Whether in Tokyo or Shanghai, New York or Los Angeles, London or Brasilia, mixed-use buildings are springing up all around the world—and they’re transforming the content and form of our cities.
While the idea of multifunction developments is not new, their scale—in terms of spend and impact on how we work, live, and play—is noteworthy. They also provide new solutions for urban living and revitalization through sustainability, improved health, and increased safety.
But despite the many benefits of mixed-use properties, the potential risks are notable: the threat of uniformity in urban design; destruction of street and community life; and gentrification.
Speaking to The Journal, industry experts outline some of the solutions to these challenges and risks. They argue that the era of mixed-use developments is not only upon us; it is set to grow.
Defining mixed-use is not a straightforward task, said Hiroshi Okubo, head of research at the Japanese arm of US-headquartered real estate company CBRE Group Inc.
“When we talk about Grade B buildings and above in Japan, for instance, most of them are mixed-use—they have some component of retail and office within them,” Okubo explained. For Tokyo-based architect Riccardo Tossani, mixed-use properties combine “commercial activity with residential, office, retail, and hospitality.”
As Tossani explained, in many Asian and European cities, these projects trace their lineage to the traditional shophouse. “Shophouses in Tokyo or London developed organically with little by way of a master plan; and they have been a positive part of the urban DNA of these cities for generations.”
Beginning in the 1960s, citywide master plans that featured zoning — distinct quadrants of specific function (government, business, residential, and retail) — became popular, especially in North and South America.
But with the poor performance of zoned cities such as Brasilia, the federal capital of Brazil, zoning fell out of favor, and mixed-use properties became the trend in the 1980s, Tossani added.
What distinguishes modern mixed-use properties from their predecessors is their variety and scale, and the consolidation of functions in one location. Two-story, dual-use developments typical of Tokyo districts like Shimokitazawa, or multi-story, multi-function complexes in Omotesando or Toranomon, are examples.
In Tokyo, Mori Building Co., Ltd. was one of the first to start modern projects in the 1980s, with ARK Hills — the first large-scale redevelopment project ever undertaken by a private enterprise in Japan — being completed in 1986.
According to Fred Takahashi, an executive director at CBRE, such properties expanded not by accident but by design. Government incentives spurred their rise by encouraging developers to include non-office categories in their master plans.
Architect and academic Will Galloway, from architectural firm frontoffice Tokyo, agrees, saying zoning played a lesser role in Japan than it did in North America. In Tokyo, building codes have focused more on the shape of the building rather than its function or location.
Today, mixed-use developments in Tokyo’s Marunouchi business district — many of which are managed by Mitsubishi Estate Co., Ltd., one of the largest real estate developers in Japan — take things further. Projects there encompass several uses and entire city blocks.
Similar developments are springing up around the world, perhaps epitomized by the multi-billion-dollar revitalization at Hudson Yards, along the Hudson River in Manhattan. This project is being developed by US developer Related Companies L.P., with the 55 Hudson Yards office building portion involving Japan’s largest developer Mitsui Fudosan Co. Ltd.
Many social factors—including a connected, Internet-driven international economy and an increasingly global and diverse workforce—have come together to create favorable conditions for mixed-use projects.
This environment has led to a blurring of the lines between work and home life, thereby creating demand for multifunction developments, said Andrew Cantor, vice president of Related Companies.
“People want to go to work and still be able to go downstairs to shop, or go to a restaurant in the middle of the day; actually, they may want to work from the restaurant,” Cantor enthused.
Many of today’s workers expect to live in environments that are dynamic, innovative, safe, and sustainable—whether these are offices, neighborhoods, or cities.
Equally important is the need for such spaces to be economically accessible to a wide social strata.
This is the case even as the populations of large cities continue to grow, said John Cook, national director for Jones Lang LaSalle (JLL), a provider of professional services in the real estate industry.
Such demand for accumulation of assets and talents within the same location has led city governments and urban developers to favor projects that are attractive and sustainable.
As CBRE’s Okubo explains: “Had you visited the Marunouchi area in the early 2000s, you would have found a totally different landscape. Office buildings were all there was. At the weekend, we never saw the bustle we see today.
“Since Mitsubishi Estate’s redevelopment began, you have more people walking around during the weekend than you do during weekdays.”
Abroad, the hope is that the results seen in Marunouchi will be reproduced by projects like the Hudson Yards redevelopment in New York or the Television Centre / White City Project in London, both overseas ventures by Mitsui Fudosan. Office leasing for the former is being handled by CBRE, while Cushman & Wakefield is managing the latter.
