Podcasts

Placemaking in The Built Environment with Torti Gallas’ Brandon Diamond

How can you create memorable customer experiences that drive retention and revenue? Designing an authentic sense of place is key.

In this episode, Terry Montesi is joined by Brandon Diamond, Partner and Executive Director of planning and architectural firm Torti Gallas + Partners and Cassie King, Trademark’s Senior Director of Design and Placemaking. They discuss their work together repositioning spaces and designing new environments, their strategy behind meaningfully integrating public art, amenities and experiential and what is a waste of money.

Leaning In is published every second and fourth Wednesday. Subscribe on your favorite podcast app to hear the final part of Terry’s discussion with Brandon that digs further into Placemaking.

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Transcript

Terry Montesi: Today, I’m here with Brandon Diamond, Partner and Executive Director at Torti Gallas + Partners, and Cassie King, Trademark’s Senior Director of Design and Placemaking. We discuss the projects we’ve worked on together over the years and why featuring local artists and artisans is a critical component. We also hear more about Brandon’s firm and the work they’re doing as well as his inspiration for repositioning existing commercial places. He also shares his key factors that he thinks should be included in public spaces, and we hear about what attracts consumers most to mixed use centers.

Brandon, Torti Gallas + Partners is a leading architecture and planning firm known for its unique real estate positioning and placemaking work. We’ve worked a lot together over the years, and it’s almost always centered around placemaking. Share more about your firm and the work that y’all are doing today that you’re excited about.

Brandon Diamond: Sure. Good morning, Terry. It’s great speaking with you. And we’ve known each other for a while, while I’ve worked at a few different firms over the years, and Torti Gallas + Partners is a very special one. I’m really happy to have landed here the past few years. And this is a 70-year-old firm that’s really going into its fourth transition of leadership. And I think the singularity of this firm is we’re really dedicated to transformation at every scale from community planning, we do mixed use town centers, urban infill, suburban repair, commercial site repositioning. We try to be positive catalysts in all the communities that we serve.

And the first couple of generations of the firm were really part of the big suburban expansion and made quite a reputation, but I think late eighties, early nineties, the firm shifted towards kind of repairing the cities and revitalizing places with transit-oriented development, taking areas that really suffered hardship and bringing them back. And we take a lot of pride in that, certainly with our retail and placemaking practice, which started out with a lot of ground up redevelopment. We’ve now really focused on pivoting towards repositioning of commercial centers and mall sites.

The other thing the firm’s done really well is, although I’ve spent a lot of time with owners who had control of their sites, we work with a lot of clients who don’t yet have control of their sites and have to compete in highly competitive RFPs to chase for sometimes public land and really desirable locations. And these are sensitive sites where there’s a lot expected to do the right thing in several respects while still creating a great return of investment. And so, the firm has really been sought out specifically to help win RFPs, and we’ve done a lot of that work. So, to sum it all up, we work at every scale, and we really design for the community and the end-user. And we’ve had a good time working together as well, Terry, on this to elevate quality of life.

Montesi: Hey, Brandon, over the years, you and I have actually worked together on several of Trademark’s properties, including suburban projects like Watters Creek, Market Street Woodlands, Zona Rosa, Annapolis Town Center, and now in North Point Mall, the redevelopment we’re working on together in Alpharetta, Georgia. Share a little more about these projects and the approach you’ve taken and any lessons that come to mind that we’ve learned together.

Diamond: Thanks, Terry. Well, what’s really interesting is before we met, the firm I was with at the time had designed Easton Town Center, which opened in 1999. And we often think of that as the first generation of the retail driven town center, where the idea of the town square as the central organizing force was really explored and surprisingly successful. And so, when we met in 2001, our first ground up development we worked on together was Market Street Woodlands. And some ways we thought of this as the second generation town center, because once we realized the premium of rents and sales that a park address could generate, the diagram started to elongate. The parks became the principle, the organizing principle of the project. And we ended up getting more buildings in the park, in some cases multitenant buildings in the park, which really started to make the entire project feel like a park address. And there was a lot of art to that in terms of keeping the buildings low slung at middle, getting mixed use buildings around the sides to make it still a great cross shopping environment. We had a lot of fun with that and did a really authentic project.

