Retail re-do: fresh air is the attraction

by: Geno Yun, AIA, NOMA, LEED AP
Urban Planning
I’ve always been a believer in the power of retail to anchor a community. Nothing brings people together in a public space (free of charge) like a retail-lined street, plaza or town center.

Shopping centers and malls have tried to replicate this model, to limited success. But as we’ve experienced the emptiness of our downtowns and shopping centers during this pandemic, I can’t help but think that as stores and restaurants reopen with strict measures in place for safe hygiene and social distancing, there will be something missing: people. Returning to the workplace and strolling our streets to enjoy the shops and restaurants will be different. The way we shop, work and linger will be different. Until we are assured that each business has taken precautions necessary to sanitize and regulate over-crowding, we will be guarded in our behavior. How long can we keep asking customers to wait outside in lines until the store is not overcrowded? The barriers to success were tough enough before the pandemic, now they’re unrealistic. How many times have I walked by a restaurant that was buzzing with people and thought “that looks like a fun place to eat”? Will these places have the same attraction only half-full? Will we see danger signs if there are too many people? How do store and restaurant owners generate more interest with less people?

It is daunting to think that we will never be able to go back to the old normal. So that leaves us to ponder what is the new normal? Humans are social beings. We want to interact with each other, touch merchandise, see the sights and smell the smells. That is what brick and mortar retail has over online shopping. These commercial centers give our communities an identity and become its central social hub.

There are five key universal elements that may help us move towards a new and vibrant retail world:

1. Ensure public safety in a healthy environment

If people don’t feel safe, they won’t come. An important component to the successful return of retail is to make people feel safe and be safe. In the past, sanitation and housekeeping were kept behind the scenes, but now people want to see the cleaning happening all around them. At Rick Caruso’s developments, safety and hygiene are front and center in his plans to reopen the Grove and Americana. Access to fresh air will also be key. Covered malls were already struggling, and the pandemic may be the finishing blow. Open-air environments that provide plenty of gathering and circulation space will help give the sense of separation while being together.

Open-air outdoor spaces offer real benefits and a perceived sense as healthy spaces. Being outside with sunshine and fresh air gives people a sense of comfort and safety. UV light kills viruses, and sharing outdoor space poses less risk of contracting COVID-19 infection: researchers identified only a single outbreak was traced to contact from an outdoor environment. (Source:

Property owners and tenants also need to begin thinking long-term about how to incorporate tools and technologies that help customers and employees feel safe, and that benefit business operations:

  • Touchless and cash-less payment systems
  • Employee temperature scans upon arriving to work a shift
  • Cleaning and sanitizing protocols throughout the day
  • Monitoring sensors
  • Tracking apps
  • Air flow controls using outside air instead of recirculated air
  • UV light air purifiers installed in mechanical systems
  • Use of anti-microbial materials like copper, which doesn’t support virus activity

Retail’s future success may come down to matters of choice for both the business and the consumer. Will my customers and employees feel safer because of these practices and technologies or will they feel like their privacy and freedom have been compromised and the added security is just not worth the hassle? Which is more important to me as a business owner?

2. Community

Without a sense of community, retail is just shopping. Shopping centers have traditionally been the town center for social interaction. We aspire to bring back the stroll, linger at leisure, gather and enjoy, but with an underlying sense of responsibility. By focusing on right-sizing common areas, that space between buildings, people become the new ‘anchor’. People are drawn to people, and when spaces are created to allow gathering to happen, retailers want to be there. Property owners/developers, tenants and municipalities need to partner together to foster community:

  • Urbanize with density and mixed-use. Create a live-work-play environment that has all the ingredients for a healthy lifestyle.
  • Connect to the surrounding community. Study and understand how projects work and can benefit from connections to existing streets.
  • Allow a softening of parking requirements. Empty parking lots at shopping malls can be converted for outdoor dining and curbside service. Parklets can takeover street parking to become dining patios, outdoor boutiques and popup open-air markets.
  • County health departments need to revisit their codes to allow ‘open air’ indoor/outdoor dining rooms.
  • Municipalities can work with tenants and landlords to expedite permitting to allow use of public sidewalks and street parking for outdoor activities, such as parklets and dining patios
3. Culture

