Rendering of Congress Square. The buildings were headquarters for several banking institutions. Brooklyn Boulders Chicago was formerly administrative offices for a church The garage of the future The garage of the future

That’s the old punchline about real estate, but it’s especially true for retail. No matter how much we buy online, and no matter how many of us move back to the city, location and access remain paramount. Successful retailers, both urban and suburban, have always understood (and had) location.

We are facing a future in which how things are delivered (drones anyone?) is unknown. Elon Musk and autonomous vehicles may make car ownership and the need for giant parking garages unnecessary, but the need to move people and things around will always exist.

The challenge for developers, planners, and architects is how to take advantage of the valuable locations that are currently home to retail centers in a way that remains flexible enough to respond to the evolution of the ways we live, work, and play. We’ve been looking at repurposing old department stores into new retail, changing small office buildings into rock climbing gyms, turning old banks into mixed-use developments, and thinking about designing parking garages so that they can be changed into other, more productive uses when cars start to drive themselves.

What enables these transformations is the value and visibility of a site. The locations of good Class A and B malls, department stores, and other retail centers traditionally have access to transit and major roads, good visibility, and lots of available infrastructure. After years of retail footprints growing ever larger, users are shrinking, creating opportunities to back-fill that available space. What they are replaced with might include new and different retail, but could also be housing, office, medical, or community uses. And since retail has traditionally been a one-, at most two-story affair, going vertical as a way to take advantage of the untapped capacity of these sites and create great places in all types of environments.

That is the challenge and the opportunity in deciding how we can redevelop well located property – and it doesn’t just apply to retail. How about older office parks? Or industrial/light manufacturing sites? Car dealerships? It’s already happening in lots of places like Assembly Square in Somerville. If so much of the best infrastructure serves existing buildings, why are we continuing to develop greenfields?

How we curate great retail places and experiences in a way that allows the flexibility to meet future interests and demands is at the heart of what we must do. How we take advantage of significant investments in location and infrastructure by adding other uses as retail footprints shrink and the very nature of work changes requires some risky and difficult decisions. How we increase value while also making better places for people to live, work, and play is what we think the next few years will be all about.

Topics: Design, Urban Design, Retail