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New retail in old buildings

From churches to warehouses, Cityscape investigates how architecture of the past is used to promote sales in North American cities.

November 2015

During its first 200 years the U.S. was not a nation where old buildings could easily be found. The tendency was to knock down old buildings and build new ones when the old were no longer in tune with current taste and need. That was part of the continuing expansion of cities beyond their boundaries and the creation of suburbs beyond those.

Retailers grew bigger and bigger culminating in the super big box stores that developed from the 1990s. Many of them are still around, but there seems to be less expansion outside of cities. Now many retailers are going smaller and looking for urban spaces. Because of restrictions from historic preservation boards and the impact of online stores, retailers are finding new locations in older buildings which might have been torn down during earlier retail cycles. This trend can be seen around the United States and also in Canada where in Toronto, for example, traditional office and light manufacturing space has been repurposed into districts for fashionable shopping and dining.

New York’s new retail & event destinations

Historic Pennsylvania Station in New York was destroyed in 1963 when it was 50 years old to make space for Madison Square Garden, the sports arena home of the basketball New York Knicks and the ice hockey Rangers. Its demise – still mourned by architecture critics and residents – woke up the preservationists and is undoubtedly one of the reasons that Grand Central Station has survived into the 21st century and is going strong at age 102.

Thousands of people use the terminal every day, but some of them aren’t there for travel. They climb the stairs to shop at the Apple store, 23,000 square feet of products under the high vaulted ceiling of Grand Central overlooking the central plaza. The store opened at the end of 2011 and continues to be a major draw for tourists and locals as a place to shop and to see and be seen which is increasingly typical of retail today differentiating itself from big box and online experiences.

Union Station in Washington D.C., Cincinnati’s Union Terminal, and St. Louis’ Union Station are other examples of once thriving train stations that have been reborn as retail and entertainment sites while local and long distance train travel has declined.

Although Penn Station wasn’t saved, the post office across the street was, and this year for the first time it became the venue for New York Fashion Week. Skylight at Moynihan Station is the new venue inside the McKim, Mead & White Beaux Arts building completed in 1910. Skylight advertises 41,000 square feet of space in the former mail sorting room and 33,000 square feet in the former postal dock. “The venue is extremely production friendly, and the perfect backdrop upon which any creative vision can be brought to life,” according to the Skylight website.

Miami’s 1926 church to become supermarket

The neoclassical First Church of Christ Scientist in Miami was created by architect August Geiger in 1926, but it is no longer a house of worship. It was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1988, and so cannot be removed from its site just north of downtown. The owner, Fifteen 1836 Biscayne LLC, is planning to turn the building into a supermarket with 20,000 square feet of retail. The former church building would also function as the base under a garage with 11 levels for more than 600 cars. Above the garage a 38-storey tower with 352 residences is projected.

Vallco Mall in Silicon Valley to have the world’s biggest green roof

The Vallco Mall in Cuppertino, California, part of what’s known as Silicon Valley, is already a major retail destination with many shops and a weekly farmers’ market. But Cuppertino is the home of the Apple company and some of the highest income levels in the U.S. So Vallco is being redeveloped as a mixed use project with 625,000 square feet of retail space, two million square feet of offices, and 800 apartments.

Above everything architect Rafael Vinoly and OLIN have designed an enormous green roof of more than 30 acres. Locals would have 3.8 miles of trails to walk through orchards, vineyards, and play areas. The project is called The Hills at Vallco and, according to an article in Arch Daily, is “expected to achieve LEED Platinum upon completion.”

Brewery leases industrial buildings in Azusa, CA

Older warehouse buildings are being redeveloped by a variety of users from museums to schools. In Azusa, California, in Los Angeles County, Lagunitas Brewing Co. has leased two buildings with a total of 255,000 square feet from Xebec to manufacture beer and establish a retail store and a tasting room.

“I think that because of our large population and proximity to the ports for exporting domestically manufactured goods that we will continue to see some non-traditional uses like a brewery coming to this region for users wanting to simultaneously tap into a huge consumer base and have access to global markets from an export perspective,” Nicole Welch, a broker at JLL, told

“We have been losing manufacturing jobs instead of gaining them and the fact that Lagunitas will be brewing their beer on site and having a 4,000-square-foot retail component with a tasting room is very innovative as opposed to the normal warehouse and distribution space that comprises the bulk of industrial space around here,” she explained.

Honolulu’s new international market place at Waikiki

The International Market Place has been a Waikiki landmark since 1957, but by the millennium the historic property was looking tired. Closed at the end of 2013, groundbreaking for the new International Market Place took place in March 2014. Next summer the International Market Place, redeveloped by Taubman Centers, will reopen with 360,000 square feet for retail and entertainment including 75 shops and seven restaurants.

Like its predecessor Market Place will feature open-air shopping and promises a “Hawaiian Sense of Place” by celebrating the history and culture of Waikiki and honoring the legacy of Queen Emma of Hawaii who founded what is today The Queen’s Medical Center. Since the Queen Emma Land Company owns the land under the International Market Place, the new shopping center will directly support the Medical Center, the largest private nonprofit hospital in Hawaii.

Making money in retail real estate

At a recent conference in San Diego organised by the International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC), panelists were asked what was the best way to make money in retail real estate: acquisition/disposition, holding/managing properties or developing from the ground-up. As reported by Carrie Rosenthal in, the panelists agreed, “the best money is made in the process of acquiring, renovating and selling.”

According to the experts, it makes more economic sense to take an old shopping centre and “turn it into something fresh and exciting for customers.” In the same way, it makes more sense to repurpose space in an existing historical building than to knock it down and build a new building. Given the difficulties in obtaining permissions and the increasing cost of land and construction, one solution is finding a sufficiently malleable building and reorganise it for retail or if it already was a retail site, converting it into something more interesting and exciting to attract 21st century customers who are spoiled for choice.