The second one, Watters Creek, which was also very much ground up, really broke the mold in terms of utilizing that town diagram but giving it a different resort type of ambiance and really putting amenities and almost an amphitheater like terrain which was a natural creek right in the center of the place. It also started to feature residential in the diagram. And it was really great working with you on that.

And then post 2008, we started to really look at repositioning existing properties that were starting to fail after the ten-year mark, and Zona Rosa, which was one of those projects, had started to suffer at its ten-year mark. I had master planned phase one, and a couple of these diagrams had a strong sort of town square place centered phase one, but their phase two started to become more about getting a lot of retail around a new department store. And these phase twos that were not so place based around the department stores tended to fail and kind of drag the projects down. So, we had a lot of fun looking at Zona Rosa, not just in terms of fixing the diagram and re-introducing place in some areas that needed it but also really reenergizing looking at bringing an on-site population back there.

Annapolis Town Center, another one we got to work with, a very somewhat dysfunctional retail diagram. It was a town center where all the streets kind of bled off to nowhere, and all the major retailers kind of had their own parking garages. In Annapolis Town Center, you could literally shop all the anchors without ever setting foot on the street. So that was really an interesting one to work with you on, Terry, and create some meaningful purpose to driving foot traffic back to the street and creating great public space.

And finally, we’re at North Point, and North Point is one of the bolder mall transformations that we’ve had the pleasure of working on. And it’s a real pleasure to work with people like you who get it.

Montesi: More on North Point in Alpharetta that we’re working on together, which is a mall redevelopment, you could call it redevelopment, but it’s also putting a mall on a retail diet, it’s a densification, it’s a lot of things, but it’s really a major transformation of a great piece of real estate. What are some of your primary tenants for repositioning and rethinking existing retail malls and mixed-use places?

Diamond: Thanks, Terry. And I have to say that we’ve been looking to reposition malls in significant ways over the years. It has its challenges. And we think that it’s really amazing what we’ve been starting to achieve here. Now, some of those challenges are a mall is really an organism that’s designed not to come apart, first of all, with its reciprocal easement agreements, too many approvals needed to make change. It’s also a very different format than what retailers are looking for today just in terms of the general depth and shape of the retail space. It’s really focused more on space and less on place, very minimal common area. When malls were really humming, if there was one square foot of common area that wasn’t being used, somebody stuck a kiosk in it, so it’s really jammed places.

We look at North Point Mall, and first of all, we’re in a very desirable market in Alpharetta, Georgia, that has an industry leading project just down the street in Avalon, but a local population who still likes to shop the mall, a different segment of the population who still enjoys mall shopping. And the previous ownership had looked at just backfilling a single department store with a couple of residential blocks. And we’re now at a place working with you to really take that bolder transformation to decommission and transform a larger piece of the mall so it becomes a great indoor-outdoor village and put real neighborhood elements and mixed-use elements into the way. So, we think it’s really exciting, and in the process of doing that, introducing new concepts, reshaping the retail offering to meet present retailers’ needs and very exciting stuff.  

Montesi: Cassie, why don’t you and Brandon visit about some of the placemaking tenants that y’all work around and some of the projects you’ve worked on together and some of y’all’s thoughts about public spaces.

Cassie King: Sure. So, to build off one of the primary tenants you were just talking about, Brandon, both Trademark and Torti Gallas are big believers in the importance of public spaces within our mixed-use projects. At Trademark, we believe that a park or public space is more of an experience anchor. Why do you think this is so important? And what are some of your key elements of great public spaces?

Diamond: Well, first of all, I think public spaces are a really principle reason to get people out of their homes, to interact with people beyond work. A lot of folks refer to that as our third place. Our commodity needs are met with big box retail and the internet, and people are really craving a social and civic experience to connect with each other, and public spaces really help us witness not just people like us but the whole range of humanity, so it’s a very special experience.

