Evolution of the Suburban Retail Environment: Cases from Three Different Settings

by Daniel Ashworth, Jr., PLA, ASLA, AICP, and Lauren Patterson, PLA, ASLA

The Winter Park Mall in 1969 / image: Florida Memory | Florida Department of Commerce

The previous article, Evolution and Re-Calibration of the Typical Suburban Retail Environment, was the first one of the Urban Design Professional Practice Network (PPN)’s series on the evolution of the suburban retail environment, which touched on the history of suburban retail and discussed the transformation of retail centers since the turn of the century. Continuing this series, this article presents three case studies that showcase how different municipalities and developers have been looking at the transition of retail centers throughout America. The suburban retail environment is undergoing a “paradigm shift” from car-oriented retail to a new age that supports the changing patterns and lifestyles that have evolved with technology.

Most suburban areas throughout America experienced a time where the indoor mall was a one-stop destination for convenience. Now communities across the country are dealing with the implications of how these large-scale developments function in the new retail age. While there were over 2,000 malls active in the U.S. in the 1980s, there are currently less than 1,000, and that number is falling every year. This article explores how these retail centers have begun a slow transition to adapt to the needs of their communities and transition to profitable centers. The following case studies illustrate different strategies and challenges that occur with suburban redevelopment.

Case Study 1: Winter Park Village

  • Location: Winter Park, Florida
  • Retail Center: Winter Park Mall—525,000 SF | 1964 – 1999
  • Current Condition: Original mall was demolished and transitioned into an outdoor mall in 1999 and is currently a mixed-use center that is continuing to develop.

Winter Park Village is a redevelopment of the Winter Park Mall that was originally built in 1964, and was the first indoor mall in the Orlando region. Located at 432 North Orlando Avenue in Winter Park, FL, the indoor mall was demolished in 1998, and the first redeveloped stores were built and began to open in 1999. The first redevelopment included 350,000 square feet of retail space, including a 20-screen cinema; 115,000 square feet of offices; and 200+ multifamily units, while the original planning documents included more residential uses. The mall’s redevelopment extended Gay Road into the mall redevelopment, and it was designed as a retail main street with a terminated vista on the Regal Cinema.

Winter Park Village as it appeared in the early 2010s / image: courtesy of CASTO

Since the early 2000s, Winter Park Village has continued to evolve by adding greenspace, expanding residential offerings, and creating a walkable mixed-use environment. The city has also invested in infrastructure and surrounding projects that has contributed to the success of the area as a vibrant destination. Less than a mile away in downtown Winter Park, the SunRail train station was built in 2014, which added much needed connectivity to the Orlando region. Now, the city is updating form based codes for their commercial corridors, which will better connect Downtown Winter Park and Winter Park Village, as well as transform North Orlando Avenue and the front door of the Village.

Today, Winter Park Village is undergoing renovations to freshen up its style to contemporary design tastes, convert some of the existing offices to residential units, and add residential uses that were programmed in the original plan. New restaurants and nightlife tenants are also being introduced to spaces that have been vacated post-2020 lockdown. The current redevelopment is also converting Gay Road into a curbless shared street or festival street to enhance the pedestrian-friendliness of Winter Park Village.

Gay Road, the main street through Winter Park Village, is designed for an urban center sense of place. / image: courtesy of CASTO

Case Study 2: Citadel Mall

  • Location: Charleston, SC
  • Retail Center: Citadel Mall—1 million SF | 1981
  • Current Condition: Recently sold active shopping center with over 100 stores that has been partially converted to a health care and film production hub with opportunity for future renovation.

The Citadel Mall is a regional mall built in Charleston, SC in 1981. The mall has over 1.1 million square feet of indoor space and is located at the intersection of Sam Rittenberg Boulevard (SR 7) and I-526. The mall has experienced a slight decline and various levels of vacancy throughout the years. It is now under new ownership after nearly 6 years of planning. The mall is still an active retail destination, but over time, luxury stores have been replaced by lower cost retailers and some retail uses have been converted to civic uses. For example, some of the main tenants today include the Medical University of South Carolina, Target, a film production agency, and a Planet Fitness.

The Citadel Mall food court entrance in 2012 / image: courtesy of Mike Kalasnik

In 2017, a planning team led by Dover, Kohl & Partners looked at an urban design plan for the mall area as part of the Plan West Ashley effort. Since the mall still had active tenants and solid anchors, the redevelopment strategy involved repurposing the underutilized parking lots around the mall “for new development with a greater mix of uses, including workplaces, residential units, community facilities, and entertainment destinations, to better serve West Ashley.” The plan proposed new, more human-scaled urban public spaces integrated through the potential redevelopment. Daniel Ashworth was involved in the mobility strategy of the plan, which looked at how transit services can use the surrounding roadway infrastructure to better connect people to the site, along with enhanced trails, greenways, and bicycle and pedestrian connectivity. The plan also considered storm and flooding resiliency, by proposing green stormwater solutions, creek and stream daylighting, and restoring natural ecosystems.

In three proposed steps, the plan identified phases of redevelopment that could occur around the mall, starting with a main street and town square (Step 1), extended urban infill with structured parking (Step 2), and then a larger buildout.

Plans / images: Dover, Kohl & Partners
image: Dover, Kohl & Partners
image: Dover, Kohl & Partners

Although Plan West Ashley has been adopted by the City of Charleston, and some parts of the plan are actively being implemented, nothing has occurred with the Citadel Mall redevelopment thus far. The redevelopment was presented as inspiration only, but it would take interest and initiative of the new owner to start the process.

