the requirements to land an incredible restaurant are far different than a grocer or movie theatre, which would without doubt conflict with the building above. The retail spaces must be carefully designed, serviced, and protected from base building influences. That is why the development team must convey a clear vision to the designers. An inexperienced designer or one without clear direction may design elements that are not perceived to be impactful to the retail but in fact would be devastating—low ceiling heights, column layout, plumbing penetrations, kitchen exhaust shafts, accessibility and available utility capacities, to name a few.

Construction

When building a mixed-use project, the construction team, including their subcontractors, are equally important, if not more so, than the design team. They will be delivering the vision and the lease requirements for the retail spaces. Without an understanding and appreciation of who will be operating in the retail space, they may inadvertently take over a shaft needed for a kitchen exhaust with base building piping or ductwork, or install pipes lower than acceptable or away from columns. These types of careless changes can jeopardize lease and delivery, which will cause delays, or even default if egregious. Such mistakes may even prevent a space from ever being leased.

Read the full article in the magazine.

Contributed by Andrew Griffin, Vice President of Construction and Design for The JBG Companies in Chevy Chase, Maryland.

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