Authenticity might be the most overused, misunderstood term in development. Everybody wants to find it, but no one is quite sure what it means or what it is worth. In a data-driven industry, no reliable metric exists to determine the return on investment of “authenticity.”
Yet, every developer and every designer is on a quest to capture that elusive quality, the element that makes a project real, a place with soul and a connection to the community.
“I define authenticity as a building that intrinsically fits the place, that seems rooted to the place,” says David Lake, partner of Lake/Flato Architects, which designed the master plan for the 21-acre (8.5 ha) Pearl District on the site of the former Pearl brewery in San Antonio.
But it is not that simple. Trying too hard to look “real” can come across as fake and inauthentic. One designer’s sense of authenticity may look like a theme park to someone else. And what about tall buildings? Can a modern skyscraper still be authentic?
To Lake, One World Trade Center—the sleek glass tower on the former World Trade Center site—is definitely authentic. “There are layers of authenticity,” he says. “There is a perception of authenticity.”
Around the United States, developers and architects are working on projects they hope will capture a glimmer of that authenticity. They are taking different approaches, trying new ideas, and looking to find their own ways to make a project “real” and, ultimately, a treasured part of a neighborhood.
If there is one thing that designers typically agree on, it’s this: authenticity is not about simply celebrating the history of a site.
“Authenticity is not about being nostalgic or old,” says Joao Cepeda, president and creative director of Time Out Market, a hybrid food hall concept that combines a food market with entertainment and cultural venues. “It’s about being true to the city.”
Magazine publisher Time Out launched the first Time Out Market in Lisbon, Portugal, in 2014. Billed as “the world’s first food and cultural market,” the facility features a curated mix of restaurants and kiosks, a cooking school, and a 900-person-capacity entertainment venue. In 2017, the market attracted 3.6 million visitors, making it one of the city’s biggest attractions. In 2019, new Time Out Markets are scheduled to open in Miami, New York City, Boston, Chicago, and Montreal, with Prague and London scheduled for 2021, testing whether the concept’s authenticity can translate to other markets.
The design was kept simple to make it easily translatable to other markets, Cepeda says. Different materials and designs will be used in each city, reflecting the local vibe. Miami will feature pink terrazzo; Boston and Chicago will have their own furniture; more “sports-heavy cities” will get more TV screens, he says. “The only thing we import is the concept,” he says. “Everything else is done by locals.”
The decision was made early in the design process to embrace the brand, making the format an extension of the company, which specializes in city guides, Cepeda says. The “best of” curation reflected the magazine’s fundamental role—identifying the best places to eat, drink, and play in a city.
“It was not about a food hall; it was about designing something that would fit the brand and what that would mean,” Cepeda says. “It was all about following a clear set of choices that came from the magazine.”
As design discussions progressed, small decisions helped define the market. They decided not to use “off the shelf” furniture, preferring something that would look unique to the market, he says.
All the restaurants use the same china and glassware to give the market a unifying vibe, instead of each restaurant using its own plastic plates and cups. And restaurants are forbidden from using their own signs and logos.
“We’re a platform,” Cepeda says. “We don’t want to shout through neon or logos.”
Part of the market’s authenticity is about bringing people together, creating a setting that encourages connections. The halls are designed around the “sandwich model,” with two slices of restaurants on either side with the customers in the middle, to help encourage social interaction, Cepeda says. “We are trying to make the experience very simple,” he says. “We want everybody to see everybody.”
Ultimately, it is the concept and the localness that will make each Time Out Market authentic, Cepeda says. “The whole offer of each market will be local,” he says. That localness will also make it successful, he says. “If it’s a place for locals, tourists will be there,” Cepeda says.
Roots in the Community
Most developers and designers wrestle with striking a balance between creating something authentic and the practical nature of designing a project to make money. Tying a building to the community simply makes economic sense, says Denise Pinkston, a partner in San Francisco–based developer TMG Partners.
“A building shouldn’t look like it landed on the community from another place,” Pinkston says. “When you say it is authentic, I think what it means is that it is of the place.”
The basic plan for TMG Partners’ 2201 Valley development in uptown Oakland called for an office project covering a full city block and comprising ground-floor retail—a plan not unlike dozens of other office complexes in the San Francisco Bay area. To make the project something unique to the neighborhood, which is adjacent to the Uptown Arts District, TMG reached out to the arts and theater community, looking for ways to connect with them.
The arts “felt appropriate given the context of what goes on around” the project, Pinkston says.
The approved design for the 27-story project, which is under construction, calls for 4,600 square feet (427 sq m) of the ground-floor retail space, or about 35 percent, to be zoned only for arts uses and maker spaces. Sculptures and art will be woven into the project, including “significant monumental art pieces” created by local artists, Pinkston says. They are looking for “a giant Burning Man–like sculpture,” she says. “Not a sleek sculpture; an Oakland-feeling sculpture.”