Ultimately, the new normal in urban redevelopment is to revitalize precincts and cities while enhancing their competitive edge.
A notable feature of mixed-use developments in New York, London, and especially Tokyo is that their location is often determined by access to mass transit nodes.
Why? Mass transit networks optimize travel for time-poor commuters. Yuki Ikeguchi, a partner at Tokyo-based architectural firm Kengo Kuma & Associates agrees, adding that such nodes are a key part of the urban fabric. Even cities such as Los Angeles, where commuters have traditionally relied on cars to get around, are now investing in light rail and metro systems.
Mixed-use developments optimize travel even more by reducing commutes to the time it takes to walk across a single building complex or neighborhood. These developments also place greater emphasis on sustainability and safety. Amenities such as parks, open-access indoor and outdoor spaces, and walking and cycling paths are signature attractions according to JLL’s Cook.
“This makes mixed-use developments places where people want to escape to, rather than run away from,” added Galloway of frontoffice Tokyo.
In addition, residences, entertainment venues, stores, arts and culture centers, dining and leisure facilities — and even schools — are becoming indispensable parts of such developments.
City governments and urban planners are indeed betting on the right mix to bring energy, safety, and economic vibrancy to communities and cities.
Trends in lifestyles and sustainability aren’t the only things creating demand for mixed-use developments. In addition to government incentives, trade-offs between the economic goals of developers and financiers and the policy aims of metropolitan governments are important drivers.
As CBRE’s Takahashi explains: “Developers want to build offices because that is the most profitable way for them to go. Meanwhile, city governments do not want to see too many offices because that leads to gentrification of the city center and displacement of taxpaying voters to the suburbs.”
Mixed-use is therefore seen as one way to satisfy both parties, allowing offices to be built while encouraging taxpaying voters to live in midtown and downtown areas of the city.
Moreover, in the case of public–private partnerships, architect Tossani says city governments can insist that developers include in their plans amenities for the common good — such as open spaces and parks, or privately owned public spaces, commonly known as POPS. And as Related Companies’ Cantor points out, consumers are also attracted by entertainment, dining, and leisure amenities, which bodes well for the city’s purse and the bottom lines of investors and businesses.
Seeing potential for growth, investors are lining up to place bets in this market. At least in Tokyo, New York, and London, investor interest in such properties is on the rise.
HOUSE OF CARDS
Mixed-use projects are not without risks or challenges, however, such as a low return on long-term investment, unwelcome changes to the community, or population displacement due to gentrification.
For Shohei Shigematsu, a partner and director at the New York branch of architectural firm Office of Metropolitan Architecture—more commonly known as OMA—mixed-use properties often lead to sameness in our cities.
“I think mixed-use is the new generic,” Shigematsu told The Journal. This in part is due to increasing land value and prices as well as the cost of such projects, causing developers to favor replicating well-worn formulas rather than experimenting.
“The upshot,” he continued, “is that redevelopments end up looking predictable and indistinguishable, thereby causing cities to lose their local character or specific charm. The point of a city is to preserve its character, but these developments are in danger of flattening and homogenizing peoples’ experience of cities. One way to counter this threat is to highlight assets, such as food culture, that have a lot of local specificity.”
And because they draw people away from the street and into hermetically sealed units, large-scale, mixed-use properties are sometimes accused of killing off the street life in surrounding areas.
“It is like a new department store that is a category killer,” Tossani argues. “Essentially, it causes smaller stores in the area that carry similar products to go out of business because they cannot compete.”
Further, depending on their scale, such properties can project a fortress-like appearance that discourages community participation, a number of experts pointed out.
“That is why we focus on designing buildings whose façades not only incorporate the street into their design, but also ensure [they are perceived] on a human scale,” said Kengo Kuma’s Ikeguchi. Indeed, all of the experts expressed strategies for mitigating such challenges. For example, “Roppongi Hills and the Azabu-juban area collaborate to put on an annual summer festival,” a spokesperson for Mori Building said. “This brings people and their city closer together.”
With the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games on the horizon, JLL’s Cook sees mixed-use projects in the city increasing in demand and number. He points to developments already underway in the wards of Shibuya, Minato, Meguro, and the waterfront areas by Toyosu. Back at Kengo Kuma, Ikeguchi believes technological advances will allow urban designers to challenge prevailing notions in design to create increasingly sustainable, multi-platform developments.
“Smart grids and other energy-saving strategies, for instance, should benefit the city and increase standards of living now and in the future.”
For as long as cities such as Tokyo, New York, and London continue to expand and governments continue to incentivize mixed-use projects, these developments will continue to grow.
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