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Local Shopping Center Redevelopments Promise More Than "Drive and Shop"

Lerch Early's Legal Update

Over the past few years, the continued viability of suburban retail shopping centers has been a prominent topic of discussion in commercial real estate venues. The new challenges facing retailers, landlords, and commercial property owners are well documented and include e-commerce, overbuilding, rising gasoline prices, changes in consumer spending patterns, and significant lifestyle transformations brought about by the Great Recession. With increasing frequency, these factors are cited as catalysts for the physical transformation of shopping center properties through comprehensive redevelopment, adaptation to serve different functions, or “re-greening" for new recreational open areas or community agricultural space.

 Yet, shopping center redevelopment is not a recent phenomenon. Montgomery County has experienced several notable examples in past decades, including the demolition, conversion and partial reuse of the former Rockville Mall for portions of the current Rockville Town Center in the 1990's; the redevelopment of the former Woodward & Lothrop department store site in Friendship Heights as part of the Wisconsin Place mixed-use complex; and even the reuse and retention of portions of various 1950s-era department stores in various contemporary buildings in Silver Spring, such as City Place and the new Fillmore Music Hall.

Proposals are now pending in Montgomery County for the redevelopment of several prominent local shopping centers—including White Flint Mall, Mid-Pike Plaza and others—that continue in the vein of these precedents. None of these proposals strictly results from the present economic downturn, nor do they herald the end of retail shopping uses on these properties. Rather, each proposal seeks to take advantage of the momentary disruptions brought about by the recession and new approaches to local zoning and land use regulation to reposition these shopping center assets with certain features that are necessary for long-term success, including:

  •  The installation of "experiential" site components (i.e., plazas, parks, outdoor cafés, art elements) that will provide new sites for socialization and recreation;
  • Incorporation of new on-site land uses to complement retail shopping, such as housing, entertainment facilities, offices and service-oriented uses (i.e., child care, education centers, health clinics);
  • Accommodation of non-automobile transit modes (i.e., rail, bus, bicycle, pedestrian);
  • Environmentally friendly development techniques such as sustainable building and site design, energy efficient systems, and on-site stormwater management.

With these features, shopping centers will become more than just stop-and-shop automobile destinations. Instead, they will become more active and robust social centers, places that not only provide opportunities for retail shopping, but also enable a variety of "quality of life" experiences outside of one’s home or work environment.

These local shopping center redevelopments are proactive, not reactive, “place making” initiatives. The proposals reflect deliberate and ongoing efforts between the public and the private sector which, in most instances, result from years of direct engagement with the County's participatory land use planning processes. Such efforts will ultimately maximize the utility of developed land in the County while providing new destinations and amenities for future generations of residents and consumers.

Chris Ruhlen is a land use attorney at Lerch, Early & Brewer in Bethesda, Maryland who works on a variety of stand-alone and mixed use retail projects. For more information about local shopping center redevelopment, contact Chris at (301) 841-3834 or cmruhlen@lerchearly.com.

 

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