Several elements of the building will reflect Oakland, which was once a largely industrial city. Hangar-style rolling doors, fabricated steel, and green terraces break up the glass tower. “When you look at the building, it won’t look like a big glassy slab,” Pinkston says. “We tried to take industrial influences and weave them into the design.”
The look is “very Oakland,” she says. “Part of the identity of the building is to connect to that authenticity, to connect to a real place and a real identity.” The costs, including the below-market-rate rental income from arts spaces, will be worth it, as the company recruits creative office tenants, she says. Tenants are looking for that link to the neighborhood, Pinkston says. Their employees demand it—and retention is a critical issue for many companies.
“There is a market advantage to having really cool art spaces,” Pinkston says. “We want our building to stand out.” In a competitive market, “the building will be unique, cool, and people will want to go there,” she says. “The identity of a building isn’t just who the retail tenant is and who pays the most rent.”
Connecting with People
Once you go beyond the branding and the history, it is human communication—not brick and mortar or colorful signs—that makes a building authentic, says Nate Cadieux, senior project manager for San Diego–based McMillin Companies, a developer. A project reaches another level when it brings people together and makes an impact on their lives.
“The value of authenticity is personal relationships,” says Cadieux, who worked on the redevelopment of the Naval Training Center in San Diego into Liberty Station, a 361-acre (146 ha) mixed-use community.
When McMillin started working on the site in 2000, the sprawling navy base was a collection of barracks and military buildings that had been used as everything from torpedo development labs to mess halls. The redevelopment agreement called for the preservation of 52 historic buildings, and any new development had to follow the distinctive Spanish Colonial Revival style dating to the 1920s. The challenge was to create a new community and “differentiate the monochromatic, military vibe of the architecture,” while developing something that lived as something more than a museum, Cadieux says.
Through the process, the decision was made not to dwell on the site’s past. The new community pays homage to its navy roots, but designers have steadfastly tried to avoid “theming it up,” says architect Chris Bittner, principal of obr Architecture. “We have enough history here.”
The goal was to maintain the connection to the past while creating something new. Many of the navy base buildings retain their original functions in the new development. The original mess hall became the Liberty Public Market, a modern food hall opened in 2016 featuring local vendors. The base promenade was easily converted into a pedestrian corridor for the community. A theater opened for sailors in 1942 was converted into a modern movie theater. “The best way not to make it cheesy and a theme park is, don’t mess with it,” Cadieux says.
The navy elements were kept low-key, while the developers focused on developing the community around local businesses, arts groups, and nonprofit organizations. “We’re not trying to fabricate history,” Cadieux says. “We’re trying to create authenticity with local operations and local focus.” He calls the community a “reinterpretation” of authenticity.
The design and style of the development also needed to match the developer’s business goals. McMillin decided that a “win” is when someone stays at Liberty Station for more than three hours, Cadieux says. “We wanted to differentiate ourselves as more than just another place to eat,” he says. “We wanted to compete for people’s time.”
In many ways, the changes were small. Instead of chairs around a circular fire pit, the designers installed benches to encourage people to sit together. Outdoor patios were included for restaurant spaces, connecting the set-back buildings to the sidewalks. To help draw in local startups, McMillin established a concierge service to help young businesses work through the permit process.
The project’s local vibe and focus on the guest experience give it authenticity and a competitive advantage, not simply the connection to the navy base, Cadieux says. It is the localness that gives the project a chance in the internet age. The key is offering an “experience that you can’t get in 10 other places,” he says.
The growing competition for tenants and consumers is often intermixed with the more abstract concept of authenticity. It is discussed as a marketing tool, part of a strategy to boost the project’s profile. Yet, the word soul often comes up when designers are asked about authenticity.
An authentic project is “something that has soul, that lives there, that makes it real,” Bittner says.
Finding those elements is the challenge as developers and designers work through complex problems. Modern energy efficiency and sustainable elements may detract from a historic, authentic vibe. Value engineering and the demands of the marketplace can easily distract from the soul.
In the aforementioned Pearl District in San Antonio, a 2017–2018 ULI Global Award for Excellence winner, the designers were constantly looking for the balance between preserving the old brewery site and creating a new destination and pedestrian-focused community in a warehouse district. Early in the process, they developed their own guidelines for making decisions: “We adhered to the mantra: always respond to local climate, respond to local culture, respond to local craft,” says Lake, the architect. Authenticity is “a byproduct of being truly local in spirit,” he says, a point often echoed by developers and designers.
Finding those “true” elements is the challenge facing developers and designers. Ultimately, the users will decide if they succeed.