How to create a successful mixed-use experience
Cities are densifying again. Local governments require street-level activation. Mixed-use developments are growing in popularity, but delivering a successful project is not as simple as stacking apartments on top of retail units. Jed Byrne, Business Development Representative and placemaking advocate, sat down with three retail development and management experts to talk about creating attractive mixed-use destinations.
Meet the Experts
Jed spoke to Michael Rodgers with DHIC’s Development team, David Meeker with Carpenter Development, and Nicholaus Neptune with Trailblaze Development.
Rodgers directs rental housing development from the initial concept stage through project feasibility, design, financing, construction, and stabilization. He also works on the financial structuring and underwriting of the development pipeline. He holds a master’s degree in City and Regional Planning from UNC Chapel Hill and serves as the Vice President of the Board of Directors for the Durham Co-op Market.
A Raleigh native, Meeker founded Carpenter Development and partnered with the Trophy Brewing team in 2008. He is on the Board of the Raleigh Chamber, Downtown Raleigh Alliance, Common Cause NC, North Carolinians for Redistricting Reform, Dix Park, the Dogwood Bank Advisory Board, and Artspace. He is also on the Capital Campaign Committee for Healing Transitions, a detox and recovery center on Dix Park.
Neptune is an educator, civic entrepreneur, and community advocate. He is most recently known for his work as general manager and director of Raleigh’s Transfer Company Food Hall, Ballroom, and Work Hall; he guided the nearly 50,000 SF property from the final stages of renovation through public engagement to opening, programming, and activating the historic space. He has since stepped down from management with Transfer Company to form a new partnership and practice devoted to sustainable design and equitable development, with particular emphasis on mixed-income housing, public-private civic space, and commercial opportunities.
Step 1: Focus on the tenants
Rodgers, Meeker, and Neptune agree: the mixed-use developer’s priority should be the tenants. Tenants must be both financially and socially comfortable to encourage a positive experience for visitors and enable repeat business.
Meeker stresses that retail should be treated as an amenity in a development. He recommends lowering retail rents through subsidies from higher rents collected on other spaces that benefit from a strong retail presence.
Rodgers echoes Meeker’s idea that developers should look for creative ways to lower costs. He points to the Willard Street Apartments as an example. When DHIC developed this 82-unit affordable apartment building in Durham, they pursued and ultimately received a parking variance for the project. Cutting the amount of parking in half saved several million dollars, allowing DHIC to offer the finished units at a lower rental rate.
Retail as an amenity, notes Neptune, is not a “one and done” deal. Developers and project partners need to program spaces so that people feel welcomed and embraced they should want to visit the tenants.
Step 2: Get to know and love the location
Before committing to a project site or even a city, mixed-use developers should spend time getting to know potential locations beyond their spec sheets.
Neptune asks several important questions when considering a community for his next project:
What is happening in and around the neighborhood?
Who is your audience?
What are their needs?
To this list, Rodgers adds: Will people be able to access the project safely and conveniently? Transportation is key, and affordable public transit options are particularly important if your intended users are low- to moderate-income with reduced access to personal vehicles.
Meeker sums everything up by explaining that when you know your location really know it you can recognize what concepts can be successful there.
Step 3: Integrate with the neighborhood
No matter how cleverly conceived or thoughtfully intended, a mixed-use project needs to make sense in the context of the surrounding neighborhood. In Meeker’s words: “Make sure your project is improving the neighborhood. Make the neighbors’ lives better.”
Rodgers’ own experience drives home this point. When DHIC was looking for a Durham site for what would become the Willard Street Apartments, they had allies in the community. Groups like Durham CAN (Congregations, Associations and Neighborhoods) and the Coalition for Affordable Housing and Transit were already advocating for mixed-use development and affordable housing in the area. DHIC’s project was unlikely to have gotten off the ground without their support and involvement.
Mixed-use developments pose challenges unique from those faced by retail- or residential-only developments. By centering the tenants and working outward to understand and then integrate with the surrounding neighborhood, developers can create places that fulfill and uplift communities.
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