I think that, generally, we look at it’s really not one approach to public space creation. First of all, we think a lot about location. Meaning if you’re in a suburban lifestyle center that’s always seeking to attract foot traffic to your site and doesn’t have an onsite population, the reliance on sort of active eventing, a highly rich calendar of events, public space amenities is quite high. If you compare that to a place that is very embedded in a neighborhood, like one of our projects, Bethesda Row in Bethesda, Maryland, has a lot of rooftops, a lot of office around it. And as a result, it doesn’t have a town square. It doesn’t have plazas. It has great sidewalk experience. It just is naturally activated by being embedded in a great neighborhood. So, it’s definitely not a one size fits all proposition.

I’ll share with you one way I think about public space that’s maybe a little bit different in the sense of trying to unpack it into a few different voices, if you will. The first voice that I think about is really the businesses themselves; the shops, the restaurants want to be noticed on the street and the energy that we sometimes call creative chaos of all of their storefronts and signage and different activations of the sidewalk. We want that to all be different and surprising and delightful. It’s really the wrapper of the public space.

The second voice that we work a lot on in the design side is the project brand, which gets expressed in the digital marketing of the project, the wayfinding elements, and it kind of extends through in the banners, the billboard messaging, and so forth, even the furnishing color, accent colors. I think it does a lot for a project. I will also say it can be that we have to proceed with caution at times that it doesn’t become sort of an overbearing advertising layer.

But the third voice in all this, which I think is really interesting, is that of the community. It’s the end user themselves. It’s not an obvious one to plan for. It is not so much imposed as a process of kind of inclusion and engagement. This means bringing things like local street art, school exhibitions, community events into the space to allow the local population to have sort of a voice and ownership in the space. And it really helps in terms of what people are saying in social media and really adopting the space of their own.

King: Those are all excellent points. I know from working with you on a couple of these projects, I would say Zona Rosa is a prime example of starting from a brand and working all the way down to furniture selection and then art and making sure that that thread pulls all the way through from the beginning to the end as you’re leaving, messaging when you’re leaving – thank you for visiting, come again. It’s the little details here and there.

And pulling in art, as you’ve mentioned, is so important. We really like to create Easter eggs through properties as well, so that people don’t even know or expect it and they think they have found something and it’s theirs. So, it really brings a level of comfort and bringing memories to people, and they come back again and again, and tell people, their friends about it. And all of the things you just mentioned really pull that together for a complete place and sense of place. In that same idea, what do you think is a waste of money in public spaces? And what do you think are some absolutes?

Diamond: Wow. You mentioned a couple of things, and I’d love to hear back from the two of you on this as well because you have absolutely seen the performance of these investments on your properties. I would say a couple of things I watch out for are excessive use of furniture everywhere to fill public space. We have to strategize where people want to dwell in meaningful ways and where they would likely prefer to keep moving or interact with something interesting while standing up like an Instagrammable art installation.

The other thing that we think critically about is places that compete with one another for the same activity, they should be avoided, obviously. Better yet, public spaces should be really influenced with the merchandising strategy and the vertical uses around them to be distinctive and different and really naturally drive reasons to explore the whole property. And I’d love to hear from you, Terry, about your experience in some of these investments as well.

Montesi: We were talking about that in our pipeline meeting this morning, as we design a public space, a green next to our first multi-family project that we’re designing right now in Fort Worth. And I’d say some of the things that I believe have just been invaluable are the most natural and some faux natural. So, things like big tree, big specimen trees that make a place feel- like anchor a place like we very intentionally put in the public space at Market Street Woodlands years ago. Green, so many public spaces you visit just seem like pavers everywhere or just pavers and landscaping bushes, not green, but whether it’s natural, turf, or faux turf, I just think having green space, softness, that really pays off. And I think some of the absolutes are shade, and so many of the markets we work in the Sunbelt, shade. And that kind of goes along because green, big trees cool you, they provide shade. The turf, it feels cooler than walking on concrete and actually is cooler than concrete. And so, I think that’s some of the big things I’ve learned.

