Thought Piece

Vacant to Vibrant

Vacant to Vibrant
A Paradigm Shift for Mixed-Use Developments

Reztark’s Director of Design, Ryan Johnson, shares his perspective for pushing the norm to create purposeful and dynamic architectural environments. Ryan’s passion for shifting the paradigm is visible in high-profile projects including Newport on the Levee, The Kenwood Collection, Vinty, and Fifty on Fifth.

From vacant malls to aging lifestyle centers, the change in consumer preference for how they choose to spend their time and money is evident. Over the last two decades, the ever-increasing adoption of digitally-driven consumption, and more recently the Covid-19 pandemic, we’re witnessing a shift from permanence and standardization to a desire for flexibility and hybridization. The lines we once knew are being blurred: between digital and physical, personal and public, work and real life. This dramatic flip in human priority, and in turn the way we invest our time throughout this new work/life dynamic, must translate into a new paradigm for the built environment. Spaces must be more than single purpose. This is particularly true for large-scale development projects that require years of planning before they become a reality. Designing mixed-use developments that will be successful well into the future requires extensive foresight, vision, and a carefully honed and specifically tailored approach.

Commercial real estate is facing tumultuous times. According to CB Insights, the demolition of obsolete retail spaces is on the rise. In 2021, a record 36 million square feet were razed nationwide and another 18 million square feet have been demolished this year. Additionally, vacancy rates in regional malls rose 170 basis points year on year to 11.4% in the first quarter of 2021 (Moody’s Analytics). Both points highlight the opportunity to improve how we repurpose struggling commercial spaces or undertake the creation of new developments to ensure the ability to adapt and transform is built in from the beginning. To arrive at a solution that is as relevant for today as will be tomorrow, Reztark’s team prioritizes exploration as well as ideation to make sense of the challenge at hand to arrive at a truly innovative solution. As stewards of using design for good and passionately committed to the future of the communities we impact, we believe it is critical to rethink past and jaded paradigms to consider mixed-use projects from a fresh perspective.

Creating Customer Value

Consumers have become accustomed to a “swipe for new” culture and that expectation is not limited to the lives they lead on their digital devices. With an abundance of fresh content at their fingertips at all times, providing a compelling reason to revisit the physical world is critical. At Reztark, the first step we take when we begin a new client partnership is to disrupt the copy & paste mentality. We frequently hear references to other developments at the start of a new engagement and it can be easy to look left and right at what others are doing and want to replicate their success; however, it is just as easy to get lost in a sea of sameness. Not only are people seeking out fresh brands and experiences like they see online, but each community that a development resides within has a different local context, justifying designing with thoughtful intent and purpose on what will best serve the specific environment.

The Blue Mixed-use Development; Blue Ash, Ohio

Seeking to establish a downtown district that was aligned with the city’s objective to “Strengthen the Quality of Place,” Blue Ash embarked upon the first major project – The BLUE. A mixed-use development of apartments, retail, restaurant, and offices, this effort is a model example of how to hero the customer by building for a diversity of uses, focusing on human scale, and leading with community. The BLUE will activate the streetscape, enabling new consumer behavior patterns and will energize the surrounding neighborhood site.

One Team, One Vision

Whether a space is brand new or a conversion of something existing, determining an environment’s potential requires leaning heavily into cross-collaboration throughout the creative process. A productive interplay between developers, designers, and municipalities is integral to achieving the long-term vision of a project. Oftentimes a source of friction within the design process, we see the positive upside that comes from each party’s perspective complementing one another. Our team carefully orchestrates a partnership model that requires coordination and collaboration – a necessary step for achieving success in the next era. Each player comes to the table with their own goals but an open dialogue invites the opportunity to meld ideas and objectives. Ultimately this approach has resulted in an increased likelihood of the creation of a powerful mixed-use space that sustains a thriving community well beyond the PR announcements and ribbon-cutting.

A productive interplay between developers, designers, and municipalities is integral to achieving the long-term vision of a project.

Designing for What’s Next

If there is one thing that has become abundantly clear over the last several years it is that we cannot predict the future. That said, we can and should anticipate shifting consumer need states and design spaces with the flexibility to address the evolution. Reading about trends circulating in the press can be misleading as they have a tendency to be centered on what is happening today versus taking a more forward-looking position, leaving real estate owners to grapple with the repercussions down the road. To clearly delineate today’s headlines from emerging behavioral insights, considering future human needs is a key aspect of the process Reztark takes to ideate and evaluate throughout the project’s design. Bringing to life these progressive notions is imperative for sell-in. To do this, we simulate how mixed-use environments can dynamically adapt and transform to bridge today’s climate with tomorrow’s expectations and beyond.

The Kenwood Collection; Cincinnati, Ohio

Starting out as a neglected power center, The Kenwood Collection was transformed into one of the premier shopping destinations in the region. Organizing the main entrance and retail spaces around a plaza increases the amount of storefront available for the tenants in addition to creating a clear point of arrival for visitors to the site. The entertainment, grocery and office components add natural foot traffic, while the high-visibility location with iconic floating canopy and glass exterior draws in visitors.

By re-centering focus on value creation for the shopper, dweller, or service-seeker, united cross-functional teams will be able to capture the hearts, minds, and wallets of guests by creating a truly meaningful “place,” not simply another space.


Lastly, we strongly encourage our client partners and fellow industry professionals to reframe how they measure the success of their developments. Rather than focusing solely on maximizing square footage, foot traffic, and sales, we suggest developing, tracking, and evaluating additional metrics from a different perspective – focusing on improving the way people live. Not only can the data gathered provide a new dimension of measuring success, but this data can inform future consumer need states, which can be leveraged to chart a growth path for the development. In practice, this can involve a wide range of categories including tenant mix and service offerings, experimental community engagement, or undiscovered digital world integrations.

Newport on the Levee Lifestyle Center; Newport, Kentucky

As consumer priorities spending habits evolve out of the pandemic and people are yearning for out-of-home experiences, there is a prime opportunity to reinvent and reintroduce shoppers to the potential of mixed-use developments. By re-centering focus on value creation for the shopper, dweller, or service-seeker, united cross-functional teams will be able to capture the hearts, minds, and wallets of guests by creating a truly meaningful “place,” not simply another space.

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