The hypocrisy of fake authenticity

A recent report from CBRE noted that as the entry of international brands into CBD centres begins to slow, demand for prime space is now being driven by servicebased operators such as banks, health insurance companies and supermarkets. Asleep yet?

To be fair, you can’t argue that consumers don’t want and need banks, health insurance companies and supermarkets. Shopping centre operators are terrific at matching their tenants to trade-area demand – they should be, since they’ve had about 70 years of practice doing so.

The problem is that the proliferation of banks, insurance companies and supermarkets runs completely roughshod over another avowed goal of the retail property developer in the age of e-commerce: to make shopping centres places that nurture community, social interaction and experiential retail. In fact, if you were to rank tenants for their compatibility with these qualities, then all three would likely pull up equal dead last and completely out of breath.

Take a stroll through your local shopping centre and chances are you’ll find that the deadest precinct is the one with the banks, the post office and the Medibank office, particularly on the weekend when they become darkened, somnolent boxes. (And trust me, no one socialises around an ATM.)

But it would be disingenuous to mourn the current influx of service-based operators over the – subjectively speaking – more vibrant apparel and food retailers that dominate CBD centres today, since their growth came at the expense of beloved local mum-and-pops, who were unapologetically wiped out by chains and shopping centres.

It’s no wonder that retail developers are not getting far in their efforts to make shopping centres genuine community spaces. Credit to them for trying though, and for talking about it almost non-stop.

Cringe-worthy clichés

Take, for example, the retail development industry pow-wow put on by the Urban Land Institute (ULI) at the Ritz-Carlton in Naples, Florida, recently. A lot of the panel discussion was, as usual, about how shopping centre leasing is moving away from its traditional
focus on apparel and other merchandise. Large developments are incorporating residential, office, entertainment and services
components, and design elements that aim to create a 24/7 sense of “place”.

This kind of chit-chat has been the bread and butter of industry conferences for quite a while. Place-making is a word that wormed
its way into the shopping centre lexicon about 25 years ago, at which time ULI itself adopted the term as an article of faith in the
fight to see off the enclosed regional mall.

Urbanism in the open air

Preaching new urbanism and spreading the gospel of the openair lifestyle centre, ULI turned place-making into a buzzword. The
enclosed regional shopping mall, apparently, was not worthy of being called a place; it was an aberration and a fake. Thanks to ULI
and its disciples, it was made to stand in a corner like a naughty boy while a cadre of ULI-inspired developers built real places.
Like all buzzwords though, place-making eventually became a cliché. It occasionally still crops up in conversations among bored
architects, and during panel discussions at conferences like the one in Florida.

In fact, the panel at the Ritz-Carlton was only just warming up, because when it comes to this topic, the cringeworthy usually follows
close on the heels of the unnoteworthy. In Florida, it went like this: “Not only should the retail experience offer a variety of options, it
should also feel authentic,” said Tom Meredith of Regency Centers, a large developer of neighbourhood shopping centres based in nearbyBoca Raton.

Note the use of the phrase “feel authentic” rather than “be authentic” because, as the speaker well knows, you can’t create
authenticity, you can only try to mimic it. (At the Venetian hotel on the Las Vegas strip, I doubt anyone really believes they are experiencing anything quite like authentic Venice.)

Meredith went on to say that “the community has to buy in and you also need to have enough of the local retailer and local restaurants so that people can call it their own. It’s maybe a 60/40 or 70/30 split.”

Peter Flint of Kimco, another large shopping centre developer, agreed: “You need to have your restaurants and your retail store
supported by local people.” Do shoppers even care?

What is striking is the assertion that you need mum-and-pops and customers who live close by to lend a retail development credibility
as a social resource. Apparently, after 70 years of uprooting local retailers and service providers, while creating shopping centres with
massive trade area draws where local residents were just grist in a much bigger mill, the local element is now back in favour.
The problem here should be obvious. Shopping places can and often do incorporate design elements and tenants that people need
and like. But except in rare instances (usually where an institutional property manager is not involved or where the situation demands a unique approach) they don’t nurture community and they certainly do not confer authenticity.

The question is whether consumers, broadly speaking, want authenticity at all? Do they really want the kind of community that
shopping centre developers like to think they can create with their special events and their food halls?

Probably not. When consumers signed up for shopping centres in the mid-1950s they knew what they were getting: air conditioning,
shelter from the elements, a curated tenant mix, easy parking. They have flocked to shopping centres ever since and they will continue to do so, even in the age of e-commerce.

Celebrating the banal

The bottom line is this: property developers, in seeking rents and profits – or put another way, pursuing their own self-interest rather
than the community’s – are very good at what they do. They install tenants they think people want to use, whether it’s a clothing
boutique or a bank. But they are not, cannot and never will be able to re-create the authenticity of our 20th century suburban strips where everyone knew the local barber and newsagent.

In a magnificent essay in the July issue of Harper’s magazine, titled “Death of a Great American City: New York and the Urban Crisis of Affluence”, Kevin Baker laments how the character of our great cities is being inadvertently destroyed by property developers in the very act of trying to upgrade them.

“By trying to improve our cities, we have only succeeded in making them empty simulacra of what was,” he writes. The efforts of commercial property developers to replace the old authentic with something resembling it are not fooling anyone.

Baker cites the massive Hudson Yards mixed-use redevelopment on the Manhattan waterfront, which “features the $455 million Shed,
formerly the Culture Shed…a six-story performance and exhibition space that is supposed to lend some cultural dimension to the vast
development…planned events include ‘Fashion Week, TED Talks, and concerts’ – a virtual compendium of the banal and pretentious.”
Retail property developers are creating pleasant places to shop. Still. But trying to re-create the town centres of old might just be beyond them. Perhaps there should be a discussion about whether that’s what we really need.

Michael Baker is a Sydney-based retail consultant and a former head of research at the International Council of Shopping Centres


1 comment

  1. Jason posted on October 18, 2018

    Couple that with the fact that banks don't actually want you in their branches and you have a REALLY dead precinct!

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