And like Cassie said, we really believe it’s not just, hey, we have public art – I’ve heard some developers say that – just having public art doesn’t really do that much for me, but interactive, interesting public art that is human scale. You go by some projects, and they have these big, huge 30-foot-tall pieces of public art, and there’s this big wall around them. You can’t get anywhere near them; they are just drive by things. I’m not big on drive by things; I’m much more on human scale, interactive things. Cassie, do you have any other thoughts?

King: Yes. And I would go back to what we were talking about, Brandon, from the beginning on when you’re setting yourself up for success in a space, and as I have a landscape architecture background, you’re an architect, Terry is a natural, so we just have these innate things that we’ve learned over the years of how to make someone feel comfortable in a space and starting from the charette process on, really getting as many people in the room as possible. And that involves the public and really figuring out what the space needs from us and what is a draw and what’s necessary. If there are natural trees there, knowing to build around them and to protect their root system and really holding onto what the project site gives you.

Now, that being said, the project he’s talking about right now is by a highway. We have a multi-family site, and we have an easement. Well, we’re taking advantage of that easement. We’re putting a green space over it. So, what does that mean? We’re right by a highway. How do we abate the sound? How do you take care of that? Do you put water in it? To the list of what Terry’s talking about, shade’s important, always, especially in Texas. Seating – is it comfortable? You don’t want to have to take in cushions in a public space unless it’s protected. You have to think through operations systems. There’s just so many things that go into a public space that the general public doesn’t think about. And you don’t want them to have to think about it. You want them to be comfortable.

So, through that layer of art, also, we really love using local artists. So, that story, you’re giving back to the community. Specifically, in Fort Worth South, near South Side, we’re really looking into that. Using our local artists, we have such a rich culture here in Fort Worth of artists. But also informing people while they’re in the space. We really like to tell a story. So, what does that mean? Are you talking about the history of the location? We did that at Waterside. We have a history wall. I think utilizing these rich pieces of where the actual property has come from and where we are now is very important. And you’re telling the public you haven’t forgotten about the history and that just because it’s new doesn’t mean you’re forgetting about what was there.

Montesi: Yeah, paying real attention to context is what, to me, is kind of the macro description for what you were just talking about, Cassie.  

Diamond: Yeah, it’s brilliant. And I love working with you, Cassie, as well because it’s really not just about the vision of what looks good. You really think very thoughtfully with us about the operational choices of every one of those elements and get it right.

King: We’re try not to throw things away. We are trying to use things that’ll last for a long time. So, speaking of all those elements, what are the most important elements in designing places people love?

Diamond: That’s another great high-level question. I may give you a couple of high-level answers. It’s, first of all, knowing your customer, really exploring and understanding their lifestyle and kind of crafting a brand promise pretty carefully because they expect you to deliver it. And it’s really connecting the dots on setting up an expectation and over-delivering on that expectation. I would say that in placemaking these places have to be very scalable in their activation. We see too many town squares that feel like empty stages. They need to be sort of layered and very purposeful and comfortable both on a weekday as well as an evening and a weekend. The best attraction of a commercial environment is other people, and people watching can be promoted in a lot of ways, kind of layering one activity overlooking another and really thinking pretty thoughtfully about that. Obviously, if there’s an onsite population, it does help to regulate the use of public spaces rather than it just being such a peak and non-peak proposition.

We really also strive for timeless design when we’re doing a village. We don’t want the architecture and the placemaking to look like it was built all at one time, and we don’t want it to look and feel like a project. We want it to feel like a true village that has a bit of a backstory, so people feel like they’re part of a living, evolving place. And we think a lot about that, to add that level of authenticity and not make these places feel like they were just generated out of one hand overnight.

Montesi: Brandon, I’m going to turn this placemaking conversation to business. When you’re asked to weigh in, how do you decide which elements survive and which get cut in placemaking centric projects?

