When you get to The Mark’s supposed "pedestrian promenade," all of that just dissipates. And it’s not just a matter of the space not being all occupied yet. Those giant glass walls, and spaces better suited for a supermarket (or, well, a bank) than a café, are never going to be conducive to a lively sidewalk life. Small local businesses will never be able to operate in spaces that huge.
The condo tower’s lobby is accessed from the middle of the pedestrian tunnel via a keycard entrance. Even the management office faces this corridor. Nothing about it screams, "We want people to linger here."
But why didn’t they design it to be a lively space?
I was giving someone a tour of downtown by bicycle lately, and I described the promenade as advertised and the gap with reality, and he asked, "Why didn't they build it the way they illustrated it?" It's a good question. This is at the heart of a very successful dining, shopping, and nightlife district. The advertising slogan for these condos was literally "Downtown is downstairs." Why wouldn't you, as the building operator, want to boast a killer pedestrian promenade? Why wouldn't you want a bustling, exciting space that would boost interest in and thus demand for your building?
It's a good question. Why leave this value on the table by creating something bland after going to the trouble to mock up something really cool?
Truth is, you see this wasted potential a lot with this kind of building: the shiny new kind that fills a whole city block. A location that seems really conducive to creating A+ urban space, and then the end result is a big "meh." Why is this specifically true of large-scale development?
A lot of people default to the answer that "the developers are greedy and only motivated by their bottom-line, so they're cost cutting." This answer is inadequate in two ways: one, the developer could likely make more money by creating a really exceptional space, and two, "greed" as a criterion fails to distinguish the big developer from the small one. Lots of people are motivated by profit and self-interest.
I gave my friend two answers which I think better explain why a developer building a high-end project would waste the opportunity to design a space that would add value and draw people in.
1. It’s the Finance, Stupid
It costs tens of millions of dollars to build a high-rise like this. The kind of developer who builds such a project is working with larger institutional lenders: the kind of bank that can issue a construction loan of that magnitude. The bank is interested in the pro forma spreadsheet, not the project itself, and definitely not in the broader value created by the community. They don’t care what it looks like on the ground or how people use it, or whether it’ll hold its value and appeal for decades. They want to know that the building will bring in a certain level of rents right off the bat that can comfortably repay the construction loan.
The risk-averse thing to do is to lease commercial space to chains ("national credit tenants" in industry jargon). And in some cases to hold spaces open until you can line up a national chain in a long-term lease. Those tenants often have stipulations about the space. They want it bigger. They want it custom designed for them—which often means an open or very particular floor plan and less ability to subdivide the space later to accommodate small, local businesses. They want certain features associated with security or ease of operations for them—likely the reason the bank here does not have multiple prominent entrances, but one somewhat obscure entry door facing the interior of the passageway.
This doesn't produce the best building that can generate resilient value for 30, 50, or 100 years. It produces the most risk-averse building in year one or year two. It’s all about a guaranteed return to investors.
We’ve published multiple pieces (see here, here, and here) about the perverse incentives related to development finance that might preclude a developer’s interest in creating more adaptable, smaller spaces, or even any sense of urgency to fill vacant spaces that exist.
2. It’s a Scale Problem
There's another reason that large-scale developments tend to underwhelm when they're finished. And this one doesn't have to do with bankers or the market; it's a more basic lesson in mathematics. And that's the relationship of scale to the question of how much attention to detail will pay off.
Think about the contrast between a tiny courtyard garden and a large formal garden. The gardener who creates the former must pay obsessive attention to every detail of the space, because there is none to waste. Every square foot matters and has been thoughtfully curated. In the large garden, on the other hand, the space may be impressive as an ensemble. But there are lots of individual square feet you could zoom in on that are essentially featureless. They’re just grass or dirt: negative space. There’s nothing wrong with the formal garden, but it’s clearly impossible for those who maintain something like the picture on the right to obsessively curate every inch of space.