Sustainable design has come a long way in the past 20 years, but by and large, the retail sector--especially shopping malls--still lags behind property types. The reasons for this have a lot to do with the structure of the developer/tenant relationship. However, while green building techniques may not be as widely adopted in shopping centers as in other sectors, retail owners and developers do have an array of good options for incorporating sustainable design strategies. In addition, urban design trends are opening up excellent opportunities for malls and lifestyle centers to reduce their environmental impact.

Retail developers build the core and shell structures of shopping centers, while tenants usually build out their leased spaces independently with separate mechanical systems and material specifications. This makes it difficult to design fully integrated buildings with maximum energy efficiency. While central plants were once popular for shopping centers, many have fallen idle over the years due to maintenance costs, inconvenience, and typical tenant lease terms. Today, both tenants and developers often find it easier for tenants to buy energy directly from a utility company than from a building owner who has invested in a central plant. But if developers could easily incorporate whole building design, with central mechanical plants and shared systems, it would go a long way to achieving economies of scale that would enable greater energy efficiency. However, until it becomes financially beneficial for both tenants and building owners to do this through some combination of rising energy costs and government intervention, there are still plenty of ways shopping centers can be greener.

The greenest choice shopping center developers can make is to implement a livable communities approach. Technological issues sometimes dominate sustainability thinking. Instead, sustainability needs to focus on people--and their increasing desire for livability and community--to be viable in the long run. True sustainability originates at the urban design and regional plan level as much as, if not more than, at the level of individual buildings. Significant environmental and social benefits can come from planning new development or redevelopment projects in conjunction with public transit projects and placing them closer to housing and offices to reduce shoppers’ need to drive. In addition, working with cities to incorporate structured parking and pursuing shared parking strategies reduces the amount of land taken up by surface parking and frees up land for appropriate and denser development.

For Church Street Plaza in Evanston, Ill., one of these opportunities took the form of 7.5 acres of surface parking next to Northwestern University. The developer, Arthur Hill and Co. (AHC), was selected to develop this public-private undertaking on land formerly owned by Northwestern and the City of Evanston. AHC proposed a mixed-use project with the city. Served by two commuter train lines, Church Street Plaza includes a retail and cinema pavilion, a hotel, offices, and a residential tower, along with structured parking for 1,4000 cars that catalyzed the resurgence of the previously fading downtown and provided a walkable commercial district for students. 

The redevelopment of a former municipal airport into a mixed-use urban village called Mueller in Austin, Texas, represents another example of public-private cooperation. After years of outreach and planning, in 1996, the city of Austin initiated the redevelopment of the old airport at the city’s heart and used tax increment financing to reimburse the selected master developer, Catellus Development Corp., for making infrastructure improvements. In 2009, the entire 700-acre Mueller master plan earned a Stage 2 Silver certification in the LEED for Neighborhood Development (LEED-ND) pilot program, which integrates the principles of smart growth, urbanism, and green building into whole neighborhoods and larger mixed-use projects. Mueller is targeting final LEED-ND Pilot Stage 3 certification in three to four years, when the development is anticipated to achieve 75 percent substantial completion. Currently beginning construction, Mueller’s town center, a 39-acre portion of the overall project, creates an urban village environment with a main street connecting a park and a lake. Trails will link planned restaurants, shops, a theater, a museum, Dell Children’s Hospital, the University of Texas research campus, offices, and new housing. It has the pieces of a big city, yet all are within a short walking distance of each other. The municipality continues to be an active partner in all aspects of the project, including supporting the vision for transit rail connections.

Redeveloping and repurposing existing properties into retail venues that meet the needs of today and incorporate flexibility for the future is inherently green. The aqueducts of Paris’s Viaduc des Arts, with galleries, boutiques, and cafes, is a picturesque and perfect example of adaptive reuse, as are San Francisco’s historic Ferry Building, now repurposed into a marketplace with offices above, and the industrial-turned-retail district of Berkeley, Calif.'s Fourth Street. 

Aging shopping centers present opportunities for redevelopment as well, especially for those that got caught in the wave of overbuilding prior to the recession. Renovating shopping centers rather than building new ones conserves materials and makes use of existing infrastructure. Many struggling centers occupy suburban or exurban areas that now have dense enough populations to support the addition of office or residential uses. To achieve maximum land value, some of the surface parking will have to be turned into structured parking, which typically requires working with the public sector on financing strategies. 

In the “experience” economy, for retailers to survive, they need to provide not only goods but, more importantly, authentic experiences. Consumers now want community, social interaction, and entertainment integrated into their shopping experience. Thus, with the continuing trend to integrate online and in-person shopping and the use of brick-and-mortar stores as showrooms, as well as with improvements in logistics, retail tenants require smaller stock rooms and sale floors. This means tenant spaces can be less than the 100-foot-plus depths of traditional malls. Cutting stores in half and turning existing single-store spaces into two while adding a new frontage along the back wall facing the exterior, can put this existing square footage to good use and increase the overall density and intensity of shopping centers.

With a generation of more eco-conscious consumers, a sustainability strategy can distinguish retailers and developments in a saturated market. To position their image as responsible stewards of the environment, even big-box retailers, such as Walmart, have been fast to adopt green building measures, such as use of daylight harvesting systems, high-efficiency refrigeration units, and lighting sensors. Developers can get a lot of mileage out of energy retrofits. Parking lot lighting with high-efficiency LEDs can save significantly on energy costs with a relatively short payback period. 

Photovoltaic panels are an option as well. Photovoltaic panels have provided some retailers an opportunity to utilize vast areas of roof space and parking to create energy and long-term value. For example, in recent years, Macy’s has partnered with a variety of solar power providers who have installed solar systems on its department store rooftops. This option makes the most sense in states where energy costs are high and tax incentives are available. In other parts of the country where electricity comes cheap, this approach may not pencil out--and unfortunately, real estate investment trusts (REITs), which own the majority of regional shopping centers, distribute profits and so do not benefit from many available tax incentives.

Consumer support and demand for earth-friendly measures are already changing the retail landscape, with everything from ordinances banning plastic bags to the clothing recycling program started by the “fast fashion” retailer H&M, which rewards customers for bringing in used clothing. In an era of tight operating budgets, increasing environmental awareness, constraints on greenfield land, and rising fuel costs, greener retail environments aren’t just a good idea—they’re inevitable.

Sean Slater, AIA, is the director of retail and mixed-use at ELS Architecture and Urban Design.