Perspective sketch / image: Dover, Kohl & Partners

Case Study 3: Airport Plaza (Hamlet of East Farmingdale TOD Plan)

  • Location: Town of Babylon, NY
  • Retail Center: Airport Plaza | 1989
  • Current Condition: Active underutilized suburban retail center.

Airport Plaza is a shopping center next to Long Island’s Republic Airport in the Town of Babylon’s East Farmingdale hamlet, at the intersection of Broadhollow Road (SR 110) and Conklin Street. The shopping center was developed in the late 1980s from land sold from the airport’s holdings. The center is active with a popular local grocery store, a Home Depot, and a cinema. The site is clearly dominated by surface parking as one looks at the current map.

Airport Plaza stores map / image: courtesy of KIMCO Realty

The impetus to study this area was due to the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR)’s plans to add a new station in East Farmingdale along the LIRR’s Ronkonkoma Branch. In early 2017, a master planning effort led by Dover, Kohl & Partners envisioned a mixed-use, transit-oriented (TOD) urban center around the new LIRR station, styled after the Olmsted brothers’ Forest Hills Gardens master planned community in nearby Queens, NYC.

Plan showing the overall redevelopment block structure / image: Dover, Kohl & Partners
Plan depicting the public open space strategy of smaller, more intimate green spaces integrated with the redevelopment / image: Dover, Kohl & Partners

Through the urban design plan, the consultants sought to establish a walkable, fine-grained street grid with a legible urban block structure. The site plan above shows the final buildout, and the redevelopment was presented as a phased approach over time, utilizing and repurposing some of the existing shopping center buildings as they became available for redevelopment. The earliest phases of development were proposed to be around the new LIRR station itself, and would then grow from there as redevelopment momentum builds.

Perspective image; the new East Farmingdale station on the LIRR is in the foreground / image: from Dover, Kohl & Partners

Daniel Ashworth was also involved in this planning effort as a mobility and landscape architecture subconsultant, providing planning expertise and design concepts for complete streets, bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly solutions for the existing and proposed streets, and design concepts for some of the interior public spaces.

Perspective / image: Dover, Kohl & Partners

The result of the charrette-based planning process was a form based code for the TOD area around the new LIRR station. However, the code was never adopted due to political changes and reorientation of the Town’s priorities. It is hoped that once the LIRR station opens, these concepts and the code will be revisited, rather than become a lost opportunity.


These case studies show three different strategies to large suburban retail redevelopment: a demolition, a re-use infill project, and a new transit oriented plan.

  • The 24-year old Winter Park Village case study used the entire old mall site to create a new outdoor entertainment and retail center. It has continuously evolved to adapt to the changing community around it and to become a mixed-use hub of the region.
  • The Citadel Mall in Charleston is an existing mall that has slowly implemented new uses while planning for a more resilient future. The redevelopment plan has not been fully realized due to market conditions and changing ownership.
  • Airport Plaza on Long Island has remained an underutilized suburban shopping center. While the LIRR master plan was completed in 2017, the development of the area has been stalled due to political and market constraints.

Each strategy for the evolution of these suburban retail centers had many different components with regard to land use, transportation, density, and connectivity. They responded to the local conditions and evolved very differently over time. However, these cases had one main component in common—each plan contained a phased approach that could be realized when market, political, and community needs materialized and matured.

As discussed in the first article in this series, streetscape activation, reimagined landscape, diversity of activities, placemaking, and a cohesive framework are all essential components for any urban design master plan. These case studies touched on how those components can be implemented in a variety of ways. Landscape architects can bring a unique systemic perspective on such projects by playing key roles in interdisciplinary teams of experts.

Interested in learning more? Join us for a Zoom coffee chat on Thursday, August 31, at 1:00 p.m. (Eastern). Bring your notes, ideas, and thoughts on these projects, or projects of your own.

Our next article will discuss how these strategies can further create successful iconic places through good design.

This post was edited by Urban Design PPN co-chair Sara Hadavi, ASLA.

Daniel Ashworth, Jr., PLA, ASLA, AICP, is a Senior Landscape Architect and Lead Designer at England, Thims, & Miller (ETM) in Jacksonville, Florida. He possesses nearly 20 years of experience in landscape architecture, planning, and urban design. His expertise includes parks & public spaces, trails & greenways, complete streets & streetscape design, construction documentation, and project management. In his landscape & urban design work, Daniel possesses the ability to see urban spaces as performing multiple functions, including meeting larger community development goals, increasing social interaction, leveraging environmental and health benefits, revealing the history and stories of a place, and adding beauty to cities and neighborhoods. Daniel’s work has involved large-scale and high-level conceptual planning down to the individual details of design including the finishes, furnishings, and planting selections on both public and private projects.

In addition to his professional work, Daniel is a member of ASLA (including the Urban Design PPN leadership team), APA, and he is an Urbanist member of the CNU. Daniel is heavily involved in the local Jacksonville community, serving on the Board of Directors for his neighborhood, Historic Springfield, and serving on various local committees related to parks, design, and infrastructure.

Lauren Patterson, PLA, ASLA, is a Landscape Architect and Planner with over 10 years of experience leading projects from large scale regional planning initiatives to detailed immersive designs. She is a Planning and Design Project Manager at VHB in Charlotte, North Carolina. Her work focuses on evidence-based design throughout all phases of a project that allows her to meet community and client needs. She has worked on a wide variety of projects throughout the United States and is involved in a variety of outreach and advocacy for smart planning and design initiatives throughout the country.

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