A shopping center for your basement

Malls are adding housing to shorten travel, create walkable town centers


MIAMI - Like many Americans, Sharon Zupnik has spent plenty of time at the mall, and way too much time driving to and from the mall.

So it wasn't such a leap to consider just moving in, and forgetting the schlep.

On a recent morning, Zupnik joined hundreds of people jostling to get inside a tent to snag one of 500 condominiums to be built at Loehmann's Fashion Island, a struggling Aventura, Fla., mall.

The mall's operators, with a push from city officials, have concluded that the cure for the retail blues lies in adding housing and converting the mall, and its acres of asphalt, into a walkable town center for the young north Miami-Dade municipality.

To judge from the response in Aventura, it's an idea whose time has definitely come. By the end of the day, all 500 units were gone.

It's the apotheosis of American consumerism: You can live at the mall. Not an enclosed suburban shopping center, but a place that mimics the look and feel of town and city living.

"This is like being on Madison Avenue," said Zupnik, who wanted a condo for her son, soon to graduate from college and looking to live somewhere with a little urban buzz. "You live above and go down to shop. Only in gorgeous weather, 365 days a year."

And not just at Aventura, but in Coral Gables, Fla., and in Miami.

Now open: 159 apartments atop a new Publix supermarket. Almost ready: 120 high-rent apartments at the haute-snazzy Village of Merrick Park shopping center in The Gables. Also planned: A 360-unit high-rise above another Publix in the new Brickell Village district, and a mix of condos, townhouses, shops and big-box retail at the site of the old Buena Vista rail yards in Miami.

Marrying apartments to malls is the latest evolution of American shopping, a twist on the very old idea of living above the store - but at a bigger, amenity-packed, brand-larded scale. We're talking fitness centers, pool decks and private parking here.

At Loehmann's, the options include the discount fashion retailer that gives the mall its name, a Barnes & Noble bookstore and cafe, Einstein's Bagels and a restaurant, Chef Allen's, for fine dining. At Merrick Park, it's rooms with a view of Gucci and Neiman Marcus.

For years, local zoning laws discouraged or explicitly barred such combinations, instead strictly separating residential from commercial uses. Now many planners blame these rules for encouraging urban sprawl and forcing people into cars for the smallest of errands.

The new live-above-the-shop trend has been driven in part by municipalities. Eager to get residents out of their cars and give their cities a lively, pedestrian-friendly environment, they are rewriting zoning codes and asking developers to include housing in commercial developments.

The reduction in automobile use can be real, said a University of Miami dean of architecture Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk. She is a proponent of dense, walkable neighborhoods as an alternative to auto-dependent sprawl.

Each household in South Florida generates 11 auto trips per day, she said. Living within walking distance of shopping and other amenities can reduce that by two or three trips a day.

Stacking different uses in this way can increase property tax revenue and property values, and make efficient use of scarce urban land. It also makes good business sense, say planners and developers, by capitalizing on a pent-up market of young professionals and empty-nesters looking to leave the suburbs.

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