Placemaking in The Built Environment with Torti Gallas’ Brandon Diamond (Part 2)

Terry and Cassie wrap up their conversation with Brandon Diamond on the benefits of a mixed-use place, like its ability to increase space premiums by 30%. Plus, hear why some existing single-uses should be transformed into a mixed-use site, and how developers can prepare for a future with less demand on parking spaces.

Leaning In is published every second and fourth Wednesday of the month. You can find the first part of the discussion on your favorite podcast app.

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Terry Montesi: Today, Brandon Diamond, Partner and Executive Director at Torti Gallas + Partner wraps up this conversation with me and Cassie King, our Senior Director of Design and Placemaking. We look at what elements make a mixed-use place a community builder, what aspects of public spaces Brandon thinks are most important, we also ask Brandon about how placemaking can be added into multifamily projects going forward.

You and I’ve had many discussions about the importance of mixed-use, and I know you’re a big believer as we are. Share your perspective and learnings on the value and importance of mixing uses and some of your key lessons that make you convinced you should continue your commitment to mixed-use. And what attracts consumers most to mixed use? And how can we build on this in the future?

Brandon Diamond: Well, first of all, it’s been a great experiment over the past 20 years building successful mixed-use places, really enjoyed working with you, Terry, on many of them. And we know that they can be complicated to sort out the vertical development, the different parking – some parking shares very well, some parking needs to be separated. So even though the logistics of mixed-use, particularly vertical mixed-use, are challenging from the design side, we love it. They make great urban spaces. They truly feel like towns. They have authenticity. We think the end user loves to be in mixed-use places.

In terms of the benefits, there’s a lot more to it. The public space in a mixed-use environment is naturally activated day and night. You don’t have to invent it from the property management standpoint. You get people on the street evening, day, and night naturally. And it’s also a big advantage in the sense that single use sites, they create a ton of regional traffic, as we know, and we’ve seen, thankfully, a lot of regional traffic go down a little bit post pandemic as people stay closer to home on some days. But there’s a great deal of parking that’s associated with single use sites. At a typical retail site, two thirds of the land is being used for its parking. And I think moving forward to the extent that we can really think about ways of bringing down the land dedication to parking is huge, and mixed-use sites really help provide that by getting people to park once and really live, work, shop, and play in the same space.

And the last thing I’ll say is that there’s a real value premium that’s been proven with mixed-use urban places. We’ve had our clients really look at this, for instance, in the DC area, a lot of commercial space, we’re seeing a 25, 30% premium for retail space in a walkable mixed-use environment. And we’re seeing the same premiums for the space upstairs. It really is winning business proposition.

Montesi: Thanks. I am in complete agreement. So, Brandon let’s look into the future of retail, multifamily, and mixed-use design and placemaking. What are some of the things you’re thinking about when you look at designing a project that is resilient and sustainable five and even ten years from now?

Diamond: Wow. We’re already seeing a lot of it, and it takes quite a while to get off the ground and become real, which is just infill development of mixed-use neighborhoods and single use sites. We’re talking about really make the space that’s already- the footprint that we’ve already got developed in this country more meaningful to take advantage of the infrastructure that we’ve already built. There’s a lot to that. And we sometimes use the word suburban repair to talk about making more use and creating better connected use out of suburbia and making a sort of more meaningful place.

Getting into retail, I think retail, its best days are yet to come just in terms of I think brands are having a lot more fun, almost treating and showcasing their latest ideas. I sometimes think of retail places being more of a convention of brands and ideas that is a little bit more updating and more interesting to come and return to. Although technology is certainly going to be a big part of different ways of treating the point of sale, we think sales staff are going to become more brand ambassadors and do a lot more to make going out shopping very interesting.

One of my colleagues said that what you have to come out for, even if you shop on the internet regularly, is to be fit, to be fed, to be fabulous. It’s all the reasons you come out for personal care services, food and beverage, to be with other people. These are strong drivers that are moving forward. And we also know we have limited resources. So, to the degree that we create great places that don’t have to be repositioned and that we think about more sustainable from a business standpoint as well as an environmental standpoint, build great places to last that help repair a lot of what we’ve built in the process.

Cassie King: Fit, fed and fabulous. It’s a good takeaway.

Montesi: Yes. So, Brandon, as we look to the future, how does the technology and the dynamics of mobility impact how you and your firm are thinking about the future of design?

Diamond: It’s a really interesting question. And I’ve been in charrettes, Terry, I’m sure you have too, where we’ve had technology experts almost create side charrettes while we were physically planning the space. And it’s really interesting because mobility and technology, it’s huge. It’s part of the unseen infrastructure that we’re building into projects. It may not necessarily impact our block planning in terms of our land use, but ultimately for the operation of new towns and cities, it’s huge.

A lot of people think about our phones as dividing us and keeping us focused on kind of a solo existence. We’ve seen a lot of apps that bring people together, meet up and other things where people actually can be brought together socially through technology. And property managers understand that there are ways they can encourage movement throughout their site. Geo-fencing is certainly a big one, customer rewards programs, for instance. It’s an opportunity for people to get an app on their phone so that when they’re in a shopping environment, people know they’re there, and they can start to offer them things and create incentives to move around to different parts of the property, at the same time offering a discount on parking or any number of things. So geo-fencing really creates a new dynamic in terms of customer movement.