Integrate a social purpose that adds value beyond retail, reinforcing why venturing to a destination is worth the effort:

  • Embrace social and ethnic diversity to celebrate unique communities; every town is different.
  • Whether it’s a plaza, zocalo, square or open space, people desire the opportunity to gather safely outside, staking claim to a place they can call their own.
  • Embrace curbside culture: accommodate the growing demand for delivery and pick-up services, rideshare pickup and drop-off, a concierge lounge. This is your front door experience.
  • Drive-in movies are making a comeback all over the country as a safe, in your own car, escape. I don’t think this is just a short-term trend either: if drive-ins can reinvent themselves with an upscale experience, touchless food purchases with delivery-to-your-car service (bring back the roller-skating server), food truck options and dog parks, why not enjoy this movie-going experience? Those large parking lots at shopping centers sit empty after dark after all.
4. Social Connectivity

We live in a world that relies on technology to bring us closer together, both socially and commercially. As we have seen, the most successful retail destinations seamlessly integrate physical and virtual social connection with click to bricks shopping experiences. But contact-less service doesn’t have to mean no service. We are at a juncture of redefining what customer service means today.

Curbside pickup and drop-off, as well as rideshare concierge lounges, have become large generators of traffic, and we have the opportunity to design these amenities to work effortlessly. With parking demand on the decline, and customers arriving more often by ways other than a personal vehicle, the “front door” experience is no longer coming from the parking lot or structure, but from a curbside location.

Willem Velthoven for Mediamatic Amsterdam

Photo Credit: Willem Velthoven for Mediamatic Amsterdam

Social media buzz can elevate a retailer’s presence by being creative. A restaurant in Amsterdam is experimenting with serving patrons safely outside, housed in crystal clear dining ‘vitrines” along the waterfront. These romantic greenhouses are for the few lucky diners, but the images have gone viral on social media. Creative solutions help generate business, and retailers and retail centers will need to get creative quickly.

5. Adaptability

A single-purpose project might thrive in good times, but often cannot react quickly enough to survive in tough times. Mixed-use developments help to smooth out the curve and energize a destination with diverse uses that bring people together for different purposes, day and night. Designed for flexibility, they can often adapt to the market quickly if the economy changes direction and buildings are designed to allow for changes in use, such as converting an office floor to residential during times of demand.

Hillsdale Shopping Center - Cherie Cordelleras

Photo Credit: Cherie Cordelleras

Large empty spaces where department stores once stood are being redeveloped across the country. One such example, Hillsdale Shopping Center in San Mateo, California, recently completed a transformation of a former Sears department store into a new open-air town center, complete with entertainment venues for families as well as date nights. These redevelopments become so successful at attracting tenants and customers that it forces landlords to re-evaluate the viability of the rest of the mall. Such undertakings are not easy, but the right mix of tenants offers an experience that online shopping cannot, and ultimately boosts a property’s long-term resilience.

And what about the future of the covered mall? Many struggled before the pandemic, do they need to be scraped and redeveloped? Can something be done with them without going to that expense? We’ve conceived of projects that can do either. For Bayfair Mall in San Leandro, California, ELS proposed removing the roof and converting the mall to a community focused transit oriented mixed-use center.

These measures are not that far off from implementing, some were already practiced before the pandemic. But it will take an industry in distress for retailers, tenants, landlords, developers and municipalities to come together and create positive change. I’m hopeful that we will come out of this even better and stronger than before, with a creative resilience that enables us to rise up when faced with future challenges. Design for the needs of people and the communities they live in, and the people will come. The retailers will follow.