Diamond: Well, it’s great. First of all, I love the holistic approach that we have, Terry, because I think that if we were to just try to drill down to return on investment for placemaking-

Montesi: Yeah, I call that return on experience.

Diamond: Exactly. That’s the right question. I think the way we attack these things is there are a lot of parallel efforts. There’s placemaking strategy. There’s backfill and curating the tenant lineup. There’s improving the customer experience, minimizing friction points through the property. And when a project succeeds or struggles, it’s the sum of many elements. But as you turn the question to return on experience, I think it’s better because I think it’s a little bit more measurable through customer feedback, and people aren’t shy with what they have to say about properties on social media if they’re having a good time. So, I think that starts to help us kind of frame how we should make choices about investing in public space. So certainly, focus on making memories, which elements will provide a unique moment, something that might inspire people to get out their camera and document their time with friends and family.

Certainly, coming into a project that needs repositioning, it’s those near-term wins sort of moving the needle day one, trying to do one key place very well and program it regularly so that it becomes an activated place that people are talking about. I think it’s also helpful to not totally rely on property management to program a space, to the extent that we can get surrounding retailers and restaurants to sort of naturally sponsor these places like yoga in the park or dog shows or entertainment from adjoining restaurants. It is getting everybody involved to program the space and to make it measurable and kind of start with one place and do it really well. And again, to the extent that we are trying to program multiple corners, let’s not repeat ourselves on projects.

Montesi: Well, it’s interesting you mentioned allowing adjacent restaurants to program because we’re doing a lot of that. In Zona Rosa that we worked on together, 54th Street Grill actually took over what was one of the public spaces that was an underutilized kind of dead space, and they’ve now put pickleball courts and outdoor seating in it, and it’s super popular. So, it is a great observation you made.

So, Brandon, a macro sort of industry-related question. Before COVID retail was already under attack from e-commerce. A lot of the growth in retail had migrated online, and there was a heavy emphasis on experience in brick and mortar. Now it seems pretty obvious physical retail will survive in the form of omni-channel retail. What do you think retailers and retail places of the future can learn from the past couple of years? And how is this impacting your approach as you consider designing new places? What’s different than your thinking was say pre COVID?

Diamond: Well, on a very high level, every project has to be looked at through a lens of resilience. We are always going to be looking, moving forward, on how properties will operate when social distancing and tenant operations move to the sidewalk and a greater emphasis of delivery and pickup are needed. We certainly see that in the housing design, same thing, you have to look moving forward what happens when people are still spending more of their time in their housing and operating more of their lives out of where they live. So, some of these lessons really are sticking with us. We also feel just on a regional level, people are spending a lot more of their daytime hours in close distance to where they live. And I think that has been a benefit to neighborhood-based retail. It’s shown a bit more resilience to retail and central business districts that lack housing. And I think there may be some interesting equalizing force there where central business districts will have to become neighborhoods to remain competitive, and neighborhoods will become more urban to be more vibrant.

So, it’s actually pretty exciting times what we’ve kind of learned from all this. Retailers were able to shift during the pandemic to less physical contact. Restaurants had a harder time, certainly, unless they were really able to move their operations more onto the sidewalk, and municipalities did their best to help, and some pretty interesting things happened from that. Taking over parking spaces and roadways with public space really made for some more interesting places and neighborhoods, and post pandemic, some of those main streets have remained pedestrian spaces. They’ve preferred it. So just rethinking the public right of way I think has been a fringe benefit of all this.

Retail formats are certainly getting smaller, more showroom based. And that can also be exciting just in terms of getting more doors on the block, making these public spaces easier to traverse and more exciting. We know that’s difficult at times with existing retail formats to downsize retail concepts, but we certainly see a lot of it, and we’re trying to make the most of it moving forward.

Montesi: Thank you for tuning in to today’s episode. Be sure to subscribe to the podcast so you can hear the rest of the conversation.

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