Activated Spaces Are Key to the Designs of the Future of Office, Residential, and Retail
How spaces are built and used is changing rapidly in response to consumer demand, according to designers and developers of commercial and residential projects speaking at the 2020 ULI Arizona Trends Day panel titled “The New Market for the Built Environment.” Space is not enough, panelists agreed, adding that you need people to activate the design to create experiences and program for community, and also provide walkability, sustainability, and open space.
With cell phones now serving as our office and access to retail and food, “we don’t have to go to spaces anymore, we want to go to spaces,” said moderator Steve Lindley, executive director of capital markets for Cushman & Wakefield in Phoenix. “Years ago, we worked in Dilbert cubicles, but today, if we don’t get the work space right, we’ve lost an opportunity.” New space of all types, he said, needs to provide “experience” and workplaces need to foster collaboration and innovation and attract and retain talent. All spaces need attractive qualities such as being inspiring, authentic, and vibrant.
“Ten or 15 years ago, we sat in cubicles, and now there’s a fad of working in coffee shops,” said Curt Kremer, founder and managing partner for George Oliver, a Scottsdale, Arizona–based commercial real estate investment and operating company that has developed popular office projects for tech and creative industries. “We try to make multiple experiences so employees aren’t stuck in their offices, and we try to cultivate the experiences they’re looking for.” In 2019, the firm redeveloped a 1980s Spanish-style office building in Phoenix’s Uptown neighborhood as Casa, a class A office focused on health, wellness, and community with amenities such as a training center, coworking, a lounge, a library, a café, a food-truck cantina, an outdoor activity-game area, and a dog park. Some people work all day at Kaleidoscope juice and coffee bar or use the meditate room “to mentally check out and then be ready to work again,” he said.
“What the millennials expect in an office space is more than a fitness facility,” said Kremer. “We have yoga studios with free classes, or we cultivate a yoga class that employees can go to.” In planning for community, he said, “we try to be thoughtful about the end users and their needs for the space.” Casa has 28 tenants who are “all like different families,” he said. “A building concierge takes care of building needs, but also cultivates community and plans gatherings. But you can’t do it with just one tenant. It takes a team.” Kremer said that operating expenses for amenities like a concierge, a food truck, and yoga are higher, “but we think we’re getting 10 times the value on amenities, and ultimately we’re getting a better place to work.”
Kremer noted that millennials are moving to other parts of the metro region as they begin to start families. “All of the Phoenix area is suburban, and doesn’t have true urban infill densities,” he said, but 22 miles (35 km) southeast of Phoenix, downtown Chandler “has a ton of authenticity, walkability, and densities, with new residential, amazing retail, and new hospitality.” His firm is redeveloping two adjacent office buildings, now called the Alexander and the Johnathan, that will complement recent downtown development.
“We have to break apart assumptions about any one demographic, and we can’t build for just one type of people,” said Jason Schupbach, director of the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts at Arizona State University, pushing back on the notion that millennials or any group should drive development. “The key word is belonging. We spend so much time in our office with a family we didn’t choose, and we want to feel like we belong, we need to feel safe, and that’s why space is changing so much.” The key to belonging is what the space “signals,” he said. “Ask employees or people who might be renting a building or buying a house: What does the space signal, and is it a place where they want to be?
“Humans are naturally social creatures, and we want to see people and experience [amenities], usually while being around other people,” said Schupbach, who previously was director of design and creative placemaking programs for the National Endowment for the Arts. “It’s not just about that Instagram moment.” He observed that much of the Phoenix region’s urban form does not have outdoor space, which is “different from the way many people here want to socialize.” One attractive exception: Uptown Plaza, a redeveloped midcentury mall with outdoor spaces, experiential shops, and eateries.
Kristina Floor, an urban designer and landscape architect and president of Floor Associates in Phoenix, designed the courtyard and landscape for Uptown Plaza. The previous courtyard was inviting only when a restaurant activated the space, she said, and the development team considered: “Is it the right size? Does it encourage participation? What do you need to do to reduce the square footage or change the configuration?” She credited developer Vintage Partners for being willing to reduce the space. “We went through several iterations of how much and what parts of the building should come off to promote views and invite people into the courtyard.” The new design and circulation included another entrance to encourage neighbors to enter from the back. The type and mix of tenants were determined by what she called “setting the table”—“ice cream, coffee, and restaurants always attract people in a courtyard.” Design flexibility for “tenant expression” was also important, she said. “It’s a collaboration among designers, owners, tenants. Add a water feature for kids.”
Floor also described the design considerations for Culdesac Tempe, a $140 million car-free mixed-use neighborhood being developed by San Francisco–based Culdesac that will house up to 1,000 residents on 16 acres (6.5 ha) next to a light-rail station. The project has parking for commercial space, including a grocery store, a food hall, a coffee shop, and coworking, but none for residential. Residents will use mobility options including light rail, biking, walking, Uber/Lyft, and carshares. Parking typically requires a long, skinny rectangle of space, and without parking, there is far more landscaped space and flexibility in building angles and shapes, she said. This allowed for unique courtyards for each residential pod, with scaled spaces and different amenities. Eliminating parking also provided more public spaces, one facing a boulevard and the other more internally focused off a major pedestrian spine.
With all space and design trends, said Schupbach, “there’s a danger in taking them too seriously and [assuming] there’s only one solution. There’s no such thing as a silver bullet—you need silver buckshot.” Understanding the psychology of how humans use space is important, he said, as opposed to making assumptions about how a space will work. When the federal government tried “hoteling,” with employees sharing space without personal desks, he said, “that became Lord of the Flies really quickly. Hoteling had huge pushback, and people ended up with their own space again. We went backward, but maybe that was forward” to allow private as well as community space.