I think another thing I’ve seen is brand relationships coming out of technology that are somewhat different. We think of Amazon as sort of that third party that controls everybody’s user data. And more and more, I have seen when I go to retail places, the brands getting my phone number directly and starting a relationship with me directly. And there’s a lot more use of SMS text messaging to thank you for visiting, to set up those kinds of personal relationships that kind of create more of a connection between the brand and the customer then you see with the Amazons of the world and really make it a more exciting personal experience. So, I think there’s a lot of great stuff.

The last thing I would say about mobility, because you mentioned mobility, is obviously we know self-driving cars are coming, already sort of on the road, but to the degree that they’re adopted, I would just say my hope is that self-driving becomes more to encourage sort of taxi and customer drop-off in centers rather than replacing the need for the same. I’m pretty excited that to the degree that we use taxi, Uber, or any of this to have a great guest experience and be dropped off right in the heart of a project so that we can really celebrate that and make it as spectacular as arriving to a great hotel and spend less time storing cars at these properties. And you already see developers trying to get ahead of this, making sure that the structured parking they build is convertible to other uses. Everybody’s anticipating parking demand to go down; we’re just trying to know when and plan for it.

King: If someone is interested in getting involved in placemaking, like as what we do for a living, where would you point them? This is something that people usually stumble upon, or it’s a niche inside side of architecture, landscape architecture, urban planning, and you kind of just become really good at it and fall into it, but there aren’t any programs that I know of. And I’m wondering if you do?

Diamond: That’s a great one, and no hesitation in answering that. I would say that we all come to it from different disciplines, and certainly we practice placemaking in slightly different contexts. If we were working in a commercial place, you’re going to see the architecture and planning firm collaborate with landscape, with branding firms, with the ownership group from leasing. We can approach placemaking from many different lenses, but what we really try to do is keep this interactive conversation going and try to get our sort of diverse design team to really be talking to each other through this process.

Too many times we’ve shown up at a meeting with our own version of what we call place positioning. We may see the brand presentation for the first time. We might see a landscape designer’s presentation for the first time. And our owner is trying to sort of react to all these different ideas simultaneously because everybody’s presenting at the same time. So, what we prefer to do is really work offline ahead of time to bring these disciplines together and ideate and show up with a united vision of how we can leverage brand and place and landscape in meaningful ways and make it happen through all of our different skillsets.

King: That’s a beautiful answer. We do that as a developer. So, I appreciate it when other people are doing it from your vantage point. These are having to do with kind of your history and your opinions on projects you’ve worked on in the past. So, what is something that you have designed or something that you’ve thought of that you haven’t sold, or it hasn’t been built yet that you want to see built?

Diamond: I’ll put something on the record, sure. I’ll take a stab at it. One thing that you heard me mention previously is we’ll call it the concierge experience of arriving at a project in a different way, just like arriving at the front door of a hotel versus the self-park option, which is a little bit less glorious – with some exception, a couple of projects have done a decent job with the self-park arrival. But in general, it’s not the same as being dropped off in the action.

And part of making a concierge experience work on a property, particularly if people are going to walk 1200 feet or so to different areas of the project and possibly shop and do other things, is how to coordinate the aspects of sort of getting the different elements of shopping back to the car, having things collected in such a way that we don’t get weighted down with shopping bags through the course of the day and ultimately go back to our car because we have to. So, I’ve always thought it would be interesting to get concierge service working through a large mixed-use project more effectively so that we really don’t get weighted down by our purchases, and we can have just as beautiful an experience of picking up and leaving a project with all of this collected for us and really enjoy a greater time, greater stay at the property.

Montesi: Brandon, you know we entered the multifamily development business about a year ago, and I know your firm is very active in that area. How can we and how are you adding placemaking into a business that has historically been rather cookie cutter and only about a lobby and a pool and a fitness center and multifamily residential units on the interior? How are you adding placemaking and incorporating some of the lessons learned from COVID into the multifamily business?

Diamond: That’s great, Terry. I think that first of all, when we look at sort of multifamily buildings in isolation, there is a tendency to have to build and look at their amenity program in isolation. You could almost say people are making choices on which apartment building to live in based on comparative amenities, sort of checking boxes if you will.

The moment you introduce a great urban environment, great placemaking, great mixed-use, the outdoor public space becomes the amenity, and it’s not a lonely courtyard upstairs with a pool. It’s something much more exciting that people want to be at. So, we think there’s a lot of premium to creating great neighborhoods and great places in terms of being the real amenity, the real living room for these buildings. And I think that’s our focus. All the ingredients of a great neighborhood are going to win over what you can put in the building at the end of the day.

Montesi: Well, Brandon, thanks for your time today. And thanks for coming on and for sharing your thoughts on something we’re both very passionate about – placemaking. And thanks, Cassie, for joining us today.

Diamond: My pleasure. Thanks so much.

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