Mixed-Use Isn't Enough: 'Omni-Use' Cores Enliven the Metropolis

June 16, 2008, 5am PDT | Keith Ray
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It is no longer good enough to plop housing on top of a retail strip, call it "mixed-use," and expect to intelligently improve the urban setting, or build real value. True metropolitan development – and real, long-term commercial success – fuses many uses together, including hotels, retail, restaurant-bars, museums, stadiums, libraries, movie theaters, housing and even creative live/work light industrial, writes Keith Ray.

 Keith RayUrban planning has evolved considerably in the last 20 years, from demolition and drab single-use office districts to urban rehabilitation and mixed-use zoning. Life is returning to downtowns from Portland to Milwaukee, block by block as new developments get built and old buildings are given new life.

The stage is thus set for central cities to reclaim their history as rich crucibles, attractive to locals and travelers alike, filled with competing and complimentary uses, each jostling and enhancing the other. It is my belief that "omni-use" development in our urban cores is key to reclaiming that history, including an aggressive use of specialty hotels.

In particular, hotels, with their revolving cast of new street denizens and customers, and their entertainment venues-hip restaurants, lounges, bars and luxury spas-add another important spice to the city recipe.

When visitors are enticed from their hotels, they become part of the street scene, strolling sidewalks and sampling street-side vendors or restaurants. They are fresh faces, appreciative of their surroundings, and infuse another level of business and life into the street. Certainly, hotel patrons who enjoy the urban surroundings of well-run hotels are far more likely to be repeat customers than those who stay in an airport-convenient inn.

Conversely, a well-designed urban hotel should be inviting to local pedestrians. A successful hotel in an omni-use zone should feature an entrance to the entertainment venues found within. The public should be made aware of hip rooftop restaurants, jazz lounges, day spas, upscale membership health clubs (open to hotel patrons, also) and other amenities within the hotel.

In the United States, there are examples of hotels that have blended into heavily mixed-use urban scenes, with excellent results. Consider the Cocowalk in Coconut Grove, or Times Square in New York City, or Cherry Creek Mall and surrounding neighborhood, in Denver. In all these omni-use settings, travelers add to the urban mix, adding to streetlife and helping out retailers.

Building on these and other examples, MVE & Partners is assisting the City of Anaheim in master planning the massive 50-acre Five Seven Centrum project, an omni-use redevelopment in the emerging "Platinum Triangle" neighborhood, blending in housing, retail, office and, importantly, two hotels. Adjacent Angel Stadium is a draw for both residents and travelers.

The future is bright for omni-use developments.

While capital markets are chary right now, omni-use developments are favored for the mix of revenue streams they can generate. Once capital markets settle down, the worldwide capital glut should again favor real estate. Richly mixed developments, not dependent on a single asset class such as offices, should partake fully in the rebound. Diversity is strength.

Interestingly enough, omni-use development, inclusive of hotels, marks a restoration of the historic role of cities. Vibrant urban cores in established European cities have long featured hotels and a mix of other uses in close proximity.

In previous epochs in the United States, housing was built over retail in dense urban cores, in neighborhoods served by light rail. Grocery stores jostled for space with light industrial users, speakeasies, hardware stores and fruit stands. Grand hotels and urban baseball stadiums – think of Fenway Park or Ebbet's Field –were the norm, not a retro-hip innovation.

Indeed, in old downtown Los Angeles, streetcars coursed down Broadway, past movie palaces, clothing stores and the Grand Central Market – most of it topped by offices. The regal Biltmore Hotel was downtown, the Central Library, innumerable ballrooms, and plenty of housing.

It is worth pondering that successful downtown stadiums and hostels extend back at least to the Colosseum environs in Rome, nearly 2,000 years ago. The ancient Romans also enjoyed fast food on their sidewalks – cauldrons of soup, kept hot and ready for passerby – while walking to stadium seating from local inns.

Even with all of the changes that have taken place in urban technologies, the very human needs of travelers – for habitation, sustenance, camaraderie, business opportunities and entertainment, in proximity – remain the same. As urban developers and planners, we thwart those needs at the peril of deadening our cities, socially and commercially.

Somehow, in the flight to suburbia after World War II in the United States, the strength and vitality of our urban cores was dismissed, and then often ruined by bland "urban renewal" plans. Single-use districts, unforgivably dull and sterile, defined the look of too many city redevelopment schemes.

Happily, urban planners are re-learning the lessons of the past, making for much more exciting urban neighborhoods, and re-introducing the key role for hotels. Travelers are rapidly learning to expect that urban hotels offer substantial nightlife, inside and nearby. Hotels that don't cater to local and traveler desires lose customer dollars – or euros.

In coming decades, look for omni-use development to revitalize urban cores.

Keith Ray, AIA, principal-in-charge of retail and urban mixed-use design at MVE & Partners, plans retail-rich mixed-use and infill developments. Ray brings 35 years of experience in architecture, design and construction to his craft, and was previously senior vice president of mixed-use development at Archstone-Smith Trust.

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