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Place-making: new approaches to commercial and retail centres

By John Richman - posted Tuesday, 15 May 2001

Starwood Urban is based in Washington DC and invests in urban retail and mixed-use property. We take buildings that are in need of tender loving care, renovate and bring in new tenants.

There's a lot of discussion about density. The community resists density. But we did a poll for the Coral Gables project and there was majority support for a dense project provided the community got something for it: nice architecture and vibrancy. People are not against density per se, they are against density if there's no reason for it.

The great cities of the world are the dense places. Seven of our Top 10 tourist attractions are cities. People do like these dense urban environments.


Desirable places encourage density and dis-incentivise sprawl. If you offer people something that has close locational value, that is close to something, next to a destination, it becomes acceptable, people will make the trade-off. Density is a hurdle that can be overcome.

Typical suburban density is an average population of 1,000 within a five-minute walk. But that's not enough to support any kind of retail environment. So you have to think about the kind of population density you are dealing with. Even Manhattan with it's dense population, even that's not enough to support retail outlets - none of these places could survive without tourists.

I define retail places simply as "urban" if the cars are parked out back or "suburban" if the cars are parked in front. "Shopping" is a social or leisure activity, it's about commodities; "purchasing" is about merchandise.

Different kinds of retail venues include "suburban purchasing" - very efficient at distributing merchandise at a cheap price; margins for developers are quite thin. "Suburban shopping" is about encouraging leisure activity.

We focus on the places that have a mix of uses: some dining, some entertainment, essentially retail. Urban retail is more about leisure and entertainment.

Retail public spaces are usually terrible retail places. Same with tourist plazas. So we built a database of great urban places: how wide are the streets, what do the trees look like, what do the sidewalks look like?


Retail streets tend to be fairly simple: three or four blocks long, straight, one or two lanes of traffic. Size matters - and smaller is better for great urban shopping streets.

If you can create just the right kind of place, you can create an urban environment that becomes its own destination and you don't need to do a lot of over-the-top things.

We want everyone to feel that they own it. We never put our name on everything. A lot of communities get over-wrought over signage and totally control it to the point where the tenant has absolutely no identity.

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This is an edited version of a speech given to the Cities For The New Economy Leadership Summit at the Marriott Hotel, Surfers Paradise, 23-24 April 2001.

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About the Author

John Richman is Chief Executive Officer of Starwood Urban (US).

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