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The town center component: Giving the community what it wants

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Town centers serve as the heart of master-planned residential communities. They are where residents come together to shop, socialize and feed their lifestyles. Through their architectural design, shopping choices and entertainment opportunities, town centers mirror the overall character of communities, and tie together neighborhoods within.



Successful town center components generally have great architecture and popular stores. The most important aspect of their development, however, is fulfilling residents' wants and needs.

To garner the support of a community, developers first must listen to residents' desires and concerns, from the early stages of tenant selection, throughout the project's development and up to completion. Working with residents and city officials is not only key to entitlements, but also to ensuring long-term success of the center.

Finding the right tenants

Once developers have sized up the property and gained a basic understanding of residents' desires, they can identify potential tenants. It is important to look for retailers who are not already established elsewhere within the trade area, if possible, and that would fit with the community's demographics. A good understanding of the community's demographics is crucial to a developer in identifying the proposed tenant mix.

Once interested, prospective tenants visit the site to evaluate its accessibility, visibility, parking allotments and proposed space. They study the proposed tenant mix to determine if it will complement their own use. Prospective tenants also conduct studies to estimate potential sales volumes generated by the area. Such studies are based on the number of people living in the trade area, education levels, population income levels and the presence of competitors within the area, among other factors.

Income levels are studied to determine the community's disposable income for retail goods and to estimate what portion of that income is likely to be spent within their store. These steps are all necessary in determining the potential for a tenant to succeed and be a welcome addition to a community.

Community support

Project designers must be flexible with project details because residents most likely will bring changes to the table.

Early on in the planning process, developers should meet with community members to discuss the project. Meetings can take place at either community forums, planning group meetings, or on a one-on-one basis. During these meetings, developers should discuss every aspect of the proposed site, from the center's appearance to the types of tenants the residents of the community would welcome.

The goal is to work with the community and make its residents feel part of the process. Building a trusting relationship between the developer and the community, discussing the center concept, and considering input and ideas from local residents is vital to the project.

During the planning of a recent commercial project in an upscale La Jolla neighborhood, for instance, Sudberry Properties worked with community members at great lengths to incorporate their needs and wishes. At a community meeting, firm representatives presented proposed site plans and building elevations. While the majority of the residents supported the overall concept, a few requested some changes, including moving a parking garage ramp from one side of the project to the other to better accommodate regular traffic patterns.

Residents also made specific suggestions relating to window positioning, rooflines and signage. In consideration of those comments and suggestions, the firm was able to accommodate almost all of their requests, even though it delayed the project considerably. However, the firm felt the requested changes ultimately made the project a better fit for the community.

Understanding subtle nuances of a community's needs is difficult for an outside observer. Input from the community's residents can prove invaluable to gaining insight into concerns that might be overlooked. At the end of the day, with the community's input, the commercial center will become a more welcome addition to the community.

Conflicting ideas

Occasionally, developers are faced with reconciling the conflicting desires of city officials and community residents. The best way to approach such differences is to bring these groups together to discuss the issues and reach a mutually agreeable solution. Developers must strive to work with these community groups on compromises. The goal is to provide information and answer questions in a cordial, professional atmosphere.

Even if disagreements arise, it is important to maintain open dialogue in order to keep the project moving forward. Often it may not be feasible to please everyone involved. At such times, developers must consider a broad perspective encompassing all factors, and base their decision on the common goal of achieving the best project for the greater community.

Part of the community

For retail center development, the community's approval is crucial. Area residents are the consumers who not only visit the center to buy goods, but also view and use it as a hub for social interaction and entertainment. It is important to remember that these projects become an integral part of the community, and in some cases, the town's center of activity. Accordingly, they should be developed in the community's best interest.

Sudberry and Sessa are vice presidents for Sudberry Properties, a San Diego-based real estate development and asset management firm. More information on the company can be found at www.sudberryproperties.com.>

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