Centers across the U.S. have enacted quick COVID-19 fixes like pickup lanes and outdoor dining in parking lots, but developers, owners and zoning boards weren’t thinking of these as permanent design changes. “When we were having these conversations [about adaptations] in April, it felt like a sprint, like, ‘If we just hold our breath long enough, this thing’s going to blow over and then we are going to be on our way back to normal,’” said Field Paoli Architects vice president and principal Trish Beckman. Now, “the industry is acknowledging that this is a marathon, not a sprint, and there are some overall design changes that we need to be thinking about.”
Indeed, 34 percent of consumers do not believe that life will return to normal even after a vaccine is available, according to a September report from Big Red Rooster, a brand experience firm owned by JLL. Fifty-three percent expect to be social distancing and avoiding large groups at this time next year. Additionally, 78 percent expect retailers and restaurants to make changes to their physical environments in light of the coronavirus. “We got a lot of questions in May when [retailers] started reopening about whether people were just going to bounce back and go back to normal,” said Big Red Rooster vice president of strategy and insight Emily Albright Miller. “A lot of our data says, ‘No, they’re not.’ Consumers want change because they don’t feel safe.”
According to J.F. Finn, a principal with architecture firm Gensler, “The opportunity for transformation and really looking at real estate differently has been the biggest outcome [of COVID-19] in terms of shopping center design.”
Consumers are now more protective of their personal space. “Consumers are seeing this invisible bubble around them and are really cognizant of [their personal space] in ways they haven’t been before,” Miller said. “If there isn’t the ability to protect that personal space, they’re simply not going to go to that retail location.” Some shopping center owners thus are increasing the square footage of common areas.
“Coming out of this, it’s the environment and the amenities that are provided by the developers and mall owners that is going to drive attendance, increase length of stay and make people feel more comfortable,” said Nadel Architecture + Planning owner and principal Greg Lyon. He says shopping centers need to think about the common area as the anchor. “The traditional way that retail centers were designed, you had your tenant lineup. Then you did some architecture. Then you decided what’s going on in front of the store. Maybe you need some signs, some benches and some tables. Now, in the early stages, we really need to be considering what the common area environment is going to be.”
He also advises to think about the amenities that cause people to linger outside, at safe distances, such as outdoor tables for takeout and sit-down dining, fire pits for small groups, outdoor kiosks, and outdoor activities like dog parks. He also advises owners to think about amenities like trees, awnings and heat lamps to protect customers standing in line from the weather. “People still want to be out, but they want to feel safe and they want to feel comfortable,” Lyon explained.
The best way centers can protect guests is “to get old air out and new air in,” said Dr. Joan Zoltanski, chief patient experience officer at University Hospitals in Cleveland.
Most shopping centers rely on HVAC units for air exchange. In the spring, ASHRAE — formerly the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers — published a paper on how building owners can manage the risk of infectious disease pathogens. Among the suggestions was operating HVAC equipment with 100 percent outdoor air, which avoids recirculation. The group also suggested filters that capture a higher quantity of small particles. Hospitals have been using these for years. “The goal is to take the air in the room, filter it out and bring back air that is cleaner,” Zoltanski said.
But both systems use a lot of energy. “One of our clients went immediately to 100 percent outside air, and they had more compressors fail in three months than in the entire two years combined that they were open,” said Kurt Beres, senior project manager for architecture firm M+A. Higher-efficiency filters make the HVAC systems work harder, too. “It’s kind of like blowing through a straw,” he explained. “The smaller the straw, the harder it is to blow through.”
So centers of the future are looking into additional energy-efficient ways to zap viruses, including UVC lighting and ionization. “These are going to both be big selling points for a lot of retail centers moving forward,” Beres said. Air returned to the HVAC passes through the low-wavelength UVC light, making viruses or bacteria inert. Ionization, when similarly integrated into HVAC systems, creates a high-voltage field that generates positive and negative ions. These ions are attracted to particulates in the air like viruses, volatile organic compounds and dust. When the ions ‘clump’ onto the particulate, it deactivates it. Global Plasma Solutions, which provides air cleaning systems, released a study in June that found that needlepoint bipolar ionization reduced COVID-19 surface strains by 99.4 percent within 30 minutes. Needlepoint bipolar ionization is the only form of ionization that M + A recommends, because it is the only form that tests show does not produce ozone, which can be harmful to individuals with asthma, Beres says.
“Improving the indoor air quality is beneficial not just for fighting the pandemic, but it’s beneficial for people in general,” Beres said. “If we are breathing cleaner, fresher air, we’re healthier in general. The pandemic has made us more aware of things we don’t always see. In the future, indoor air is quality is going to get a lot more attention.”
Even before COVID-19, shopping center guests were getting accustomed to touchless systems. “Now, every day, across the board, touchless access in technology is just a nearly universal conversation I’m having,” said James Wynn, operations director of Gensler’s Intelligent Places practice. Developers are talking infrared monitors that automatically screen body temperatures and autonomous buildings that run themselves. “When we all come out of this, there’s going to be a tremendous appetite for people to have experiences that feel new,” he said.
While many retail landlords are not in financial positions to invest in major retrofits, centers coming in the future should implement digital technology to make the shopping experience more seamless and safe. Voice activation of elevators and doors will become increasingly common, predicts Finn. Centers will adopt technology that manages queuing and foot traffic via communication with shoppers’ smartphones. Digital ads, for example, could incentivize shoppers to head toward less densely populated spots in the center, Wynn believes. “The goal is to create seamless experiences that connect different parts of a customer’s journey in a way that feels really integrated and really magical,” Wynn said.
Creative use of space
For a long time, Beckman explains, mall designs were driven not by form or architecture but by lease agreements and co-tenancy requirements. Closures of anchor and big-box stores now free mall owners to bring in different uses. Already, health and medical offices are reaching out to shopping centers for space, Beckman says. “It used to be grocery leases always precluded any type of medical clinic because they thought grocery tenants would feel like medical units would take up the parking, but in today’s environment, the medical clinic customer is the grocery customer, too.” This aligns with consumer behavior spurred by COVID-19 to stay close to home for outings. Miller noted, “Going through what we’ve gone through, people have connected locally in ways that many people haven’t their entire lives.”
Finn believes the dissolution of these leasing restrictions will bring residential construction at these centers. “Think about a center that’s 120 acres. That’s a substantial development. If you can create a really great mixed-use neighborhood or district by adding these different uses, you can create a lot of vibrancy, as well as revenue,” Finn said.
Parking lots may be the first frontier for new development. “We see parking lots as really the low-hanging fruit of the center,” Finn said. At a time when centers are not getting as much cash flow, the development of parking lot space requires much less capital and investment.
But land use attorneys warn that such design and use changes will require zoning approvals. “During the initial start of COVID, municipalities have been bending over backwards to accommodate needs,” said Sills Cummis & Gross land use attorney Meryl Gonchar. That may not always be the case. As designers and developers rethink permanent uses, she said, “there may be pushback.” Most towns, she adds, are not thinking proactively about changing ordinances to anticipate what’s coming. She advises shopping center representatives to approach their zoning officers. “What seems like common sense, in the zoning world may be a major application,” she said. “You don’t want to fly blind.”