• ‘Cultural Urbanism’ builds value.
  • Creating social interaction will drive traffic.
  • Restaurants are among the best tools for creating social interaction.
Austin City Limits Live at the Moody Theater
Venue photo by Jonathan Jackson

Whether it’s a river or small trout stream, restaurants or open spaces, a farmers’ market or a music venue, anything that gives a project a sense of place will encourage social interaction, according to participants on a cultural urbanism panel at ULI’s Fall Meeting Oct. 17. And that, the panelists said, will lead to the ultimate goal of creating value.

“Social interaction is an important part of cultural urbanism,” said Jonathan Brinsden, executive vice president and chief operation officer at Midway Development. If you can create true synergy between all uses, you can create something where the sum is better than all its parts.

Brinsden took the audience on a verbal and photo tour of Midway’s City Center mixed-use development on old mall site in the western part of Houston. Among other attributes, the property includes the Hotel Sorella, which is second in terms of occupancy in all of the huge Houston market. But if it had been built just two miles away from that site, the developer said, it would not have been nearly as successful.

Restaurants are one of the best tools for creating social interaction, said Brinsden, noting that “you buy a couch once every 10 years but you eat three times a day.” Other people magnets are athletic clubs and public spaces.  “Athletic facilities are part of our daily lives now,” the Texas developer said. “And public spaces are so ingrained in our DNA that they are the most valuable acres in our project.”

Put them together with the proper mix of the best and unique retailers and they will draw the best shoppers and tenants, Brinsden said. Indeed, the number one priority of human resources directors is how to retain and keep employees, he said.  “It’s not just about bricks and mortar anymore.”

On a much smaller scale, Denver developer Morton “Mickey” Zeppelin described Taxi, his now 8-hectare parcel that incorporates six buildings and some 2,300 square meters of commercial and residential space. As relatively small as it is, some 400 people work for more than 80 different companies at Taxi, where the occasional seating and dining areas can be found along the halls, which are called streets.

Taxi, Zeppelin said, is a place where the younger generation can escape the high-rise culture and express themselves. “It’s sort of like not having to make your bed in the morning when Mom isn’t home,” the longtime Denver developer said.

On a grander note, Caroline Burruss, general manager of Austin City Limits Live, talked about her music venue, which is part of the Block 21 development in downtown Austin. Block 21 has been labeled “the hot new hood” by the New York Times, and the $40 million, world-class theater is home to Austin City Limits, the longest running music series on television.

ACLL has a seating capacity of just 2,500 on three levels, but the quality of the technology “has allowed us to do things other venues this small could only dream of,” Burruss said. Willie Nelson has called the place “incredible,” saying, “artists now have a place to play where they know they’ll sound like they are supposed to sound.”

Since it opened in February 2011, it has drawn some 300,000 people to the property, boosting “the entire downtown,” Burruss said. The venue hosts some 70 concerts a years by an eclectic group of stars that range from Carlos Santana to Kris Kristofferson and from the Foo Fighters to Jimmy Buffet. The artists have their own private elevator that whisks them from their rooms in the adjacent W Hotel to backstage.

Another panelist, Todd Meyer, director of planning and urban design at the SWA Group, the planning, urban design and landscape architectural firm, took the audience on a whirlwind tour of SWA projects throughout the world. Among the highlights were a Salt Lake City project with a trout stream running through it and the Buffalo Bayou riverside park below a spaghetti-like freeway in Houston.

Meyer advised developers to pay attention to context. “All things need not be the same,” he said, telling the audience to look for “chemistry” among the mix of characteristics. “Understand local preferences, the variety of properties and dare to be different, especially with high quality open space,” he advised.

“People like to get out and enjoy open spaces, Meyer told the session. “They are great gathering spots anybody can walk to at any time. But they can’t be sterile or boring. People need to have things to do, so create the kind of venue where people like to mix with each other.”

Special events are one way to drive not only awareness but also leasing and sales, the landscape architect pointed out. “People want to be where the action is,” he said. “We all need to be part of it.”